January 20, 2007

Taking Aim at Wal-Mart

Taking aim at the big boys
New documentary on Wal-Mart to screen across N.B.

By Chris Arsenault

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The old cliché is part of the impetus for a new documentary screening across New Brunswick this week. WAL-TOWN: The Film, follows six activists as they tour around the country causing trouble for Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.

"This is a huge company, way bigger than I had considered," said Sergio Kirby, the film's 34-year-old director. Wal-Mart's massive girth is one of the few things the company's detractors and its supporters agree on; with $11.231 billion in annual profit, it's the world's second largest corporation, according to Fortune Magazine's 2006 ranking.

If the company were a country, it would be the 31st largest economy in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Austria or Switzerland, according to 2002 data from the Los Angeles Times.

"Fundamentally, the company is an unchecked power in society," says Kirby, who began work on his documentary in 2004. "There's very little that can influence Wal-Mart because of its size."

In the 66 minute National Film Board flick, student activists perform various antics in different locations from coast to coast, including a free BBQ in front of Moncton's Wal-Mart. "Of course, the police showed up pretty quickly and told activists to get off the property," laughs Kirby.

"The film is the story of union funded student activists on a failed protest tour," says Kevin Groh, Director of Corporate Affairs for Wal-Mart Canada. The activists received money for their adventure from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the union trying to organize Wal-Mart workers.

"The film is actually very balanced," says Groh, Wal-Mart's articulate PR spinster. "It's evident that activists come up against obstacle, after obstacle in their effort to convince people that Wal-Mart is bad. For the most part, customers and employees refuse to take their pamphlets." This is where the gloves come off in the debate about a company that represents the best and worst of American-style capitalism.

By using its massive buying power to drive down supplier costs, Wal-Mart epitomizes modern consumerism with its remarkably low prices. On the outset, this is a good thing for consumers, who obviously want cheap products.

"About a million Canadians shop our stores every day... they choose to do so," said Groh.

His core argument is based on the concept of 'dollar democracy': people only spend money on products they want and at companies they support, the logic goes. If people were on side with the activists portrayed in the film, they simply wouldn't shop at the store.

But Wal-Mart creates what activists call 'a race to the bottom'. "If you are working at Wal-Mart, you are making around $16,000 a year and that creates dependency; you are going to need to shop at Wal-Mart because you can't afford to shop anywhere else," says Kirby.

In the early days of industrial capitalism, Henry Ford, the businessman of the century, according to many, realized that mass production required mass consumption. Overnight, he doubled the wages of average automobile workers to $5 a day, a whopping sum in the early 20th century.

Wal-Mart is Fordism in reverse. Low wages, for workers in North America and beyond, demand low-prices, inspiring a vicious cycle.

If the 20th century was defined by vertical integration - companies controlling all aspects of the production process, ours is the century of outsourcing.

While activists in the film assert that Wal-Mart uses sweatshops, Groh replies that, "Wal-Mart owns no factories." By using sub-contractors in countries like Nicaragua, China and Burma - which is run by an especially nasty military dictatorship, the company thinks it can wash its hands of direct responsibility.

In 2003, Wal-Mart won the not-so-prestigious "Sweatshop Retailer of the Year" award from the Maquilladora Solidarity Network, Canada's leading anti-sweatshop organization. Groh insists the company has cleaned up its act since then but activists argue someone, somewhere else, is paying the cost of our low prices.

In any discussion about sweat-shops, it's worth remembering that working conditions in North American factories were once abhorant.

Workers, mostly women, toiled 12 hours a day for slave-like wages. New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Garment factory, where more than 100 workers burned alive after the doors were automatically locked during a 1911 fire, became a rallying point for a burgeoning trade union movement. After bloody strikes around North America, capital was forced to give in and recognize labor.

Some argue newly industrializing countries like China will go through a similar transformation where workers will invariably demand a greater share of the pie they produce. And, with time and struggle, conditions will improve overseas the way they did here.

There's one major problem with this logic. "If they [Wal-Mart] don't like it in one country, they will just pick up and move to another country that will play by their rules. They constantly move to the lowest common denominator," says Kirby.

When Canada was industrializing, both labor and capital were essentially stuck in one place. Today, if there is union activity in - say Nicaragua, Wal-Mart can easily start sourcing its products from Honduras. Doing business with regimes like China and Burma that don't allow for independent unions only makes this process easier.

Because capital is mobile and labor is stuck in the nation state, the core dynamics of global productive relations have been turned upside-down since our great-grandmothers built Canada's labor movement.

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