In an unprecedented collaboration, The Nation, The American Prospect, In These Times and AlterNet are focusing attention on issues raised by the new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. On AlterNet, Joshua Holland explores the hidden costs of Wal-Mart’s cheap merchandise from China in “Wal-Mart’s China Price,” and Greg LeRoy looks at sweetheart taxpayer subsidies in “Wal-Mart’s Tax on Us.”
In The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson’s “Open Doors, Closed Minds” explores how one Wal-Mart true believer was excommunicated for his faith in doing what he thought the company expected of him: crying foul. Christoper Hayes of In These Times explores Wal-Mart as a “Symbol of the System.”
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Thanks to Laura Starecheski, who contributed reporting, and to Meleiza Figueroa, a researcher on Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price who, with the generous consent of her employer, shared her findings.
With a combined fortune of more than $90 billion, the Waltons–the immediate heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton–are the richest family in the world. Five of the country’s ten richest individuals are members of Sam’s immediate family: his wife, Helen, and their three surviving children–Rob, Jim and Alice–as well as his late son John’s widow, Christy (John Walton died in June when his private plane crashed). Until recently, however, they gave away little of their fortune. As Sam Walton explained in his 1992 autobiography, Made in America, he didn’t believe in giving “any undeserving stranger a free ride.” Nor did he believe in being generous with company profits. “We feel very strongly,” he wrote, “that Wal-Mart really is not, and should not be, in the charity business.” Money that Wal-Mart donated to charity, he reasoned, would only come out of the pockets of “either our shareholders or our customers.” (He didn’t mention workers, perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that picking their pockets was just business as usual.) As for politics, Sam couldn’t stand the stuff. At a 1988 Mother’s Day “toast and roast” honoring Helen Walton, then-Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas quipped that waiting for big campaign contributions from the Waltons was like “leaving landing lights on for Amelia Earhart.”
All that has changed. Since Sam died in 1992, both the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company and the family have dramatically escalated their charitable giving, becoming far more influential in the worlds of philanthropy and politics. It is hardly a coincidence that this transformation occurred after Wal-Mart became the nation’s largest private employer and a flytrap for much-deserved criticism. The company is battling numerous employee rights lawsuits in court, the biggest of these being Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, a sex-discrimination class action representing 1.6 million women. Communities around the nation, charging that the company is a stingy low-wage employer with an arrogant disregard for local and national laws, are battling to keep Wal-Mart from opening or expanding stores. Several labor unions have made fighting Wal-Mart a top priority. This year two major national organizations, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, formed to lead a citizens’ movement to pressure the company to change its ways.