Against all norms of social convention, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. yelled “fire” in a crowded theater this past week, after viewing the Robert Greenwald film, “The High Cost of Low Prices.” As soon as the lights went up, the giant retailer was passing out its 28 page critique of the film, raising as many new issues as the movie itself. Rather than assail the message, Wal-Mart’s PR team went after the messengers, discrediting almost everyone in the movie — especially the people who worked inside the corporation for years. Wal-Mart assails its own former managers who appear in the film. No corporation likes a whistle-blower, but these former Wal-Mart associates are dealt the harshest criticism. The retailer admits that Jon Lehman, who appears several times in the Greenwald film, was, in fact, a former Wal-Mart manager. But the company says Lehman “is a disgruntled employee” who “supplements his income by playing the trumpet at weddings and other social events.” As if playing the trumpet were not damning enough, Wal-Mart adds, “Lehman is an admitted liar.” What did Lehman lie about? Wal-Mart quotes Lehman as telling a PBS reporter, “I used to stand up in front of my workers and lie to them. I used to say the talking points, that the union’s a cult: ‘You don’t want to join a union. It’s a cult. Why pay someone to speak for you? You can speak for yourself'” In other words, Lehman admitted that the “talking points” he got from Wal-Mart managers were a lie. But the lying he did was at the bidding of his superiors at Wal-Mart. So if Jon Lehman is a liar on salary, what does that make his Managers who fed him the talking points? It is not Lehman’s credibility on the line, it is the liars at Wal-Mart who armed Lehman with their anti-union propaganda. Wal-Mart describes Stan Fortune, a 14 year veteran associate, as “a recurring character in the movie,” who went to work for a union after he left the retailer. Wal-Mart criticizes Fortune for “tracking down internal company documents — such as pay scales or anti-union memos” — exactly the kind of activity that Wal-Mart’s former Vice President, Tom Coughlin, was doing against the union for years on company time, with company funds. Then there’s Weldon Nicholson, former Wal-Mart store manager, who alleged that managers at the retailer routinely were altering time cards to steal time from Wal-Mart workers. “By his own admission,” Wal-Mart says, “Nicholson supposedly doctored time cards.” Wal-Mart does not deny that such “doctoring” takes place, instead it claims Nicholson is telling all because “he stands to profit personally from this testimony about time-shaving because his wife… is a member of the class” in a Minnesota wage-hour lawsuit. The only motivation Wal-Mart understands is profit-taking. That’s why managers like Nicholson were robbing workers of their earnings. Finally, James Lynn, who dramatically recounts in the film his horror at seeing sweatshop conditions pervasive at Wal-Mart vendors, is discredited “for inappropriate contact with a subordinate.” Rather than dispute the content of Lynn’s charge — that Wal-Mart’s factory inspection program was a rigged hoax — his employer responds, “(Lynn) even signed a statement saying he kissed the woman.” It is understandable that Wal-Mart is not pleased that so many of its “associates” have decided to kiss-and-tell about what they saw at the giant retailer, but the company’s response to “The High Cost of Low Prices” says as much about the embattled corporate culture inside Wal-Mart, as the film itself.
The impression one is left with is that Wal-Mart is filled with “characters” who lie and cheat, but they only become objectionable once they leave Wal-Mart and expose their lying and cheating. Wal-Mart spends its energy pouring over small editing details, rather than denying that it short-changes its workers, provides them with unaffordable health care, exploits sweatshop labor in Third World Countries, and fails to deal with the substantial crime problem in its parking lots. Everyone Wal-Mart seeks to discredit now were once part of the happy Wal-Mart family, where “our people make the difference.” The only way Wal-Mart seeks high ground, is by denouncing the reality of its own people, who are now “disgruntled” employees. And Wal-Mart says that a union is a “cult”?