is wal-mart good for america? [home]
watch online

edna bonacich
photo of bonacich Bonacich is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside. In this interview, she explains how global retailers, like Wal-Mart, have wrested control of the supply chain from manufacturers through a revolution in information technology and logistics. Capitalizing on technological innovations like the bar code, says Bonacich, has allowed Wal-Mart to "master the process of production, the movement of goods, the warehousing of goods, to make sure it arrives at the right place at the right time. And they're very good at squeezing the price out of that." But, she argues, this efficiency has been at the expense of the American worker and the loss of American jobs. "What is going on is that manufacturing is leaving the United States … and moving to poorer and poorer countries," Bonacich tells FRONTLINE. "And some people describe this as a 'race to the bottom,' because the various developing countries are vying for the work and are vying by undercutting each other…"

ray bracy
photo of bracy Bracy is Wal-Mart's vice president for federal and international public affairs. In this interview, he describes how the company turned to global sourcing as far back as the 1970s to obtain merchandise at the low costs so the company could pass the savings on to consumers. He estimates that Wal-Mart imports approximately $15 billion in goods from China each year. Bracy argues that by being candid and negotiating with its suppliers to get merchandise at the lowest possible cost, Wal-Mart is helping its suppliers become more efficient. "I think most [suppliers] that I've heard from will say that we are tough, that we're demanding, but they also say we're fair," he tells FRONTLINE. Bracy argues that U.S. manufacturers are being squeezed by the high costs of doing business in America, including health care, tax rates and government regulations, that are beyond Wal-Mart's control, and he maintains that the company has an obligation to provide its consumers with low prices.

gary gereffi
photo of gereffi A professor of sociology at Duke University, Gereffi has studied the recent power shift in the world economy from the manufacturing sector to the retail sector, and the migration of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. to China and other East Asian countries. In this interview, he explains how global retailers like Wal-Mart have used new technologies to gain control of the supply chain and how they have thus driven the process of shifting U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas. Gereffi says that, having concentrated 20 percent of U.S. retail demand, "the decisions [Wal-Mart] makes about where it's going to go around the world don't just affect the U.S. economy, but they affect the fate of countries that are exporting to the United States as well. Other countries really want Wal-Mart to be going to them, and so Wal-Mart is in a position to orchestrate what goes on in many different countries around the world…"

tom hopson
photo of hopson Hopson is the president and CEO of Five Rivers Electronics Innovations, which assembles televisions for companies like Philips, Samsung and RCA, and whose factory is located in Greenville, Tenn. In this interview, he describes how television-manufacturing jobs have moved offshore over the last few decades and explains how China's entry into the television market caused drastic changes. Hopson says the number of imported Chinese televisions on the U.S. market increased 1,100 percent between 2000 and 2003. He filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission charging the Chinese with dumping televisions in the U.S. market for prices below free-market value and won his case in May 2004. Hopson tells FRONTLINE, "There's no doubt in my mind that if [we] had lost this case, this factory would not be in business." He says he was surprised to learn that Wal-Mart had filed briefs in support of the Chinese television manufacturers, who were vigorously contesting Hopson's suit. "Why would an American company fight American companies and American jobs unless it was for their own profit?" he asks.

jon lehman
photo of lehman Lehman worked for Wal-Mart for 17 years, managing six stores in four different states before he left the company in 2001 to work for a union trying to organize Wal-Mart employees. In this interview, he recounts how he became disillusioned with the company's focus on profit, and why he feels that the current management has strayed from the principles of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Lehman also describes how Wal-Mart developed its efficient supply chain, how Wal-Mart's buyers negotiate with manufacturers to drive down costs, and when he first noticed Wal-Mart's importing low-cost goods from China.

nelson lichtenstein
photo of lichtenstein Lichtenstein teaches U.S. labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is at work on a book about Wal-Mart and 21st century capitalism. In this interview, he compares the Wal-Mart model of employment to that of General Motors, both of which he calls "template" firms. "When you had a job at General Motors, it was a lifetime job," he says. "It was a high-wage job, and there were often many, many benefits attached to it." Lichtenstein says the Wal-Mart model of employment, based on low wages, low skills, low benefits and rapid job turnover, is becoming the template for American firms to follow, but that this model is eroding the American middle-class standard of living. "What I think is the road forward here," he argues, "is we want to take the efficiencies that have been generated by Wal-Mart -- and they are real efficiencies -- and we want to shape them and control them and regulate them in such a way that the benefits of these are distributed widely throughout the society, within the firm between its managers and its employees, and then in the rest of the United States as well."

brink lindsey
photo of lindsey Lindsey is the vice president for research at the Cato Institute. From 1998 to 2004, he was director of the Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies. Here he explains why he doesn't think Americans should overreact to the trade deficit with China. He says that while some U.S. businesses may have had exaggerated expectations about the potential for doing business in China's markets, Chinese imports of U.S. products have been growing "very fast." "We tend to focus on the cost, that imports are clearly a challenge to U.S. businesses that compete against those imports," Lindsey argues, "but we can't forget that those imports didn't just wash up here on American shores unbidden. They came here because people wanted to buy them."

alan tonelson
photo of tonelson A fellow at the United States Business and Industry Council, Tonelson is the author of The Race to the Bottom: Why a Global Worker Surplus and Uncontrolled Free Trade are Sinking American Living Standards. In this interview, he explains how recent international trade agreements -- particularly with China -- have sent many American manufacturing jobs offshore and created a massive trade imbalance that threatens the future of the American economy. "The problem is that U.S. trade policy writ large has encouraged large and politically powerful multinational companies to supply the U.S. market from China," he argues. "It gives these firms the ability to charge U.S. prices for goods … but to pay Chinese wages." Tonelson warns that unless the government reigns in these trade imbalances, a growing U.S. debt will mean that Americans will no longer be able to afford goods from overseas. "… [U]ltimately American consumers have to earn U.S. wages to pay U.S. prices," he says.