Is Wal-Mart Good For America?
In Circleville, Ohio, population 13,000, the local RCA television-manufacturing plant was once a source of good jobs with good pay and benefits. But in late 2003, RCA's owner, Thomson Consumer Electronics, lost a sizeable portion of its production orders and six months later shut the plant down, throwing 1,000 people out of work.
Thomson's jobs have moved to China, where cheap labor manufactures what the American consumer desires -- from clothing to electronics -- and can buy at "everyday low prices" at the local Wal-Mart.
FRONTLINE explores the relationship between U.S. job losses and the American consumer's insatiable desire for bargains in "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" Through interviews with retail executives, product manufacturers, economists, and trade experts, correspondent Hedrick Smith examines the growing controversy over the Wal-Mart way of doing business and asks whether a single retail giant has changed the American economy.
"Wal-Mart's power and influence are awesome," Smith says. "By figuring out how to exploit two powerful forces that converged in the 1990s -- the rise of information technology and the explosion of the global economy -- Wal-Mart has dramatically changed the balance of power in the world of business. Retailers are now more powerful than manufacturers, and they are forcing the decision to move production offshore."
"Wal-Mart has reversed a hundred-year history that had the retailer dependent on the manufacturer," explains Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. "Now the retailer is the center, the power, and the manufacturer becomes the serf, the vassal, the underling who has to do the bidding of the retailer. That's a new thing."
To understand the secret of Wal-Mart's success, Smith travels from the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to their global procurement center in Shenzhen, China, where several hundred employees work to keep the company's import pipeline running smoothly. Of Wal-Mart's 6,000 global suppliers, experts estimate that as many as 80 percent are based in China.
At a salary of only 50 cents an hour or $100 a month, Chinese labor is an unbeatable bargain for international business. And the Chinese government is doing everything it can to be sure the country's infrastructure supports the export business. Ten years ago Shenzhen's main port did not exist. Today it's on the verge of becoming the third busiest port in the world.
Wal-Mart estimates it imports $15 billion of Chinese goods every year and concedes that the figure could be higher -- some estimates range as high as $20 or $30 billion. Company executives are quick to point out they have always scoured the globe for low cost suppliers to benefit the American consumer.
"We do depend on products from around the globe to draw our consumers into the stores," says Ray Bracy, Wal-Mart's vice president for federal and international public affairs. "We feel they need to have the best product, the best value, at the best price we can achieve."
This is little consolation to the unemployed workers back in Circleville, Ohio. Steve Ratcliff, a long-time worker at the Thomson plant puts it simply: "If you want these low prices, then you go buy your products from Wal-Mart. But what does that actually do for this country? It's putting people out of work. And it's lowering our standard of living. That's the bottom line."