On Location: Florida
Wal-Mart from the Inside
BY: LUISA DANTAS, Co-Producer
I pulled up to a small Florida town on a typically stormy night in early April. At this point, I had been driving all over southern Florida for the 10 days, interviewing and meeting current and former Wal-Mart employees. Their stories were grim and eerily similar. They had all been exploited and abused by management executing company policies meant to extract every ounce of work without proper compensation. The employees were hurt and angry, but above all, terrified.
My ultimate goal of getting current employees to participate in the film had been frustrated again and again. None of the current employees would agree to appear on-camera without having their identities distorted beyond recognition. Both the current and former employees believed that Wal-Mart monitored their every move and would somehow know that they participated in the documentary. They all feared being punished or fired.
I felt this town was going to be different. First off, the women I met: Cathy, Diane and Helena. I found them because they did the unthinkable at Wal-Mart: they tried to join a union. All three women were struggling to get back on their feet after the series of hurricanes that wracked Florida nearly destroyed their homes. Despite their desperate situations, Wal-Mart intimidated them and ultimately fired them soon after they tried to unionize.
I settled into the motel that would be my home for the next six weeks and made plans to meet up with all three the next day. We met at Johnny’s Diner, where several cups of coffee and cigarettes were consumed, while the ladies warmed up to the idea of the film and the impact it could have.
As they threw out names of potential employees who would talk to me, it became clear that Cathy was the leader of the group. That was no surprise given her strong personality and obvious leadership skills. Diane was just as strong, but more reserved. She was the one who suffered the most because she was struggling to raise two kids on her own. Helena was a feisty woman who seemed very gung-ho about the film and the idea of making Wal-Mart a better place to work.
However, over the next few days, it became clear that Helena no longer wanted to be a part of the film. Despite agreeing to be interviewed, she had grown increasingly nervous about the repercussions, convinced that Wal-Mart could somehow still ruin her life.
As I traveled around the area, and met more and more current employees who refused to be filmed, it occurred to me that maybe the only way to gain people’s trust would be to get a job on the inside.
So I did. I became a full-time cashier.
I was damn good, too, because I took my job every bit as seriously as everyone else. I even had anxiety dreams about screwing up produce codes at the register. After a “honeymoon period” I began to experience the things I had heard about from other workers I’d interviewed. There were days when I’d be on the verge of passing out at the register, because I’d been on my feet for several hours straight without a break or food. But I was also lucky, because my co-workers were amazing and really took me under their wing.
As the weeks wore on, it was obvious that my co-workers were just too terrified of losing their jobs to speak on camera. Most of them were parents with several mouths to feed, struggling to make ends meet on an unlivable wage.
Throughout my time on the inside, Cathy and Diane remained incredibly helpful and supportive. The three of us would get together every Friday night and dish. I would tell them what was happening at the store, and they would tell me about their lives.
When Diane shared her experiences with me, I knew that her story had to be featured in a more in-depth way in the film. When I asked her, she was reluctant. She feared that her children wouldn’t be able to handle the possible repercussions and that she was understandably nervous about allowing a camera into her life. Ultimately, with Cathy’s coaxing and a lot of reflection, Diane decided that being a part of the film was the most effective way for her to speak out against Wal-Mart and all of the terrible things that the company had done to her and her family.
Sarah, an incredibly talented cinematographer, joined me and we spent five days filming Diane from dawn until dusk. We were able to capture the sheer effort and courage that it takes for Diane to keep her family together and get through each exhausting day. Diane is an amazing person. I feel honored to have met her and been allowed to peek through a window into her difficult life. Like many of the former Wal-Mart employees that I met, she is a survivor.