Why Tom Cruise Defended Walmart at Its Shareholder Meeting

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Tom Cruise

The "Oblivion" star appeared with Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend at the annual gathering for the retail giant, whose $444 billion in 2012 sales included about 40 percent of all DVDs in the U.S.

This story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Tom Cruise's June 7 appearance at Walmart's annual shareholders meeting generated an unusual amount of controversy because he said the retailer is a "role model" that is "improving women's lives" through education and career training.

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The Oblivion star was not the only celebrity to appear -- he was introduced by Hugh Jackman, and Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend performed for the crowd of 14,000 in Fayetteville, Ark. Such unpaid appearances are fairly routine for stars (and studios) wishing to stay in the good graces of the nation's largest retailer (total sales of $443.9 billion in 2012, including about 40 percent of all DVD sales).

But Cruise's comments drew the ire of activists and scholars who point to a Walmart pay discrimination case involving female employees (the Supreme Court dismissed the suit in 2011, but workers are pressing the issue) and the April 24 collapse of a Walmart supplier's factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 mostly women workers.

Said Bethany Moreton, a University of Georgia historian who wrote the acclaimed book To Serve God and Wal-Mart:

"The irony here is that the entire retail and service sector was built in large part through systematically undervaluing women's work, and Walmart was a leader in that process. The data that came out in the class-action suit Dukes v. Walmart showed that women were paid less than men in the same job categories, despite lower turnover rates and higher performance evaluations, and made up seventy percent of its workforce yet less than a third of its management. Yes, women have always 'made a difference' at Walmart; the question is rather how much of a difference the company would make to women if these kinds of public paeans were matched with more concrete measures of respect." 

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University of California professor Nelson Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution: How Walmart Created a Brave New World of Business, scoffs at Cruise, saying the chain's "low wages, short hours, inadequate health insurance and erratic shifts make life disproportionately difficult for women." 

Bad PR aside, the retail giant is bolstering its effort to help Hollywood shore up sagging DVD sales. It bought tickets for sneak previews of Man of Steel on June 13 and resold them in a package that included a digital comic by screenwriter David Goyer and a Blu-ray/DVD with exclusive content. The stunt added $12 million to the film's opening gross.