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Organizing Chinese Walmart Workers


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Walmart’s horrendous labor practices have long exploited the American working class and it’s anti-union extremism makes it a nearly impossible place to organize, despite significant resources from unions going toward efforts to open it up to unions. The same labor policies are in place in China and Chinese workers, increasingly empowered to stand up for themselves, are making the same complaints.

 Activists like Zhang Jun are part of an increasingly militant rank-and-file movement, which runs a loose network of about 5,000 Walmart workers across China, organized through social media, and has forged ties with labor advocates in Hong Kong and even the United States, with an open letter expressing solidarity. Though Walmart’s China operations count for just 3 percent of global retail sales (contrasting with China’s outsized manufacturing role in Walmart’s supply chain), they employ more than 100,000 workers at 433 outlets in 169 Chinese cities.

The Walmart brand itself turns out to be an ideal organizer. The plans to introduce “flexible” schedules as part of a workforce “optimization” program have galvanized workers’ anger across China, along with rising fears of labor deregulation.

Zhang Jun tells The Nation that under the initiative, workers would face intensified workloads and be deprived of legal recourse to challenge unfair schedule policies in the civil legal system. The destabilization of working conditions would “potentially make workers more fearful and less assertive in voicing their concerns on various grievances in terms of organizing unions,” he adds.

Walmart in China contends the “flexibility” initiative has “support from the majority of employees,” but it would “maintain open communication with” others “who are temporarily unable to understand,” reports The Sixth Tone. Walmart Corporate representative Marilee McInnis states via e-mail that the system “will enable Walmart to execute strategic talent management.”

Of course, if Walmart is using the same worker model in China as in the U.S., it can use its security model as the U.S. too, which is to call the cops for every little thing, effectively outsourcing its security onto taxpayers.

The Express-Times, like the Tampa Bay Times, found that Walmart was the site of more police calls in one year in its region than anywhere else. It published a similar story to the investigative report that had appeared earlier in the Tampa Bay Times and showed how Walmarts here had accounted for about 16,800 calls in a year, or two an hour, every hour of every day.

Casey then wrote to Walmart President Doug McMillon, urging the company “to examine its internal security protocol to ensure effective deterrence measures are in place and reduce the burden on local police.”

“Of course, police protect and serve every member of our communities, but the significant volume of calls from Wal-Mart stores raises serious questions about whether the company’s current security infrastructure effectively deters crime without overburdening local police departments, many of which already operate on stretched budgets,” the senator wrote in the letter, a copy of which The Express-Times posted online.

The Tampa Bay Times found that a large portion of calls to Walmart were for shoplifting, but an even bigger slice concerned general disorder, including drunk customers, mouthy teens and panhandlers. Experts said that more staffing, uniformed security and better store layouts could help Walmart deter many of those problems.

Casey contended that “large retailers like Wal-Mart bear responsibility to have in place reasonable security measures to assist in the deterrence of frivolous crimes.”

Reasonable security measures are for suckers. Walmart didn’t become a successful corporation through caring about anything but it’s bottom line. And I don’t doubt the Chinese police will be happy to help, especially if there are union organizers involved.

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  • AMK

    There would also seem to be the issue of real labor unions being illegal in China.

    On the flipside, Walmart and every other business exists entirely at the whim of the government; so if the Politburo decides that Walmart’s current policies are causing sufficient unrest (or the Walton family’s bribes have been insufficiently generous) they can order change overnight.

    • Brett

      That’s what they do in practice. Independent labor unions are outlawed because the Chinese Communist Party is suspicious of anything resembling an independent civic society, but if labor unrest at a particular location gets a bit too heavy they’ll step in and lean on the company to make changes.

      It’s more of a case-by-case thing. The idea that China can do major changes overnight is a myth – its government is much more decentralized in practice than on paper.

  • K

    if wal mart has security deal with the problem they could end up being sued like if security was dealing with some crazed guy on drugs and the guy ended up getting hurt he’d sue wal mart and win like billions of dollars. it’s much better to call the police and let them handle hit that way wal mart doesnt get sued and go bankrupt. isnt china a communist country run by unions like communism happens when the unions have a lot of power and take over the country then start killing people.

  • rachelmap

    If you look at the countries where Walmart has failed (South Korea, Germany and Japan), you’ll see that labor unions are pretty strong. For instance, according to one of the interviews The New York Times on the topic of why it failed in Germany:

    Wal-Mart Germany, with 85 stores and $2.5 billion in sales, is almost a footnote for a company focused on Asia and Latin America. But the problems it encountered here have echoes elsewhere. For example, it never established comfortable relations with its German labor unions.

    “They didn’t understand that in Germany, companies and unions are closely connected,” Mr. Poschmann said. “Bentonville didn’t want to have anything to do with unions. They thought we were communists.”

    (Luckily for me, Costco is doing great in Korea.)

    • Chaz

      Are labor unions strong in South Korea? I was under the vague impression that they were pretty anti-union. After all they have a strong anti-communist tic and were a right-wing dictatorship until not long ago.

      • rachelmap

        The government here does not like unions and bars some occupations (like teachers) from unionizing altogether, but the unions that are allowed are pretty vocal. Repression is a recent memory.

        Whether they are a factor in Walmart’s failure in South Korea (if anything) is what I’d like to know. Possibly not. Maybe Walmart failed in South Korea because people here don’t like to drive miles out in the countryside to buy shoddy crap when they can buy the same crap in their local market street and get better service while they do it. I don’t know.

        • Brett

          The same type of thing might have been at work in Germany. I have no doubt that Walmart’s management clashed with the unions there, but Walmart was also entering an already competitive discount retail market – there wasn’t exactly money on the floor waiting for them to come and pick it up.

  • Bruce Vail

    China Labor Watch in NYC — http://chinalaborwatch.org/home.aspx — does a good job of keeping its eye on these issues. Recommended.

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