Just as George W. Bush and the Republicans — who worship at the altar of corporate greed, gleeful at deepening poverty for working families — were basking in the glow of Bush’s re-election, the Chinese government and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) announced that laws protecting workers’ rights to organize would be enforced at Wal-Mart operations in their country. The unions said they planned to organize. Talk about one part of the world eating with their fingers and the other dining with fine silverware — maybe there is a reason why the Chinese once referred to Westerners as “barbarians.”
The Chinese government and the ACFTU threatened to sue Wal-Mart, according to China’s Xinhua news agency, if the world’s largest corporation continued to fire and harass workers trying to organize, or continued to violate wage and overtime laws. Wal-Mart caved. Having a national government that enforces its own laws, aggressively, works.
About 20,000 Chinese retail workers stock shelves, staff checkout lanes and monitor inventory in 43 Wal-Mart stores in China.
The Chinese retail market is estimated to be worth $240 billion and is expected to grow at a rate of 8–10 percent per year.
No good numbers are available regarding profits Wal-Mart currently reaps in the world’s most populous country. Wal-Mart’s total international workforce generated a $2.3 billion profit in 2004, says the corporation’s web site. That is a 16.6 percent increase over 2003, and the corporation predicts an 18.6 percent increase on top of that for 2005.
In addition to 20,000 workers in China, 4,000 Argentineans, 28,000 Brazilians, 60,000 Canadians, 13,000 Germans, 30,000 Japanese (Wal-Mart owns 37 percent of Seiyu, a Japanese retailer), 3,000 Koreans, 105,000 Mexicans and 134,000 British work in Wal-Mart stores in their respective countries.
The Chinese government is the first to stand behind retail workers across the country. The only other place on the globe where Wal-Mart workers are union members is in Quebec. There, workers at two stores successfully organized, with the most recent victory in August 2004. Quebec province has a no-scabbing law, protecting workers’ rights to organize and bargain.
Instead of obeying the law and sitting down with ‘associates’ to bargain a first contract, Wal-Mart announced that it would close that store in May. A corporation with 1 million workers cannot allow 200 in Quebec to work under a union contract. With their union cards in their wallets and their elected representatives in local and provincial government, workers have already begun to fight, vowing to keep the store open. Because they are organized, workers are planning a boycott, legislative action and a variety of other tactics. Workers are meeting corporate organization with their own.
Then there is the U.S., where two-thirds of the mega-corporation’s 1 million workers live and work. Wal-Mart is a national leader in many categories, including lawsuits for racism, sexual discrimination, trampling labor law and violations of wage and hour laws. Workers are willing to fight, the United Food and Commercial Workers are busy trying to organize, but — make no mistake about it — the federal government stands up for, defends, promotes and protects Wal-Mart.
Some commentators have pooh-poohed the Chinese government’s actions, saying that Chinese unions are “company unions.” Interestingly, none of those writers are union organizers or U.S. Wal-Mart workers, nor do they note that the ACFTU has over 100 million members and the AFL-CIO has 13 million members.
George Meyers, who served as president of the Maryland Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and, later, labor secretary for the Communist Party USA, once remarked that a corrupt union, a bad union or even a company union was better than no union. Some unions, like the United Steelworkers of America, used the company unions at US Steel, for example, to organize in the early days. When workers have some sort of organization that, even if it’s only talk, addresses wages, benefits and working conditions in a collective and organized way, things begin change, Meyers used to say. Workers can see their power, as a group and not as single individuals.
Company unions are illegal in the U.S., but they still exist in one form or another.
Are the Chinese unions “company unions”? That is up to the Chinese workers to decide. In the meantime, it can only help workers at U.S. Wal-Mart stores that their brothers and sisters in China can now carry a union card and keep their job.
Denise Winebrenner Edwards (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Wilkinsburg, Pa., Borough Council, and a member of the editorial board of the People’s Weekly World.