Wal-Mart: outlaw at home and in China

Opinion

Wal-Mart is an outlaw. It is also the largest retailer in the world and the largest private employer in the world. It is financially larger than Switzerland and employs more than eight times the number of troops Bush has deployed in Iraq.

The recent news of INS raids on undocumented workers cleaning Wal-Mart stores revealed the company’s common practice of illegally not paying overtime to immigrant workers forced to toil long hours under brutal conditions. While the INS raids are despicably in tune with the Bush/Ashcroft assault on civil liberties and workers’ rights, they also highlight the criminal nature of Wal-Mart’s corporate dealings with labor. And as all of U.S. labor knows, this is only the surface of the many illegal, anti-union practices of Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart is not just a criminal in the U.S. It is also guilty of breaking labor law in China. In China, unions are protected by labor law. Chinese labor law mandates that if any workers request a union the company must recognize the union and agree to negotiate a labor contract.

(I hear the gasps of those who think the Chinese unions are not real unions. For this article I won’t get into the question of unions under public ownership and those under capitalism – except to say: With the tremendous influx of U.S. and foreign capital owned by viciously anti-union outfits like Wal-Mart, the Chinese trade union movement is redefining itself. Chinese workers and their unions fully realize the changes they must make to protect their jobs and working conditions from foreign predators like Wal-Mart. They are embracing the more class-struggle kind of trade unionism practiced in capitalist countries.)

China’s equivalent of the AFL-CIO, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), has launched a campaign to make Wal-Mart comply with Chinese labor law and recognize a union at Wal-Mart. According to the ACFTU, Wal-Mart has stonewalled all union efforts. Wal-Mart has told the ACFTU that it has no need for unions because it has set up “effective channels” to resolve labor disputes. (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) As part of its argument against unions Wal-Mart also brags that it has no unions in its American stores either.

And that’s the main point I’m trying to make. What a great opportunity to unite workers against a common corporate bad guy.

Grocery store workers are on strike across this country to defend their health care benefits. Wal-Mart operates thousands of non-union grocery stores that undercut benefit and wage levels for union grocery store workers. It should be clear to all that to really make progress in living standards for grocery workers, Wal-Mart must be organized. It is also clear that only a concerted national campaign, with the full support of the entire labor movement, can tackle organizing Wal-Mart.

And ultimately, worldwide worker solidarity is the only guaranteed way to protect living standards and labor conditions in a globalized economy. Wal-Mart’s flaunting of labor law in both the U.S. and China make for a great opportunity to reach out internationally to all workers truly interested in reining in this corporate criminal. At some point, in some form, there will have to be a worldwide get-together of trade unionists to tackle this behemoth.

Which gets me to my second point. China bashing won’t get us one step closer to organizing Wal-Mart, or solving trade problems. Wal-Mart and big business love it when workers are divided. Think what you want about the Chinese unions, but they have 131 million members. That’s a whole lot of folks just like you and me who want the same things we do: livable wages, fairness on the job, safe and healthy working conditions, and a collective voice in dealing with their employer.

China bashing not only divides us from those 131 million allies in China; it also promotes racist stereotypes and divisions in the American working class. Asian American workers have become a significant force in U.S. labor, dedicating their skill, hard work and experience to our common cause.

In the end, China bashing only serves the divide-and-conquer interest of Wal-Mart and other transnational corporations. In today’s global economy our answer to China bashing should be: “Workers of the World, Unite – Back by popular demand.”



Scott Marshall is a vice-chair of the Communist Party USA and chair of its Labor Department. He can be reached at scott@rednet.org