Sunday, August 13, 2006
Wal-Mart has been in the news recently after announcing on August 11th that it would work with Chinese officials to establish labor unions at all its outlets in China. Wal-Mart's history of opposition to unionization in its stores is well known, and as a New York Times report points out, "exactly what it means to have a unionized Wal-Mart store in China is unclear because unions in this country do not have a history of bargaining power."
Anita Chan, a research fellow at the Contemporary China Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, has some very perceptive comments that I am attaching below (with some very minor edits and bracketed text added for clarification) with her permission:
Wal-mart has conceded. It must have realized it had made a wrong move, thinking it can use the same anti-union tactics as it does around the world. If it had been clever, the unions set up in Wal-mart superstores in China would have been no challenge to management. They would have been like so many of those other workplace unions set up by the ACFTU [All-China Federation of Trade Unions] in Asian foreign-funded enterprises in cooperation with management. It would have meant choosing a mid-level Chinese managerial staff to be the trade union chairperson without a democratic election. In many cases, the employees might not even have known that there is a trade union.
Will the unions that will now spring up in Wal-mart stores be the same? Very likely. Both sides probably prefer to have a "harmonious" relationship. But I also have the feeling that there may be new developments brewing among some ACFTU trade union officials. The way that these five trade union branches got set up was very different from any other in China that I know about. Piecing together the various Chinese press reports, it becomes apparent that the local ACFTU officials had to resort to grassroots organizing techniques widely used by "normal" trade unions elsewhere in the world. The entire procedure was secretive, without the knowledge of management. First, the local union officers sought to raise workers' consciousness by giving them literature to read. Then they talked to workers one by one secretly to persuade them to join the union. The union sought to cultivate activists who in turn would get other workers interested. Then when they had enough people interested in signing up to request a union -- in the case of China only 25 were needed -- the local union officials took Wal-mart by surprise by declaring that a union at the workplace had just been established at a ceremony. To top it all, the meetings and ceremonies all took place in the early hours of the day after midnight! Wal-Mart's adamant stance had provoked the ACFTU into trying out real grassroots organizing for the first time. This may be an experience the union federation will want to analyze for possible future use in similar cases.
It is often thought that there is no collective bargaining in China. Actually there is, especially in the OECD countries' big joint ventures. There is also some in SOEs or former SOEs. The bargaining may not be as sophisticated, legalistic or adversarial as the ones we witness in Australia or in the US, but nonetheless they involve a kind of bargaining. In the case of Wal-Mart, having been put in the spotlight, the ACFTU may want to let its own people and the world know that the union is serious about protecting employees' rights. I don't think this is likely, but it may be too early to rule it out and to simply assert that these union branches, especially the first few, are bound to be useless like so many others.