Typically when we hear “WalMart” and “China” in the same sentence, we picture the “made in” labels on our toys, gadgets, and the other mass-produced stuff that we grab off the shelves at low, low prices. But WalMart’s vast retail empire has a whole other wing in the Middle Kingdom. As the brand has expanded aggressively into the coveted China market, it has engendered a new wave of Chinese shoppers--and legions of workers to serve them. The rise of a Westernized consumer culture has also generated familiar tensions around labor, inequality and workplace rights.
Just in time, too: As demonstrations have mushroomed at WalMart stores and warehouses nationwide, a disgruntled WalMart employee has led a small uprising in the coastal boomtown of Shenzhen. His agitating and organizing work has been bolstered by a partnership with SACOM, a Hong Kong-based labor rights organization that has previously taken on the notorious Apple manufacturer Foxconn.
The conflict began last summer when Wang Shishu, a 52-year-old WalMart store employee and outspoken labor activist, helped lead a campaign against plans to cut pay and slash benefits. When a small strike involving about forty workers broke out, the management cracked down. According to SACOM’s petition:
-- On July 5, 2012, because of dissatisfaction with the pay rise scheme, which would cancel the housing subsidy and the bonus, more than 40 WalMart workers in Shenzhen went on strike at the Shenzhen Distribution Center. Four worker representatives were administratively detained and subsequently dismissed by WalMart.
-- On July 16, Wang participated in a meeting with the local trade unions and the management. He presented a joint petition with 85 signatures from the full-time staff at WalMart's Xiangmihu Store.
-- After that meeting, on July 24, Wang was accused of being in “serious violation of the company’s regulations" and was dismissed. However, WalMart failed to specify which rule Wang has broken. As such, Wang’s dismissal is illegal!
-- At present, Wang is undergoing arbitration for the dismissal. Meanwhile, he keeps marching around the WalMart’s Xianmihu Store with placards like “Protest Against WalMart for Illegal Dismissal,” “Support for Reasonable and Just Demands of Workers” and “Solidarity for Justice.”
In an emailed statement via SACOM, Wang said the key demands they're pushing include a “reasonable pay rise for WalMart workers in China which is proportional to the profit made by WalMart China,” restoration of the housing subsidy, and fairer performance assessments.
Beyond basic material grievances, SACOM and Wang’s supporters are seizing the moment to press for broader reforms. SACOM is preparing a comprehensive report on working conditions in Chinese WalMarts that could shed light on the hardships experienced in an expanding slice of the nation’s new working class. While WalMart doesn’t dominate China’s retail workforce as it does in the U.S., its brand carries different social currency among Chinese consumers, signifying both a modern bourgeois lifestyle and a cutting-edge workplace for Westernized strivers.
Labor activists are pushing back against that image to expose unethical labor practices, just as they have done with sweatshop manufacturers in the past. But the organizing landscape is a fractious one.
As a global company, WalMart’s size and clout give it massive power to exploit local workers (mirroring the pattern in its affiliated factories).
At the same time, employees do, at least in theory, have a union. Though China’s official union system, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), essentially functions as a company union rather than an independent worker-run organization, it has become a platform, and a target, for workers like Wang to push the edges of populist agitation.
Yi Yi Debby Cheng, a labor activist with SACOM, said via email that instead of advocating on behalf of Wang, “the official trade union is not playing its role to help the worker to defend his rights.” Noting that Wang's complaints had been ignored by multiple unions, “from street trade union to district union,” Cheng added, “even on the termination letter, there is the stamp of the corporate trade union to approve Wang’s dismissal. In fact, the chairperson of the trade union is the vice general manager of the store."
Cheng noted that the trade union sealed a contract deal with the company last April, “but the workers generally did not agree with the agreement on the pay-raise mechanism. The workers didn’t think the trade unions represent them since they are not democratically elected."
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So, while US activists have focused on WalMart’s abuse of American low-wage workers, they ought to watch how Chinese workers are struggling to carve out a space for themselves in the Big Box of authoritarian neoliberalism (and getting bigger: WalMart just announced plans for more than 100 new stores with about 18,000 job openings, fueled by a marketing blitzkrieg featuring “corporate social responsibility” charity projects and extensive campus job-recruitment campaigns.
The Walmartization of China draws whimsical comparisons to the cult of Mao: both deftly wield mass politics to impose a solidaristic dogma. Comparing the Walton dynasty with the Chairman's authoritarian grip through an “all-encompassing code of conduct and ideology,” Orville Schell wrote in a 2011 Atlantic piece:
“Each professes a proud populism, always proclaiming a responsibility to better service. China’s leadership, with its socialist roots, has long stressed ‘serving the people,’ while Walmart, with its capitalist roots, emphasizes ‘service to the customer.’ In fact, Walmart stores in China prominently display personnel charts that are inverted pyramids, with the customers and lowest workers situated on the top tier and the managers on the bottom.”
Will WalMartism inform the ossifying Politburo’s struggle to marry tight social control and a neoliberal growth agenda? Schell speculates, “if China wants to keep developing its hybrid form of authoritarian capitalism, its leaders could do worse than to learn from Walmart, a corporate entity larger in scope and logistical complexity than any other in human history.”
WalMart’s appeal to China’s new conspicuous consumers is clear. Its brand exudes modernity, cleanliness, even hipness (despite various marketing mishaps and scandals over the years). But WalMart's tens of thousands of workers are discovering that this embodiment of middle-class aspirations doesn’t necessarily translate into decent career prospects.
One major obstacle for workers like Wang is their own union, which tends to obstruct autonomous grassroots action. Well before his dismissal, he had become known for challenging the “undemocratic practices of the trade union,” along with exploitative working conditions.
Despite those obstacles, the presence of some kind of union could embolden WalMart’s rank-and-file. According to a 2008 report presented by the International Labor Rights Forum and National Labor College, even a flaccid body like the ACFTU, which constrains workers’ leverage by aligning with management, could potentially offer a channel for activism, if an aggressive grassroots leadership emerges among workers.
Wang’s experience might be seen as a warning to American workers who have yet to break the company’s blockade of unionization in low wage U.S. communities. Cheng said, “It is important to be noted that, besides demanding for the right to organize, how the union or workers’ representation mechanism is formed should also be paid attention to.”
To that end, Wang expressed solidarity with WalMart workers in the U.S. “I hope there will be interactions between U.S. WalMart workers and China WalMart workers,” he remarked, “linkage like mail or email exchanges can be made so that we can understand the situation of both sides, find our common issues and effectively fight against our labor violations.”
What would a transnational uprising against WalMart look like? We got a small glimpse of such a movement on December's Global Day of Action, when WalMart-affiliated workers in several countries rallied in support of US anti-WalMart protests. But the idea of a coordinated campaign on parallel Chinese and U.S. fronts could spark a fresh wave of global labor solidarity.
Imagine WalMart associates, warehouse laborers, garment workers realizing the powerful resonance between the working classes at two ends of the global economy.
WalMart has long sought to exploit the polarity between regions with its arbitrage of labor costs through outsourcing to “developing” labor markets. But years of eroding working conditions have erupted in labor frustration in every corner of its empire.
A drop of transnational solidarity could lead to waves of struggle on both sides of the Pacific and shake the axis of WalMart’s dominion.