[Marxism] Growing worker restiveness in China

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sat Nov 27 13:51:16 MST 2004

So maybe instead of the protectionist measures which
U.S. unions so often propose, they'll begin to the US
employers to allow unions as Wal-Mart says that it's
now willing to do in China...?)

November 24, 2004 
Wal-Mart Says It Would Allow
Unions in Its Chinese Operations

November 24, 2004; Page A3

BEIJING -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would allow trade
unions in its China operations, an apparent response to
pressure from Chinese authorities for the world's biggest
retailer to soften its antiunion stance.

"Currently there are no unions in Wal-Mart China because
associates have not requested that one be formed,"
Wal-Mart, which has avoided unions in all stores but one in
Canada, said in a statement yesterday. "Should associates
request formation of a union, Wal-Mart China would respect
their wishes and honor its obligation under China's Trade
Union Law." The company refers to its employees as

Wal-Mart's first public statement regarding the
establishment of unions in its China stores follows months
of criticism from officials at the All-China Federation of
Trade Unions, the government-backed umbrella body for
unions in China. Wal-Mart has 42 outlets in China and about
20,000 employees; the company bought $15 billion of goods
from China last year.

In China, labor officials hope the development will put
pressure on other multinationals and private companies to
follow suit. In March, the national legislature launched an
investigation of compliance with the country's labor law.
Its findings: Some leading multinationals and private
companies were resisting efforts to set up unions within
their operations, with Wal-Mart heading a list that also
included Eastman Kodak Co., Dell Inc. and Samsung
Electronics Co.

Wal-Mart, however, says it hasn't changed its position but
felt compelled to simply clarify its stance because of a
recent spate of inaccurate media reports. "We're in full
compliance with China laws and employees can take voluntary
action if they so desire," said Beth Keck, spokeswoman for
Wal-Mart's international division.

It remains unclear whether Wal-Mart's statement will lead
to the actual establishment of unions in its China
operations. China's unions, which must be under the
government-backed umbrella, operate very differently from
independent unions. The China union federation in the past
often has served as an employer representative or acted as
a bridge between labor and management rather than agitating
for wage increases or supporting worker protests, for

Even so, the development potentially could have an impact
on efforts by other unions to organize the company's
workers in the U.S. and in other countries, some observers

"The significance is enormous: Wal-Mart has not voluntarily
allowed trade unions in any of its stores anywhere in the
world," said Stephen Frost, a research fellow at the City
University of Hong Kong who specializes in regional labor

>From its inception, Wal-Mart has vehemently fought attempts
to unionize stores in the U.S. In February 2000, a group of
butchers in a Texas Wal-Mart supercenter voted to unionize,
but shortly thereafter Wal-Mart announced it was switching
to prepackaged beef and reassigning its store butchers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers recently have made
some inroads in unionizing Canadian Wal-Marts. In August,
the UFCW organized a Jonquiere, Quebec, Wal-Mart. Last
month, automotive workers at seven Wal-Mart stores in
Vancouver, British Columbia, applied for union

Elsewhere, there is some form of worker representation.
Wal-Marts in Germany, for example, aren't unionized per se,
although they have work councils made up of Wal-Mart
employees who negotiate on behalf of employees in
individual stores. There is no third-party representation
in Germany.

"It's good news for employees," said Zhou Weidong, director
of a consulting firm in Guangzhou that advises companies
and officials on corporate social responsibility. "It will
give them a platform to discuss issues like benefits and
vacations." But he pointed out that the announcement
wouldn't affect hundreds of factories that supply products
to Wal-Mart. Working conditions generally are far worse for
workers at those factories than for Wal-Mart employees.

Guo Wencai, director of grass-roots organization at the
ACFTU, said he had heard about Wal-Mart's statement but
hadn't read it yet. "If they are really sincere, they
should come and talk to us directly," he said.

Wal-Mart long has said it doesn't need unions in China. In
a statement to The Wall Street Journal in September, the
company said, "We believe it is best for our company to
have a direct relationship with our associates."

According to China's trade-union law, workers at any
company with more than 25 employees should form a union
committee. Companies are required to pay 2% of total
workers' salaries to the union, with the money divided
between local and higher branches of the ACFTU.

In practice, with the opening of the Chinese economy, such
rules have proved hard to enforce. In the past, foreign
companies often were required to set up joint ventures with
state-owned enterprises. Those enterprises' ties to local
Communist Party and union officials made the setting up of
union branches inside companies standard practice. Today,
foreign companies often operate on their own or may form
partnerships with private companies, leaving the union
little leverage to get inside their operations.

--Cui Rong and Kathy Chen in Beijing and Ann Zimmerman in
Dallas contributed to this article.

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