Today Walmart workers are demonstrating at the company headquarters in Argentina; marching through Miami, Florida, and Santiago, Chile; leafleting customers in Nicaragua; rallying outside stores in Brazil, India and South Africa; and delivering a letter to the head office of Walmart’s UK subsidiary ASDA.
As I reported yesterday, actions are planned today in ten countries, on five continents, as part of a Global Day of Action in protest of alleged retaliation against workers who are organizing in the United States. The protests are a project of global union federation UNI, the US union-affiliated Making Change at Walmart campaign and the union-backed worker group OUR Walmart.
“It’s wonderful to know that Walmart workers around the world are standing with us,” Jesus Vargas told reporters on a noon conference call. “Our actions affect not just Americans, but our customers and workers around the world.” Vargas, who worked for Walmart in Placerville, California, and joined OUR Walmart two years ago, is among the workers who have filed National Labor Relations Board charges alleging they were illegally fired for their activism. UNI has expressed concern that, if left unchecked, Walmart’s alleged abuses in the United States could spread to more workers in other countries.
Walmart did not immediately respond to a noon request for comment. In past statements to The Nation, the company has denied retaliating and dismissed the protests as publicity stunts it says represent hardly any workers.
Among those joining Vargas on the call was an eighteen-year Walmart worker in Argentina who said he was also punished for his workplace activism. He was a leader in organizing the union in his store years ago, a chance which he said led to changes including guaranteed hours of work. Before the union, he said in Spanish, “there was no respect for anybody.” But even now, he said, “I’m always attacked by the company.” He helped organize today’s protests in Argentina, which are demanding both an alleged to retaliation in the United States and the payment of end-of-year bonuses in Argentina.
Asked whether the global activism could escalate to strikes, UNI official Lisa Eldret told The Nation, “What happens in the coming months will very much depend on their response to the action today and whether or not they’re prepared to listen to the demands that workers in so many different countries are putting forward.” Arjet said UNI does not yet have a count of the number of workers or stores involved in today’s actions.
In a letter dated today, UNI General Secretary Philip Jennings told Walmart CEO Mike Duke that workers “are taking action to call on Walmart to respect the fundamental labour rights set out in the ILO Core Conventions and join the ranks of responsible employers in the retail sector who have taken this step to ensure decent labour rights and standards for their workers.” He called on the company to align itself with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Jennings’ letter also requested a meeting with Duke “as soon as possible at a venue of your choice…”
Today’s actions are the latest example of union members in other countries pressuring their employers over treatment of workers in the United States. Such tactics have been deployed by European Ikea workers to support organizing in Virginia, and by Austalian employees of the logistics company Toll Group to support port truckers in California.
Unlike Ikea’s or Toll’s, nearly two-thirds of Walmart’s direct employees worldwide are in the United States (1.4 million out of 2.2 million), which may reduce the leverage of workers’ abroad. But international markets figure prominently in Walmart’s expansion plans. Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, told reporters that repeated setbacks in winning approval to build stores in areas like New York City and Los Angeles have left Walmart “desperate to expand abroad.” Those ambitions—and the developing scandal over alleged Walmart corruption in countries including Mexico and India—could heighten the significance of the global campaign.
As Walmart spreads around the world and acquires existing chains, said Lichtenstein, “they provoke conflicts in their efforts to transform the wages and working conditions to accord with the American model…. We find that there’s tremendous resistance to that around the world, and now in the United States.”
Find out how you can show solidarity with Walmart workers around the world./em>