Walmart’s fresh summer offerings now features new varieties of labor strife, available in English and Chinese.
On the retail empire’s home turf in Bentonville, Arkansas, workers gathered at a media conference organized by the advocacy network Making Change at Walmart, to denounce Walmart’s low wages and hostility to labor organizing.
Margaret Hooten of Placerville, California, who earns less than $11 an hour after starting at $9 five years ago, lamented, “Walmart can afford to pay its workers, they just won’t. They don’t care. It is corporate greed in its lowest form.”
Far from Arkansas, in Shandong Province of northern China, Zhang Jun echoes Hooten’s grievances. In a public letter posted online, the former worker turned organizer denounced similarly stagnant pay scales and degraded working conditions in China’s growing Walmart chain. He warned of the company’s reported plans to make workers’ schedules more “flexible” or irregular, potentially allowing managers to treat workers “like sugar canes, recklessly squeezed by our employer” while “sacrificing our precious youth and vigor.”
Zhang Jun helps lead the fledgling Wal-Mart Chinese Workers’ Association (WCWA), an independent group that pushes for many of the same reforms US Walmart workers seek, like job security and real collective bargaining rights. But there’s one difference: In China, Walmart is a union shop. Sort of.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) nominally represents all of China’s workers, via a latticework of regional labor bodies along with workplace-level locals. In actuality, the ACFTU’s leadership is often aligned with Communist Party officialdom and corporate management rather than workers. Walmart negotiated to allow the ACFTU to establish local branches at mainland stores in 2006, but grassroots labor advocates say the unions have so far done little for workers other than suppress unrest.
Activists like Zhang Jun are part of an increasingly militant rank-and-file movement, which runs a loose network of about 5,000 Walmart workers across China, organized through social media, and has forged ties with labor advocates in Hong Kong and even the United States, with an open letter expressing solidarity. Though Walmart’s China operations count for just 3 percent of global retail sales (contrasting with China’s outsized manufacturing role in Walmart’s supply chain), they employ more than 100,000 workers at 433 outlets in 169 Chinese cities.