Organising Wal-Mart in China: two steps forward, one step back for China's unions

Organising Wal-Mart in China: two steps forward, one step back for China's unions

How Chinese workers unionised Wal-Mart

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has set up shop in 22 Wal-Mart supercentres across China, but will this state-run union have any power? This paper traces the process that led to the unionisation of Wal-Mart in China and highlights lessons learned for labour organising.

The paper highlights the tactics used by the ACFTU and local labour activists which contributed to Wal-Mart’s unionisation. Initially, the ACFTU attempted to set up a union branch from the top-down. The ACFTU normally sets up a union branch without consulting local workers and then failing to carry out basic union practices, such as collective bargaining. Despite the ACTFU’s known ineffectiveness with foreign owned-firms, Wal-Mart still opposed any form of unionisation.

This rejection of the union opened the door to grassroots organising by local employees. After rejecting the imposition of a union by ACTFU headquarters, local employees gathered the necessary signatures in order to form a local branch. Following this grassroots organising, the ACTFU and Wal-Mart signed a memorandum of understanding.

The paper argues that the agreement signed with Wal-Mar will only work to the benefit of workers if local unions are serious and strong enough to confront Wal-Mart. If past practice can serve as any guide, many district unions will be constrained by local governments and Party committees to remain passive, and the Wal-Mart union branches may not have the strength to face up to Wal-Mart’s antiunion policy.