As Walmart grows globally, so does worker resistance

(Infographic by Sara McCaslin. Click for source)

Everyone knows that Walmart is the largest retailer in the United States.

But did you know that Walmart is actually the world’s largest retailer too, with more than 10,000 stores in dozens of countries, and the third largest employer in the world overall (behind only the U.S. Department of Defense and The Chinese Army)?

This isn’t Pinky and the Brain — Walmart is actually taking over the world. So what does that mean for the resistance against the company’s notoriously low wages and poor treatment of workers?

As a community organizer for the Making Change at Walmart Puget Sound Coalition, I am always thinking about local labor politics at Walmart. But in order to gain the international perspective, I spoke with Trina Tocco, the Walmart Campaign Coordinator for UNI Global Union.

She has been working with UNI for the last year, but is no stranger to the Walmart campaign, having worked on it for the past decade through other organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum.

“There have been three or four iterations of the Walmart campaign,” Tocco said explaining that the first few attempts, while useful in drawing media focus to Walmart’s failings did little to galvanize workers. “This campaign is real and significant and rooted in actual workers.”

The Walmart workers affiliated with UNI come from all over.

“Walmart is in 28 countries — about half of those are in Africa, and about half of those countries are union and actually represent Walmart and in a lot of cases have collective bargaining agreements with Walmart.”

While Walmart’s corporate union busters have successful quelled worker’s right to organize here in the U.S., they have actually been forced to abide by the labor laws of other countries.

“Walmart doesn’t have adversarial relationships with unions in every country,” Tocco said matter of factly as though this were normal.

Really? The majority of my dealings with Walmart management here in Washington can be characterized as acrimonious — the spectrum ranges from being politely invited to leave the premises to being body-blocked by the manager in Lakewood who did not want me to film his workers participating in a step line.

To them I am the enemy, a union thug who must be prevented from speaking with their workers at all cost. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where we could actually have a dialogue that doesn’t involve police and picket signs. So hearing Tocco describe the situation elsewhere was a shock.

“I’m not sure I’d describe it as cordial,” said Tocco, “but… in other countries Walmart does recognize unions and meets with unions to work out problems. This is how things should work, so that workers and Walmart have a process for working out problems.”

UNI Global Union has affiliates in various sectors in various different countries, but Walmart is one of the few corporations large enough and widespread enough to warrant its own unique campaign.

Walmart employees in Brazil demonstrate in support of Bangladeshi workers killed in a collapse at a factory making apparel for the retail giant. (Photo courtesy Uni Global Alliance at Walmart)
Walmart employees in Brazil demonstrate in support of Bangladeshi workers killed in a collapse at a factory making apparel for the retail giant. (Photo courtesy Uni Global Alliance at Walmart)

“There is a concerted effort to coordinate, organize and mobilize workers around the world who are working at Walmart,” Tocco says. “When I can connect a Chinese worker with a Mexican worker then it doesn’t become about a Chinese worker taking their job. Workers can see, ‘oh they’re screwing us both. We have to unite to win.’”

Of course there are obvious challenges. Beyond time and space, language and culture barriers there are also practical concerns like sleep.

“I was talking to a worker at Walmart in Brazil last week and he was saying he works 10 hours a day. It takes him 2 hours to get to work. And so by the time he gets home, he just wants to go to sleep so he can get up and do it all over ago.”

Still UNI Global Union is doing their best to connect workers across borders to create solidarity around basic human rights.

And the workers are responding.

“The South African workers are staying up late and the U.S. workers are getting up early just so we can have a call,” Tocco said. “The harassment and the lack of respect that Walmart has shown to the workers not just in the U.S. but all over the world has been a common sentiment.”

But despite the workers’ resistance, Walmart’s business is growing — and fast.

“Walmart goes into a country in two different ways. One way is they buy land and build a store, but in lots of other countries Walmart has grown through acquisition. So what that means is that they go in buy a local chain,” explained Tocco.

Walmart broke into the African market in 2011 when they acquired a chain of stores in South Africa called MassMart.

South African law guarantees the right to unionize, so during the acquisition discussions, the union was allowed to discuss the terms of the merger.

In a bold move, the South Africans added a stipulation that neutrality be granted in the U.S. — which would effectively gag Walmart from speaking poorly of unions or retaliating against their employees in the US. While this stipulation was removed from the final contract (mostly because there would not have been enough legal infrastructure to enforce it), the idea that one group of workers in another country would consider binding themselves in solidarity with workers from another country is very powerful. It’s a sign that many of Walmarts 2.2 million workers have started to come up with ways to express solidarity that move beyond individual relationships.

What are the next steps? Clearly each individual country must deal with Walmart in its own way. But just as Walmart has been able to lower retail industry standards globally, maybe the international unions will be able to counter balance their business model?

Will the collective bargaining rights of workers in other countries be the leverage needed to hold Walmart accountable to a new transnational standard here in the U.S.? Food for thought as we approach Walmart’s annual shareholders’ meeting next Friday.