Exclusive: U.S. and Chinese labor groups collaborated before China Wal-Mart strikes
By Nandita Bose
CHICAGO (Reuters) – OUR Walmart, the American worker group, has taken the unusual step of collaborating with a group of Chinese Wal-Mart workers trying to fight work schedule changes and low wages.
OUR Walmart and the Wal-Mart Chinese Workers Association (WCWA) discussed strategy for recent strikes in China on a Skype call last month using a translator, both groups told Reuters.
“They asked for our support,” said Cantare Davunt, OUR Wal-Mart’s leader from Minnesota, who participated in the Skype call.
The U.S. organization is keen to maintain the relationship with the WCWA and believes such partnerships can boost the clout of the retailer’s global workforce.
“We can use this to collectively press Wal-Mart on issues,” said Dan Schlademan, co-director of OUR Walmart.
Wal-Mart declined to comment on the collaboration among worker groups in both countries, though the company did address the scheduling dispute in China.
OUR Wal-Mart – which last year split from the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) over strategic direction – says it has the support of more than 100,000 Wal-Mart workers. The retailer employs 1.5 million workers in the U.S. and 2.3 million worldwide.
The U.S. and China groups are discussing joint strategies to address challenges that workers in both countries face, including work schedule changes, Schlademan said.
Such international collaborations are rare, especially in China, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
“Large American unions have supported labor movements in a few parts of the world over the years but not in China, so this is out of the ordinary,” he said.
Many U.S. workers and union advocates have traditionally viewed workers in other nations as competition for jobs, labor experts said.
The only legal labor organization in China is the state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is widely considered an arm of the ruling Communist Party. Most strikes, including those at Wal-Mart, have happened without AFCTU involvement.
Neither OUR Walmart nor Chinese workers’ groups have much leverage to force changes at the behemoth retailer. The U.S. group has no collective bargaining rights, and it offers workers free, voluntary memberships.
OUR Wal-Mart cites a recent success in helping to push Wal-Mart last year to raise the minimum wage $10-an-hour. But that change came amid a nationwide push by some major cities, politicians and labor unions for broad minimum wage hikes.
FIGHT OVER ‘FLEXIBLE’ SCHEDULING
There are hundreds of strikes around China every year. China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor rights groups, tracked 6,901 strikes in China from January 2011 until now, 349 of which were at foreign-owned companies.
Such was the case when workers organized strikes in July at four stores in Nanchang, Chengdu and Harbin, involving about up to 60 employees at each location, said Zhang Liya, a Wal-Mart employee from the southern city of Shenzhen who set up and manages the WCWA’s online chat groups.
The strikes came in response to Wal-Mart’s introduction of a new work hours scheduling system for Chinese employees that they WCWA worried would cut overtime payments for employees.
Under the new system, store managers are permitted to allocate workers any number of hours per day, as long as each worker’s total adds up to 174 hours per month. Workers scheduled for more than 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week would not be paid overtime, at time-and-a-half rates, as long as they are given fewer hours in the rest of the month, according to OUR Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jo Newbould Warner said workers can choose not to participate in the new scheduling system, which said is part of broad changes that also include subsidized meals at work and the launch of a retail university that would provide training to store managers and frontline workers.
“Associates who prefer not to work a flexible schedule can retain their original shifts, and those who elect to be part of the flexible working schedule will have the opportunity to work more or less shifts depending on their preference,” Warner said.
Last week, Warner had told Reuters that the Chinese system is unique to that market. However, Wal-Mart plans to launch a new, but different, working hours system in the U.S. later this year.
The strikes ended in the first week of July when Wal-Mart store managers told striking workers they would have to consider their issues and respond within a week, two workers who had been on strike at different stores said.
The workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the company did not respond to their issues before that deadline passed. Workers decided not to go back on strike, they said, because many doubted the job action would provoke any change from Wal-Mart, the workers said.
STRIKE STRATEGY TALKS
On June 20, the Chinese and American teams talked by Skype through a translator provided by the WCWA, OUR Wal-Mart’s Davunt and the WCWA told Reuters. For nearly an hour, they discussed how to engage management in discussions, along and successful strike strategies that American workers in other industries have employed.
They also agreed to support each other’s actions, have follow-up calls and link via social media. The two groups have posted pictures of workers in both countries holding placards with solidarity messages on Facebook, Davunt said.
OUR Walmart plans to talk again to the WCWA after the strikes and the two groups want to meet in person, said Schlademan.
“With these kind of relationships, getting face-to-face is always an important part of it,” Schlademan said.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in China; Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Brian Thevenot)