MintPress attended a recent panel discussion on how Wal-Mart workers are organizing — or failing to organize — to protect their rights everywhere from “Bentonville to Beijing.”
WASHINGTON — Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Since that time, the retailer has made its way around the globe, shutting down small businesses and trampling on workers’ rights in its quest to deliver “everyday low prices.”
Wal-Mart represents what Nelson Lichtenstein describes as the heart of “a new era of merchant capitalism.” He likens the practices of the current era to the merchant capitalism that exploited slave labor in the American South and dominated trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Lichtenstein is the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, and author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.”
“Before the civil war, the merchants of New York and Liverpool were in a cahoots, in a conspiracy, in a brotherly embrace with the slavocracy of the American South,” Lichtenstein said at a panel held in Washington on Tuesday.
Lichtenstein was speaking at “Organizing the Workers of Wal-Mart: from Bentonville to Beijing,” an event hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to democracy, education and unionism, and attended by MintPress News.
He continued, explaining that merchants like Wal-Mart don’t own any factories, but they do control them. Wal-Mart’s power is so extensive, he added, and its orders so big, that the company not only controls how and what independent factories in the U.S. and China manufacture, but also dictates how the global supply chain of goods is organized.
Lichtenstein wrote in “Wal-Mart’s Long March to China,” an essay in Anita Chan’s 2011 book “Wal-Mart in China”:
“At the crux of the global supply chains stand the Wal-Marts, the Home Depots, and the Carrefours. They make the markets, set the prices, and determine the worldwide distribution of labor for that gigantic stream of commodities that now flows across their counters. The deindustrialization of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland entailed not just the destruction of a particular set of industries and communities, but the shift of power within the structures of world capitalism from manufacturing to a retail sector that today commands the supply chains which girdle the earth and directs the labor power of a working class whose condition replicates much that we once thought characteristic of only the most desperate, early stages of capitalism.”
Speaking at the panel, he explained that today’s merchant capitalism, exemplified by Wal-Mart and other bix box stores, like Target, which has copied Wal-Mart’s business model, is reminiscent of the slave-owning South because merchants don’t care about the labor conditions under which products are produced.
“For a hundred years we had industrial capitalism, and now we’ve returned to a new era of retail, merchant capitalism,” Lichtenstein said. “That first era of merchant capitalism before the Civil War ended by the bloodiest war America ever had, and I think we need to win it again.”
The labor movement in China and the US
“Wal-Mart is a super big company, so to deal with the issue of Wal-Mart we need a global strategy,” said Duan Yi, a Chinese labor lawyer whose law firm handles thousands of workers’ cases in China, including many involving Wal-Mart.
Duan was on the Tuesday panel at the Shanker Institute, and he spoke about the difficulties Chinese workers face in trying to organize for collective bargaining rights when dealing with Wal-Mart.
He recounted how upon landing in the United States earlier this month, he received a call from one of his clients in China, who works at Wal-Mart. The client informed Duan that he had been fired by the company for a second time as a result of his efforts to organize employees to collectively bargain with the store’s management for fairer wages.
Duan’s client had also been fired in 2012 for the same infraction. At that time, Duan said, “Wal-Mart made him a deal and said, ‘If you leave Wal-Mart, we will give you 240,000 Renminbi [roughly $38,000].”
Duan added: “Even though this is a lot of money for a Chinese worker, he decided he would not take the money, and instead he wanted to go back to the store, and join his fellow workers in organizing them for collective bargaining.”
America’s meager gains
Duan’s client is far from alone in this struggle. Indeed, workers at the retail giant’s North America stores face similar, seemingly insurmountable barriers to protecting their own rights.
Emily Stewart, special executive assistant to the director of organizing at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in the United States, told the audience at the Shanker Institute that Wal-Mart workers in the U.S. are fighting scheduling issues, and they’re calling for rights for pregnant women and incremental pay increases. They’re also taking on specific causes, such as the right for an elderly man to sit down while greeting customers at the entrance to a Wal-Mart store in the South.
She also noted that the UFCW helped in the process of convincing Wal-Mart to give raises to over 600,000 of its employees.
Stewart added: “Right after Wal-Mart announced their change in pay, they were followed by Target, and TJ Maxx, and HomeGoods, and Dollar General, and Marshalls, so that over the next three weeks there were over 1 million workers that were impacted.”
Still, unionization at Wal-Mart in the U.S. remains a far-off prospect, she says.
Wal-Mart’s origins are rooted in the white American rural South of the 1960s, explained Nelson Lichtenstein, of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He explained that Wal-Mart rose to global prominence in an anti-labor climate that was intermixed with a folksy corporate culture and what he called “faux-egalitarianism.”
The socio-political climate of the American South, and Arkansas, in particular, when Sam Walton founded the store in 1962 is best exemplified by the “Little Rock Crisis” in 1957. That was the moment when nine black students were barred entry into a racially segregated high school by the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who deployed the National Guard to stop the students from entering.
The U.S. Army, working under the orders of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, stepped in to force integration of Little Rock Central High School in order to allow the nine students entry.
Six years later, Wal-Mart was born.
Lichtenstein told the audience that the civil rights movement didn’t really gain traction in northwest Arkansas. He added: “The feminist impulse [was] very slow in arriving there.”
The lack of influence from the civil rights movement wasn’t the only factor that allowed Wal-Mart to expand into the world economy-dominating behemoth it is today, though. Lichtenstein explained that a confluence of factors made it possible for Wal-Mart and other retail chains to become so big, including the decline of the real minimum wage from 1968 to today, militant anti-unionism, the end of fair trade laws, and the introduction of bar codes, which empowered the retailer over the manufacturer by allowing the former to know exactly how much of a specific product is in the manufacturer’s warehouse. There was also a tremendous labor surplus in the South back when Wal-Mart was just starting out, and a highway system was starting to sprawl across the U.S.
All of these factors, combined with a low-wage workforce in China and other East Asian nations, enabled Wal-Mart to expand from a single discount store in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962 to a mega-chain of more than 5,000 stores and clubs across the U.S. today.
Salvation lies in China
Han Dongfang believes that China, a country rooted in socialism and communism, will be instrumental in reigning in the power Wal-Mart has over workers’ rights.
Han is the founder and director of the China Labour Bulletin, a non-governmental organization founded in Hong Kong in 1994 that does outreach to protect workers’ rights in China. He told the Shanker Institute audience that the American free market system, which politically ostracizes anybody associated with socialism, is the ideal environment for an entity like Wal-Mart to flourish. He said, “This environment is the perfect water for fish like Wal-Mart.”
China is a completely different environment, he says, arguing that people in China don’t hold dear exploitative capitalist values, like they do in America.
While Wal-Mart has expanded in China since opening its first Supercenter in Shenzhen in 1996, Han says the tides are slowly changing. Currently, Wal-Mart has over 400 stores in the country, and is the country’s sixth largest export market.
“Wal-Mart has grown really fast,” he noted, adding: ”But actually China is not the perfect water for Wal-Mart, in principle, because we have the Communist Party, we have [a] socialist system.”
Han explained that the current strategic objective of many labor activists and workers’ rights NGOS in China is to ally with the communist party, and it’s up to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to implement economic reforms that will benefit the country’s workers.
This strategy stands in sharp contrast to Han’s past as one of the top leaders of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF), the country’s first independent trade union. The BWAF called for political change and freedom of association from China’s Communist Party during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Han was one of the people arrested for leading the unrest.
He referenced this episode from the past, saying it was an incorrect strategy. Then, he explained that the current strategy among workers focuses on inspiring economic rather than political change.
This strategy, coupled with other characteristics present in China, is ideal for reining in Wal-Mart and controlling it, rather than leaving the global retailer to do as it pleases, Han says.
Speaking of China’s current governmental system, Han said, “This is the only regime that can put Wal-Mart in a zoo and stop it from biting people.”
Further, Han says, Chinese workers are not complacent in the same ways as workers in the U.S. are, and this will empower Chinese workers to get Wal-Mart to “behave.” Indeed, Chinese workers are hiring lawyers, fighting for unionization and collective bargaining rights, organizing on social media, and posting complaints every day from different Wal-Mart stores in online forums and associations.
“The workers are no longer silent… not only in Wal-Mart, in other manufacturers, in sanitation and construction,” Han said. “Workers in China in general are speaking out.”
Further, the ACFTU successfully led a campaign to unionize every Wal-Mart store in the country in 2006. The trade union movement, which is becoming stronger through its efforts to institute collective bargaining for workers’ wages at stores across the country, could become a game-changer for workers’ rights, Han says.
He explained that the ACFTU has several hundred million members, and that if it were reformed from within through elections and collective bargaining, it would become a force for emancipatory change.
“If we have that strong union, we’re talking about several hundred million [people] able to bargain [on workers’ behalf], and this of course will be the real force for the Communist Party to be allied with,” he concluded.