The China Labour Bulletin reported that over 200 workers from at least three Walmart locations in China went on strike this past weekend. The primary motivation for the strikes is the company's effort to institute a "flexible hours system" at its stores nationwide and allegedly coercing workers to sign contracts expressing their consent to the new system.
The CLB article has laid out the details of the strike. Further, Kevin Lin has done an excellent analysis of what is happening for Labor Notes. I also include in this post a brief history of Walmart's labor issues in China.
Before delving into that though, I want to note one particularly interesting aspect of these strikes: the fact that workers from multiple Walmart locations are in communication and (at least to some extent) coordinating their actions. China has thousands of documented labor protests each year, and potentially tens of thousands, but the workers are protesting conditions at the particular enterprise at which they work. There does not seem to be any class identity, or other broader political or social goal, formulated or articulated by the workers in these instances. Therefore, these actions are viewed as being of limited political significance. Along these lines, it is also interesting that the Walmart workers are actively communicating on several WeChat groups; and while the worker leaders claim the discussions are being monitored, the government has not blocked or shut down these communication platforms. This will be an interesting story to follow.
As for some background on Walmart in China, a variety of interesting labor-related events have transpired during the company's history on the mainland. For example, there was first the big news when the Chinese trade union (the ACFTU) engaged in some degree of bottom-up organizing that eventually compelled Walmart to concede to the establishment of union branches at some stores and conclude a memorandum of understanding with the ACFTU to guide the establishment of unions at other locations. This came at a time when American unions had generally been unable to make any headway in organizing Walmart.
A few years later (around 2008), when Walmart and higher-level, unelected ACFTU officials reached a collective/framework agreement for stores throughout China, there was the popularly-elected enterprise union chair in Nanchang City who, as reported here, openly opposed the contract and resigned in protest after the ACFTU went behind his back and had the chair from a nearby Walmart union sign the agreement. This level of activism and defiance by a local union chair had rarely been seen in China. And, Nanchang is one of the cities where Walmart workers are now striking.
In the spring of 2014, there was the group of workers who protested Walmart's unilateral decision to close a store and the amount of compensation being offered. The workers, who were camping out and picketing outside the store, demanded compensation that was double the amount of the offer. When no resolution was reached, the famous labor law professor Chang Kai then represented the workers in what then became a high-profile labor arbitration proceeding, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
And, as part of this most recent incident involving the switch to the flexible work system, China Labour Bulletin reported that Shenzhen ACFTU officials have at least (finally) acknowledged that the union's job is to represent workers' interests and this is not being done adequately. Specifically, the vice-chair of the Shenzhen ACFTU, Wang Tongxin, "admonished" union representatives in Walmart stores for not listening to their members. This was the result of a sustained campaign by several active former Walmart employees for union reform, and specific opposition to Walmart's proposed flexible work system plan. In fact, the Shenzhen official helped to negotiate an agreement with Walmart that the switch to the new system would be voluntary and workers free to reject it.
This Walmart incident touches on issues of collective and class identity, the growing collective activism of workers, the informalization of work, the growing use of social media, and several other fascinating topics. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how this issue -- and Walmart's future labor relations in China -- develops.