Walmart workers in China push for genuine trade union elections

27 June 2019

Walmart workers in Shenzhen are stepping up their efforts to hold the company’s first-ever democratic trade union election, nine years after Walmart first agreed to allow trade unions in its China stores.

Walmart only agreed to allow unions in 2006 because the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions assured the American retail giant that the union would not cause any trouble.

However Walmart workers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the passivity of the union and are demanding better representation. Zhang Liya, a trade union rights activist and veteran employee at Walmart Store No.1059 in Shenzhen, stated in September that he would run for union president at the next election.

A Walmart store in Shenzhen. Photograph by DCMaster.

Since making the announcement, Zhang and his election team have been pushing for democratic union elections and denouncing the company for sabotaging their efforts. They have disseminated information to co-workers on what a real union should do and posted regular updates on their blogs and social media accounts.

Zhang argued in one of the posts:

What did Walmart’s unions do for the workers? Where were they when the company was closing stores and slashing jobs across China in 2013 and 2014? Our salary increased by as much as 14 percent each year before the union was established, but starting from 2007 when we had our ‘chief union representative,’ the rate of increase has come down to just four percent.

Zhang argued that while Walmart China recorded double-digit increases in both revenue and net income in 2015, employee wages and benefits have remained stagnant for many years, largely thanks to the incompetent trade union that represents them:

We have a lot of evidence that Walmart is violating trade union laws in China by rigging union elections… The incumbent president and committee members here have been putting pressure on workers, asking them to only vote for candidates favoured by the company. They even directly ordered union members to leave online chat groups set up by my team. They also tried to get workers to sign an agreement saying they will not vote for me as the next president.

Zhang has received support from other activists such as Wang Shishu, a worker twice dismissed by Walmart for demanding the union to do its job, and Yu Zhiming, a union committee member who got fired for doing his job defending members’ rights at another store in Shenzhen.

Zhang and his team are now seeking help from local trade union leaders, including Huang Yebin, the president of the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, who publicly claimed after the massive Yue Yuen shoe factory strike in Dongguan last year that democratic union elections would be the norm in province within just five years.

Zhang said:

President Huang said only democratically established trade unions have the binding force to hold workers together. And that is exactly what we are trying to achieve at store No. 1059 right now.

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