China’s Walmart workers organise online and get official union backing

07 June 2016

Walmart workers from all over China have joined forces in a rapidly growing online network to oppose company plans to introduce a new working hours system in its 400 stores across China. Workers are concerned that the new “comprehensive working hours system” will jeopardise their current contract terms, which guarantee fixed working hours, overtime pay and holidays.

In the last few weeks alone, the online network has grown to around 10,000 members, alarming the authorities but also putting real pressure on the official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), to support its members.

This type of online network is not unusual in China, but the size and cohesiveness of the Walmart Workers’ Network is “unprecedented,” according to Wang Jiangsong, a Chinese labour relations expert. “This is a completely new phenomenon, workers are organising themselves at a national level,” says Wang, who underlines that, “despite lacking a physical location, a bank account and a charter, it’s actually very real and could have a long lasting impact on the real world: their grievances, demands, protests, and collective action are all very real.”

Walmart Workers' Network co-founder Zhang Liya (left) protesting in Shenzhen

The Workers’ Network was created in 2014, and membership usually “fluctuated between 100 and 200 people,” says Wang Shishu, a veteran Walmart employee sacked twice for his activism who is a co-founder of the network. However, in early May, Wang started explaining the possible implications of the new working hours system on the messaging App, WeChat: “Our sisters and brothers awakened and started joining the network, and in a matter of hours membership exploded, within days we had built up to 14 or 16 WeChat groups.” The WeChat App limits each group to no more than 500 members, forcing Walmart workers to divide into subgroups according to which city or outlet they work for. “My phone crashed several times due to the sheer volume of traffic,” he said.

According to Wang, the new scheme is a move by upper management to maximise flexibility, and in case of closure of a particular branch, “they could force anyone to quit by shuffling their shifts around and making their lives harder, they’d save huge sums of money in severance fees.” In a leaked document on this “optimisation of human resources” plan, Walmart claims that employees’ “full time employment status, seniority and other legally protected benefits will not affected” by the new employment terms. Phone calls to Vivian Jiang, Walmart’s PR manager, however, went unanswered as the line was constantly busy.

The workers’ network has been under pressure both online and offline. National Security Bureau agents have been investigating to see if they received funding from foreign organisations, and since the explosive growth in membership, trolls disguised as colleagues have spammed chat rooms and scared legitimate members away.

“We are going to stand our ground,” says Zhang Liya, a founding member of the workers’ network, who is himself also battling Walmart for unlawful dismissal after running for the trade union presidency in Store No.1059 in Shenzhen. He confidently adds that “their attacks have made more people awaken, and have turned their indignation into persistence.” His colleague Wang Shishu points out: “If the changes were so beneficial to workers, why force them to sign and why troll our forums?”

As veteran Walmart employees, both men feel strongly about the deterioration of working conditions and the slow pace of salary increase relative to inflation. The consensus among members of the network is that their real incomes have been shrinking in the last decade, feeding resentment and dissatisfaction, and in Zhang’s words, the “comprehensive working hours system” was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Zhang emphasises that their actions are completely compliant with Chinese laws so, despite constant management retaliation, they have no legal grounds to dissolve the network. Zhang stresses that they operate independently and in fact have no funding at all, “I’ve been sponsoring our offline gatherings out of my own pocket!” he says, “so the National Security and Civil Affairs agents never found any evidence against us.”

Since the spam attacks, workers now have to use their real names and have their identities cross checked before joining. “We don’t just want to increase in numbers”, explains Wang, “we want committed members who participate in discussions and are willing to take collective action when needed.”

This online network was born out of necessity, Wang Shishu explained. Factory workers taking collective action are usually in one physical location but retail workers who are part of a national chain, while sharing similar grievances and facing the same changes in contract terms, will probably never meet each other, making collective action much more difficult.

Walmart workers have always been actively seeking the support of the ACFTU. On several occasions the network issued open letters and petitions addressed to the ACFTU, the latest one on 25 May denounced Walmart for pushing employees to agree to the new contract terms and allegedly resorting to threats and restriction of freedom.

The letter demands that the ACFTU intervene and “stop Walmart from pushing ahead with the comprehensive working hours system.” It also calls for genuine trade union elections, as previously agreed by the ACFTU and Walmart, and for Walmart to “stop all repression and manipulation of election results and to reinstate unlawfully dismissed activist union members.”

The ACFTU’s response so far is encouraging: Wang Tongxin, vice-chair of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions, has reportedly scolded union representatives from local Walmart branches in a meeting: “What does the ACFTU stand for? As representatives you should listen to the workers’ demands and bring them to ACFTU, not coerce workers into signing the new contracts.” According to the same meeting report, Wang said that Walmart worker representatives were “heading in the wrong direction” and he instructed them to “strictly observe developments in your respective Walmart branches.”

On 31 May, after a meeting between the Nanchang Federation of Trade Unions, the local Labour Department, Walmart management and worker representatives, Wu Rongfu, vice-chair of the local federation, presided over the agreement that guaranteed the new comprehensive working hours system would be voluntary and that those who opt out could keep their old contracts. According to a report on the network’s blog, Wu pledged to protect the legal rights of Walmart workers in Nanchang, effectively defusing a potential city-wide strike.

Despite the apparent support from some ACFTU officials, the Walmart activists are still very aware of the overall bureaucratic nature and traditionally pro-business stance of the official trade union. “Since 2006 [when Walmart agreed to allow unions in its Chinese stores] they’ve been siding with management!” said Wang Shishu.

Wang Shishu and Zhang Liya are cautiously optimistic however about the possibility of the ACFTU turning a corner and actually putting the rights of workers first. Zhang noted that even President Xi Jinping has “openly criticised the official union for inaction.” “We have always appealed to them and will now put even more emphasis on them carrying out president Xi’s reform policies,” he added.

Labour relations expert Wang Jiangsong believes this strategy is sound. “Completely ditching the ACFTU to start everything from scratch could be dangerous,” he warned, but “actively pushing the union to do their job is the best course of action.”

That does not mean union reform will be smooth sailing. Despite being sandwiched between an increasingly self-aware workforce and equally increasing pressure from the top down to become a real trade union, “there is still little incentive from within the ACFTU to reform because their ranks are filled with officials who are fearful of losing everything they have,” Wang said.

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