This strike, at a store in the southeastern city of Nanchang, is the culmination of a month and a half of discussion and mobilization among Walmart workers and organizers across China. It was preceded by small-scale symbolic protests. The day before the strike, a few Walmart workers in protest T-shirts leafleted inside a store in the southern city of Shenzhen, to inform workers about the scheduling system and their rights under labor law.
Not all workers walked out at the Nanchang store, which managed to stay open. But clearly management was panicked over the unexpected action. Strikers also marched inside the store, chanting slogans. No picket line has been set up yet.
So far the strikers have refused to negotiate, because they don’t believe management is sincere about addressing their demands to stop the new system. It appears the strike may continue into a second day, with possible actions at other stores soon.
China is the world center of wildcat strikes, where the right to strike is not officially allowed under the law but is not illegal. Manufacturing workers, teachers, sanitation workers, truck drivers, and taxi drivers have staged strikes numbering in the tens of thousands each year.
Walmart moved into the Chinese market in 1996 and runs 433 retail stores, employing more than 100,000 retail workers. The majority are full-time, but part-time and casual workers have been increasing.
With the new flexible scheduling system—allowed under China’s labor law, but only approved by the labor bureau for highly seasonal businesses—Walmart is in the process of replacing the existing eight-hour day for full-time workers. Store managers will be permitted to allocate workers any number of hours per day or per week, as long as each worker’s total adds up to 174 hours per month.
This system will have immediate impacts on overtime pay, as workers scheduled for more than eight hours in a day may not get overtime pay, as long as they are given fewer hours in the rest of the month. But it will have even greater effects on those who depend on a second, part-time job to supplement their stagnant incomes. It will be hard to hold down a second job when your first job has an unstable schedule.
Moreover, workers fear the system will open the door to replacing more full-time jobs with part-time and casual ones—a familiar development for Walmart workers in the United States.
PRESSURE TO SIGN ON
The company is required under labor law to submit its scheduling change to the government labor bureau for permission. However, since mid-May, store managers have already intimidated thousands of Walmart workers into signing agreements to accept the new schedules.
Zhou (not his real name) is an organizer and former Walmart worker who was fired last year for challenging the company-manipulated union by running for union office.
“Walmart has violated Chinese law by restricting workers’ personal freedom,” Zhou says, “not allowing them to leave the management office until they sign the agreement. Walmart has manipulated and controlled the store unions to coerce workers.
“This has been met with strong resistance by workers, who have submitted complaints to the local labor bureaus. However, Walmart has not stopped the practice, but in fact accelerated the process.”
In some instances, managers reportedly physically intimidated workers who dared to challenge them.
Besides asking workers not to sign the agreement, Walmart organizers have asked those who have already signed to invalidate their signatures, on the grounds of harassment and intimidation.
Discontent goes beyond the new scheduling policy. For years, Walmart retail workers have been subjected to low and stagnant wages, manipulation of union elections, and harassment of workers who speak out and organize.
From 1996 to the mid-2000s, Zhou says, Walmart workers were comparatively well-paid—making more than three times the average salary of workers in Shenzhen, a factory city created to produce for export.
But with rapid inflation over the past decade, Walmart’s real wages and benefits have fallen to only a third of the Shenzhen average. The same is true elsewhere in China.
Today Walmart wages are not significantly higher than local minimum wages. After paying their social security contributions, worker may even be making less than minimum wage—and certainly way below a decent living wage.
The new scheduling system and the intimidation campaign have made thousands of Walmart workers angry. And since the policy is being rolled out nationally, it has provoked workers to start talking to one another across stores and cities—an important first step for a dispersed workforce.
Though China sees 10,000 or more strikes and labor protests each year, it’s rare for workers to organize and coordinate actions across multiple workplaces and regions. This has hindered the formation of a broadly organized labor movement.
Unwittingly, Walmart has created an opportunity for workers facing exactly the same issue, at the same time, to build relationships and discuss their collective response.
At the center of the current organizing is a core group of two dozen former and current Walmart workers. Some are veteran organizers who have already been involved in challenging the highly manipulated store union elections by running as candidates with broad co-worker support.
A WORKER ASSOCIATION
Many of the organizers have coalesced around a loose network, “Walmart Chinese Workers’ Association,” established in 2014 by two former Walmart workers, Zhou and Chen (not his real name). The Association sprang from workers’ frustration with the existing store unions that don’t represent them well.
Zhou, a co-founder of the Association, explains its purpose: “The Association …is aimed to facilitate Walmart workers all over the country to communicate and discuss Walmart workers’ legitimate interests. It is independent and organized by Walmart workers. We insist that no organization or individual should interfere with the Association.
“I hope the Association will serve as a platform for Walmart workers to communicate and facilitate mutual understanding and mutual aid…and continue to provide legal support for workers to protect their rights.”
The Association faces challenges. As an informal organization, it has no stable membership or stable presence in the Walmart stores, and no full-time staff except for one spokesperson who maintains the Association’s website, posting news, updates, and statements. Becoming a mass membership organization would have put the organizers at serious political risk. But the network has been an important vehicle to disseminate information, raise the profile of issues, and facilitate mobilization.
SOCIAL MEDIA MOBILIZATION
The Walmart organizers have been greatly aided by social media, using chatting apps to reach thousands of workers, exchange ideas, and boost morale; this practice is very common in labor organizing in China.
“We have 20-30 online discussion groups, of which about 10 groups have reached the full capacity of 500 participants and many other groups have between 200 and 400 workers,” explains Fang (not her real name), a current Walmart worker.
“These workers are from all over the country,” Fang says. “Organizers are communicating with workers and responding to their questions in the discussion groups. We also have a team of lawyers and experienced older workers to interact with workers.”
The online real-time discussions are very lively. But organizers say the discussions are closely monitored and sometimes disrupted by management. Some workers have withdrawn from the online groups after being warned by managers. It’s a sign of how much the company is afraid of workers’ unity, Chen says.
Social media is no substitute for direct, face-to-face organizing, which builds the stronger and more trusting relationships necessary for organizing. But it is complementary to the offline organizing of some Walmart workers.
ORIGIN OF THE UNION
The current organizing has roots going back a decade, when Walmart workers got their first taste of organizing. In 2006, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU)—the government-affiliated and only legal union—led a campaign to unionize Walmart retail stores.
Taking advantage of the simple requirement for creating a union branch under China’s Trade Union Law, the ACFTU approached workers after work to collect their signatures and announced a number of new union branches in Walmart stores.
Although the campaign scored a headline-grabbing victory at the notoriously anti-union company, the ACFTU-led campaign reflected the federation’s organizational politics—concerned more with losing relevance than with a serious long-term project to organize workers. The ACFTU had announced in 2005 that it would unionize 60 percent of foreign companies by the end of 2006, and Walmart was to be its first prize.
While the very early stage of mobilization drew on workers’ participation, the campaign became a mere formality after the ACFTU and Walmart agreed on a memorandum to unionize across its stores in China. Since then, Walmart store unions and elections have been relentlessly manipulated by management to such an extent that rarely has any store union advocated for the rights of its members.
But workers have challenged Walmart. One of them is Gao Haitao, a union chairman and self-taught lawyer at the same store where workers are now on strike. Highly regarded by his co-workers, Gao represented workers in bargaining and angered management with his vocal support for workers’ rights. He was later forced to resign, however.
In the city of Chengde, when a store was being closed in 2014, workers led by the store's union chairman, Huang Xingguo, protested and picketed for weeks.
Others have challenged management’s manipulation of the store unions. In 2015, Zhou ran for office in his store. “We have never had real unions!” he wrote in his speech to co-workers. “Since 2006, union representative after union representative were all secretly appointed by Walmart. The so-called union election is no more than a formality! How can such a Walmart management-controlled union speak for us workers?
“My dear co-workers, we cannot be silent any more. We migrant workers hope to earn money, but how could the meager incomes we toiled to earn allow us to live decently in today’s society?”
“When we entered the election,” said Fang, who ran as a candidate along with Zhou, “all the positions were already appointed and [our entry] caused a storm. Almost all workers in my store signed a petition to endorse me as a union representative. But management met with all the workers who signed the petition to ask them to invalidate their signature. Many workers refused. But it nevertheless intimidated workers.
“Approached by management, many workers were silenced. If they can overcome their fear and take a stand, it will make organizing much easier. Management and the appointed candidates panicked when they saw so many workers supporting me. They argued the election was not successful, and wanted to hold another one.”
Later on, Zhou was fired, and Fang was issued a warning. According to store policy, workers with three warnings would be laid off.
Such manipulation and retaliation have embedded a culture of fear that keeps workers from speaking out against abuses.
When union elections at the store level are stacked, it’s no surprise that collective bargaining is rigged, too. In fact, organizers report that workers don’t even know who their national union representatives are or how negotiations are conducted. For workers, the slow growth in real wages is evidence that there is no real bargaining.
CAN THE OFFICIAL UNION BE PUSHED TO HELP?
Over the last month, Walmart organizers have centered their strategy on lobbying the ACFTU to intervene.
In an open letter to Walmart China and the ACFTU, the Walmart Chinese Workers’ Association demands an immediate stop to the new scheduling system, to management interference with union elections, and to harassment of elected union representatives.
The letter also calls for the union representatives to represent workers’ interests. The organizers have been contacting the ACFTU headquarter and its municipal branches for support.
“Since the union election last year, I communicated a lot with the ACFTU as a Walmart worker, explaining the situation to them,” Fang says. “But it did not have much effect.
“ACFTU told me that the local unions should take the lead. But it is precisely because local unions are not helping us that we seek help from the ACFTU’s national office. ACFTU always tells us it is investigating and considering, but [there is] no satisfactory outcome.
“We always first think about unions. Unions are workers’ organizations, and they should help us. If the unions can help us, Walmart will not be so daring. But the main problem now is that the union and management are on the same side. As a result, we are very weak.”
The strategy has had some limited success—the ACFTU has issued some positive statements. This includes a statement warning retail companies not to implement this particular scheduling system—but without naming Walmart. The statements, however strongly worded, have not stopped Walmart from implementing the unfair schedules.
It’s unclear what the ACFTU thinks of the strike. The Walmart organizers hope the organizing will create both pressure and incentives for the ACFTU to intervene on workers’ behalf.
COMMON GROUND WITH U.S. WORKERS
This struggle offers a chance to build international solidarity. Walmart has been mistreating its employees in China and in the United States—often in very similar ways.
Chinese organizers are keenly aware of similar problems of flexible scheduling and its consequences for workers in the U.S.
In an open letter to Walmart workers in the U.S. and to the activist group OUR Walmart which they recently made contact with, Chen wrote, “In the past, a number of colleagues from Walmart U.S. had shared their experience of the struggles for $15 hourly pay with me and appealed for support and solidarity from colleagues in China. I had immediately passed the messages to the colleagues of Walmart China.
“We have reason to believe that your conditions today will be ours tomorrow.”