Coordinated strikes break new ground for China’ s fledgling workers’ movement
Wu Yandong (吴岩冬) and chinaworker.info reporters
China has been hit by wildcat strikes at Walmart stores in at least four cities. The strikes are unprecedented and historic because they are coordinated – using social media – in a police state where strikes are usually confined to one workplace or city.
The trigger for the strikes has been Walmart’s imposition of new work schedules, similar to the ‘just in time’ scheduling system at its non-union stores across America. The new system enables management to change work hours at short notice and void extra payments for overtime work as long as each worker’s total adds up to 174 hours per month. Walmart workers often work 11 or 12-hour shifts to make a living wage, and many workers complain that real wages at the company have stagnated since 2009. Since the start of July, the company has moved swiftly to replace the existing 8-hour day for full-time workers and force workers onto the new contracts.
Walmart entered the Chinese market in 1996 and now has 433 stores nationwide, one-tenth the number of stores it operates in the United States. It is seen as something of a weathervane for workers’ struggles in China, with a history of victimisation and dismissal of workers – more than 100 in the past few years – who have spoken out and attempted to organise against its highhanded methods. In the current struggle, workers accuse Walmart of breaking the law and using threats to coerce them into signing the new contracts. Several reports are surfacing that workers are not being allowed to leave meetings with management until they sign.
The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China’s only legal ‘union’, forced Walmart to accept the union at its stores in 2006, in a much publicised case, the first of its kind at a foreign-owned multinational. But the ACFTU enjoys zero confidence among Chinese workers – it is closer to management than employees. The ACFTU is not a genuine union but rather an arm of the dictatorial regime and its internal workings are completely undemocratic. At Walmart since the 2006 agreement, local union representatives have invariably been appointed by the management, despite a legal entitlement for workers to elect their workplace representatives.
The significance of the current coordinated round of strikes at Walmart is that Walmart workers have begun, since last year, to network on social media, creating a potentially powerful grassroots alternative to the bureaucratic ‘road block’ of the ACFTU. From a few hundred Walmart employees last year, this network has exploded to about 20,000 members – a fifth of Walmart’s China workforce – since the company unveiled its new work-hour system in May. This network, referred to as Walmart Chinese Workers’ Association (WCWA) by English news media, uses the popular messaging platform WeChat. There are now over 40 WeChat groups, which provide a forum for the workers to exchange ideas and coordinate action.
On 1 July, workers in two Walmart stores in Nanchang, a city in Jiangxi province, went on strike and staged a procession through the store. Reports say that at least half the Nanchang workforce joined the strikes. This was followed on 3 and 4 July by strikes in Chengdu and Harbin. Images from the Chengdu stoppage have been widely shared on social media. Spokespersons for ‘WCMA’ say they will continue with more strikes until the company back down over the new work-hours system.
The Walmart strikes of course pose a serious headache for the Chinese regime. As Yuan Yang writes in the Financial Times, “The strike has realised the Communist party’s fear of co-ordinated cross-country labour unrest just as China prepares to lay off millions of workers as a result of the industrial slowdown.”
Strike have surged in the past year-and-a-half as the economic slowdown has led to wage cuts and plant closures. This year, with its plans to sack 5 to 6 million workers and enforce capacity cuts in state-owned heavy industry, the Chinese regime is particularly nervous about worker unrest. Big protests in March by mineworkers in Heilongjiang province over unpaid wages led to mass arrests of ‘ringleaders’.
Ominously, the National Security Bureau has begun an investigation of the ‘WCWA’ to see if they are “receiving foreign funding” – a standard trick of the CCP (so-called Communist) regime to discredit workers and others organising to defend their interests. This shows there is no ‘safe’ or ‘legal’ path to organising in China under the current regime.
Using social media has benefited many workers’ groups in China, because of the size of the country and the dangers of organising under a regime that does not tolerate any independent movements. But while it can be a valuable tool, ‘virtual’ organisation cannot replace building real organisations – workers have no choice but to combine the use of every ‘legal’ channel with ‘illegal’ organisation on the ground.
For this reason, it is also urgent that workers and socialists internationally show solidarity with the Chinese Walmart workers. International pressure and publicity can have an effect on both the US company and the Chinese regime.
The Chinese Walmart workers themselves are displaying some of the best traditions of internationalism and workers’ solidarity, traditions that endure despite the right-wing nationalistic propaganda of the government. Chinese workers have declared their support for Walmart workers in the US, as shown by one placard at the Chengdu strike: “We support Walmart workers in the US for the Fight for 15 [US dollars per hour minimum wage].”
Also the ‘WCWA’ blog has posted an open letter in support of US Walmart workers. “We have reason to believe that your conditions today will be ours tomorrow,” it says. It is clear that the Chinese workers have learned and been inspired by the example of US workers and the “Fight for 15”. This is a struggle in which the supporters of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and Socialist Alternative in the US, the sister organisation of chinaworker.info and CWI in China, have played an important role.
Reclaim the ACFTU?
The pressure building among Walmart workers has in some areas forced the local ACFTU officialdom out of their deep slumber to at least pay lip service to workers’ concerns. The ‘WCWA’ are correctly demanding elections for union representatives which has been denied by Walmart. An important struggle around this demand has been waged this year at Walmart in Shenzhen – this forced the local officials of ACFTU to support this demand (it is actually the law, but almost never enforced).
These examples do not mean the official union apparatus can be ‘reclaimed’ by the workers as some NGO leaders argue. The ACFTU is an arm of government and can – when it fears wider social unrest – sometimes act to put pressure on the capitalists to defuse the situation with concessions. This is exactly what happened at Walmart in Nanchang, in the weeks before the workers there went on strike. The local ACFTU office intervened and appeared to broker a deal with Walmart, in return for workers dropping their plans for a strike. The strike has now erupted – bypassing the ACFTU – because this deal fell through.
Workers need to build their own organisations independently of the state and the employers. But workers should of course exploit situations when the alliance of capitalists and government-ACFTU splits, offering opportunities for workers to press forward with their claims, without forgetting for a moment that neither are friends of the working class.
- Support Walmart China workers’ strikes – condemn Walmart’s coercive methods!
- Abolish Walmart’s comprehensive working hours system – for a 40-hour week, substantial pay increases and workers’ right to collective bargaining!
- No repression against striking workers or their representatives – defend the right of workers to network and organise independently!
- For independent and democratic trade unions!