[Contribution by Fons Tuinstra] - The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China's only allowed trade union, started to organize two years ago branches at the US retailer Wal-Mart, and the international trade union movevement has been watching the process with excitement. It was a collision between the fiercely anti-union retailer, who had rather left Germany and South Korea in stead of giving in to union demands, and a state-run trade union who suddenly organized grass-root activities against a stubborn employer.
China Labor News Translations has published in May 2008 a first analysis of trade union activity at Wal-Mart, mainly based on online research.
In the first phase 17 branches were organized: "These efforts had culminated in democratic elections of trade union committees and trade union chairs by workers willing to take the risk to put themselves forward as candidates. Such elections often took place in the early hours of the morning without Wal-Mart's knowledge. When these unions sprang up one after another for the two weeks Wal-Mart was taken aback and refused to recognize them."
Later Wal-Mart and the ACFTU signed an agreement and since then union branches have been established with the permission of the management in in total 60 stores. The report assumes that now all of 100+ Wal-Mart stores have an ACFTU-branch.
The report signals, rather optimistically that at at least one store real negotiations between management and the elected union representatives took place. More often local Wal-Mart managers, party or trade union officials have been trying to control the process.
The report gives four case studies and zooms in at the most positive example: "The Nanchang Bayi trade union was clandestinely set up on 14 August 2006. The chair, Gao Haitao, was elected by popular vote. Since then he had fought against Wal-Mart management over one issue after another. It is significant that he had studied law on his own while supporting himself by working at Wal-Mart part-time. In 2005 he passed a nation-wide examine in law and decided to stay on in Wal-Mart as a full-timer. His legal knowledge became his main weapon to fight against Wal-Mart."
It shows that local branches of the ACFTU can work as real trade union, although it does not seem to happen overnight.
Photo: jeffreybeam / Flickr