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Wal-Mart Loves Unions (In China)

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page A25

Wal-Mart has finally found a union it can live with.

Up to now America's largest employer has opposed every effort of its employees to form a union. Wal-Mart doesn't recognize unions; it doesn't even recognize "employees." The proper Wal-Mart name for its workers is "associates," a term that connotes higher status and collegiality and that actually means lower pay and workplace autocracy. For the privilege of associating themselves with Wal-Mart, its employees are paid so little that many can't afford the health insurance the company generously allows them to buy. One study of health care in Las Vegas revealed that a plurality of that city's employed Medicaid recipients worked at Wal-Mart.

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But that was the old Wal-Mart. Last week Wal-Mart announced that if its associates wanted a union to represent them, that would be hunky-dory -- as long as the union was affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a body dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. The official statement was simple and seemingly unambiguous: "Should associates request formation of a union, Wal-Mart China would respect their wishes."

Wal-Mart America has made no such declaration, of course. Why it deems its 20,000 Chinese associates who work in its 40 Chinese stores worthy of representation while its million U.S. employees can't be trusted with the right to represent themselves is a good question. Whence the Sinophilia and Americaphobia?

We can, I think, dismiss suspicions of anti-anyone-but-Chinese racism as such. The answer, then, must lie in Wal-Mart's preference for old-line communist-dominated unions in authoritarian communist states over any other kinds of unions anywhere else. America's unions, which Wal-Mart despises, have a long history of anticommunism, and today's AFL-CIO is the staunchest defender on the American political scene of democratic rights in communist nations such as China. For that matter, unions affiliated with reformed or post-communist parties outside of the few remaining communist states have gotten nowhere with Wal-Mart either. Only in China, with its inimitable blend of Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, has Wal-Mart found a union to its liking.

And small wonder. Unions affiliated with the All-China Federation seldom push for wage increases or safer machinery. Indeed, the locals are often headed by someone from company management. Not that there isn't worker discontent in China: Every week brings accounts of spontaneous strikes, and now and then an occasional riot over such lifestyle impediments as unpaid wages. But the role of the state-sanctioned unions isn't to channel the discontent into achievable gains; it's to contain it to the employer's benefit.

The leaders of genuine workers' movements in China don't end up running the All-China Federation. They're to be found in prison, in exile or in hiding.

Besides, truly democratic unions in China would run counter to the truly undemocratic, one-party state. Allowing a democratic union movement to form would threaten both Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, and diminish some of China's competitive advantage over other low-wage but not authoritarian nations in Southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere. Such a development would be anathema to both the Politburo and Wal-Mart's board of directors. It would introduce the concept of free choice and the prospects of higher living standards not just to Wal-Mart's 20,000 Chinese store employees but to the far larger number of Chinese workers laboring in poverty-wage servitude to stitch clothing for the contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors whose products fill Wal-Mart's shelves.

When a company such as Wal-Mart is so plainly comfortable with authoritarianism abroad, it tells you something about that company's values at home. Bentonville regards the prospect of employee free association and organization within its stores with the same fear and loathing that Beijing feels at the prospect of free elections in China. Anti-union American employers can't imprison pro-union workers, but exile is a real possibility. Troublemakers are free to go. According to Cornell labor relations professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, at least 5 percent of workers involved in unionization campaigns are fired, which is both quite illegal and quite routine: Companies would rather pay the nominal fines than pay their workers higher wages and lose the absolute control they hold over the work lives of their employees.

The noblest of the Bush administration's goals, surely, is that of spreading democracy. If it's serious about that task, though, there are places closer to home than the Middle East that could use a little democracy-spreading, and the American workplace is high on that list. Strengthening labor law would make it harder for employers such as Wal-Mart to thwart their workers' desire for an organized voice on the job. When America's largest employer feels more affinity for the political legacy of Mao Zedong than for that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it's time to start democratizing our own back yard.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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