Wal-Mart, the retailing giant known for its hostility towards organized workers, is likely receiving the news that some of its Chinese workforce has just formed a trade union considerably well. Why? Because the “union” has been organized by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a government organization which seeks not to defend workers’ rights and bargain collectively on their behalf, but to “promote good relations between employers and employees,” as its officials claim. In reality, it is not a workers’ union that is being formed, but a tool of government and management to keep workers in line.
Despite its well-known anti-union stance, Wal-Mart whole-heartedly welcomes them Chinese-style. But that’s because real unions are not allowed in China. All bodies purporting to represent workers must be organized under the ACFTU, a convenient way of making sure they don’t cause any actual reform. China is Wal-Mart’s most important market (as it is for many companies these days), and so the move to embrace the ACFTU is an important step. But not in the direction of greater protection for workers. Quite the opposite.
Wal-Mart announced it would allow its Chinese workers to “unionize” two years ago. Why has it taken this long for one to form? Perhaps its “associates” (as the company calls its employees) really haven’t been clamoring for representation. After all, a Wal-Mart job in China is surely better than toiling in an illegal coal mine. Or a sweatshop. Or prostitution. My gripe is that Wal-Mart is going to hold this up as a badge, showing how it actually stands for workers’ rights, and the ACFTU is going to say, “Look how great we are, we just unionized Wal-Mart!” Meanwhile another mine collapses on a hundred downtrodden in Hubei.