To complete its acquisition of Massmart, a chain of retail stores in South Africa, Walmart struck a deal that must seem extraordinary to the company’s American employees. To win government approval of the acquisition, Walmart made concessions to a South African labor union, agreeing to avoid worker layoffs, honor existing union contracts, and use local suppliers.
The idea that Walmart negotiated with and made concessions to a labor union in South Africa may seem odd to workers in the United States, where Walmart has developed a reputation as one of the country’s most virulent opponents of organization efforts. In fact, Walmart’s workers are organized in many of the foreign countries in which it does business.
In Brazil, Argentina, China, the United Kingdom, and now South Africa, some Walmart employees are organized. In China, Walmart is required by law to recognize union membership, and in Mexico, 18 percent of its workers are organized. British labor leaders describe their dealings with Walmart as “honest,” and in Argentina, organized employees make as much as 40 percent more than employees at retailer’s major competitors. Walmart has a convenient response to why it lets workers organize in these countries, as the Washington Post reports:
“We have a local philosophy,” Wal-Mart International Chief Executive Doug McMillon recently told reporters. “It’s our intention to demonstrate that we are a great corporate citizen.”
In Brazil and Argentina, meanwhile, Walmart says it allows workers to unionize because “that’s what the associates want”:
“We recognize those rights,” said John Peter “J.P.” Suarez , senior vice president of international business development at Walmart. “In that market, that’s what the associates want, and that’s the prevailing practice.”
Apparently for Walmart, however, it matters not what workers want if those workers happen to be American.
Former Walmart Executive Vice President John Tate, who also served on its board, once said, “Labor unions are nothing but blood-sucking parasites living off the productive labor of people who work for a living.” Walmart claims that view is Tate’s alone and is not representative of the company’s attitude toward unions, but its history of dealing with American unions seems to tell a different story.
The United Food and Commercial Workers has been trying to help organize Walmart employees for more than two decades. At each turn, it has been rebuffed by the company, which spent millions to oppose organization efforts. In 2000, when the meatcutting department at a Texas store organized, Walmart responded by announcing the phase-out of its meatcutting departments.
In 2008, Walmart spent millions more fighting the Employee Free Choice Act, lobbying against it in Washington and going so far as to summon “thousands of Wal-Mart sotre manages and department heads to mandatory meetings,” where it warned that voting for Barack Obama “would be tantamount to inviting unions in.”
Luckily for Walmart’s American employees, they have a useful ally in, of all places, South Africa. According to the Washington Post, the union that will represent Walmart workers in South Africa went to bat for the company’s American employees during its own negotiations. “You can’t say you violate the right to freedom of association because the culture in that country supports it,” Mduduzi Mbongwe, a South African union representative, said of Walmart’s approach to American unions. “We don’t accept such an argument.”