Labor at Wal-Mart Chile
In April I participated in the union assembly of Wal-Mart warehouse workers in Santiago, Chile. When I was invited to the meeting I thought to myself “how many workers are really going to come to a meeting on a Sunday morning at 9am.” Much to my surprise, the union had rented a theatre. Of the 1500 warehouse workers in Santiago, 1200 showed up that morning. I was blown away.
Wal-Mart workers in Chile are overwhelmingly unionized. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. situation where workers who have been trying to unionize have been shut down time and again with Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-union tactics.
What’s most surprising, however, is not that Wal-Mart workers are unionized in Chile, but that they are actually making strong and steady gains against this giant transnational corporation. In September, warehouse workers won a 30% wage increase, the right to have a union office in all of Wal-Mart’s warehouses in Chile, paid staff, and unprecedented productivity bonuses.
How is it that in a country that has for so long been reified as the model success story of neoliberalism, that workers could be making such gains, especially with a corporation that has become a model of anti-unionism? Is Wal-Mart somehow kinder in Latin America? Not really. Statistics from Chile’s Ministry of Labor show that there has been a substantial increase in workplace related complaints filed with the Ministry since Wal-Mart bought majority share in D&S at the end of 2008. In 2007 and 2008 there were only 109 complaints filed. However, between January of 2009 and May of 2011, 262 complaints have been filed, and Wal-Mart has been sanctioned in a majority of these cases.
This evidence from the Labor Ministry is corroborated with my 30 interviews with workers and union leaders between January and July 2011. Wal-Mart has engaged in anti-union practices ranging from striking deals with corrupt unions, while not negotiating with militant democratic unions to not allowing union meetings to take place inside stores (a common practice in Chile). Workers reported being locked in stores overnight (to control theft), and being forced to wear diapers to not have to leave their stations in the checkout aisle. The labor regime in retail stores is clearly despotic. However, despite these horrific stories, workers are also winning both on bread and butter issues and respect on the job. In May, Wal-Mart had to issue a formal apology, published in the company newsletter to two workers a store manager insulted. This would be unheard of in the U.S. and shows the power of the union that it can force this Goliath to publically apologize.
In his book When David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization and Strategy in the California Farmworker Movement, Marshall Ganz argues that the farmworkers won against all odds because they had something that the AWOC (AFL-CIO) and the Teamsters did not have, strategic capacity. This principal also applies to some of the unions representing Wal-Mart workers in Chile (those who are making the greatest gains). There are 123 Wal-Mart unions in Chile. This is a result of Pinochet’s labor law reform that dictated that each enterprise has it’s own union (a union-busting strategy). Some of these unions are corrupt, some of them are bureaucratic, and some are militant-democratic. The unions making substantial gains around both bread and butter issues and dignity and respect at work fall in the latter category. The oldest of these unions is only 6 years old. They all started covertly. What they have built in such a short period of time with essentially no resources (no research or organizing departments, offices, paid staff, strike funds, etc.) is truly remarkable and speaks to the strength of an active and committed rank and file.
should fit right in….
Carolina – This is very interesting. Thanks for posting. It is also far outside my field and I haven’t read Ganz’s book, so could you clarify what “strategic capacity” means here and how we can assess it? Do you think it is more likely to occur when unions have a militant-democratic orientation? (And what does that look like?) You’ve clearly sparked my curiosity.
Thanks for your great questions. According to Marshall Ganz, “strategic capacity” is the “ability to devise good strategy” (pg.9). In his research the 3 components of strategic capacity in the UFW were, “motivation of leaders, better access to salient knowledge, and deliberations became venues for learning” (pg. 8). He further argues strategic capacity is” a function of who its leaders are–their identities, networks, and tactical experiences–and how they structure their interactions with each other and their environment with respect to resource flows, accountability, and deliberation” (pg.8). He writes this all in the context of the UFW’s organizing campaigns. In short, the argument is that strategic capacity can lead to better strategy to fight the boss/target.
What does a militant-democratic union look like? This is a good question. Here are some things that I think make up this kind of union:
democratic decision making
local, shop floor initiative and action
focus on deep organizing and building a labor organization, rather than just union density
There are of course huge debates about this in the labor movement, but these are a few things that I consider central.
Are militant-democratic unions more likely to have better strategic capacity? Not necessarily, but in my experience in the labor movement they are more set-up in this way. For example, militant-democratic unions in the US and abroad are less likely to be tied to mainstream labor federations like the AFL-CIO. This gives them more flexibility to think outside the box. I think these types of unions see their members as resources in developing strategy alongside/with the leadership. Because of their democratic functioning and deliberation they are able and willing to take more risks and try different tactics.
In the case of Chile, these unions have essentially no material resources, but they have a very active rank and file who maps the workplace and knows production (in the warehouse). This also holds true for the militant unions in the retail sector with a majority of women leading unions and engaging in bottom up organizing.
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