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.