When workers win: Walmart workers in Chile

munoz

by Carolina Bank Muñoz

“Desde que llegó Walmart el almuerzo ha estado malo. Antes con DYS nos daban una entrada, plato fuerte, y postre. Ahora escasamente nos dan el plato fuerte. Pore so estuvimos en paro un rato y ahora tenemos mejor comida.” Lorena (Walmart worker)

“Since Walmart arrived [In Chile] lunch has been bad. Before, with D&S, they used to give us an appetizer, main dish, and dessert. Now they barely give us a main dish. That’s why we had a job action and now the food has once again improved.” Lorena (Walmart Worker)

To a U.S. audience, it might seem strange that a worker would be complaining about the food they receive in a workplace, especially if that workplace is Walmart. Yet in Chile, large employers like Walmart are required by law to provide workers with lunch or dinner, depending on their shifts. The law however does not specify what kind of meals they have to provide.

Changes to the quality and quantity of food were experienced by workers as a lack of respect. The firm that Walmart bought in 2009, D&S provided higher quality food, and more options. Walmart, in its global quest to reduce costs, tried to offer poorer quality food and less of it, but their strategy backlashed – workers walked out.

How is it that Walmart workers in Chile are so emboldened, especially in contrast to Walmart workers in the U.S. who experience increasingly precarious employment?

Perhaps most importantly, over 80% of Walmart’s 40,000 workers in Chile are unionized. Yes, unionized! But this alone does not guarantee union militancy or power on the job.

Lorena and her coworkers had the confidence, capacity, and strategy to develop a plan for securing better meals. These workers were able to win their battle around lunch provisions, despite the fact that workers at Walmart are fragmented into 86 shop level unions.

There is no sectoral or industrywide bargaining in Chile. Instead, the dictatorship era labor code, still in place, allows for “union freedom,” or the ability of multiple unions to exist in a workplace. Not surprisingly there is wide variation in these unions. Some of them are corrupt, some of them are pro-management, and some are democratic, grassroots organizations.

Lorena is a member of one of the democratic, base building unions. She is a worker-activist (who does not receive reassigned time to do union work), who is deeply engaged in all aspects of her union, from strategic decision making to organizing her coworkers.

Lorena’s union engages its members in political education, has a variety of grassroots committees (organizing, newsletter, women’s, etc), and hosts membership meetings every three months.

Ironically, even though the Chilean labor code is weak and does not allow sectoral bargaining, the model has opened up opportunities for unions like Lorena’s. Because the workplaces are relatively small it has allowed progressive unions to think through alternative approaches to building power from below.

In the last decade, Chilean Walmart workers in these grassroots unions have made unprecedented gains against Walmart. Some of these have been traditional bread and butter wins, while others have been around respect and dignity at work.

For example, Chilean retail workers successfully attacked one of the central features of Walmart culture: calling workers associates (or colaboradores, as Walmart workers were called in Chile). Chilean workers took it to the courts, arguing that it was illegal to call workers colaboradores, because that is not what is in the labor code, and it masks the employer-employee relationship. The judge agreed and, as a result, has forced Walmart to change all its formal communications (employment contracts, Walmart manual) from colaborador to trabajor.

Retail workers also managed to make unprecedented gains in vacation time, uniforms, transportation costs, annual bonuses, and of course improving their lunch options at work. Workers have made these gains not simply because they have unions, but because those unions have been able to successfully leverage power against the world’s most anti-union employer.

They have been able to leverage power by creating democratic unions “de las bases” (from the bases).

There are many challenges to this model of building power from below. It’s a slow process. There aren’t any resources, such as political, education, and organizing departments. It can be frustrating as workers aren’t all on the same page. Furthermore, this model is hard to “scale up” in Chile because of the limitations the labor code imposes. However, building this kind of organization with a wide range of skill sets and knowledge, has helped strengthen these unions’ “strategic capacity” to use Marshall Ganz’s term.

Chile is a small country, and these unions are an even smaller part of the labor movement, but I think we, in the U.S., have a lot to learn from them in our own organizing against this behemoth.

Carolina Bank Muñoz is a former union organizer and researcher and currently a Professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). Her new book, Building Power From Below: Chilean Workers Take On Walmart (Cornell), is out now.

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