On the evening of May 26, Professor Chang Kai held court in his small hotel room in central China, advising a group of labour activists on how they could defeat Walmart in an arbitration hearing the next morning.
The stakes were high. Had the activists won, Walmart could conceivably have been forced to increase compensation for thousands of Chinese workers affected by about 20 planned store closures.
But last week Mr Chang, an expert in Chinese labour law, and his fellow activists lost decisively. The arbitration panel in the small city of Changde ruled in favour of Walmart, dismissing demands by 69 workers for greater compensation.
It was in some ways a Pyrrhic victory for Walmart. An operation that the retailer had hoped to rid itself of in just 30 days instead became the subject of a three-month legal battle. It was one that attracted considerable international and domestic media attention because of the unusually feisty role played by the store’s union, a chapter of the usually quiescent All China Federation of Trade Unions.
Walmart agreed to pay the 69 holdouts – out of an original workforce of 130 – Rmb3,000 ($480) each in recognition of their “legal costs” even though Mr Chang and other advisers had done so pro bono. The company insisted that the settlement offer was related to the legal dispute, rather than an acknowledgment that more compensation should have been paid initially. That way Walmart could argue that the deal should not be extended to the 61 other workers in Changde who accepted its original offer, let alone those at other closed outlets.
It was, in short, a whole lot of hassle over a small store closure by the world’s largest retailer. But such disputes are now a feature of China’s labour landscape and not even the largest multinationals are immune.
Until 2010, worker unrest was largely concentrated in small and medium-sized manufacturing operations, often Hong Kong or Taiwan-owned, where conditions were poor and pay low. But as demographic trends shifted in favour of labour, workers employed by some of the world’s most recognised companies dared to demand more. The result was a landmark series of strikes for higher pay at Honda and other Japanese automakers in southern Guangdong province.
More recently, slower economic growth and the lingering effects of the global financial crisis have forced everyone from exporters to retailers such as Walmart to retrench or restructure operations.
In a case like that in Changde, where an operation is being closed, the workers have nothing to lose by pressing for large compensation payouts. A similar dynamic played out last year at an American-owned tyre factory in eastern Shandong province. When workers there objected to the sale of Ohio-based Cooper Tire & Rubber to Apollo Tyres of India, they simply seized the factory and refused to surrender it until the acquisition was abandoned.
As difficult as such situations can be to manage, it could be a lot worse for multinational employers in China. Luckily for them, the Communist party is as suspicious of unions as Walmart is.
The ACFTU is deliberately structured as a top-down organisation that obeys the party and discourages the formation of horizontal links between union chapters. Imagine how much bigger a crisis Walmart would have faced if workers at its 400 other China outlets had decided to strike on behalf of their colleagues in Changde. Walmart workers understood that appealing to colleagues at other operations would trigger an immediate government response. There will be no Lech Walesas in China anytime soon.
Multinationals can also consider themselves fortunate that white-collar workers have not yet embraced trade union activism. But that could change. Within a year of the introduction of China’s Labour Contract Law in 2008, ACFTU chapters had been established at more than 80 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies with operations in the country. These chapters embraced everyone, from shop-floor workers to accountants and managers. The union leaders at Fortune 500 companies tend to be mid to high-ranking managers and are thus very conscious of their employer’s perspective.
The rank-and-file also realise that a secure job with good benefits at an employer such as GE, GM or Siemens is, in the larger scheme of China’s labour market, like winning the lottery. But then the people on Honda’s manufacturing lines once thought they had winning tickets, as did Walmart’s erstwhile employees. White-collar workers could well be the next force to be reckoned with in China.
Tom Mitchell is the Financial Times’ Beijing correspondent
从某些方面来说，沃尔玛也是惨胜。沃尔玛本来预计在30天内搞定关闭常德店这件事，结果却陷入了长达3个月的法律纠纷。由于隶属中华全国总工会（All China Federation of Trade ，简称ACFTU）的沃尔玛常德店工会在其中扮演了异常活跃的角色，这起纠纷引起了国际和国内媒体的极大关注。中华全国总工会通常在劳资纠纷中表现得非常低调。
就像常德关店事件一样，工人们要求高额补偿并不会遭受任何损失。去年在位于华东地区的山东省，一家美资轮胎工厂就上演了类似事件。该厂的工人们反对总部位于美国俄亥俄州的固铂轮胎橡胶公司(Cooper Tire & Rubber)向印度阿波罗轮胎公司(Apollo Tyres)出售公司的计划，他们占领了工厂，并拒绝妥协，直至固铂放弃出售计划。
还有一点也可能让跨国公司觉得很幸运，那就是白领工人迄今未接受“工会活动主义”。但这种情况可能发生改变。2008年，中国出台了《劳动合同法》(Labour Contract Law)。一年内，在中国设有业务的《财富》(Fortune)500强企业中，逾80%成立了中华全国总工会的分会。这些工会肯吸纳每一个人，从一线生产工人到会计和经理人。《财富》500强企业中的工会领导人往往是本企业的中高层经理，因此非常在意雇主的看法。