South Africa Wakes Up to Wal-Mart

Michelle Chen

Welcome to South Africa, Wal-Mart. The SACCAWU union is leading the battle against the "Wal-Martification" of the country's economy.

The power struggle between labor unions and Wal-Mart has raged for years in communities across the country, though the retail behemoth’s PR machine has managed to maintain its spiffy brand and unbeatable low prices. But the company may see challenges ahead as it moves onto new frontiers. The next battleground could be South Africa’s burgeoning consumer marketplace, and labor groups are watching nervously as the Biggest Box of All descends on Africa.

Wal-Mart plans to take control of South African counterpart Massmart, to build out Wal-Mart’s emerging dominon in Asia and the Western Hemisphere. But unlike China and other Wal-Martized developing nations, South Africa is known for its militant labor movement.

When Wal-Mart was negotiating for a majority stake in MassMart, the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) sprang into action. SACCAWU, which claims to represent most of Massmart’s workers, warned that the mere prospect of the Mart-Merger has emboldened anti-union forces.

A statement issued last month warned of the beginning of the Walmartisation of the sector,” noting that union leaders had:

observed a marked shift and increased hostility by many major retailers towards SACCAWU, engaging in aggressive rebranding, restructuring, re-engineering, repositioning culminating in retrenchments in most if not all cases; and general witch-hunts on shop-floor leaders in many stores throughout the country.

The union launched an education campaign to inform workers about Wal-Mart’s arsenal of union-busting artillery, including instructions for management on How To Remain Union Free.” From shutting down unionized stores to harassing organizers, the company has earned condemnation from the international human rights community.

SACCAWU’s campaign led to the formation of a broad Anti-Walmart Coalition” in early November. Criticizing the non-transparency of the dealmaking so far, the groups demanded the full engagement of labor in Wal-Mart’s negotiations. The Coalition presented 15 demands, including:

There must not be cancellation of any existing agreements and down variation of terms and conditions of employment.

The terms and conditions of employment covered by existing agreements with SACCAWU must be extended to all Massmart operations throughout the continent where the same do not exist.

There must be clear local procurement policies towards developing local agriculture, food processing and manufacturing, economies with clear decent work imperatives in job creation.

And in a noteworthy nod to American compatriots, the coalition declared, Walmart must stop its opposition to the U.S. Employee Free Choice Act.”

The coalition members, who included the members of Africa UNI Global Union for skills and services, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, agreed on the need for an assessment of the challenges of the dangers of this bid for the retail sector, the economy in general, decent work, new growth path, the Buy South Africa Campaign, implications for agriculture, local manufacturing and food processing, suppliers as well as distributors given Walmart‘s procurement policies.”

The campaign in some ways parallels the US-based Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign, affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Though the campaign has over the years toned down its aggressive PR war, it continues to engage people on the community level—attacking the franchise from the standpoint of the consumer, taxpayer, underpaid associate, and mom-and-pop shop.

Michael Bride, UFCW’s deputy organizing director for global strategies, told In These Times that the South Africa organizing effort could be a model for workers in Wal-Mart’s original backyard:

What is interesting about South Africa at this point in time is that there is a vigorous debate raging in the country about the type of economy that is required in order to facilitate development — do people want a society blindly serving the economy or an economy delivering to citizens the type of society to which one should aspire? It is difficult to imagine against such a backdrop, that Walmart’s business model, predicated on squeezing suppliers and aiming towards the lowest common denominator, will escape proper scrutiny.

If past is prologue, business-labor inmity will likely only intensify in South Africa’s developing economy, regardless of Wal-Mart’s promises to behave nicely. So far, though, the coalition’s demands might be filtering up to executives, reports The Guardian:

Walmart, which has long battled with trade unions in the US, pledged today to respect and honour all pre-existing contracts with organised labour bodies” and insisted it would continue to use local suppliers and manufacturers.

SACCAWU kept the pressure on in late November by mobilizing workers at various retail and wholesale firms for a one-day strike action to demand a Centralised Bargaining Forum.” This mechanism would help develop industry-wide, standard labor agreements, which might act as a check on Wal-Mart’s retail hegemony, particularly as Massmart plans to open dozens of new outlets annually throughout Africa.

In the context of Walmart entering the South African market our campaign for Centralised Bargaining should be seen as part of our struggle against… Walmart imposing their business model on South Africa, with its far reaching implications for the economy well beyond Massmart or the wholesale and retail sector.

But what will the struggle look like on grand opening day, when eager South African shoppers stream into the massive corporate bazaar that has already intoxicated millions around the globe? Even Wal-Mart’s strongest critics seem resigned to its steady international expansion. Still, the experience of the South African unions suggests that labor can learn how to stay just one step ahead of the company’s sprawling global footprint.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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