How The Wal-Mart Labor Struggle Is Going Global

By JAKE OLZEN, Waging Nonviolence “Workers of the world unite!” says the traditional slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Wobblies, since their founding in 1905, have envisioned a global union capable of waging a worldwide general strike.

Wal-Mart trailers parked at Schneider Logistics' facility in Mira Loma, Calif.

Wal-Mart trailers parked at Schneider Logistics’ facility in Mira Loma, Calif.

By its height in the 1920s, the union was capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of workers. But while the Wobblies never fully realized international unity among workers, there is new promise for its vision today — thanks not to a union, but to a union-busting corporation: Wal-Mart.

What started as a warehouse workers’ strike in California late last year has grown into a global struggle against the world’s largest private employer.

The 2.1 million Wal-Mart workers constitute the third-largest workforce in the world, following the U.S. Department of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army of China. And they are revolting.

More than 1,000 workers in Wal-Marts throughout Argentina went on strike on December 21, in solidarity with OUR Wal-Mart workers in the United States, reported Josh Eidelson for The Nation.

Those strikes, in turn, built on a December 14 global day of action when workers from Wal-Mart stores in 10 different countries took to the streets in marches, rallies and protests against Wal-Mart’s attempts to silence outspoken workers.

Small cadres of workers from Uruguay, India, South Africa and the United Kingdom delivered letters to their countries’ respective corporate offices demanding an end to worker repression.

The Chilean Wal-Mart workers union expressed full solidarity with their North American counterparts and the Chilean government has already, for the next two years, banned the Wal-Mart subsidiary Lider from bidding on government contracts due to its anti-union posturing — bad-faith bargaining, unfair firings and harassment of workers.

Elsewhere in the world, Wal-Mart workers actually tend to be unionized at a much higher rate than U.S. workers, and UNI Global Union Alliance has served as a clearinghouse for the international protests by trade unionists in support of the North American efforts.

In Brazil, more than 200 trade unionists from Força Sindical, UGT and CUT — the country’s largest unions — blocked the main entrance to a São Paulo Wal-Mart while chanting, in Portuguese, “The Wal-Mart dictatorship will end.”

The spread of international solidarity follows Black Friday protests at over 1,000 U.S. stores that threw Wal-Mart executives into the media spotlight for the company’s low wages, difficult working conditions and dangerous facilities.

In one widely-publicized incident, a Wal-Mart-subcontracted factory in Bangladesh burned to the ground on November 24 of last year, killing 112 workers.

In spite of Wal-Mart spokespersons’ denials that Wal-Mart was still associated with the factory, documents show that Wal-Mart executives refused to upgrade safety standards in the factory while contracting with multiple suppliers in the past year.

The tragedy sparked intense protests in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, where thousands of workers blocked roads, forcing some factories to shut down for the day. In the United States, activists delivered a petition with more than 200,000 signatures to Wal-Mart’s lobbying headquarters in Washington, D.C., demanding that Wal-Mart improve conditions in its factories.

Then, in mid-December, a shipment of Wal-Mart garments from Bangladesh was met with “#BlocktheBoat” protests by Occupy Wall Street activists at a New Jersey port.

According to Josh Eidelson, the 60 or so Occupiers weren’t able to engage in civil disobedience or stop the boat from unloading before being marshaled by law enforcement away from port entrances.

Just days later, however, activists and port workers in South Carolina impeded a port for nearly two hours after the arrival of Wal-Mart goods from Bangladesh — a short but symbolic disruption of Wal-Mart’s vital, and thus highly vulnerable, supply chain.

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