South African unions are rightly disturbed at prospects that anti-union retail giant Walmart will move big time into their country. Walmart executives have announced a $4.6 billion bid for South Africa’s Massmart, an important, unionized company. Massmart Holdings Limited operates more than 290 stores in Africa, most of them in South Africa
"We will oppose the setting up of any Walmart stores in the Western Cape," a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said. "These companies are notoriously anti-union and anti-workers' rights."
Probably thinking of the three weeks of tumultuous strikes that recently swept the country, Massmart leaders hastened to reassure COSATU that its intentions, and the intention’s of Walmart, were strictly on the up and up with regard to its employees and their union. In this context, the company placed the following statement on its website:
We are committed to the principles of freedom of association for our employees and regard union membership as an important indicator of this commitment .… We have no doubt that Walmart will honour pre-existing union relationships and abide by South African Labour law.The statement cited the comment of a Walmart vice-president, who said that his company hoped for a “continuation of the relationship that Massmart has with relevant unions in the country."
Buttressing Walmart’s argument that it was a respecter of worker rights, the Wall Street Journal cited a Walmart spokesman’s comment that, in China, more than 70 percent of its workforce is “unionized." Of course, the reference is to the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is not a union, but an arm of the ruling communist party, which is a very pragmatic dictatorship, albeit still structured along Leninist lines.
And it’s worthwhile turning back a few years, to read what Walmart said when it reached agreement with the ACFTU after years of foot-dragging:
We support these efforts because of the valuable, mutually beneficial partnership the government-run union offers and because of their commitment to assisting businesses in our growth and development in China," said Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman.Walmart obviously enjoys a high comfort level with dictatorships, especially those with a faux communist coloration. So, one can see how it might be sanguine about any dealings with COSATU, which after all is part of the ANC ruling coalition, which includes the South African Communist party. Isn’t it just sort of a South African ACFTU?
Let’s take it from the top. First, South Africa is a democracy, enjoying a “free” rating in the Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World survey. China is a dictatorship, with a “not free” rating. In the FH’s recent global survey of worker rights, South Africa again rates a “free” and China …. Well, it was awarded a “repressive” rating. To put that in perspective, the United States was rated “mostly free” in that same survey. In other words, South African workers are freer to join unions, strike, and otherwise exercise fundamental worker rights than are U.S. workers. Finally, COSATU’s alliance with ANC is rooted in the anti-apartheid struggle. It is also an occasionally difficult and recently shaky partnership. COSATU is no pushover for the ANC leaders.
Take note, Walmart.