It seems like the biggest retailers’ legal departments never have much of a shortage of things to stress over, and just in case any merchants’ counsel was planning on taking a vacation anytime soon, the recent passage of updated overtime regulations surely put a stop to that. Retailers across industries, as well as the National Retail Federation, have strongly voiced their concerns over the financial impact those regulations would have on their bottom lines, to the point where it’s pressuring congressmen and women to introduce legislation with the expressed purpose of easing the transition to the new rules on the merchants subject to them.
It can almost seem like a case of one side having all the power when it comes to issues of labor relations. However, there’s one shining example that the globalized retail economy — something long thought to minimize the individual employee’s role in the larger market — could hand a little bit of bargaining power back to retail workers.
The story starts in early July when employees of Walmart‘s China operations began protesting and considering a strike after Walmart changed its scheduling practices to an ad-hoc system that some alleged had them working more shifts but for fewer hours and less pay. Speaking to ABC News, one unnamed cashier said that her monthly pay had fallen about $11 as a result of the changes, and she feels almost powerless to do much about it.
“What worries us more is that they [Walmart] are preparing for the future,” the cashier said. “Will we be cut off in the future and get no compensation, like the part-time workers?”
Just when it seemed like Walmart’s employees were on their own when it came to pushing back against one of the world’s largest retailers, though, a curveball of the rarest order occurred. Reuters reported on Monday (July 18) that, weeks ago, when Walmart’s workers in China were contemplating their options, they collaborated via Skype with OUR Walmart, a U.S.-based Walmart employee advocacy group. Cantare Davunt, director of OUR Walmart, told Reuters that members of the Walmart Chinese Workers Association (WCWA) reached out for advice on striking strategies and the like on June 20 and both like-minded organizations agreed to support one another’s interests in negotiations with the common parent company they share.
“We can use this to collectively press Walmart on issues,” Dan Schlademan, codirector of OUR Walmart, told Reuters.
It’s a peculiar development, if only because the beginning years of the global economy frequently pitted domestic labor against its foreign counterpart in a direct cost-effectiveness competition for the right to a job. If that was still the case, labor groups from China and the U.S. would be loathe to help each other’s missions in strengthening the positions of its constituent members. However, is it possible that the alliance between OUR Walmart and the WCWA could point to the beginnings of a new kind of global retail labor landscape?
Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California in Santa Barbara, confirmed to Reuters that, though U.S. labor groups have backed similar groups in other countries before, it’s “out of the ordinary” for it to occur with such a body based in China — the favored boogeyman of the foreign theft of red-blooded American jobs. Rather than a direct contradiction of previous theories of global labor, this kind of collaboration may instead dictate additional rules that retailers and employees alike have to acclimate to.
Namely, labor groups, however geographically or culturally disparate, have more to gain by working together against a common foe than they ever did (or didn’t) working alone.