An attempt by employees of Walmart in China to take charge of their labor union to negotiate collectively on behalf of workers has already run into difficulties, a Walmart employee told RFA.
Zhang Liya, an employee at a branch of Walmart in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, told RFA he has tried to use elections at the company's own labor union to elect someone who will genuinely press for higher wages for workers at Walmart's more than 400 stores in China, rather than just nodding along with management.
"Walmart has been in China for 20 years now, and our wages are getting lower and lower; and they're rising more slowly than the city-wide minimum wage for Shenzhen," he said.
According to Zhang and other labor activists, the state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions doesn't represent the interests of us workers, frequently taking the side of management and local government.
"It takes every opportunity to suppress any unofficial workers' organization," he said. "So we wanted to elect a representatives of a union that truly stands for workers' interests."
The Walmart workers' union is currently little more than a branch of ACFTU, but Zhang and his team want to fight forthcoming elections for chairman in a meaningful way, he said.
He added: "But when I tried to put up posters of my campaign speech, the local ACFTU branch of my neighborhood committee came into the branch where I work. We didn't invite him; management did."
Zhang said he has been under heavy pressure from management to desist in his plan, with heavy handed attempts to influence workers to choose the company's preferred candidate.
He said the incumbent officials have been putting pressure on employees to choose candidates favored by the company, and have ordered them to unsubscribe from media accounts run by the campaigners and to swear off voting for Zhang at forthcoming elections.
Meanwhile, appeals to local government have met with scant response, Zhang said.
"We complained to the industry and commerce bureau of the Shenzhen municipal government that Walmart was interfering in the elections of a Chinese trade union, and that our so-called ACFTU union didn't represent our interests, and other things like that," Zhang said.
"We also complained to the provincial level bureau of industry and commerce," he said. "After that, they appealed to the nationwide headquarters of ACFTU, etc. There were so many problems."
"I feel very sad about that. We haven't had a reply yet," he said.
What real unions do
Labor activist Zhang Zhiru, who helped striking workers at the Yue Yuen shoe factory negotiate a similar dispute in one of the largest-ever work stoppages at a private business in China in April 2014, agreed that ACFTU and the union set up under its aegis at Walmart do little to help workers.
"The unions that they have in Walmart isn't really set up to protect the rights of workers or to represent them in negotiation with management or investors," Zhang Zhiru told RFA in a recent interview. "They really just act as local branches of ACFTU."
He said the same problem is found in workplaces across the country.
"Trade unions in China, including the in-house union at Walmart, have never done anything much in a very long time," he said.
"I know that there are a few branches of Walmart in Shenzhen where some of the workers have tried to stand up for their rights over a number of years, and who were eventually dismissed," Zhang Zhiru said, adding: "The ACFTU did nothing to help them."
According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, Zhang Liya and his election team have been trying to educate their colleagues about what a real union should do for them, posting regularly to blogs and social media accounts.
They have also sought help from trade union leaders outside Shenzhen, including Huang Yebin, head of the Guangdong provincial branch of ACFTU, who is known to be in favor of democratic union elections, the group said in an article on its website.
"Walmart only agreed to allow unions in 2006 because [ACFTU] assured the American retail giant that the union would not cause any trouble," it said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.