Representatives of unions, workers organizations and other activist groups from both the US and several Asian countries came together on June 25 at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for a panel discussion on Walmart’s influence on the global supply chain. With panelists coming from various positions in the global Walmart network, the main themes of the discussion centered around the need for solidarity between movements for workers justice worldwide.
The panel was organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung-New York Office, Jobs with Justice and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, and came out of a report issued by the latter two organizations on factory conditions in Walmart's garment supply chain. The report cited instances of stolen wages and forced labor, among others, that it asserted were ignored by the company.
In his overview of the topic, Ashim Roy of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, described Walmart as an “emblematic company” that, he said, symbolizes the ways in which the global economy has changed over the past twenty years. He also noted that no other company has created low-wage markets in the way that Walmart has, adding importance to the fight against it specifically.
He also argued for strengthening networks between people in different positions within the supply chain as being integral to its success, especially in terms of developing strategy.
“The reality is that we can’t do this alone, we have to do it together,” he said, calling for a larger strategy framework that takes into account various global perspectives.
The event strived to “internationalize” the fight against Walmart, as Stephanie Ehmsen from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung put it, and indeed did just that. Panelists included Kalpona Akter of the Bangladeshi Workers Solidarity Center, Syarif Arifin of the Labor Information Center of Indonesia, and Martha Sellers of the US-based OUR Walmart.
Akter highlighted the various difficulties of organizing in the many garment factories presently in Bangladesh.
“The country we are from, we just cannot say that, oh, we will boycott Walmart, we will not work for them. That is not possible. Realistically, we need these jobs,” she said. “But we want these jobs with dignity.”
She spoke of instances in such factories where just as workers became successful in getting union registration, the company moved out, citing reasons such as safety concerns. In one of these cases, this led factory management to shut down the union just as negotiations were about to take place.
Farther down the supply chain, Sellers, who is a Walmart employee, spoke of the difficulties of organizing inside the stores.
In retaliation to her activities as part of OUR Walmart, she says, her hours were initially cut dramatically, and while they are now almost back to where they were, her freedom of interacting with her co-workers is gone as she is now confined to only working at the register.
“To be that way, I have to be the model employee,” she said of her organizing efforts. “I cannot give them an excuse or I will be fired.”
Though various ideas for a comprehensive campaign were discussed, developing a strategy against a company as powerful as Walmart cannot take place overnight. Still, the event succeeded in creating a platform for diverse voices.
“As [Walmart] is growing more and more powerfully around the world, it’s also creating a network and alliances between us,” said Stephanie Luce, Professor of Labor Studies at the Murphy Institute. “I think that what’s really exciting is that Walmart has been a way to connect us through these networks, and we’re learning to communicate across borders, different languages, and different positions of power.”