A match made in authoritarian heaven

Can the world’s largest retailer find true happiness with the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China?

So far, so good.

Wal-Mart has agreed to recognize the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions at its more than 40 stores in China. This is in marked contrast to Wal-Mart’s policy at its American stores, where it tries to prevent its employees (or “associates,” as it likes to call them) from even talking about joining free and independent unions.

The reason for the different policies becomes clear when you consider that in China, unions are loyal servants of the government and the party– which are more interested these days in providing companies like Wal-Mart with a compliant, low-wage workforce than in protecting the rights of the workers.

In one Chinese factory, the Washington Post reports, “the union head was both a management executive and a senior official in the local government.”

As Harold Meyerson writes in The Post:

The leaders of genuine workers’ movements in China don’t end up running the All-China Federation. They’re to be found in prison, in exile or in hiding.

Besides, truly democratic unions in China would run counter to the truly undemocratic, one-party state. Allowing a democratic union movement to form would threaten both Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, and diminish some of China’s competitive advantage over other low-wage but not authoritarian nations in Southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere. Such a development would be anathema to both the Politburo and Wal-Mart’s board of directors. It would introduce the concept of free choice and the prospects of higher living standards not just to Wal-Mart’s 20,000 Chinese store employees but to the far larger number of Chinese workers laboring in poverty-wage servitude to stitch clothing for the contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors whose products fill Wal-Mart’s shelves.

Meanwhile The Post reports on a series of illegal strikes and walkouts by migrant factory workers in China’s Pearl River delta demanding higher wages and better treatment. I imagine Wal-Mart executives are eyeing these developments as nervously as the Politburo is.