Huang's tale: from Walmart cashier to labor leader in China

Mon Apr 7, 2014 4:55pm EDT
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By John Ruwitch

DENGFENG, China (Reuters) - Huang Xingguo took a job as a cashier at a new Walmart store in his hometown in southern China for a steady paycheck and the prospect of upward mobility after a string of sales jobs and a run as a day trader.

Five years later, he has landed on the frontlines of China's labor rights movement, an unlikely leader of several dozen workers seeking better severance pay after the store in the Hunan province city of Changde announced last month it was closing.

It's not the biggest labor dispute China has seen in a recent surge of activism that has included factory strikes involving thousands of workers, but experts say it's among the more significant.

In China, as in other countries, Wal-Mart Stores Inc has figured prominently in the debate over worker rights. Unions first opened at its stores in 2006 during a major government-led drive to unionize private companies. The Chinese government used Wal-Mart as a fillip for greater unionization at foreign firms.

The Changde case would not just set a precedent for Wal-Mart, but for other foreign companies seeking to restructure their operations in response to a slowing Chinese economy.

Worker protests are common in China, but leaders like Huang are not. Huang is chairman of the state-backed union at Walmart store No. 2024, and was democratically elected to the post, which makes him even rarer. Because Huang is a union branch leader, the case is also a challenge to the world's largest and China's only legal union, the 260 million-member All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

Over the past several years, China's union has sat on the sidelines as workers, emboldened by a demographic shift that has led to a shrinking labor pool, have become more knowledgeable about their rights and proactive in using both collective action and the legal system to protect them. The ACFTU has typically done little to protect the rights of laborers in disputes, despite a mandate to do so, experts and workers say. Most union branch bosses in China are hand-picked by management.

Labor rights lawyers, scholars and activists hope Huang's example can push the ACFTU toward greater activism for workers.   Continued...

Huang Xingguo (back L) talks to workers outside a closed Walmart store in Changde, Hunan province in this handout photo taken on March 26, 2014 provided by Huang to Reuters on April 6, 2014. REUTERS/Courtesy of Huang Xingguo/Handout via Reuters