Wal-Mart added insult to injury to its 1.3 million U.S. employees yesterday when it announced it would allow its workers in China to unionize. Wal-Mart has fiercely opposed American workers' attempts to unionize—-in one case, closing a meat-cutting division after ten butchers voted to unionize. Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, says the company "is applying an inconsistent double standard. In the U.S., they aggressively fight unions in their stores. But if unions are a barrier of entry to an emerging market, Wal-Mart is willing to flip-flop on its position."
Labor experts Oded Shenkar of Ohio University and Richard W. Hurd of Cornell both suggest, in Bloomberg News's coverage of the announcement, that the retailer probably agreed to allow unions under pressure from the Chinese government. "Part of getting along with the government in China is accepting government-sponsored unions," says Hurd. Wal-Mart's own statement strikes a similar note, pitching the move as a way "to further strengthen its ties to China and our associates."
Back home, Wal-Mart has cast unions as "desperate and divisive," not to mention bad for the bottom line. But Chinese unions are "different from unions elsewhere," company spokesman Jonathan Dong told Bloomberg. "The goal of China's unions is to build a harmonious society."