Wal-Mart in India

Community Organizing International Labor Organizing WalMart

New Orleans   The largest company and largest employer in the world is of course Arkansas’ own, Wal-Mart.  The business model has a lot of elements — low prices, low wages, large supply, convenience to customers, are among them — but another one is the need to constantly expand whether that means opening 300 or more stores in the U.S. every year or opening up more markets around the world.  The biggest prices are countries with the largest markets.  The role of Wal-Mart in China where Wal-Mart does huge amounts of sourcing and has now committed to opening a significant number of stores in key markets is a well known investment in this expansionist business model.  After China what gets the smiley faces from Bentonville to drool the most has got to be the billion plus shoppers of India.

India is a vast, diverse, gumbo pot of a country with more than twenty major languages, a bushel basket full of religions, and about everything one can imagine in immense measure.  I start out wiser than most, because I do not pretend to know and understand the country.  I take firmly the hand of my guides and try to make it through the best way I can and enjoy every step of the journey for what it brings. 

I have been to this country twice in recent years, first Barbara Bowen and I led a group of senior organizers to Delhi and Kolkata with the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org) in the fall of 2003 and then I returned again for the World Social Forum in Mumbai, also visiting Kerala in January 2004.  More recently I had been in touch with colleagues in India when we worked to secure funding of labor organizing projects in the critically unorganized, but huge, informal sector of the country.  The Paradox Fund of the Tides Foundation (www.tides.org) had made startlingly innovative and powerful grants to support direct organizing of hospitality workers in Kolkata, forest workers in the poorest state of India, Orissa, and immigrant laborers and other tea plantation workers in the tea country only hours away from Darjeeling in the northern part of West Bengal. 

When the news started to surface that Wal-Mart, Tesco, Carrefour, and others were lobbying to enter the country because a bill was before Parliament allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, I started making inquires of organizers we had met in India as well as folks in the know in the U.S. about what was being done to make sure that organizations and unions were up to speed about the challenges they would face if Wal-Mart and its fellow travelers were allowed to enter willy-nilly without sufficient protections to the local communities and workers.  Turns out that for one reason or another, no one was moving very fast to get up to speed, so very quickly we found ourselves at the front of a parade, when we were just looking to find out the route the parade had already taken when it came through town.  There are reasons for some of this.  The AFL-CIO through its Solidarity Center association has not had an office or operation in India for some years and instead is based in Sri Lanka for its nearest posting.  The main line is that this problem is based on the inability — similar to Wal-Mart — to register and operate directly in the country.  I’m sure this is true and is also mucked up with AID funding and other things that fall into the mix.  Whatever?

Working with the indefatigable, Ashutosh Saxena of SARDI, the South Asia Research and Development Institute, based in Delhi, we put together two meetings for union leaders and organizers and some other activists in Mumbai and Chennai for July 12th and July 13th respectively.  Once the momentum began we quickly found eager partners who stepped up to support these meetings and the overall thrust of educating our brothers and sisters in India about Wal-Mart and its buddies and bringing them into the campaign to win justice for Wal-Mart workers and communities.  The AFL-CIO’s Wal-Mart Campaign director, Jason Judd, a former comrade from my own home local union, SEIU Local 100 (www.seiu100.org), supported the expenses of one of these meetings and decided to join me as part of this delegation as well.  Andy Grossman, director of Wal-Mart Watch (www.walmartwatch.org), who is also managing a huge campaign to engage the company, was enthusiastic in joining to support the other meeting.  The Service Employees International Union (SEIU, AFL-CIO) (www.seiu.org), which has been in the vanguard of recognizing the impact of Wal-Mart on service workers in the U.S. and on global unionism agreed to cover my transportation to advance the efforts to educate and involve our brothers and sisters.  The rest of the costs were underwritten by ACORN International and the Frontera Fund of the Tides Foundation, which also allowed Dine’ Butler to join the delegation to document the work and campaign in written form and visually, where some of the footage may be part of the up coming Wal-Mart movie. 

This is a preview then of notes to come as we collectively take a step to organize the biggest ever “site fight” to deal with Wal-Mart and the big box phenomena — where a whole country, India, is the site at risk and we will see if there is interest in engaging them fully in this campaign from the beginning before they are looking at 2500 stores around their country as we have here.  Beginning at noon on July 9th, we will hop a plane towards India and arrive in Mumbai close to midnight on Sunday, July 10th.  We will meet with various groups and organizers in Mumbai hopefully that Monday, and then convene the big Mumbai meeting on Tuesday.  Tuesday evening we will fly to Chennai and on Wednesday hold a meeting for other organizers in that area of India.  On Thursday, we will meet with organizers in the morning in Kolkata and then go to Jailigauri to see the tea workers organizing project on Friday.  On Saturday we will stop by Delhi and meet with Samir Goswami and Ashutosh Saxena and finalize plans for the ongoing campaign, and then catch the plane at midnight back to the USA to arrive on Sunday afternoon again in New Orleans. 

Stay tuned, this is going to be a big one!

“Barbara Bowen and Wade Rathke at a recent dialogue of the Organizers’ Forum in Seattle. Work done in India in an earlier dialogue is preparing the way for the current trip to engage organizers in the issues of Wal-Mart and its desires to enter the country.”