Trade union officials claim to have thwarted plans by retail giant Walmart to reassign or lay-off over a thousand middle managers at its more than 120 supercenters and other outlets in China, Xinhua reported on 21 April.

Walmart announced its plans to eliminate one layer of management in early April, being careful to state that no one would be fired, merely demoted or transferred to other stores. Managers, many of whom had been working at Walmart for over ten years, complained however that the proposals would inevitably lead to lay-offs because it would not be possible for them to relocate to other cities.

Twelve employees in the northeastern city of Changchun took their complaints to their municipal union, and union officials then held meetings with senior managers in the city’s supercenters to discuss the plan. The Changchun union liaised with officials in the Shenzhen municipal union, which sent a high-level delegation to meet with managers at Walmart’s China headquarters in the city.

The Shenzhen meeting came after more than 50 Shenzhen employees staged a protest outside Walmart’s headquarters, complaining at the management restructuring plan and the fact that the union chair at the Shenzhen store had not been informed of the plan before it was announced.

Although some managers have now been told they can keep their jobs, they still fear they may be forced to leave at a later date. It is by means clear if Walmart’s plans have been halted or simply put on hold in a few stores for the time being. Indeed, a Walmart spokesman, Jonathan Dong, denied the management plan had been halted saying: “We need to open new stores and we need experienced people to help open new stores.”

The process the union intervention in the Walmart dispute illustrates the current ineffectiveness of enterprise unions and the dominance of municipal and provincial level unions in dispute resolution. As CLB showed in its latest research report, Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party: The way forward for China’s trade unions, the ACFTU relies almost entirely on local union federations, such as the Changchun municipal union, to carry out its rights protection work. Enterprises unions, such as those at Walmart stores, are often controlled by management and are unable to represent workers’ interests.

The 12 middle-managers in Changchun were well aware of the limitations of their enterprise union and went straight to the municipal federation, while the employees in Shenzhen staged a public demonstration to bring their problem to the attention of the municipal union and local government. Municipal unions increasingly have to defer to and indeed rely on the authority of local government’s to resolve disputes and it has been reported that the Shenzhen labour department has now become involved in the Walmart dispute.