Argentine Workers: Has Wal-Mart Met its Match?

The heads of Wal-Mart’s local Argentine affiliate recently embarked on a multimillion-dollar investment surge aimed at expanding the company’s commercial base in the country. Meanwhile, the mega-store chain was purging pro-union personnel and hiring thugs associated with the country’s last military dictatorship.

Daniel Gatti

The heads of Wal-Mart’s local Argentine affiliate recently embarked on a multimillion-dollar investment surge aimed at expanding the company’s commercial base in the country. Meanwhile, the mega-store chain was purging pro-union personnel and hiring thugs associated with the country’s last military dictatorship.

In mid-July, Wal-Mart Argentina’s directors were called before the Argentine congress to give explanations about the firing of several union leaders. The unionists formed part of an “internal labor committee” at a Wal-Mart store in Avellaneda on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In a statement, the workers repeatedly denounced “the anti-union policies of the company in Argentina, same as those it practices in the United States and in almost every other country where it operates.”

“Every time workers have tried to autonomously organize into organizations that are not under the direct control of the company, they have been fired,” added the unionists.

Wal-Mart’s representatives testified before the Commission on Labor Legislation of the lower house. Before entering the hearings, Avellaneda’s local Labor Ministry forced the directors to meet with union reps, breaking the company’s “tradition” of not negotiating with unions.

Still under consideration by the legislature is a resolution proposed by four congressmen close to outgoing President Néstor Kirchner that expresses “concern over the unprotected status of workers and the practices of persecution against unions implemented by Wal-Mart Argentina.”

The resolution also denounces the firm’s decision to hire “ex-members of the Armed Forces that participated in the last civic-military dictatorship” (1976-1983). They specifically mention ex-Army officer Alfredo Saint Jean, who is Wal-Mart’s general director of security. During the dictatorship, Saint Jean was stationed in areas with particularly high rates of repression and clandestine torture centers, such as Tucumán, Bahía Blanca, Azul, and Tandil.

It is not the first time Wal-Mart Argentina is associated with dictatorship-era security agents. In 1998, when a group of cashiers in the city of Córdoba were strip-searched over missing money, the head of security at the Wal-Mart store was another ex-officer who had collaborated with one of the most notorious leaders of the repression, General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez.

Wal-Mart is not the only supermarket chain in Argentina that hires former security agents left “unemployed” by the end of the dictatorship. Former officer Alejandor Roberto is head of security for the supermarket chain Disco, while a company named Segar Seguridad founded by ex-military manages security for the Norte and Carrefour chains.

Wal-Mart Argentina contracted public relations expert Buston Mastellers to improve its corporate image. In 1978, Mastellers was responsible for inventing the slogan used by the military juntas to counter the growing human rights denunciations made by Argentines in exile: “los argentinos somos derechos y humanos” (We Argentines are human and right).

“The repressive model used by Wal-Mart is comprehensive,” says Gustavo Córdoba, a 31-year-old labor activist from the Avellaneda store. The company has fired him twice: once in August 2006 and a second time last March.

“Wal-Mart not only pays a terrible salary with more than precarious working conditions, and not only do they fire anyone who tries to form an independent union, but there is also a total lack of respect for employees. For example, they make us sing the company anthem, which is humiliating and meant to be ironic, among other cultural aggressions,” says Córdoba.

In statements made to the newspaper Página 12, which has published a series of reports by Mariana Carbajal on Wal-Mart Argentina, Gustavo Córdoba says store employees and workers at other U.S. corporations like McDonald’s and Burger King face relentless “linguistic contamination.”

“That’s why we want these companies to translate all foreign terms into Spanish. There should be a law about this,” he adds emphatically.

For a Wal-Mart employee to make such demands, says Córdoba, “means breaking a mold. The company is accustomed to dealing with servile workers in a vegetative state, who take care of everything except guaranteeing their own rights. When that mold is broken, then come the firings, the persecution.” According to him, Wal-Mart is responsible for violating Argentina’s anti-discrimination law and Convention 98 of the International Labor Organization on the right to organize and collective bargaining.

A report by the Center for Labor Studies and Investigations cited by Página 12 corroborates Córdoba’s allegations. The author of the study, sociologist Paula Abal Medina, writes, “Wal-Mart’s anti-union culture is blessed and accomplished through the contracting at the managerial-level of members of the armed forces, with all the nefarious weight this implies for the memory of union members when one considers Argentina’s recent history.”

The report details the persecution carried out by the store management against union-inclined workers, but the company’s anti-union policies also take on subtler forms. One of these forms, writes Abal Medina, “is the company’s attempt to bury all differences through a multiplicity of intimate and daily practices in the work place as a way of preventing workers from gaining a perspective of the company as having individual interest that are opposed and antagonistic to those of the collectivity of workers.”

“The model Wal-Mart employee,” the report continues, “is one who has left behind any conception of power relations and is capable of ‘integrating’ into the company’s endlessy repeated metaphor of Wal-Mart's 'Big Family.’”

Evidence of this is the company’s constant recourse to the title of “associates” when referring to all employees, “from the CEO all the way down to the cashier who is subcontracted through an employment agency,” writes Página 12 reporter Mariana Carbajal.

Abal Medina obtained access to a confidential company manual for executives, suggesting precautionary measures to avoid hiring people that might have unionist inclinations.

Human Rights Watch has already denounced the existence and content of similar instructional manuals discovered in the United States. One is called “Manager’s Toolbox” and councils store managers on “how to remain union free in the event union organizers choose your facility as their next target.”

Hernán Carboni, who heads institutional relations for Wal-Mart Argentina, denied his company practices “anti-union policies.” But Gustavo Córdoba says that in the last year at the Avellaneda store alone there have been ten union-related firings. The workers were fired after they organized an assembly to start filing formal complaints with the local Labor Ministry.

The company is undiscouraged by the first rumblings of union resistance in its Argentina stores. In fact, it is planning a huge expansion. Wal-Mart already counts on 15 mega-stores in different provinces and employs more than 5,600 people. In the short term, it is planning to invest $450 million on new stores, according to the Clarín newspaper’s business page.

Wal-Mart arrived to Argentina in 1995. With six percent of the market, it still lags behind its main competitor Carrefour, the French company, which has about a third of the market. Wal-Mart Argentina, which hopes to take in $1.7 billion in 2007, recently acquired three stores belonging to the Auchan supermarket chain.

Wal-Mart and its competitors expect 2008 to be a boom year led by growing consumption among Argentina’s middle class sectors. The company is building its new stores a bit smaller—similar in size to those of its rivals—but the hiring practices of its personnel will probably remain the same. The majority of its workers are young people, many of whom are subcontracted or hired through employment agencies.

Daniel Gatti lives in Montevideo, Uruguay. Translated from the Spanish version by NACLA.

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