Building Power from Below: Chilean workers take on Walmart

The success of trade-union organising in Walmart within Chile shows the potential social power of workers in the most difficult circumstances, finds Orlando Hill


Carolina Bank Muñoz, Building Power from Below: Chilean Workers Take on Walmart (ILR, Cornell University Press), 180pp.

The title of Muñoz’s book sets a challenge: to build power from below in Walmart, a company that has come to symbolise neoliberalism, and in a country, Chile, that was used as a laboratory for neoliberal policies.

September 11th, 1972 is referred to by activists in Latin America as ‘our 9/11’. With the support and encouragement of the US government, the Chilean military executed the most brutal and bloody coup d’état in the history of Latin America. Twenty-four rockets were launched into the presidential palace where Salvador Allende and only thirty-six supporters held out in resistance. Overnight the most democratic and stable society in Latin America became the most repressive. Chile was turned into the testing ground for Milton Friedman and his Chilean Chicago boys’ neoliberal policies. The template for neoliberal policies was forged: tax cuts, liberalised trade, deregulated labour markets, and privatised health, education and social services.

Meanwhile, in the US, neoliberal policies allowed Walmart to grow to epic proportions. Prior to Reagan’s administration, a company the size of Walmart would have been taken to court on monopoly charges. Walmart, infamously known as the most anti-union company in the world, took advantage of the anti-union laws introduced by Reagan. However, not satisfied, Walmart has carried out its own intensive union-busting campaign. Their employees are forced to attend meetings where videos are shown depicting the dangers of union membership. Managers are sent to training on how to prevent workers from organising in their stores. The American labour movement has tried for decades to unionise workers in Walmart, but without success.

Unionisation in Chile

That is what makes Muñoz’s case study on Chilean Walmart workers so interesting and inspiring. She shows that even under almost impossible conditions workers can organise and win. The book starts by taking the reader on a walk through a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Santiago on a cold and cloudy autumn morning. Outside a Walmart store, eighty workers are holding a union meeting, a reunion en la calle (a street meeting). The managers had prohibited union meetings inside the store, claiming that if they allowed them, they would also have to allow other organisations. Previously workers had the right to hold meetings inside the store during lunch breaks. So, the workers decided to have their meetings outside the store in front of banners that said ‘this is how Walmart treats us. We have to have meetings in the street’ (p.2). Both customers and workers listened to what union activists had to say.

Readers might be surprised that workers were allowed unions in the first place, and to find out that the majority of the 38 thousand Walmart employees in Chile are unionised. When Walmart acquired Chile’s retail giant D&S in 2009 it had to agree to accept unions as a condition of entry into the country. Despite years of repression, Chileans consider meeting and discussing union matters a fundamental right. Past struggles are never in vain; they shape a society’s perception of itself.

Muñoz understands that workers and the oppressed, due to their position in society, can develop social power. Social power derives from their capacity for disruption. It was disruptive action that made social movements around the world successful. One only has to look at the suffragettes, the civil rights movement and now the yellow vests in France.

There is an additional source of power which is the symbolic leverage, the ability to undermine the official source of authority. While reading the book I could not help but think of how movements such as Stop the War, Stand Up to Racism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine use symbolic leverage. However, Muñozwarns about the danger of losing this power once social movements become institutionalised and are incorporated into the state.

The nature of social power

Workers attain social power in two ways. The first is associational power which comes from the formation of collective organisations in the form of trade unions and political parties. The second is structural and results from the position of workers in the circulation of capital. However, associational and structural power are determinants of social power and not forms of power in their own right. What is important is what workers do with these positions that allow them to achieve social power. Being structurally located in the economy is not enough. As Muñoz points out ‘structural location alone does not create power; it is how workers leverage their structural location that offers the opportunity to gain power’ (p.11). Since this requires some form of organisation, workers need associational power to be able to leverage structural power.

What makes this book so interesting is that it covers workers in the stores and in the warehouses. Those in the stores have symbolic leverage since they are in direct contact with the customers. Holding their meetings outside the stores allowed customers to listen to what workers had to say.

Meanwhile, workers in the warehouses are structurally located where they can cause major disruption in the delivery of goods. To increase their leverage, union members are required to attend a ten-week leadership programme that covers various issues concerning labour legislation and working-class history, but most importantly they learn to map production and understand the flow of goods entering and leaving the warehouse and which departments have the most strategic power. The knowledge acquired about Walmart’s operations have in some ways made unions indispensable. Warehouses with a strong union are more efficient than those without.

The success in building the power of unions results from a strong democratic strategy. The rank and file are encouraged to take part in the decision-making process. This explains the strong militancy among members. The book studies the unions that are independent from the mainstream labour movement. The activists interviewed believe that the mainstream has relied too much on electoral politics for labour gains. In their view, the movement must be built from the bottom up.

Muñoz investigates the contradictions and difficulties this kind of attitude can generate. The independent unions who refuse to join either of the two national federations miss out on the structural and political experience; Walmart is spread across Chile and the federations represent workers across the country. Another problem which the book does not deal with is the wider struggle for political power. Strong democratic unions built from below are not enough for workers to take hold of the reigns of society. That is not mentioned in the book, so a weakness in the argument is the syndicalist direction Muñoz lets it take. It seems that in her opinion capitalism can tolerate workers strengthening their social power, and will not resort to political avenues of attack.

Building Power from Below is an enjoyable read. Muñoz introduces the union leaders and activists by name. The reader feels an intimacy with those activists. This book should be read by all those interested in strengthening democracy, militancy and strategic capacity in trade unions. It is a demonstration of how workers even under a neoliberal state and employed by the world’s most anti-union corporation can beat the bully and win.

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.