Asda, the UK division of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has reached a deal with one of Britain’s largest unions that marks the most significant concessions the global retailer has made to organised labour.
The agreement between Wal-Mart’s Asda unit and the GMB union averted a planned five day strike over collective bargaining rights by truck drivers and warehouse workers that was due to begin at midnight on Thursday.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, said the agreement “heralds a new fresh approach to representation and bargaining between the company and GMB”.
The deal includes setting up a joint national council with the union that will meet at least twice a year, and an agreement on a process that could lead to a single model bargaining agreement between the GMB and Asda.
The agreement also allows the GMB access to Asda depots beyond the nine where it currently holds collective bargaining rights, and that it will be allowed “facilities for appropriate levels of union workplace representatives” including “facilities to distribute union literature, recruit into the union, present the union case during company induction procedures, run union election procedures for workplace representatives.”
Wal-Mart has always bitterly opposed union efforts to organise its stores in the US, and in the UK has previously been accused by the GMB of seeking to undermine its position and influence since it acquired the Asda group in 1999.
It is also currently fighting a drive by the UFCW grocery workers union to organise some of its stores in Canada. In Germany, Japan, Brazil and Argentina the company has dealt with unions previously established at retailers it has aquired.
But it has never previously granted concessions on expanding a union’s bargaining role in response to pressure.
“This is a very significant victory for the GMB, and for the unions in general,” said Jan Furstenborg, who monitors Wal-Mart’s global labour relations for the UNI international union network.
The new agreement in the UK brings Wal-Mart’s approach closer to that of Tesco, the largest UK retailer, which has a broad partnership with the USDAW shop workers union that includes regular joint consultations on pay and conditions at all levels of the company.
The deal also comes as Wal-Mart is preparing to test the use of RFID tagging technology at its UK stores and warehouses, following the expansion of its tagging programme in the US.