Workers have set up unions at all 66 Wal-Mart outlets in China, beginning what a Chinese union official described on Thursday as a wider campaign aimed at other foreign companies.
Wal-Mart has long battled to ban unions from its stores and distribution centers, and Guo Wencai, a senior organizer of the government-sanctioned All-China Federation of Trade Unions, called the establishment of union branches at the Wal-Mart stores a "breakthrough" for organized labor.
Guo said at a news conference in Beijing that the success at Wal-Mart would be a springboard to similar efforts aimed at Eastman Kodak, Dell and other companies.
"We are going to exert very high pressure on all these types of companies until unions are established there," Guo said. "It is an irreversible trend."
He said union membership would lead to better conditions for employees, including higher wages and safer workplaces.
The effort to unionize workers at foreign companies is strictly limited to expanding the membership of the officially sanctioned labor federation, which says it has 150 million members.
But some labor market analysts and human rights groups say establishing branches of the official union in foreign companies is aimed more at allowing the Chinese authorities to tighten control over the rapidly expanding private-sector work force.
Under Chinese law, employees are barred from organizing independent unions, and workers or activists seeking to challenge these rules are routinely prosecuted and jailed, human rights groups said.
Already, many foreign busi-nesses have allowed their workers to form unions in China. In the economic and technological development area of Tianjin, union branches have been established at more than 300 foreign companies including the food giant Nestle, Guo said. In Beijing, there are unions at 44 foreign enterprises.
The labor federation, with strong backing from the Chinese government, has applied intense pressure on Wal-Mart as the first phase of the wider effort to establish branches in all foreign-financed enterprises.
There are now more than 100,000 such companies operating in China, including businesses from Taiwan and Macau, according to government statistics.
It is unlikely, though, that the existence of branches of the official union will lead to increased worker militancy. Labor activists at times accuse the labor federation of siding with management rather than acting as a champion of workers' rights.
Labor unrest is common these days in China, particularly among the 150 million migrant workers, and some specialists suggest that an improved network of official union branches could assist the authorities in defusing protests that could potentially pose a threat to Communist Party rule.
"They are afraid that public protests or strikes might get out of hand," said Robin Munro, research director of the China Labor Bul-letin, a workers' rights group in Hong Kong.
"Hence, the big drive to impose unions and provide greater union coverage; I think this is seen as a way of crisis management," he said.