• Bloomberg


Walmart Inc. is facing a strike by thousands of workers in South America amid the retail giant’s push to increase automation at its physical stores.

About 17,000 Walmart workers in Chile went on an indefinite strike on Wednesday after labor talks between the company and the union failed. As many as 124 of the retailer’s 375 stores across the country closed as a result of the strike.

At the heart of the dispute is the demand by workers to be compensated for the increase in automation that’s forcing them to multitask in their daily jobs, for example, with cashiers now having to restock shelves next to cash registers. Walmart initially offered a 3 percent real wage increase and a one-time payment of $72, while the union asked for a 4 percent salary rise. Walmart says that it later increased the offer to as much as 8.14 percent but that union leader Juan Moreno refused to discuss the offer.

Emails and calls to the union’s phone number listed at its Facebook page weren’t answered.

The automation push “isn’t Walmart’s idea, it’s the way our clients have decided to shop,” Monica Tobar, Walmart Chile vice-president of human resources, said in an interview Wednesday with the Pauta Bloomberg radio show. “The world is going through a digital transformation and we need to be a part of that.”

Tobar said that Walmart plans to ask the union to resume conversations. She also declined to say how much the strike could affect its results.

Labor disputes on increased automation are happening in Chile and elsewhere. Copper workers at Chile’s Chuquicamata operation put down their tools for two weeks last month, protesting job cuts from increasing automation at the mine. In April, 31,000 Stop & Shop workers in New England staged a strike amid union criticism of automated checkout aisles, and in September, transportation workers in the U.S. created a coalition to fight driverless buses.

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