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China: 134 million potential union allies

Published Jul 22, 2005 9:36 PM

Why isn’t the AFL-CIO, the central labor organization in the United States, extending a hand to China’s unionized workers in a collaborative effort to demand better wages and working conditions from the transnational corporations that are trying to play the workers of both countries off against each other?

There are 134 million Chinese workers in the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. That’s more than 10 times the number of unionized workers in the United States.

They are organized into 1.713 million locals. Chinese trade unions have established relations with more than 400 national trade union centers in over 130 countries. Why isn’t the AFL-CIO one of them?

Many of the same corporations that exploit workers here are trying to do the same in China. For example, Motorola has opened plants in China. Its workers in the U.S. are not organized, but in China they are members of the ACFTU. Wouldn’t it be helpful to the Motorola workers here if the U.S. labor movement could pursue a joint strategy with China’s unions to make sure that every Motorola employee was organized and enjoyed union wages and benefits?

Almost all of China’s workers in the state sector are in unions. But, in addition, one third of the foreign-owned companies in China are now organized. Even Wal-Mart, which spurns any union organizing in the United States, has had to agree that if its workers there vote in a union, it will recognize it. That’s the law in China.

The ACFTU’s web site says that “Trade unions in overseas-funded [companies] do whatever it takes to protect workers, actively coordinate labor relations, help the development of enterprises and seek benefits for workers. However, trade unions still face a lot of difficulties in organizing workers in overseas-funded enterprises. Some multinational companies defy the country’s laws and refuse to allow trade unions in their enterprises using one pretext or another. Their defiance has prompted public outrage in China.”

It should prompt outrage here, too, among unionized workers. It’s to our benefit that these corporations be forced to respect China’s labor laws.

China has been struggling for decades to overcome underdevelopment. In recent years, it has opened its doors to foreign investment. Many U.S. corporations flocked to China to take advantage of the low wages in such a large but undeveloped country. Nevertheless, as China’s economy continues to grow, wages are rising and workers are able to demand, and get, more for their labor.

The position of the U.S. government toward China, however, is one of hostility. It has surrounded China with U.S. military bases. It supports a separate government on Taiwan, the off-shore island that is recognized everywhere as part of China. It foments a separatist movement in Tibet. All this reflects the strong anti-communism and desire for world domination on the part of the corporate ruling class here.

It is important that workers’ organizations in this country recognize that the corporate agenda for China is no more friendly to the workers there than it is to U.S. workers, who sell their labor time each day in the most anti-union environment in the whole industrialized world.

Labor has no stake in China-bashing by any U.S. administration, be it Republican or Democratic. Unionists have no place sitting side by side with corporate executives in committees to decide policy toward China.

The reason is very simple. Their interests are directly opposite. The corporations promote policies that would weaken China’s sovereignty and allow the corporate sharks free rein to gain control over the economy for the purpose of maximizing their profits.

The workers here, however, are interested in preventing these same corporations from running all over the globe in search of cheaper labor. They want to keep their jobs and their benefits, which have been achieved over decades of labor struggle as the economy grew more productive.

This great rise in U.S. productivity, however, has accrued mostly to the benefit of the bosses. They have a huge pool of capital—which they extracted from the labor of U.S. workers—that they want to invest wherever they can get the biggest return. China is a huge country, and they want to exploit it. But they want to keep it weak and poor, which is against the interests of both U.S. and Chinese workers.

China-bashing by U.S. big business, which has been rampant ever since its socialist revolution in 1949, is restrained today only because these bosses hope they can penetrate China’s economy and carry out a complete capitalist counter-revolution. But lately they have had to contemplate another possibility: that China will grow strong enough that their dreams of swallowing it up will turn into dust. China’s new economic strength can be seen in its huge trade surplus with the U.S. and its ability to invest billions into infrastructure projects that lay the ground for its future progress.

Yes, there are capitalist bosses in China. And the dynamic working class there needs strong unions to fight for labor’s rights. But unlike here, the Chinese government still reflects its revolutionary origins and last summer passed legislation spurring on union organizing in foreign-owned businesses. When was the last time that Congress here passed any significant pro-labor legislation?

The point is this: U.S. unions should get past the cold war mentality that has pitted them against workers in other countries, especially those where revolutionary change has antagonized the transnational corporations.

It’s time to build real solidarity with workers abroad and reject the phony “solidarity” that has allowed U.S. unions to be used as a cover for CIA-type operations. Already, there is a movement among progressive trade unionists to reject funding from government groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, which promoted a coup against the popularly elected government of Venezuela.

It will be a great breakthrough when U.S. unions also reject those forces pushing an imperialist agenda toward China and cooperate with Chinese workers and their unions in the struggle to get the upper hand over the arrogant transnational corporations that are trying to transform the whole world into one big sweatshop.