What’s an ‘independent’ union?
Imperialist strategy vs. worker militancy in China
Published Aug 1, 2010 11:56 PM
Can it be just a coincidence?
After a wave of strikes at foreign-opened firms in China — strikes that
were supported by the government and gained significant wage increases for the
workers — the business media in the United States and other imperialist
countries are complaining that China is taking an economic turn harmful to
Articles with headlines like “China Is Coming Under Fire” (Wall
Street Journal, July 20) and “China’s Summer of Labor Unrest”
(Forbes.com, July 23) say that corporate investors in Europe and the U.S. are
worried that the stability foreign firms have enjoyed in China may be coming to
What they don’t say is that these companies went to China because they
could get away with paying low wages while demanding intensive labor and long
workdays. In other words, they went for the profits at a time when
China’s leaders felt they had no other choice than to invite in foreign
capital in order to build up their economy.
The articles don’t put it that way. These organs of big business would
never admit that U.S. and other imperialist corporations are in China in the
first place in order to exploit the workers to the utmost. In fact, they
deliberately write as though they are sympathetic to the workers’
demands, while pushing those demands further. The workers are seeking better
wages and working conditions. The Western media almost universally call for
“independent” trade unions — saying that’s what Chinese
The Forbes article, written by Phelim Kine, turns everything upside down,
blaming not the exploiting corporations but the Chinese government for a
“deficit of workers’ rights” that it says is responsible for
“destabilizing the manufacturing sector.”
In a July 5 editorial, the New York Times waxed eloquent about workers’
rights. China’s workers, it said, “need higher wages, better
working conditions and a chance to form independent unions. They need China to
stop being sweatshop to the world.”
The editorial admits that “China, over all, has done well with its
export-dependent strategy based on cheap labor and a cheap currency. Gross
domestic product per person trebled over the last 10 years, to $7,200. The
share of the population living on less than a dollar a day fell to 16 percent
in 2005, from 36 percent in 1999. But China needs to move on. Too much of the
country’s prosperity has been absorbed by companies’ profits. Too
little has gone to workers.”
Who could disagree with that? But isn’t it suspicious that the Times
editors reserve their most passionate editorializing for workers’ rights
in China? When did this paper — whose ads for multimillion-dollar estates
and baubles for the filthy rich betray its true class orientation — ever
editorialize in the same way about the struggles of the Republic Windows and
Doors workers in Chicago or the low-paid Hyatt hotel workers across the
Meanwhile, the Times business section advises those with plenty of money how to
invest it to get even more — out of the sweat and blood of the workers,
who of course are never mentioned in the context of the billions in profits
sloshing around Wall Street.
What are ‘independent’ unions?
The question of what unions will represent workers in China in their struggles
for higher wages and better conditions is a serious one for all progressives.
In calling for “independent unions” in China, the Western media are
either sidestepping or directly attacking the All-China Federation of Trade
Unions, the largest labor federation in the world. Unfortunately, this demand
is also raised by many organizations in the West that claim to be on the side
of the workers.
China’s workers need fighting unions, no doubt about it. So do workers
everywhere who are exploited by capital. A struggle is going on right now in
the U.S. labor movement to make the union leaders fight and not keep making
concession after concession to the bosses. Rank-and-file caucuses exist in many
unions to promote greater internal democracy and open the door for more
But how would workers in unions under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO or Change to
Win feel if the anti-labor, corporate media, like the Wall Street Journal or
Forbes, in the midst of a militant strike wave, suddenly began to demand
“independent unions” in the U.S.?
The imperialists complain that China’s unions are too close to the
government and the ruling Communist Party. Despite the big opening that the
party leaders have given to capitalists to do business in China, the exploiting
classes don’t trust any government that still declares socialism to be
its goal and the working class to be the central class in society. So they
promote the idea of unions that are independent of the Communist Party.
U.S. unions are not independent of the political structure, either. Their long
history of supporting the Democratic Party is common knowledge. But
here’s the point: Who is to tell the workers that they should break with
their existing unions and set up “independent” labor organizations?
What the capitalist media and imperialist agencies within the international
labor movement want to do is seize upon the growing anger of the Chinese
workers towards capital and redirect it against the ACFTU and the Communist
Party in the interest of weakening the Chinese government politically. They
also fear that militant Chinese workers will fight their way into the ACFTU and
force it in a struggle direction to the detriment of capital. They will dangle
the prospect of higher wages and better conditions as a carrot in order to
break up the ACFTU and promote a version of the pro-imperialist
U.S. imperialism has a long history of promoting “independent”
unions in countries it wants to destabilize. The American Institute for Free
Labor Development was an agency set up supposedly by the AFL-CIO in 1962. In
fact, it was to function as an arm of the CIA. It depended almost entirely on
government funds. AIFLD agitated for “free” unions in the countries
of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and played a big role in building the
counterrevolutionary “Solidarity” movement in Poland. Today Poland
is just a vassal of imperialism and has become the low-wage country of choice
for rapacious corporations eager to exploit a well-educated, low-paid work
AIFLD became so exposed as an instrument of imperialism that its name was
changed to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. But its role
has remained the same.
When the moneyed elite in 2002 attempted a coup against the progressive
government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Carlos Ortega, head of the
Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation, was a major player, joining the
country’s business federation in a two-day strike to shut down the oil
industry. Ortega and his union received money and other support from
Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy, funneled through the
ACILS. The coup failed because hundreds of thousands of workers surrounded the
presidential palace and demanded that Chávez be freed.
These are examples of the kinds of “independent” unions that
Wal-Mart, General Motors and ExxonMobil can love.
Last year, the National Endowment for Democracy gave $6 million in grants to
nongovernmental organizations operating in China. Four of the grants went to
ACILS projects claiming to promote “labor solidarity” and
“workers’ rights” in China. (ned.org) ACILS is an
“NGO” that gets 97 percent of its funding from the U.S.
There is no question that China’s working class needs to be organized and
militant to push back the rapacious bosses. And it is both. Strikes are not a
new thing in China. The government reports about 100,000 “mass
incidents” per year, many of them wildcat strikes.
According to the ACFTU’s website, by 2008 the federation had 212 million
members working in 3,682,000 unionized enterprises and institutions. The union
has targeted foreign-owned companies like Wal-Mart and Yum Brands for
organizing. (Wal-Mart signed a union contract in 2006 — in China, not in
the U.S.) However, only about half the newer migrant workers who leave the
rural areas to seek jobs in industry are in unions.
An article about the strikes at Honda plants in May and June (“Wildcat
Strikes in China” by Lance Carter, China Study Group) reports that, while
workers initially raised a demand for a reorganization of their local trade
union, the Honda workers “seem to have backed away” from demanding
an autonomous union. The best outcome will be one that strengthens the unity of
China’s working class in the struggle to push back the bourgeoisie,
foreign and domestic, while developing a planned economy for the benefit of the
1.3 billion Chinese people.
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