Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 20, 2009, 11:05 am

Across an Ocean: Can U.S., Chinese Unions Find Common Ground?

BY Michelle Chen

Email this article to a friend

A steel worker watches over a furnace at an iron-steel factory in Wuhan, central China's Hebei province, on August 4, 2009.   (Photo by Getty Images)

This summer, steel has been melting down on both sides of the globe.

In China’s Henan Province, protests flared at the Linzhou Iron and Steel Co. after workers learned their state-owned plant was to be sold to a private corporation. As we reported earlier this week, the demonstrations, which drew thousands and culminated in workers taking an official hostage, compelled nervous officials to halt the sale.

Labor unrest in China has swelled in recent years, as globalization and economic transformation have driven the rapid privatization of old industries like steel. Masses of displaced workers are left with little recourse and a lot of rage.

The Linzhou uprising came just weeks after workers rioted at the state-owned Tonghua Iron and Steel in Jilin Province, leading to the beating death of an executive involved with the company’s privatization.

While Chinese steelworkers revolted, a steelworkers union across the Pacific was blasting China’s encroachment on its own labor force. Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers International, whose members are mostly American and Canadian, lashed out at China’s asymmetrical currency and trade policies in a scathing commentary:

China is attacking the U.S. with a stealth weapon of mass economic destruction—unfair trade. U.S. corporations—and China—which profiteer from it prefer to label this “free trade.” …


We’ve watched our members lose their jobs as steel mills idled, paper plants closed, and tire factories shuttered. In this war, China came for our jobs. Virtually no one spoke up for displaced blue collar workers. Perhaps you don’t wear a blue collar. A white one will prove no special shield. The Chinese will come for your job, too.

Despite the elliptically xenophobic rhetoric, Gerard does mention the plight of Chinese workers:

Labor violations are part of the cheating…. We stand in solidarity with these workers and condemn these atrocities that include very young teenagers kept in locked buildings with caged windows where they are forced to labor 14-hour shifts under grueling conditions, but find it impossible to make money or to amass the “exit fee” required to leave.

So does the chaos at Linzhou and Tonghua resonate with Gerard’s union? Would American labor embrace Chinese workers as international partners in arms?

Cross-border activism poses myriad challenges for American workers, who may be used to viewing workers in poorer countries either as competition or symbolic “victims.” But some union activists are moving toward a globally conscious organizing strategy. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, has reached out to teacher unions in African nations to promote healthcare for communities impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Closer to home, though, cooperation between Mexican and American workers has been hobbled by cultural divides and misconceptions about Mexico’s grassroots labor movements (as opposed to the business-friendly “official” unions). According to Ricardo Hernández of the American Friends Service Committee, although some American activists have supported the organizing of maquiladora workers, the U.S. labor movement “has mainly paid lip service to cross-border solidarity.”

In China, the murky politics of the official union apparatus, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), presents similar obstacles.

At Talking Union, Paul Garver points out that Beijing’s “official monopoly labor organization” is beholden to the party line. While the ACFTU has grown in recent years, Garver wrote, it “remains a transmission belt for the [Chinese Communist Party] and the government to control Chinese workers.” As a result, “[w]orkers with individual or collective grievances still take them to the courts or to the streets, rather than to the ‘unions.’ ”

Dismissing the ACFTU as an instrument of an authoritarian government, the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin focuses its international campaigns on rank-and-file worker activists instead.

Meanwhile, Chinese workers remain largely isolated from the American labor movement. The AFL-CIO, which has also refused to recognize the ACFTU as a legitimate union, has tried to address labor issues in China through U.S. legal channels. In petitions to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office under the Bush administration, the union argued, “the Chinese government persistently and systematically denies workers’ rights, hurting U.S. workers and communities, while also preventing Chinese workers from exercising their internationally recognized rights at the workplace.” The complaints went nowhere.

SEIU’s Andy Stern broke fragile ground in 2002 by launching a series of top-level diplomatic exchanges with the ACFTU, with a focus on multinational firms operating in China. But to skeptics, this type of high-profile dialogue runs the risk being co-opted by a state-run labor regime. (Dan Gallin of the Global Labour Institute dismissed the collaboration as “public relations theater.”)

Yet Katie Quan, associate chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California-Berkeley, said that measured international engagement is critical for advancing Chinese workers’ rights. She told In These Times:

It is important for American unions to establish formal relationships with Chinese unions. However, I think that these relationships should be formed with agreement on labor and human rights principles (not just unconditional engagement). … The worldwide labor movement’s refusal to deal with China was designed to force China to improve labor rights, but that strategy has failed.

On a grassroots level, organizing across national boundaries requires more than just petitions and handshakes. Garver suggests that American unions could support Chinese labor advocates with practical measures like trainings, exchanges and technical assistance. And activists in both countries could gain clout by forming coordinated campaigns to advocate for workers’ rights at multinational corporations.

Nonetheless, Garver says, American activists should focus on facilitating, not controlling, the development of an indigenous Chinese labor movement:

The principle to be followed in any of these initiatives is that they should provide crucial resources for Chinese union reformers and activists while respecting the basic reality that only Chinese workers and unions can determine the future of labor organization in China.

The struggles engulfing America’s Rust Belt and China’s industrial wastelands stem from a common plight. Big business in both countries share an interest in keeping labor fractured along national, racial and ideological lines. For workers, real solidarity emerges through the recognition that a global corporate superstructure can only be challenged through a labor movement that knows no borders.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

View Comments