[lbo-talk] CTW goes to China

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Thu May 24 10:47:59 PDT 2007

Wall Street Journal - May 23, 2007

How U.S. Labor Leaders Chart a Global Course By ANDREW BATSON

BEIJING -- U.S. labor leaders, taking a new approach to the challenges of globalization, plan to work more closely with their Chinese counterparts in hopes of raising wages and working standards in the country and thereby easing the competitive pressure on American workers.

Wrapping up a five-day visit to mainland China, officials from the Change to Win labor coalition said they had found much common ground with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. The ACFTU, which claims a membership of 150 million workers, is the only union permitted in China and has close ties with the ruling Communist Party.

"Geographically, China and the U.S. may be a world apart, but economically, we're neighbors," said Anna Burger, chairwoman of Change to Win, a grouping of seven unions representing six million U.S. workers. Chinese and American workers face similar challenges -- and sometimes work for the same companies, she said. "We believe it's important for us to act together."

The union officials said they strongly support the ACFTU's efforts to organize workers at foreign companies' Chinese operations, especially its high-profile campaign at local branches of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

"If you organize Wal-Mart, if you organize some of these companies, you're basically raising the cost of doing business in China. That obviously has an effect on American workers and the competitiveness of the two economies," said James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The gap between Chinese workers and their U.S. counterparts remains vast. For instance, General Motors Corp. pays assembly workers at its Shanghai factory $9 an hour, including benefits, compared with more than $60 in the U.S.

According to government statistics, the average manufacturing worker in China earned an annual wage of $1,977 in 2005.

The unions' international push is driven by a realization that they need to join together to have bargaining power against multinational companies with operations spanning the globe, said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. "I think there will be global unions in the next five to 10 years," he said.

Chinese labor leaders "always try to observe, to learn from the experiences of overseas trade unions," Guo Jun, a senior ACFTU official, said before the U.S. union leaders' visit. But he said the ACFTU typically takes a less confrontational approach to resolving disputes between labor and management and doesn't organize strikes.

The unions' outreach to the ACFTU has been dogged by questions about the Chinese group's independence from the Communist Party and whether it really acts as an advocate for workers' interests. The AFL-CIO and some other international labor groups don't recognize the ACFTU as a legitimate union.

Change to Win officials said the ACFTU is less state-directed than in the past and that they are trying to encourage the body to act more aggressively to protect workers' rights and raise standards.

The U.S. union delegation also met yesterday with Jia Qinglin, the fourth-ranked leader in China's Communist Party hierarchy. Ms. Burger said they didn't ask Mr. Jia if the government will allow workers to form independent labor unions not affiliated with the ACFTU.

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