Chinese Unionists Eager To Learn About U.S. Labor Practices

By Fred Bruning, Editor, The Graphic Communicator

             COLLEGE PARK, Md. (PAI)–Largest labor union in the world?  You might be surprised.

With more than 200 million members, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the runaway winner – there are approximately 14 million organized workers in the U.S., by comparison – and it could play a vital role in improving workers’ rights as the powerful Chinese economy continues to expand.

But there is literally a world of difference between unions in China and in Western societies.  Democratic countries pride themselves on independent organizations.  Chinese labor groups are state-controlled.

So, eager to learn more about the labor movement beyond China’s borders, a delegation from the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang recently visited the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., and got a crash course in U.S.-style labor relations from two local Graphic Communications Conference/IBT officers.

Paul Atwill, president of Local 72-C in Washington, D.C., and Janice Bort, the secretary-treasurer, answered questions for two hours at a meeting arranged by the university’s Office of International and Executive Programs.  The Chinese visitors proved an enthusiastic audience.

Through an interpreter, they asked about the role of local unions, grievance procedures, retirement and health benefits, the daily operation of a trade union, government relations, contract negotiations, Social Security, and even the amount of dues union members pay.

“These were definitely intelligent, aware people,” Atwill said.

Upgrading Chinese workers’ lives seemed a high priority.  “This delegation conveyed to us that modern China is looking to improve working conditions for its people and also fight worker exploitation, especially of their low-wage workers, by greedy corporations,” Bort added.

But because organized labor is tied to government in China, the union structure there, outside experts view the union structure there with suspicion.

A report on the website of Foreign Policy magazine said ACFTU “has been dogged by allegations that it is little more than a government tool for controlling the country’s sizable working class.”

ACFTU “often strives for harmony between workers and their employers – a philosophy that typically leads to the squashing of workers’ demands in order to maintain the business-friendly labor rules that helped propel Chinese economic growth over the last few decades,” Foreign Policy said.

But there are signs the Chinese unionists are becoming more assertive – as the giant U.S. retailer, Wal-Mart, discovered.

According to Foreign Policy, Wal-Mart routinely blocked unionization efforts at its Chinese stores.  Then ACFTU began to push back.

By 2006, the magazine said, “Wal-Mart gave in and permitted unions at all of its Chinese branches.”   Then, Wal-Mart had 66 Chinese locations.  Now, the magazine reported, “the big-box behemoth” has approximately 390 outlets in China.  The showdown with Wal-Mart “marked a watershed moment in the Chinese government’s relationship with foreign investors,” Foreign Policy added.

Still, Chinese labor has a long way to go before it achieves the rights of union members in other countries.

Meetings with union leaders like Averill and Bort are intended to help Chinese labor activists gain perspective.

“They want to understand labor law and labor relations” outside their own country, said Song Zhao, associate director of the Office of International and Executive Programs at Maryland.  Zhao noted the Chinese unionists met union leaders in Europe, too.  “They want to collect information,” she said.  Atwill and Bort were happy to assist.

“I think now they can go back and understand how, in a free country, we manage our own unions,” Atwill said.  And meeting the Chinese labor leaders also allowed a meaningful cross-cultural experience, Bort added.  “It was just goodwill.”

In a separate Graphic Communicator column, Bort added that “In China local (labor) federations are aligned with a large labor party, which happens to be in control of the government.  Our structure is built from the ground up – local, conference and international – with elections at every level.  The concept amazed our Chinese friends.”

The discussion covered a wide range of issues, she wrote.  The Chinese were “astounded by the idea of pensions guaranteed by collective bargaining,” and  “grievances are decided by courts, not private parties.  Speedy resolution would be unheard of in China.  Got a complaint!   Tell it to the judge!”  Bort said the Chinese delegates “are hopeful new labor laws will encourage leaders in Beijing to cooperate with unions in an effort to solve some of the country’s problems.”