(Note: half of GLS's staff is travelling in China, the other half is busy on different assignments, so we will be posting only sporadically until early May.)
In our recently released report, Why China Matters: Labor Rights in the Era of Globalization and in a subsequent post, Labor’s Opening to China, we discuss new and on-going efforts by global labor organizations to open a dialogue with the All China Federation of Trade Unions, China’s only legal union. We argue in some detail that the talks are long overdue but that they pose problems for both sides.
Western unions want a presence on the ground in China where so many of the companies that employ their members have set up shop. But they worry about giving their stamp of approval to a state/party affiliated union that may sign sweetheart agreements with global corporations. And indeed, at the local level, the ACFTU, by all accounts, often functions as a management dominated company union in the workplaces where it is present.
The ACFTU wants global recognition and support in a world increasingly skeptical of Chinese institutions but they must also worry that Western unions often talk cooperation abroad and practice protectionism at home. China bashing is still a standard part of the repertory of many unions despite the fact that it is US based and other foreign corporations—not the Chinese government—that drive much of China’s export oriented economy.
Both sets of concerns are legitimate.
It is a given that unions, like other organizations, have institutional, industrial , and national interests that they seek to promote and these interests shape their actions abroad to a significant extent. But unions are also learning an important lesson of modern diplomacy: it is essential to talk even with those with whom you may not agree. Engagement need not be a sign of approval, but rather a search for common interests. It is in this spirit that non-Chinese labor organizations and the ACFTU should conduct their dialogues.