Trade unions and labor organizations around the world are seeking to establish a presence in China. Initially, that means beginning a dialogue with the All China Federation of Trade Unions (AFCTU)—China’s only legal union. Last year, following its split from the AFL-CIO, the US Change to Win federation, comprised of 7 US unions, broke new ground when it opened talks with the ACFTU. And in December, the Brussels based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the global union umbrella organization comprised of 309 affiliated organizations in 156 countries, voted to begin a “critical dialogue” with the ACFTU. (The AFL-CIO is the largest affiliate of the ITUC, while Change to Win is not a member.)
This is not simply a story of bureaucratic relationships. Trade unions are an especially important non-governmental interlocutor on labor and worker rights issues in China—a country with few civil society organizations but a significant formal trade union sector. The lack of civil society organizations means that rights oriented NGO’s have many fewer dialog partners in China than do trade unions.
Today, one in four workers in the global economy is Chinese. Many are employed by the same global corporations or their contractors that employ union members in other countries. This employment relationship potentially gives foreign unions more standing to advocate for the labor rights for co-workers employed in China by those companies and for Chinese workers generally.
We’ve written extensively about why the new engagement is a good thing and suggested topics for discussion. Labor’s opening to China represents a significant move away from its Cold War era shunning doctrine, long considered outmoded by many labor activists. Under that doctrine, most trade unions have had little contact with the ACFTU because they do not consider it a legitimate trade union but an arm of the Party/State apparatus. Chinese law does not recognize crucial international labor rights such as the right of workers to establish independent unions, to bargain collectively, to strike, or to elect union officials of their own choosing.
There have been some previous attempts to create a dialogue with the ACFTU, particularly in the 1980s when China adopted a market economy and opened up to foreign investment. While some individual unions and Global Labor Federations have maintained contact over the years through various joint projects, most unions severed formal relations following the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1989.
Meanwhile global corporations and investors flocked to China to take advantage of China’s low wage labor force and business friendly environment. The consequences of labor’s absence from China were graphically illustrated last year during the debate over the Labor Contract Law which extended new rights to workers. Foreign corporations and their business associations in China actively lobbied the Chinese government to weaken some of the law’s key provisions. But global labor—with no organization or influence on the ground in China—could only comment from afar. Many realized that this asymmetry needed to be addressed.
The time is ripe
It’s a good time to open a dialogue. A huge wave of strikes and protests fueled by growing income inequality and corporate lawlessness has prompted reforms in China on several levels. The Labor Contract Law, came into effect in January, 2008, and support is needed to ensure that it is enforced against a corporate backlash; new laws are in the pipeline; the somnolent ACFTU is being prodded by elements in the Communist Party to more aggressively defend worker interests and reform elements are emerging within the union; experiments are being launched to extend collective bargaining rights in some regions; and a vigorous discourse is under way in China among reformers about how to promote further reforms in the industrial relations system. At the same time, as China takes its place as a first tier global economic power it seeks to normalize its position in global economic institutions, including bodies like the ILO. This entails reaching out to unions and union organizations around the world for support which increases the leverage that global labor can exert to promote labor rights in China.
In interviews over the past two months with dozens of people in China —from factory workers to corporate consultants— and with trade unionists in Europe and the United States, we found widespread support for global labor’s outreach to the ACFTU. But we also found concerns and a range of views on exactly how to do it—and, surprisingly, these extended across national boundaries.
Virtually no one we talked to thought that the ACFTU in its current form effectively represented workers interests. “They just don’t know how to act like a union,” said one Chinese metal worker, reflecting a frequently heard sentiment. Some worried that a too hasty embrace by global labor could legitimate a union more committed to promoting employer interests and state planning goals than worker rights. But many more thought that constructive dialogue could aid nascent efforts to reform the union.
Change to Win
The current high profile efforts to find a new approach to China were initially launched by Change to Win. Service Employee International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern made several trips to China to meet with Chinese officials. In 2007, following the split with the AFL-CIO, a high level delegation of Change to Win union leaders toured China and met with unions officials. They expressed generally favorable views of the ACFTU when they returned to the US. Later in the year a delegation of ACFTU officials toured the US, and in June, 2008, ACFTU officials attended the SEIU convention in Puerto Rico as guests of the union.
Current plans call for Change to Win and the ACFTU to sign a protocol to formalize their relationship. The protocol was originally scheduled to be signed earlier this year, but it has been put off until an unspecified time later this year, according to Change to Win sources. No details have been made public on what the protocol will contain.
Interestingly, almost everyone GLS interviewed recently in China thought that Change to Win’s push to sign a protocol was premature. One prominent ACFTU supporter and reform proponent summed it up this way: “what good would a protocol do now? The thing is to talk, talk, talk.” The goal, he went on to say, should be to explore in depth concrete issues of mutual concern that can lead to real cooperation. This fits with the widely held view that the insular ACFTU is being pushed to both reform and to reach out by modernizers within the Communist Party. And some reformers fear that once a formal relationship with non-Chinese unions is established leverage will be lost and the pace of reform in the ACFTU will slacken.
The International Trade Union Confederation
The emerging relationship between the ITUC and the ACFTU is more complex, befitting the more complex nature of the ITUC. The ITUC was formed in 2006 when the old International Confederation of Free Trade Unions—the main non-Communist global labor organization organized at the start of the Cold War in 1949-- merged with the smaller World Confederation of Labor and some independent national trade union organizations, like the French CGT, to form a new global umbrella group.
What to do about China was immediately on the agenda of the new organization. In December, 2007, at a meeting in Washington DC, the ITUC voted to begin a “critical dialogue” with the ACFTU. The decision came after a vigorous debate in which a solid majority of the ITUC’s affiliates supported the new direction. A minority of ITUC affiliates continue to oppose the talks arguing that they are unlikely to achieve positive results. The AFL-CIO—a long time supporter of the shunning doctrine—did not oppose the policy shift although it continues to have “reservations”, according to ITUC officials.
The objectives laid out at the meeting are to seek “engagement with clear policy objectives” and with a “rights” agenda. The focus will be on specific issues—not on broad ‘diplomatic relations”—according to ITUC head Guy Ryder.
The old ICFTU had a stormy relationship with the ACFTU. In 2000 the a Chinese representative was voted onto the workers’ group of the ILO, which represents workers interests in the tripartite ILO governing structure. China’s tenure did not sit well with some of the other members of the group. According to informed sources, the group’s custom is to reach a consensus on issues and vote as a unified block. This allows for a certain amount of independence from both the government and business groups. The Chinese, however, made no bones about the fact that they were more a part of the state apparatus and less an independent worker representative. When the term was up in 2003 the ICFTU, which played a central role in the workers’ group, opposed the re-election of China to the group and they were voted off in a secret ballot. It was a stinging rebuke to the Chinese.
Fences were mended this June when the ITUC, the successor organization to the ICFTU, supported the election of a Chinese representative to the ILO workers’ group. This policy shift cleared the air and could set the stage for a more productive worker rights dialogue in the future.
In October, the ITUC and the ACFTU will hold a joint high level meeting in Geneva, to be followed by a meeting in China later in this year or early next year.
European works councils
Meanwhile, the ITUC hosted a “China and European Works Councils Conference” at its Brussels headquarters in June. The conference brought together works councils from companies doing business in China. These organizations are responsible for coordinating information sharing and employee consultation with corporate management on a European wide level. The goal of the meeting was to provide expert information on China to Works Council leaders, to provide a space for information exchange among Works Councils, and to begin a discussion of ways that Works Councils could influence corporate policies in China.
Issues covered at the 3 day conference included: China’s economy and its prospects; China’s evolving labor law; corporate social responsibility programs in China; efforts to develop company and industry-wide framework agreements; the development of European Works Council training programs on China; and the prospects for coordinating information sharing in China. Representatives of various Works Councils presented case studies of their employers operations in China and discussed problems such as the difficulty they have getting and analyzing needed information about operations in China.
The conference was a good start at identifying the “specific issues” that Guy Ryder and ITUC officials pledged to address as talks with the Chinese begin. And the Works Councils could be an important venue to explore concrete efforts to build relationships with Chinese workers employed by the same global corporations.
After years of inertia labor has suddenly realized that what happens in China matters to workers around the world. This new strategic direction comes at a time of change in China and instability in the global economy. New crisis like climate change pose unforeseen environmental, political, and economic challenges of the first magnitude. Trade unions are in a unique position to build the kind of global solidarity that will be needed to meet this challenge—if they can get China right.