On January 23rd 2010 US China labor exchange met for the 6th time. The China Labor Exchange group has been meeting for 2 ½ years now. It is a meeting between some US labor union members and individuals with close ties to the Chinese labor movement. But despite the absence of official Chinese union representatives, these meetings present an important opportunity for exchange and mutual learning about the labor movement in the US and China, as well as for discussing potentials for future collaboration. This is of particular importance in a context, where high level union talks between the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) and the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) are not yet taking place.

What do Chinese and American workers have in common? Where are potentials for cooperation? Before summarizing the meeting, I first give some background information about the US labor movement and China to make clear why such a meeting is rather unusual for the US context.

The US labor movement and China:

The AFL-CIO has taken a prominent role in the debate on trade with China. Fearing job losses in manufacturing and therewith a further weakening of unions in the US, they opposed China’s entry into the WTO as well as the establishment of permanent normal trade relations with the US. Since the 80ies, China had the status of a Most Favored Nation (MFN), a special trade status for imports, which was regularly extended every year. In 2000 China entered Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) and in 2001 China became member of the WTO with support of the Clinton administration. Thus, the campaign of the AFL-CIO has failed. Nevertheless it started a debate on the position towards “China” inside some parts of the movement.

Officially the campaign should have reflected a shift in AFL-CIO’s international strategy, away from their old cold war anti communist policy, towards focusing on corporate abuses and international enforcement mechanisms for labor rights: Trade agreements with China should be conditioned on raising wages, improving working conditions, allowing unions and respecting human rights.

Other criticized this position as being a protectionist reaction. It harms the Chinese workers instead of supporting them. By using the rhetoric of the Chinese threat, unions fan fears of Chinese workers stealing US jobs and purposely undercutting U.S. standards. They feared that the campaign rather “fuels cold war politics, has resulted in racially offensive messages and has weakened the strong anti-corporate and international solidarity focus coming out of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle“. This could lead away from discussing structural problems of the global economy (for a detailed discussion see Kent Wong and Elaine Bernard 2000).

While officially there is still no dialogue between the AFL-CIO and the ACFTU, especially the critical voices towards the AFL-CIO position inside the US labor movement call for communication and exchange with China.

In this regard they are part of a broader international development as unions worldwide try to define their positions towards the ACFTU. Internationally one can witness a slow opening towards the ACFTU, at various levels: ITUC (the International Trade Union Conferedation) decided to open dialogue in December 2007. Sino-European exchanges on various levels have been taking place since 2001; and China constantly increased its presence within the ILO over the last 20 years, despite of China not signing Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association) and 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining). However, such openings have not been without criticism itself.

Part of the problem is a lack of a clear understanding of the changing role of the ACFTU: On the one hand it is a state union, serving Chinese authority’s goals by prioritizing maintenance of social stability and the support of enterprises in their operation instead of representing workers. On the other hand, it is in the process of redefining its role as a labor organization under capitalism. In this respect, ACFTU’s first grassroots organizing campaign of Wal-Mart workers in 2006 was considered as an important step towards defining a new role and new voice which speaks for workers. For some it  signaled change that at least on the local level reforms are under way (for a debate see for example the article by Anita Chan)

The labor exchange meeting

To better understand the ongoing transformation process of the ACFTU, the role of the state, business as well as workers themselves, the US- labor exchange was called into existence in 2007. Driving forces behind this process were Elaine Bernard, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, Tim Costello, long term labor activist and co-founder of Global Labor Strategies, as well as Kent Wong from the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and Ellen Friedman, organizer for the Vermont teachers’ union, and vice-chair of the Progressive Party and teacher at the Zhongshan University, Guangzhou

Instead of talking about “the role of China” for the US job market, it is a place to talk about common problems and challenges in a global economy: What do Chinese workers really want? What do Chinese and U.S. workers have in common? How could one foster mutual goals and solidarity?

Ellen Friedman gave an interesting presentation on latest news about workers’ actions and the responses of Chinese institutions: Law suits and arbitration are still rapidly increasing and doubled again in 2009; NGOs and citizen agents, usually former migrant workers who are now helping other workers with their legal claims, are still spreading; While some levels of the ACFTU consider these groups as a threat, others are interested in learning from their labor support work, openly admitting the representation gap of the unions and discussing the need of reform.

The development of industrial relations in private enterprises in China is influences by the relationship between labor NGOs or citizen agents, and the ACFTU: One the one hand, the ACFTU uses similar tactics as the citizen agents by setting up legal aid centers, giving legal support and therewith operating in the framework of the regime’s attempt to strengthen rule of law. On the other hand, such strategies can be also criticized from a union perspective, as guaranteeing individual rights by a court system, which in itself faces inefficiencies and flaws, could hardly replace collective agreements and collective bargaining. The question came up: How can this development contribute to strengthening a real labor movement? One hope is that as workers more and more learn about their rights and get more confident about it, maybe in the future they will press for union reforms from within. Internal demands will finally cause the union to serve its members.

But also members of other US unions talked about their experiences of visits in China and discussed common problems of migrant workers in China and the US. Ding Xiaoqin, a representative from China and associate professor from the Marxism Research Institute Shanghai University, stressed that real communication is necessary for a mutual learning process. Ideas and strategies cannot simply be transferred from one setting to another. In this spirit, three major areas for potential cooperation were identified:

One possibility is further exchange on ideas and methods of organizing. Identifying common problems and challenges is also a way of building trust. Another step could be the involvement in international solidarity work for example on the case of Columbia and CocaCola. A very specific option is the cooperation on health and safety issues in the transport sector. Workers world wide face similar health and safety challenges and some international union cooperation is already taking place. A first step could be the participation of ACFTU representatives at the international conference focusing on the health status of transportation workers organized by New York City transit workers union. As a long term perspective participants envisioned a collective organizing campaign against a transnational company. Such a campaign could offer a lot of space for mutual learning on both sides. Both sides face similar challenges in organizing some international companies.

But there are still challenges ahead on both sides. Major changes within both union movements, the AFL-CIO and ACFTU, are necessary in order to be able to organize workers along the supply chain together. Until today it is still an open question how to get beyond individual activist exchange to involve union leadership. Labor exchange meetings are the first step forward in this direction.