Expert Profile ExpertProfile Kent Wong Kent Wong is director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, where he teaches Labor Studies and Asian American Studies. He previously was staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles.
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The AFL-CIO and China

By Kent Wong


In Spring 2005, the International Association of Machinists published a special journal entitled “China Dolls” with a full-page cover photo of Chinese women fashion models. Not only is the term “China Dolls” racially and sexually offensive, but the journal reflected a continuation of the anti-China policies of many American unions. The journal even quoted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the growing military threat posed by China, embracing the right-wing analysis of the Bush Administration.

For decades, the AFL-CIO has been a leading anti-China force within the United States. In the year 2000, the AFL-CIO launched an extensive national campaign to oppose Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China, and also sought to block China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Both campaigns failed. In 2003, the AFL-CIO joined with the National Association of Manufacturers, a major antiunion corporate alliance, to demand that China revalue its currency, alleging that the undervalued Chinese Yuan is a having negative impact on U.S. trade. In 2004, the AFL-CIO requested that the Bush administration apply trade sanctions against China under section 301(d) of the Trade Act, charging that China was responsible for the loss of 727,000 U.S. jobs. The request was denied.

The AFL-CIO anti-China campaigns are an unfortunate continuation of their Cold War policies of the past. Targeting China as the source of the problem, rather than U.S. corporations and U.S. trade policies, misses the mark. For the AFL-CIO to join an alliance with the National Association of Manufacturers against China is even more disconcerting. Workers are encouraged to believe that the corporate America is our ally, while China is our enemy. And in spite of the huge resources spent by the AFL-CIO on these campaigns, they have not contributed to building the labor movement, organizing workers, or strengthening political power.

China is not responsible for the loss of 727,000 U.S. jobs. Even if the AFL-CIO were successful in imposing trade sanctions against China, this would not save U.S. jobs. Instead, jobs would only shift from China to other nations in the developing world. The Bush Administration and U.S. corporations have no loyalty to U.S. workers nor a commitment to protect U.S. jobs. When the AFL-CIO attacks individual countries—whether China, Japan, or Mexico—instead of trade and corporate policies, they run the risk of encouraging protectionism, national chauvinism, and racism.

The AFL-CIO is repeating the same mistake they made during the “Buy America” campaign launched by U.S. unions in the 1970s and 1980s that singled out another Asian country: Japan. During the height of the “Buy America” campaign, autoworkers were encouraged to smash Japanese-made cars in union parking lots. Ironically, these cars were produced by unionized workers in Japan.

U.S. workers were led to believe that the process of plant shutdowns, capital flight, and corporate downsizing was not the fault of U.S. corporate policy, but the fault of Japan. U.S. unions hoped that the U.S. auto industry would be revived if the American public stopped buying foreign cars. While autoworkers smashed Toyotas and Hondas, the real culprits, corporate America, were shutting down profitable U.S. manufacturing plants in order to maximize profits even more by relocating overseas. The “Buy America” campaign also inflamed racism against Asians and created hostility between U.S. unions and the Asian American community.

China has now replaced Japan as the whipping boy of American unions. But in reality, China is not a major player in establishing international trade policies, nor have they been beneficiaries of corporate global domination. China, like other developing nations, has been exploited for its natural resources and cheap labor by multinational corporations.

The campaign against China overshadows discussion of the structural problems of the global economy created by unregulated corporate power and diverts attention away from corporate-dominated institutions, including the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, which are accelerating the global race to the bottom.

In this era of globalization and with the increasing significance of China in the global economic community, the continuing policy of the AFL-CIO is a disservice to workers of the United States and China. At a time when labor needs more international cooperation, the AFL-CIO is ignoring opportunities for labor solidarity. This prejudice has taken the form of discouraging American trade union women from attending the International Women’s Conference in 1995 because it was held in Beijing. And more recently, American trade union leaders who traveled to China have been severely criticized by their colleagues for meeting with union leaders and workers.

With over 120 million members, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, China’s only labor federation, is the largest labor organization in the world. The AFL-CIO has criticized the ACFTU for being controlled by the Communist Party of China and for being closely affiliated with the government. Indeed, China does not allow independent unions, and there are significant contradictions for unions trying to simultaneously represent the interests of the Communist Party, the government, and the workers, especially within the context of a growing market economy. And the ACFTU has been unwilling to criticize human rights and worker rights abuses in China, in large part because of their lack of political independence.

However, the Chinese economic and political situation has transformed dramatically in the last 25 years. Capitalism and the free market are expanding rapidly throughout China, with mixed results. While economic growth and expansion is undeniable, there is also growing economic inequality and worker dislocation, especially in the formerly state-run enterprises, and massive unemployment. The ACFTU is facing unprecedented challenges in this changing economic environment.

A new generation of union leaders in China is emerging. Many have studied and traveled abroad, and some are actively seeking new ideas and approaches to address China’s new labor conditions. By engaging in more dialogue with Chinese unions, the American labor movement could reach out to union leaders and workers, and have a positive influence on those who are committed to promoting change in China.

Unfortunately, however, Cold War policies embraced by the AFL-CIO decades ago have prevented any dialogue or exchange between the AFL-CIO and the ACFTU. These conservative policies have resulted in extensive collaboration between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. State Department. Over the years, tens of millions of dollars have been funneled from the State Department to the AFL-CIO to support U.S.-backed trade unions throughout the world in active opposition to liberation movements and socialist countries. While this activity has been curtailed since the election of new leadership in 1995, the AFL-CIO policy to isolate unions in China, Vietnam, and Cuba remains.

The AFL-CIO’s refusal to have contact or dialogue with the ACFTU is not shared by other major labor movements throughout the world. The ACFTU has formal relations with most major trade unions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In recent years, the ACFTU has reached out to other labor movements in order to learn about the role of trade unions in a free market economy and about labor relations, labor law, and collective bargaining. Several European unions are investing considerable time and effort in their work with China in the hope that this process could have a positive influence on the future direction of Chinese unions. Delegations of Chinese trade unionists have studied about co-determination and works council systems in Europe.

While unions and workers in China and the United States have virtually no contact with one another, hundreds of U.S. corporations are increasing their investment in China. The same U.S. corporations that are exploiting workers in the United States are now exploiting workers in China. These corporations are the chief beneficiaries of continuing isolationist policies between unions and workers. It would be mutually beneficial for U.S. and Chinese workers at Wal-Mart, Boeing, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, IBM, Motorola, Verizon, Sprint, Nike, Gap, Hilton, and Sheraton, to name a few, to meet and exchange information about corporate policies and practices, union organizing, and collective bargaining strategies.

The main threat to the economic security, dignity, and human rights of U.S. workers is from domestic and global corporations and their institutions: the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank—not China. The policy of isolating Chinese unions and workers has failed. The time is long overdue for U.S. unions to establish relationships with the largest labor movement in the developing world, to better serve the interests of workers in both the United States and China.

[keywords: union organizing, collective bargaining, AFL-CIO, WTO, U.S. jobs, All-China Federation of Unions]

© Copyright 2008 by Kent Wong