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A Time for Honest Self-Reflection

The US Labor Movement and China

by ALBERTO C. RUIZ

The statistics are chilling.   In a country where workers have no real right to organize a union, they face an ever falling standard of living.   The workers’ attempts to organize independent unions are faced with repression – 25% of the companies illegally fire workers who try to organize; active union supporters indeed have a 1 in 5 chance of being fired; over half of the companies threaten to have undocumented, foreign laborers deported during organizing campaigns; over half of the companies threaten to close the plant if it is organized; and nearly half of companies that are unionized never reach a labor contract with the union.   Of course, this country is not China, but rather, is, according to the AFL-CIO, the United States.

Notwithstanding this dismal situation for labor rights in this country, the U.S. labor movement is fixated on vilifying China and its human and labor rights situation as a cover for protecting U.S. workers from competition from albeit much lower paid Chinese workers.  Of course, U.S. labor has every right, and indeed a duty, to protect the workers it represents.   However, the obsession with China as an economic rival – an obsession which sometimes devolves into a racist stigmatization of the Chinese people themselves — is a distraction from the real and most pressing problems of U.S. workers:  the ever growing economic and power disparity between capital and workers in this country, and a legal regime in the U.S. which only encourages this disparity.

This was brought home for me by a recent meeting at my union with visiting labor law professors from China.    Very tellingly, it was our Chinese guests who were much more candid about the problems facing their working class than their American hosts.

The master of ceremonies (MC) who led the discussion for the U.S. trade unionists – a quite typical labor leader who harbors profound anti-Chinese resentments — met in advance with all of us who would be attending the meeting to go over the ground rules, the primary rule being that, notwithstanding the shortcomings we know to exist in U.S. labor law, we were not to share those openly with our Chinese visitors lest they go back home and use this as propaganda against us.

Then, during the meeting itself, our MC gave a revealing history of the U.S. labor movement, though it was most revealing in the details and large time period it left out of the history.   Thus, he started the meeting discussing the struggles of workers to organize in the late 19th Century; the critical strikes of the early 20th Century which eventually gave rise to the CIO and the unprecedented union drives in the U.S.; the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 which gave workers’ the right to legally organize; and the post-war period which was punctuated by a strike wave motivated by workers’ attempts to get a fair share of the growing economic pie as well as the pent-up frustration they felt as a result of the strike ban during World War II.   He then stated that all of this led to the period of the 1950’s which saw unparalleled prosperity for this country and a workforce which was 40% unionized.   He concluded his oral history there, and asked if there were any questions.

Of course, what was not discussed was the period from the 1950’s till the present day during which time union density shrunk to around its present figure of 12%.    Also not mentioned was the outlawing of Communists in the labor movement – though, without a doubt, Communists were critical to the founding of the CIO, to the organizing drives of the 1930’s and to the New Deal itself – and the disarming of the labor movement which flowed from the patricidal purge of the Reds who had helped build it.   Also missing was any discussion of the AFL-CIO’s decades-long period of prostrating itself to the foreign policy aims of the U.S. government – regardless of which party was in power – and its activity abroad in helping the CIA overthrow democratic governments (such as those of Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile) and install military dictatorships in their stead which were anti-labor and indeed fascist.

These facts are undoubtedly inconvenient, for they underscore how the U.S. labor movement is not so different from the caricature it has painted of the official labor movement of China.   Thus, while U.S. unions criticize the Chinese labor movement, known as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), as being government-captive and controlled, the AFL-CIO itself can be similarly critiqued.   Indeed, the AFL-CIO’s interventionist foreign policy in support of U.S. expansion is the starkest example of this, and no other union movement in the world can be accused of such thoroughly pro-government and treacherous anti-labor policies.

And, while this period ended largely with the end of the Cold War – though not entirely, as can certainly be seen in the labor movement’s anti-communist rhetoric against China itself and the AFL-CIO’s complicity in the coup against Chavez in 2002 — the AFL-CIO’s unquestioning linkage to the Democratic Party continues unabated.   And, this linkage continues even though the Democratic Party is more and more indistinguishable from its ostensible rival and even though the Democratic Party has delivered nearly nothing to the American working class for over three decades except job-killing trade deals and the assault on the social safety net.  Moreover, I would suggest that the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support of the Democratic Party with millions of dollars of its members’ contributions, as well as its keeping its ranks mollified by fixing their focus and energies on an electoral process which produces nearly no return for them, rivals any service the ACFTU performs for or at the behest of the Communist Party of China.

Meanwhile, the fascinating fact we discussed about China is the unprecedented strike and protest wave occurring throughout that country and being led by workers – 90,000 of such “mass incidents” taking place last year alone.   And, as the labor professors from China explained, much to our surprise, these strikes are being led by workers with no unions at all, are indeed uncoordinated (leading our MC to candidly compare these strikes to those in the U.S. which were led by the Wobblies in the 1920’s), and are being tolerated by both the Chinese government and the ACFTU.   The result of this is an increase in wages for workers in China.   We also discussed, quite ironically, that if, as the labor professors do in fact desire, China adopts some type of U.S.-style labor law, it will be done for the very reason that the U.S. government and employers acquiesced to our labor law in the first place – because it will lead to “industrial peace” and quell the strike wave now impacting China.

In other words, China needs a U.S.-style labor law, the argument goes, in order to control its workers better and to obtain the type of compliant and acquiescent work force we see in this country – a workforce which continues to see its standard of living drop further and further with barely a peep in response.

Finally, at the end of the meeting, our Chinese guests were asked what we could do to help them with their struggle in China.  They answered that we could put pressure on U.S. companies doing business in China to treat their Chinese workers better and to provide them with better wages and benefits.   They explained that, while workers in the U.S. may view the Chinese as taking their jobs, the Chinese view the situation differently – as U.S. companies coming over to China to exploit them and to pay them low wages to manufacture goods which Americans can then buy at cheap prices.

Our guests then looked at us and asked, in relation to the hostility they know the U.S. people have towards China, “didn’t Marx say something at the end of the Communist Manifesto about the workers of the world uniting?”  And all we could say was, “yes he did, yes he did.”

Alberto C. Ruiz is a long-time unionist, peace activist and associate member of the left-wing World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).   He recommends the following website for serious reading on the struggles of labor in China: http://chinastudygroup.net/