Labor Wins—in China

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Is China moving ahead of the United States on worker rights? According to a report on Monday’s Financial Times, it may be doing just that.

The FT reports that Foxconn, which employs 1.2 million Chinese workers who make the bulk of Apple’s products, along with those of Nokia, Dell and other tech companies, has decided to allow its workers to hold elections to select their union leaders. This is a radical departure from past practice in China, where unions are run by the government—that is, the Communist Party—which customarily selects the union leaders. Often, the leaders selected under this system are actually the plant managers.

Under Foxconn’s new plan, workers will cast secret ballots for their union leaders, and no managers will be eligible to run. The company’s proposal, writes the FT, is viewed as a “response to frequent worker protests, riots and strikes and soaring labor costs.” In other words, just as employers in Western Europe and the U.S. once came to prefer dealing with unions to dealing with spontaneous shutdowns arising from worker discontent, so Foxconn has decided the better part of valor is to deal with representatives of the workers whom the workers actually view as their legitimate representatives.

The proposal may make sense for Foxconn, but does it make sense for the Chinese Communist Party? It does, apparently, for the party in the nation’s manufacturing belt: The Shenzhen municipal government endorsed genuine union elections last year, and the provincial Guangzhou government followed suit last month. Those are the areas where work stoppages have been most common, imperiling the region’s reputation as the world’s manufacturing center. However, the FT found just one company that conducted such an election—At Ohms Electronic, an affiliate of Panasonic—before Foxconn’s announcement.

This may be the new path for Guangzhou, but what about the rest of China, whose entire governmental system is based on the absence of voter choice? Recently, authorities banned a television show from having its viewers vote on their favorite singer, for fear that it established a dangerous precedent. Now, the nation’s largest private-sector employer is allowing its workers to make a choice a good deal more consequential than which singer they like best. It may promote industrial harmony at the heart of China’s industry, but it inherently erodes the party’s authority even as it does.

What does this episode say about the comparative state of worker rights in the world’s two largest economies? What was the last large, or even mid-sized, American company to permit its workers to select union representatives without waging its own campaign against those workers having union representation at all?

Foxconn’s decision may be a gain for democracy. But if so, there’s a further set of questions for Americans to ask: Who’s the democracy here? Who’s the autocracy?

Harold Meyerson is a columnist for the Washington Post, a contributing editor for The American Prospect, and a Vice Chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

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