by Paul Garver
On March 17th Talking Union, the Jacobin Magazine and Labor Notes sponsored a roundtable discussion at the CUNY Murphy Institute on China in Revolt. Over a hundred labor scholars and community and labor activists, including many from both Overseas and Mainland China, met to discuss the latest developments in the Chinese workers’ movement.
Eli Friedman, now teaching at Cornell University, summarized his hypothesis that China’s new working class of internal migrant workers might be developing a more politicized class consciousness as global manufacturers increasingly located their factories closer to their villages of origin deep in the interior provinces of China. Three highly regarded scholar/activists from the Chinese diaspora (Anita Chan, now teaching in Sydney, Chris King-Chi Chan of the City University of Hong Kong, and Elaine Sio-ieng Hui, a doctoral fellow in Kassel, Germany) commented on Eli’s hypothesis, and outlined some of their own extensive recent research findings and analyses of the current Chinese workers’ movement.
As a person with experience in the socialist and international labor movement, I was impressed and thrilled by the high level both of critical thinking and of passionate commitment to workers’ struggles present on the panel and in the room. Marxist critical theory is not only alive, but is actively at work in supporting one of the most important developments of workers’ struggles in global history. I was proud to have played a small role in facilitating this roundtable.
But as a rank amateur on Chinese worker issues who knows little more than what I learn at second hand from folks like Eli, Anita, Chris and Elaine, I want to reflect here on what implications we might draw from China for the American workers’ movement.
This is of course a stretch. Not only are China and the USA opposite poles of capitalist globalization – our political and union institutions are moving in different trajectories. Our industrial working class is shrinking – theirs is still growing. Our union membership is declining – theirs is nominally huge, but their trade union federations are essentially government/party bureaucracies with no input from or control by workers. We have a political party system of which one party is openly hostile to organized labor and the other at best an untrustworthy ally – China has one hegemonial political party nominally committed to working class interests and trade union organization but beholden to capitalist globalization and highly suspicious of and resistant to any autonomous workers’ movement.
Yet there is an analogous source of hope for these divergent labor institutions in the organization of migrant/immigrant workers.
Chinese “migrant” workers for over a generation have migrated from rural villages in China’s interior to work in factories and construction sites in coastal cities, where they make up a large percentage of the relatively unskilled manufacturing and construction workers. In recent years they have increasingly asserted their collective power through unsanctioned strikes and riots. The formal trade union structures had heretofore made little effort to represent their interests, but under pressure from the Party to deal with the growing social unrest and industrial actions of migrant workers, some local and provincial trade union federations are experimenting with reforms designed to open up channels for collective bargaining.
The American labor unions have long had checkered relations with immigrant workers, that at various times in U.S. history have also made up a significant portion of the working class. In recent years recent immigrants, even some without documents, are becoming leaders in local unions. For instance many SEIU locals particularly in the property services sector are being led by recent immigrants recruited through the Justice for Janitors campaign, and a top SEIU officer, Eliseo Medina, is a leader of immigration reform efforts. Even as the AFL-CIO unions are weakened by losses in membership, most of its national union organizations have become much more progressive in including immigrants, including ones without documentation, and the AFL-CIO is solidly backing comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship.
Of equal importance, many of the most creative new union organizing efforts in the USA, from port truck drivers through fast food workers, warehouse workers, healthcare domestic and personal care service workers heavily draw upon recent immigrants both as the organizers and as the organized.
It is no accident that the reform agenda of unions both in China and in the USA have to be based on their ability to integrate newer entrants into the working class movement, whether these be internal migrants (China) or documented/undocumented immigrants (USA).
Those of us who advocate and support workers’ struggles and union reforms in both countries have much to learn from each other. Exchanges of experience like the roundtable on China in Revolt are extremely important.
Filed under: Conferences and Events, Global organizing, Immigrant Workers, Low wage workers, Organizing, Solidarity, Strikes and work action, Union Reform | Tagged: AFL-CIO, China, Jacobin, Labor Notes, SEIU | Leave a comment »