Imagining International Solidarity (with Chinese Unions)

 by Paul Garver

The UC Santa Cruz Center for Labor Studies hosted a public conference titled “Imagining International Solidarity: Models for U.S. Labor Solidarity with Workers in Latin America and China,” on Saturday, February 2. As one of the conference participants who had much to learn about China, I have since been imagining how we can further solidarity with Chinese workers at this critical historical juncture. After sketching out the global and Chinese contexts, I have tried to identify some promising initiatives and suggest a few additional steps that might be taken in the immediate future.

In the 21st century the fate of the American and global labor movements are increasingly linked to the future of workers’ organizations in Asia and especially in China. By 2010 sixty per cent of the world’s labor force will be concentrated in Asia, with 25% in China alone.In terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) China already comprises one-eighth of the global economy, and its economic growth rate remains elevated. China is fast becoming the “workshop of the world,” exporting not only mass-produced consumer goods to North America and Europe, but increasingly highly sophisticated industrial products to all of the world’s markets.China’s population of 1.3 billion is one-fifth of the global, and its labor force of some 700 million includes a vast reservoir of relatively inexpensive migrants from rural areas to sprawling industrial districts (as well as a growing number of highly educated and skilled workers in urban centers).

The massive size of the workforce in China coupled with the rapid growth of Chinese industry and its increasing role in the integrating global economy means that whatever happens in China wields enormous influence over developments affecting workers throughout the world. Therefore there is no greater challenge for the international labor movement than to figure out how to most effectively assist Chinese workers in creating an effective and genuine labor movement. There is no doubt that if such a bona fide labor partner came to exist in China, it would make a major positive difference to unions and workers elsewhere in the world. Transnational companies in a globalizing economy currently take advantage of the virtual absence of effective communications and solidarity links between Chinese workers and their sisters and brothers outside China to divide and rule.

We must be clear that international interventions can (and should) play only a marginal role in determining the future of Chinese workers. However at this crucial juncture in the history of the Chinese working class modest and well-targeted external support actions can play a positive role.

The Chinese political context is fundamentally different from that of other formerly Communist/authoritarian/state socialist societies that ignominiously collapsed, exposing their official “labor unions” to disintegration and decline. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has thus far managed with considerable skill a transition to a capitalist economic system increasingly integrated into the global economy while maintaining a monopoly of political power.

The consequences for the official monopoly labor organization in China, the All-China Federations of Trade Unions (ACFTU) are complex. The ACFTU remains a transmission belt for the CCP and the government to control Chinese workers. Its official role is primarily to enhance the creation of a “harmonious” society and of capitalism with “Chinese characteristics.”

At the same time, the ACFTU is supposed to represent the interests of Chinese workers in the state corporatist system. In the last few years the Chinese political leadership has become increasingly concerned about growing “disharmony” in China, as manifested in worker disaffection and unrest. Rapid economic growth has been accompanied by increasingly sharp social contradictions (Urban/rural, rich/poor, growing inequality, long-term unemployment). Some hundred twenty million “migrant” workers from rural provinces suffered from limited legal rights and discrimination in the workplaces and surrounding communities. The number of collective labor disputes and even wildcat strikes and protests mounts each year, while individual legal cases filed by workers clog the courts.

The ACFTU itself has been losing membership and influence because of the privatization and restructuring of former state-owned industrial enterprises. Regional and local branches of the ACFTU functioned fairly well as welfare agencies for laid-off employees of the closing or restructuring state-owned enterprises (SOEs). However the official labor organization still lacks the skills and understanding to effectively organize and represent workers in the rapidly growing private sector and foreign-owned enterprises (FOEs) and their suppliers.

But the ACFTU is acquiring the “mandate” to do so. In the first decade of the 21st century, governmental and Communist Party bodies began to “command” the ACFTU to become more active in organizing and representing workers, including migrant workers and those in the privately owned and foreign-owned enterprises. In pronouncements and on paper, ACFTU officials complied. By 2002, the ACFTU reported 133 million members in 1.7 million “grassroots unions.” It had even begun to sign a number of “collective contracts” with enterprises (mainly listing terms of existing legislation). However on the ground, major problems continue to exist. Many “grassroots unions” and associated Communist Party cells at workplaces are controlled by management officials. Workers with individual or collective grievances still take them to the courts or to the streets, rather than to the “unions.”

Under the direction of the Communist Party, the ACFTU has prioritized the establishment of union branches in foreign-owned enterprises. A highly publicized effort at Wal-Mart stores resulted in the establishment of union branches in almost all outlets. However to date, few of them have actually made collective bargaining demands on behalf of Wal-Mart employees. Some of the impetus that led to selecting Wal-Mart as a focus of organizing in the foreign-owned sector came from SEIU.

On 1 January 2008 a new labor law went into effect in China that would improve individual contractual rights for employees, mainly by requiring greater security of employment for longer service employees. It also encourages a form of collective consultation of worker representatives. Another law now under consideration would create an arbitration system for the hundreds of thousands of individual complaints by workers that have now clogged the Chinese legal system.

Foreign employers, led by the American and European Chambers of Commerce that represent most of the major transnational companies operating in China, successfully lobbied to reduce the scope of the new labor law, arguing that it would raise labor costs in China and force companies to relocate to countries with lower labor standards. However labor organizations and labor supportive NGOs outside China, and the ACFTU itself within China, fought back sufficiently to mean that the new law, if implemented, would in fact improve labor standards in China. The ACFTU’s advocacy suggests that it might play a more proactive role in pushing for actual implementation of the reforms.

If local ACFTU branches begin to engage in serious collective bargaining with employers, new possibilities for increasing worker participation and influence at the grassroots level open up. In the crucially important industrializing Guangdong province some one-third of the grassroots unions already have some form of direct election by workers. (The results have been mixed: elected local union leaders run the gamut from migrant workers to factory managers). Local collective bargaining, even if it more resembles European-style “consultation” in its content, would require a massive effort at re-training union officials, and a willingness to tolerate greater democratic participation by workers in the bargaining process.

Until recently only the Japanese unions and a few state-controlled confederations from the East and South have engaged in extensive visits and discussions with the top leadership of the ACFTU. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and some (not all) labor NGOs based in Hong Kong have long pointed out that the ACFTU is not a legitimate labor organization and should not be treated as such by the world labor movement. While their fundamental views have not altered, even the skeptical China Labor Bulletin now proposes that FOEs enter into collective bargaining with ACFTU grassroots unions.

In 2002 President Andy Stern of SEIU made a highly publicized visit where he met with the President of the ACFTU, which he described in his new book as “the most important union leader he had previously met.” Since then Stern has returned to China several times to meet with the ACFTU, and hosted an ACFTU delegation to Washington in 2005. In 2007 Change to Win sent a high-level delegation to meet with the ACFTU, including James Hoffa, Stern, Anna Burger and executive director Greg Tarpinian. While denying that “engagement” with the ACFTU implied “endorsement,” the visit of the CTW delegation obviously constituted a high-level effort at creating a “strategic partnership” with the ACFTU with regard to U.S.-owned TNCs like Wal-Mart. It is projected that CTW and the ACFTU will sign a cooperation agreement when an ACFTU delegation visits the USA in June 2008.

In December 2007 the ICTU authorized its General Secretary Guy Ryder to initiate talks with the ACFTU, after the AFL-CIO decided to withdraw its objections. Several national confederations (FNV Netherlands, Solidarnosc, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions), some Global Union Federations (IUF) and many international labor activists continue to oppose talks with the ACFTU as legitimating a state apparatus and undercutting the work being done out of Hong Kong to create a network of genuine trade union activists in China.

I personally have long held that position, and continue to respect its fundamental concerns. I am very impressed by the courageous and creative efforts by Hong Kong-based labor research organizations and other NGOs to support organizing efforts among migrant workers in Guangdong province, and firmly believe that such efforts must not be compromised by international contacts with the ACFTU. We must also continue to give support to, and respect the views of, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, which remains an outpost of genuine trade unionism in that “special administration region” of China.

However I am becoming convinced that it is now time to move on to a discussion of how to engage with Chinese trade unionists, including ACFTU officials, rather than whether to do so. At the Santa Cruz conference on Imagining International Solidarity (speakers on the China theme were Jenny Chan (SACOM), Anita Chan (Australian National University), Josie Mooney (SEIU) and Kent Wong (UCLA Center for Labor Studies), there were both private and public discussions of this issue among the score of participants. I was also influenced by attending a forum on “China’s New Labor Laws” at Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program, addressed by Tim Costello of Global Labor Strategies and Ellen David Friedman, now a visiting lecturer at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou.

It is not that the fundamental problem with the ACFTU as a primary transmission belt for the Chinese State and Communist Party has been overcome. That remains its primary task, and thereby drastically limits its capacity to begin to act as a genuine representative of the interests of Chinese workers. I do not think that high level talks with the General Secretary of the ICTU or CTW union leaders will change that stubborn reality. But it is even more difficult to imagine a path to genuine trade unionism in China that does not receive support from reformers within the ACFTU itself. Current developments within China suggest that there is some possibility that the continued hegemony of the corporate pro-capitalist Chinese State and Communist Party does not at this time preclude positive developments within the official labor organization.

Several years ago Kent Wong and Elaine Bernard wrote an article advocating engagement with China designed to identify regional and local union leaders that might be open to genuine trade unionism. China, they pointed out, is simply too big to be a monolith. There are regional and local differences within the ACFTU, and those who advocate reform have to be brought out of isolation and encouraged. For many reasons, including the ACFTU’s role in furthering new labor law reform, and its activity in organizing unions in Wal-Mart and other TNCs in China, this position has gained support from many U.S. labor activists and academics. Many U.S. labor staffers and academics who have recently visited China privately and publicly speak of serious discussions with ACFTU officers over practical reform measures they are taking or wish to take. To take a single example, Ellen David Friedman, a former NEA staffer in Vermont now teaching community organizing at a Chinese university, was invited by the head of the ACFTU in Guangdong to meet with members of his staff. He will visit the USA in June 2008.

We should not expect breakthroughs or rapid results. China remains a huge challenge to the American and global labor movements, both in terms of strategy and to allocation of resources. If my years in the international labor movement taught me anything, it is that there are no short cuts to building serious labor unions, let alone to building real solidarity links among unions. It is painstakingly hard work, requiring persistence and grit, what military strategists call “boots on the ground.” Top-level meetings among confederation and union leaders are useful only if they serve to legitimate concrete actions at the grassroots level.For this reason I am suspicious of grand proclamations and exaggerated predictions of success. When I hear that the global congress of an (unnamed) GUF decided to organize the hundred largest TNCs in the world, I doubt its seriousness. When I read Stephen Lerner’s belief that there are tens of millions of workers out there in the property services industry in the world’s global cities that are ripe for organizing, I admired the ambition but wonder about the next small steps that will actually be taken. Similarly when I hear of the ACFTU’s goal of organizing 80% of foreign-owned factories in China by the end of 2008, I think rather about the millions of union officials who would have to actually be trained in collective bargaining to make that of any real benefit to workers.

Dan Gallin, former General Secretary of the IUF and my mentor in international labor work reminds us:

“Building global unionism cannot be done by smoke and mirrors and by branding exercises, but only in the way genuine trade unionism is build anywhere: by education and organization from the bottom up, by organizations that are accountable to their membership.”

Although I may disagree with Dan on the details of engagement with the ACFTU, I fully endorse this principle. In that spirit, I suggest that there are both existing initiatives and other possible small steps that might make some positive changes more likely. These in no particular order include:

1. Visits and Exchanges

While high-level exchanges serve mainly to legitimate relationships among leaders, broader based visits and contacts at lower levels would be more significant in the long run. One current example is that between the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Shanghai Municipal Trade Union Council.

Another one is planned for this year between teachers and students in San Francisco and teachers and students from Shanghai.Information exchange and strategy meetings among unions and workers from the same transnational companies have proven very useful at the global level, and including representative Chinese participants in such meetings should become a high priority for Global Unions.South-to-South bilateral exchanges might be particularly useful to Chinese unions. For example the positive and negative experiences that labor movements in South Africa and Brazil have had with socialist-influenced political movements and reforming governments may soon become directly relevant to the Chinese experience.

2. Translations

There is a dearth of English-language information on current developments with Chinese workers and unions. The China Labor News Translations site (organized by Anita Chan) is very helpful, but it needs expanded funding.More significantly there is an enormous body of knowledge in English and other Western languages on labor (history, collective bargaining, labor law, etc.) that is not yet available in Chinese. Although many Chinese are learning English, most Chinese workers at the grassroots level need these resource materials in Chinese for any training programs to be effective.

3. Training

Most of the practical experience with training workers for a new Chinese unionism has been concentrated in Hong Kong and the adjoining province of Guangdong.International support has bolstered unions and union educational NGOs in Hong Kong, which is officially a Special Administrative Region of China, but in fact is still relatively autonomous. From Hong Kong there has been a promising extension of worker support centers and small labor NGOs run by migrant workers to adjacent areas of southern China (although a number of vicious attacks against worker advocates and NGOs is threatening that opening). Although small in scale, Labor NGOs in Hong Kong (notably Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) are experimenting with in-factory labor rights training (in negotiations with TNCs supplying from China) and with Community Level Worker Centers for migrant workers.Engagement with the ACFTU must not foreclose that work. Rather ways should be found for it to complement the reforming efforts of regional ACFTU leaders who are open to change and aware of the enormous need to “train the trainers” for workers (and retrain ACFTU officials) at the local levels. Hong Kong and Chinese labor NGOs could provide a valuable resource in helping to meet this need. This might be included in discussions with the ACFTU leader of Guangdong province when he visits the USA this year.Practical cooperation in educational, research and training at grassroots levels should be a major item on the agenda of all exchanges, and form the core of projected cooperation agreements.

4. Using “Corporate Social Responsibility” constructively

The American and European “growth industry” that has paralleled the massive growth of (real) Chinese industry has been “social accountability” or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) auditing. Whether conducted by in-house or by contracted audit firms, these were supposed to ensure that employees were provided proper working conditions by suppliers to transnational firms in China and other developing countries.In general, CSR efforts have foundered on the rocks of a lack of credibility and transparency. With a few exceptions, transnational companies have regarded CSR mainly as a public-relations exercise, and have been unwilling or unable to effectively implement CSR programs throughout their extensive supply chains. Nor have most TNCs been willing to reveal who their suppliers are. One exposé after another has led to campaigns like that of SACOM against Disney (SACOM looked for but could not located “Mickey Mouse’s Conscience” in factories supplying Disney in southern China).Most foreign-owned companies (led by AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce) campaigned to water down the impact of recent changes in Chinese labor law. However they have promised to comply with it (even while protesting it will raise labor costs). SACOM and other Hong Kong NGOs have asked for pressure on TNCs to demonstrate their respect for workers’ rights by giving every worker a copy of their codes of conduct, promote responsible sourcing practices and posting full lists of their suppliers on their websites. Moreover SACOM, along with Global Labor Strategies in the USA, has demanded that companies reveal the templates for the individual labor contracts they now must provide workers, and most importantly, develop mechanisms for worker elections and representation. SACOM’s goal is to “use the new discursive space created by CSR to further movements for worker voice.” It is by no means easy to accomplish this. For instance, pressure on TNCs to encourage the direct election of worker representatives in their suppliers is both resented by ACFTU officials as interference and has not necessarily resulted in sustainable worker leadership in grassroots unions or workers’ committees.

5. Labor law changes: worker representatives and unions

In general, external supporters should focus on requiring foreign-owned companies and their suppliers to at least respect and implement Chinese labor law. Although favoring a rather vague sort of “collective consultation” rather than genuine collective bargaining, the new law on labor contracts does require that all employers “consult with either a union or elected worker representatives before approving enterprise rules on employment conditions.” It also forbids management discrimination against employees who become worker representatives and requires that elected worker representatives “have access to co-workers in order to carry out their representative functions.”

If implemented, this legislation provides a framework under which bona fide unionism could be established and begin operate within enterprises. There are major hurdles to be overcome. The first is the reality and even enhanced potential for management domination. Many local union branches, Communist Party cells within enterprises, and even elected “workers committees” are already dominated by management officials. As in many corporatist labor-management systems (whether in former Communist countries through Japan and Mexico, to mention a few), union and human resource management functions are highly integrated and are often stages of the same person’s career. When the ACFTU “organized” Wal-Mart stores, it did indeed in an unprecedented way actually organize the first five stores from below, but then it reverted to its customary demand that Wal-Mart itself organize the rest from above. As a consequence the ACFTU “represents”  all 66 Wal-Mart retail stores, but there is no record of what it has done other than collect the 2% payroll assessment, and management has retained total control.Secondly, the future relations between elected “worker representatives” and local unions in China could be mutually supportive or could be primarily antagonistic. In some countries it is possible to judge whether a company respects worker rights by the presence or absence of an actual union. This is not possible in China. In fact, one can imagine a scenario in which a company invites the ACFTU to organize a local branch to circumvent an elected workers’ committee that is making too many demands.In the 1980s the Chinese “staff and workers representative congress” worked quite well in the state enterprises, and the ACFTU has been pushing for decades to legitimize its place in Chinese labor law. The new Labor Contract law encourages its extension to non-state enterprises, and some Chinese academics regard it as having considerable potential for institutionalizing worker rights at the workplace level.Since several European countries have long experience with the strengths and weaknesses of the interactions between enterprise-based works councils and labor unions, it might be useful to promote exchanges between European and Chinese unionists in this area.


The principle to be followed in any of these initiatives is that they should provide crucial resources for Chinese union reformers and activists while respecting the basic reality that only Chinese workers and unions can determine the future of labor organization in China. Nonetheless all the workers of the world as well as we in the USA have an urgent interest in doing the little we can to support the creation of a genuine labor movement in China. Only the equally daunting task of rebuilding an effective American labor movement has equal priority! 

This is a first draft, and I am certain that my ignorance of Chinese institutions has led to numerous errors and misjudgements. I welcome comments and criticisms. A list of resources I found useful follows. 

Web-based Resources

1. Global Labor Strategies (GLS) ( has a thread dealing with Chinese labor issues that is regularly updated and provides a lot of useful information in an accessible and brief form.

 2. Chinese Labor News Translations (CLNT) (  is a free collection of English translations of Chinese-language reports, commentaries and blogs on labor issues, chosen from significant mainland Chinese media reports, academic publications, activist writings, and internet discussions.

3. SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior). ( is a small but energetic Hong Kong-based NGO that campaigns against corporate abuses in China, and promotes in-factory worker rights training and community-based organizing among migrant workers in southern China.

 4. China Labor Bulletin (CLB) ( .CLB director Han Dongfang is internationally the best known proponent of an independent workers movement in China and is strongly critical of the ACFTU.The CLB recent English-language research report on the Chinese Workers’ Movement in 2005 and 2006 is at“A Cry for Justice: Voices of Chinese Workers”, a report based on Han Dongfang’s telephone interviews with Chinese workers is published by the Albert Shanker Institute in January 2008, available at   Useful books and articles

5. Jude Howell (March 2006), “New Democratic Trends in China? Reforming the All-China Federation of Trade Unions” (IDS Working Paper 263, Institute of Development Studies, Univ. of Sussex, Brighton UK).

6. Chan, Anita (2003). China’s Workers Under Assault: the Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy (London: M.E. Sharpe)

7. Dan Gallin (2007), Looking for the Quick Fix: Reviewing Andy Stern,” contains an extensive critique of the SEIU’s opening to China. 

 8. Mingwei Liu (2007), “Union Organizing in China: Swimming, Floating, or Sinking?,” analyzes three patterns of regional union organizing, with  substantially different consequences for unions and collective bargaining (Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, unpublished)

Future forums:The Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn this upcoming 11-13 April will have a significant Chinese Labor Movement Track, organized by Ellen David Friedman ( and featuring Anita Chan as a main session speaker.

2 Responses

  1. Great post. An especially good set of prescriptions.

  2. […] For a discussion of concrete steps sympathetic foreign  unionists can take (and are taking) to support reform of labor  organizations in China, see: […]

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