Weekly Sisyphus #1

Unpredictable transformations are taking place within the Chinese labor movement. How will US workers respond?

Labor unrest across China this summer, which began at a Honda transmission plant in Foshan, has sparked a flurry of debate about international labor policy amidst growing alarm over the strength of the US labor market. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka reported, after traveling across the US recently, that Americans “are looking for economic patriotism,” which leading some to ask if a pernicious yellow-peril-ism could also be on the rise. Nation reporter Robert Dreyfuss has dutifully laid out the contours of the debate with some surprising conclusions. For one, it appears that former SEIU president, Andy Stern, whose Change to Win coalition has experienced a complete organizational meltdown, has long advocated a policy towards China which is far more “internationalist” than the AFL-CIO. To his right, Leo Gerard, United Steel Workers President, champion of the Battle of Seattle, and a founder of Workers Uniting, has been heading the charge against Chinese currency manipulation, environmental violations, China’s reneging on WTO agreements, and much much more. As Gerard exclaims in the Huffington Post, “it’s time for America to flip the bird back.” Gerard has also recently been appointed by Obama to sit on the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. The saber-rattling has begun. The Economic Policy Institute, a non-for-profit organization associated with American labor unions, has come out with a report which argues that the Chinese trade deficit will cost half a million US jobs in 2010. Debatable.

A central aspect of the controversy revolves around the state controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Andy Stern has advocated cooperation, while other unionists (especially in manufacturing) consider such a move as sacrilegious. Their answer — boycott. The China Labour Bulletin, an organization whose roots go back to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, has advocated cooperation with the ACFTU. Their ninety-six-page report, Going It Alone: The Workers Movement in China, 2007–2008, cited in the Nation article, provides detailed background information about the ACFTU and recent labor unrest. Mark W. Frazier, ConocoPhillips Professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Oklahoma, has also written a useful survey of about a dozen books on the contemporary history of Chinese labor. All agree that important, but largely unpredictable transformations are taking place within the Chinese labor movement. How will US workers respond? Nationalism or internationalism?