China’s labor movement keeping pace with globalization
Workers at a factory owned by Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group fill out application forms for union membership in Shenzhen, China, in 2007. A union was established at the transnational firm by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. The ACFTU has targeted foreign companies for many years. | AP

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This is Part 1 of a 2-part series based on a conversation with An Jianhua, International Secretary of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, May 29, 2018.

BEIJING—How is Donald Trump’s threat of a trade war going over among workers in China? With great concern, according to An Jianhua, international secretary of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The feeling here is that a trade war will be bad for everyone, including U.S. workers.

A group of visiting labor activists met with Mr. An recently and explored a wide range of topics, including his hopes for improved cooperation with the U.S. labor movement.

Like everything in China, life for workers has changed dramatically after 40 years of building what is known here as a socialist market economy. The economic achievements alone are astonishing and unprecedented in human history.

Over 700 million Chinese have been lifted from extreme poverty, hundreds of millions have left rural areas for cities, a modern infrastructure has been constructed almost overnight, and industrialization has been achieved—largely through an influx of foreign capital.

Tremendous challenges and risks remain. China insists it is still a developing country in the first stage of socialism, millions still live in extreme poverty, and democratic governance and rule of law have not been fully established.

Now, China’s leaders are projecting a new round of economic reforms that will completely eliminate extreme poverty within the next 3-5 years, transition the economy from an export driven one to a “Made in China 2025” model based on innovation and productivity increases, and create what is being called an “ecological civilization.” All of this is envisioned within the context of a new era of globalization, sharpening international competition, and technological displacement.

At the same time, China says it will be carrying out reforms in governance, modernizing its education and services, and deepening people’s participation in management and decision-making.

And that means ACFTU must change to fit the times. Even China’s President Xi Jinping has urged the ACFTU to improve workplace representation and to “protect workers’ interests and promote social justice to win public trust and support” among workers.

Status of China’s labor movement

The ACFTU was founded on May 1, 1925. Today, trade union membership in China is 308 million, the largest in the world and more than all other countries combined.

Overall, trade union membership covers 44 percent of the estimated 700 million eligible workers. The goal is to organize at least 90 percent of the workforce eventually.

Rapid growth in membership has taken place in recent years, the result of government encouragement of collective bargaining agreements in response to increased labor unrest, wage inequality, violations of labor law by capitalist corporations, and the desire for workers to play a bigger role in economic management.

Trade unions now represent over 90 percent of workers at Fortune 500 corporations operating in China. An believes the obligatory signing of contracts with the ACFTU imposes sufficient restraints on their operations to insure people’s rights.

Contracts are signed with individuals or as collective bargaining agreements with unions, specifying the rights of workers, training, vacations, and wage increases.

A minimum wage policy exists at the municipal level, developed cooperatively by the trade unions, employers, and government. These policies are an important part of China’s legal system protecting workers.

Changing status of women

China is overcoming a legacy of extreme oppression of women and patriarchy. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, women have been fully equal under the law. “Today, 80-90 percent of women are working, roughly half the workforce,” and women comprise half of university graduates, said An.

Legal changes can come with the decision of a government, but a change of mindset takes far longer to accomplish. In our observations, women are still scarce in leadership positions in enterprises and the labor movement. It shows up in politics, too. As of 2017, women comprised 24 percent of parliamentarians.

According to An, women are underrepresented in various professions and suffer a wage gap. The labor movement and government continue to get more women in the workforce and leading positons, while taking steps to ensure equality and addressing the special rights of women.

Role of ACFTU

The work of the ACFTU takes place under complex circumstances of rapid economic development within the framework of a mixed economy, or a socialist market economy as the Chinese call it.

Sixty percent of fixed investment in the economy is to be found within either publicly owned enterprises or publicly controlled enterprises with minority private investment.

The government asserts absolute control over armaments, power generation and distribution, oil and petrochemicals, telecommunications, coal, aviation, and the shipping industries. It also directs short and long-term social investment.

The ACFTU is part of China’s governing structure as opposed to the U.S., where labor’s clout depends on the composition of legislative and judicial bodies and agencies. Under Trump and GOP domination of government and the judiciary, labor’s very existence is at stake.

The ACFTU sees its role as leading the working class in achieving the main goals for the country as projected by the governing Communist Party of China (CPC): building a moderately prosperous society for all by 2020, a modern socialist society by 2035, and fully modern, democratic, sustainable socialism by 2050.

“We serve the interests of the mass of working people, acting as both a bridge and a bond between them and the CPC,” An explained.

Since economic reforms were instituted in 1978, this has meant placing a priority on social stability and “industrial harmony” to attract foreign investors who operate under Chinese labor law. Even with millions lifted from poverty, labor and worker rights advocates internationally believe the ACFTU has sacrificed defending worker rights for the sake of overall development.

Trade unions function as partners on every level of planning. For example, the ACFTU, government, and employers cooperate to set China’s minimum wage. In addition, ACFTU and the government meet to discuss how to improve life for working people.

“ACFTU is giving leadership to economic development, especially raising production, governance, and management,” said An.

An Jianhua, international secretary of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. | Photo courtesy of Robert Griffiths / Morning Star

The ACFTU also collaborates with 100 institutes to organize training and education programs for workers to help equip them with the skills and training they need in a technologically changing world.

But huge imbalances remain between rural and urban incomes, and extreme rural poverty persists. The ACFTU sees as its duty helping to find ways to pull each remaining family out of extreme poverty.

As industrialization progresses, the government targets rural areas for revitalization and agricultural workers join trade unions. “Changing mindsets is crucial,” An explained. Rural and migrant workers reared in extreme poverty don’t consider how much the company is profiting when they offer a wage increase. Instead of fighting for more, they gladly accept it.

During our conversation, we expressed concern over the impact that exploitation by transnational corporations was having on workers. An admitted China is treading an uncharted path and taking risks. A dangerous turn toward capitalist exploitation could yet happen.

The ACFTU, CPC, and government are fully aware what they are up against. They are taking steps to prevent this by reforming governance and rule of law, strengthening the role of unions, deepening socialist consciousness, and increasing the participation of the working class in all aspects of society, said An.

Carol Widom and John Bachtell represented the Communist Party USA at a celebration for the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth hosted by the Communist Party of China on May 28 in Shenzhen. They toured the country afterward with representatives of other Communist and Socialist parties.

Read Part 2 of this interview.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.

Carol Ramos Widom
Carol Ramos Widom

Carol Ramos Widom is an educator writing from Brooklyn, N.Y.