At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.
The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”
Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.
These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developing world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.
This is the culmination of efforts going back several years, and the British TUC has played a prominent — indeed, enthusiastic — part in this process.
I think that this is a problem for the trade union movement because the officially sanctioned, legal trade unions in China are not trade unions in the sense that we understand them in a country like the UK.
Historically, the ACFTU differed not one iota from, say, the “All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions” in the USSR. In fact, it was set up based on the Soviet model.
And that model had nothing to do with worker representation, collective bargaining, or class struggle.
In the Soviet model, unions were organs of the Communist Party and the state, designed to enforce workplace discipline and provide some welfare benefits to workers.
I think few would deny that the Chinese unions fit that description perfectly, at least up until a few years ago.
For that reason, for many decades the ACFTU was quite isolated in the international trade union movement. Like trade unions in Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam, it was seen as a “state labour front” — and not a union.
What has changed in the last few decades is that China has embraced the free market. And as a result, there is the sudden re-emergence of class struggle.
Strikes occur every day, all over the country, and they are often allowed to run their course — winning workers improved wages and working conditions.
The Communist Party seems to have decided that it is best to let workers let off steam this way, rather than attempting to suppress every strike and protest.
So strikes are tolerated — but it stops there. The regime does not tolerate, and cannot tolerate, the emergence of truly free and independent trade unions controlled by their members.
The formation of a nationwide Chinese version of “Solidarity” is a nightmare scenario for the ruling Party elite.
In most cases, the strikes taking place are local with very little nationwide coordination. The organisations set up by workers spontaneously tend to fade away fairly quickly.
In some cases, local officials of the ACFTU unions support the workers or even lead them.
But the ACFTU as a whole remains firmly in the grasp of the Communist Party.
Its leader, Li Jianguo, is a member of the Politburo of the Party. His entire political career spanning some 40 years has been as a Party official. He was given the task of the leading the ACFTU in early 2013.
Just to emphasize — Li rose up through the ranks of the Communist Party, not the unions. As a very senior Party leader, he was brought in to take charge of the ACFTU. This is typical of the authoritarian, top-down style of Chinese politics -- and trade unionism.
Just before his elevation to the leadership of the Chinese unions, Li faced public accusations of favouritism. He was accused with promoting his nephew to a plum position.
The website of the ACFTU speaks a great deal about how the organisation protects workers:
“The fundamental task of the Chinese trade unions is to carry out the various social functions of the trade unions in line with the guiding principle of reflecting and safeguarding concrete interests of the workers and staff members in a better way while safeguarding the overall interests of the people throughout the whole country, and, united with the broad masses of workers and staff members, strive for the realization of China’s socialist modernisation.
The major social functions of the Chinese trade unions are as follows: 1. to protect the legitimate interests and democratic rights of the workers and staff members, 2. to mobilize and organise the workers and staff members to take part in the construction and reform and accomplish the tasks in the economic and social development, 3. to represent and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the administration of the State and social affairs and to participate in the democratic management of enterprises, 4. to educate the workers and staff members to constantly improve their ideological and moral qualities and raise their scientific and cultural levels.”
That was quite a mouthful, but the operative phrases emphasize the ACFTU’s role regarding the “overall interests of the people” rather than its own members, and its striving for the country’s “socialist modernization”. It includes in its job description the accomplishing of tasks and taking part in construction and reform — all of this being code for supporting the Communist Party.
The Orwellian language about improving the “ideological and moral qualities” of its members reflect the ACFTU’s origins as a Soviet-style state labour front.
But it may be a bit more complicated than that today.
The authoritative — and fiercely independent — China Labour Bulletin offers a nuanced view of the ACFTU:
“The ACFTU is China’s sole official union. It has traditionally been an adjunct of the Chinese Communist Party and government, serving as a ‘bridge’ between workers and management in state-owned enterprises. With the economic reforms and development of the private economy over the last two decades the ACTFU’s role has been blurred.
It has sought to unionise the private sector but thus far has failed to encourage the development of genuinely representative grassroots unions. It has adopted a top-down approach, imposing unions and collective contracts on enterprises without consulting the workers themselves. However CLB believes the ACFTU, especially at the local level, can play a positive role in the future development of grassroots unions.”
An example of that kind of local initiative could be seen earlier this week, as the FT and others reported that China’s “normally reticient official union” has been “involved in at least one of three protests that have erupted at [Walmart] stores slated for closure this month.”
While there may well be local examples of ACFTU bureaucrats taking the workers’ side, no one seriously views people like ACFTU leader Li Jianguo as anything but a Communist Party hack. And a corrupt one at that.
The vast majority of trade unionists in Britain or elsewhere in the developed world know very little about the Chinese trade union movement, and presumably trust their leaders’ decisions to engage with, or not engage with, the ACFTU.
The issue is unlikely to be addressed at a congress of the TUC, or even at the ITUC’s World Congress in Berlin.
And yet it should be — for two reasons.
First of all, because in order to genuinely help Chinese workers, the international trade union movement should fully support real unions, democratically controlled by their members — and this includes first and foremost the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
The principle of trade union independence (from both employers and the state) should be defended.
Chinese workers are not helped by pandering to the likes of Li Jianguo and his Communist Party bosses.
And second, by blurring the distinction between state labour fronts and actual trade unions, we lose something of importance.
We lose a sense of who we are, and of what it means to be a trade union.
We don’t need more handshakes and photo-ops in Geneva and Berlin, nor trade unionists flying off on junkets to Beijing to be wined and dined by Communist Party officials.
We need an open and honest discussion of these issues — for the sake of our Chinese brothers and sisters, and for ourselves.