When Will the AFL-CIO Leadership Quit Blaming the Chinese Government for Multinational Corporate Decisions, US Government Policies, and US Labor Leaders’ Inept Reponses?

The AFL-CIO has just formally petitioned the Bush Administration to “take immediate action to stop exploitation by the Chinese government and multinational corporations of workers in China, who are paid as little as 15 cents per hour”  (AFL-CIO, “AFL-CIO Files Workers’ Rights Case Against China ,” Press Release, June 8, 2006).  It appears that the AFL-CIO leadership has finally decided that building international labor solidarity is important.  However, I think that progressives, instead of accepting the appearance of solidarity at face value, need to check it out carefully before aligning ourselves with the AFL-CIO leadership.

It would be easy to sign on to the AFL-CIO’s call.  They actually put a lot of information and data on their web site, making a strong argument — the petition alone is 179 pages, plus there is additional material posted on the web site.  The AFL-CIO includes a quote from their 2006 Section 301 (“unfair trade”) trade petition to the US Government: “According to the vice chairman of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, we are witnessing ‘the actual transfer of US national manufacturing capacity [to China] and the export back of the goods’.”  They make a strong case that the US trade imbalance with China hurts and is bound to keep on hurting American workers.

The problem, however, is this: it is not the Chinese government that is mistreating American workers — it is the US corporate decision-makers, along with the policies of the US Government, that are abusing American workers.  In other words, to the uninitiated, and the desperate, the AFL-CIO position makes sense; but with some investigation, it can be seen as a red herring, a deception, blaming someone else — never “us” — for our problems.

Look at their argument: despite their supposed focus on Chinese workers, the petition overwhelmingly targets the Chinese government.  In a section titled “China Trade: Deficits, Jobs, Investments and Exploitation,” we see the overview of the argument as it is developed: 1: “Trade Deficits: Economically Unsustainable and Dangerous”: 2: “Trading Jobs: If You Don’t Make Things, You Have Nothing to Trade”: 3: “Empty Cargo Containers: Our Leading Export to China”; 4: “The Great Leap Forward: China’s Manufacturing Revolution”; 5: “Follow the Money: Public/Private Investment and the Coming Supply Shock”; and 6: “Direct Connection: The Cost of the Supply Shock and Extreme Exploitation.”  Notice that anything to do with Chinese workers is left to the last section, which is also — by far — the shortest.

A few comments.  First of all, let me be clear:  I condemn the Chinese government’s direct exploitation and oppression of its workers and its indirect allowance of their exploitation by private investors.  Having just read Robert Weil’s detailed and informative “Conditions of the Working Classes in China” (Monthly Review, June 2006), there can be no doubt that Chinese workers are terribly exploited and oppressed (even if you don’t accept Weil’s political analysis, although I find it worthy of consideration).  For another account, see the 2002 Amnesty International report on “[l]abour unrest and the suppression of the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

However, as an American, I condemn the US Government’s exploitation and oppression of US workers even more so.  Yes, the US Government is more “subtle” (perhaps “legalistic” might be a better word), but the result of US foreign investment, trade policies, and technological displacement with little or no social services — such as comprehensive health care — to cushion the job loss and little prospect of new jobs at similar wage levels; the work of the National Labor Relations Board to disallow unionism; the oppressive labor laws that make forming a union extremely difficult if not almost impossible; all violate the human rights of American workers.  (Go to “American Rights at Work: Human Rights Index” for extensive reporting on this.)  I believe that workers’ rights are human rights.  Additionally, I condemn the increasing social inequality that has developed and is being allowed within US society (see my “International Income Inequality: Whither the United States?” ZNet, August 18, 2004.  Whereas the Gini index for inequality — explained in the article — was .435 in 2001, it was .450 in 2004 according to the CIA).

So, what we do have is exploitation and oppression of both American and Chinese workers.  But who is responsible?  Obviously, the Chinese government is responsible for the situation of Chinese workers.  But who is responsible for American workers — is it the Chinese government?

Under international economic theory, countries are advised to develop their “comparative advantage.”  China’s advantage vis-à-vis the US is its huge supply of cheap labor.  Additionally, the Communist Party acts to ensure control over that cheap labor and does everything it can to ensure that a free and independent labor movement does not emerge.  And it encourages foreign investors to take advantage of such oppressed and exploited labor.

Yet, who is responsible for deciding to take advantage of that cheap labor?  Yes, the Chinese government makes it available — but who decides whether to take advantage of it?

The fact is that corporate decision-makers, both in the US and around the world, are the ones who decide whether to take advantage of “investment opportunities.”  They can rationalize it all they want — “we can’t compete with cheap labor in China!” they wail — but at the end of the day, it is the corporate decision-makers who are responsible for investment shifting from the US to China:  NOT the Chinese government.  Yes, they operate within global political-military-economic networks that help shape the particular relationships between specific countries, and that is very much affected by the actions of theUS Government, much more so than by those of the Chinese government.

The AFL-CIO itself, in its trade petition, notes the impact of foreign direct investment in Chinese industrialization:

Foreign direct investment (FDI) to China increased from $46.8 billion in 2000 to $60.3 billion in 2005 — or $100 billion including Hong Kong. . . .

Seventy percent of China’s FDI is in manufacturing, with heavy concentration in export-oriented companies and advanced technology centers.  Contracted (future) FDI projections are more than double the actual level today, with US-based firms leading the way. (emphasis added, “China Trade: Deficits, Jobs, Investment and Exploitation,” p. 4)

So, first, instead of addressing those who do effect the situation — whether US Government or US-based corporations — the AFL-CIO bravely sallies forth and attacks a government that is doing what international capitalist political theory advocates, which the US Government-controlled International Monetary Fund actively supports, and which the Bush administration appreciates.  The AFL-CIO has not figured out that, with few exceptions, about the only thing left in China that is “Communist” is the Party’s name.

Interestingly, I can think of no other situation where the AFL-CIO has been so adamant against a particular government.  The AFL-CIO never complained about the South Korean, Indonesian, or Philippine governments — even when they were controlled by dictatorships and brutally repressed their workers.  In fact, in each of these cases, the AFL-CIO’s regional organization — in Asia, it was AAFLI (Asian American Free Labor Institute); in Latin America, AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development); and in Africa, AALC (African American Labor Center) — supported the labor movements initiated by the respective dictatorships, and each of these labor movements was used to try to ensure that no competing labor movements emerged and that wages and labor costs were kept low.  (The AFL-CIO also didn’t oppose the PRI-dominated Mexican government for many years, although the work of the Solidarity Center in Mexico has become somewhat more flexible since the PRI dominance was seriously weakened in the late 1990s.)

Ultimately, AFL-CIO foreign policy — done behind the backs of its members, without our informed consent, although in our name — has supported the existence of repressive governments, and it even helped lay the groundwork to create such governments in places like Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973.  These repressive governments then set up export processing operations that enticed investment and jobs away from the United States; developed industries based on oppressively low wages and harshly controlled workers; and, in turn, shipped exports into the US that undercut US-based production operations and the jobs they created, leading to increasing unemployment in the US.

No, the case of China is different.  The decision made seems to be to challenge the Chinese government not because it has been so oppressive of its workers, but it has been as successful as it has in its economic development.  Yes, this economic development has been on the backs of he Chinese workers, but it’s China’s economic development and ability to compete with US-based production that have the AFL-CIO worried.

Secondly, the AFL-CIO’s “concern” for exploited Chinese workers is pure rubbish.  The AFL-CIO does not care for workers in any other country — and certainly not in any “developing” country — as its foreign policy has overwhelmingly shown over the years, despite helping a small number of maquiladora workers in a few, limited situations.  (See articles on the web site of the Worker to Worker Solidarity Committee at www.workertoworker.net, under “links,” and especially my “Labor Imperialism Redux? The AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Since 1995,” Monthly Review 57.1, May 2005).  It seems quite clear that the only reason the AFL-CIO even mentions Chinese workers is because the leadership’s collaboration with the US Government and corporate interests would be too obvious if it did not mention them.

(This is contrasted by the strong efforts by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), one of the member affiliates of the AFL-CIO, which has been playing an important role in fighting for the rights of Coca-Cola workers in Columbia who face severe repression and death by death squads.  The “Killer Coke” campaign can be accessed at killercoke.org.)

Third, why would the AFL-CIO leadership “beg” the virulently anti-labor Bush Administration for help?  Why would the Bush Administration even consider doing anything for the AFL-CIO?  Certainly, the AFL-CIO’s electoral work for the Democrats would not seem to inspire the Administration’s undying gratitude.  But, perhaps, the Administration is grateful to the AFL-CIO’s leadership for not opposing the war in Iraq — despite a 2005 National Convention vote that demanded rapid withdrawal of the troops (see “AFL-CIO Says ‘Bring the Troops Home!'”).  Or the Administration might be grateful for the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and its continued involvement as a “core institute” of the misnamed National Endowment for Democracy (see my “An Unholy Alliance:  The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy [NED] in Venezuela,” ZNet, July 10, 2005), as the NED continues to undermine and subvert popular democracy — one person, one vote — around the world.  Or the Administration might be grateful for the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy leadership and its continued involvement in helping develop the Bush Administration’s foreign policy (see my “AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Leaders Help Develop Bush’s Foreign Policy, Target Foreign Unions for Political Control,”  Labor Notes, March 2005).  In short, the AFL-CIO might have some important chits worth calling.

And fourth, they might be responding to the situation here in the US.  US trade union density has fallen from 35% in 1954 to only 12.5% of all non-agricultural workers today, and only 7.8% of all private sector workers today are unionized.  Not only is density declining, but the AFL-CIO is becoming increasingly irrelevant to most working people — and at a time when working people are looking for experienced leadership, who will represent their interests and lead them in addressing their problems, US labor leadership is “missing in action.”  And with people like long-time labor activist Harry Kelber calling for AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to resign, maybe it needs to do something that appears strong and that can therefore pacify opponents and neutralize opposition.  Ah, yes — let’s pick on China!  Talk about “wagging the dog. . . .”

No, the petition with its sudden “concern” about exploited Chinese workers is not about improving the wellbeing of Chinese workers.  It’s about getting the US government to punish China — ultimately, as Dean Frutiger showed in his 2002 article, “AFL-CIO China Policy:  Labor’s New Step Forward or the Cold War Revisited?” (Labor Studies Journal 27.3: 67-80), it’s the AFL-CIO’s anti-communism raising its ugly head yet again.  And, ultimately, it is a campaign that is intended to make the AFL-CIO leadership look like they are doing something, yet, once again, without mobilizing American union members or even addressing the real issue.  How long will American union members and working families in general be satisfied with this kind of crap?

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. His on-line bibliography on “Contemporary Labor Issues” can be accessed at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm. He can be contacted at <kscipes@pnc.edu>.