China unions take on organizing challenge

Organizing workers in the private sector is a new challenge to the massive Chinese trade union movement, according to Zhang Hongzun, chairman of China’s 22-million-member Educational, Scientific, Cultural, and Medical Workers Union. The outspoken advocate of workers’ right to organize spoke to the World through an interpreter during a break at the annual conference of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) in Los Angeles in August.

State-owned enterprises make up the bulk of China’s economy, and workers there have many of their benefits set by the workers’ congresses. “We have a group of trade unionists in the congress,” Zhang pointed out. The work conditions set by the congress range from wages, hours, and social security to health care, maternity leave and breaks for breast feeding for new mothers. However, “in non-state enterprises,” such benefits have to be guaranteed through negotiations with corporations, much like U.S. labor management relations.

“It has been a very tough job for us to organize workers in those private and foreign-owned enterprises,” Zhang acknowledged frankly. Over the last 20 years, China has seen a rapid growth of foreign and private enterprises. Zhang said according to China’s laws and regulations, all workers – in both the state-owned and the private sector – have the right to organize into unions. But, in practice, while quite a number of workers in the private sector are unionized, many others still are not. “It has really been a problem for us,” he said. “In nonunion enterprises, workers rights can’t be protected effectively.”

Zhang feels that some local officials put too much emphasis on the growth of GDP and don’t pay enough attention to protection of workers’ rights and interests, even though, he said, the Chinese government has a clear policy and regulations in place that say where there are workers, unions should be set up.

He noted that the Chinese unions have had fewer difficulties organizing workers at joint ventures with Japanese and European companies. With U.S.-based corporations, however, “we have several hard nuts to crack,” including McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.

The well-informed trade union leader was quite knowledgeable about the U.S. labor movement and its focus on organizing at Wal-Mart. He is eager to advance the organizing of China’s Wal-Mart workers. “If we can organize the Wal-Mart in Beijing,” he said with a big smile, “it would be a way to show support for the American labor movement. They could say, ‘If in Beijing, why not here?’”

Zhang also pointed out that while Motorola corporation’s U.S. work force is not unionized, in China there are unionized workers in Motorola plants.

Zhang was impressed with the militancy and dynamism of the delegates at the APALA convention. APALA has sponsored delegations of U.S. unionists to visit their Chinese counterparts. He says he hopes more U.S. workers can come to China to get a better understanding of that country. “China is an open society,” he said, and “Chinese trade unions are open organizations.”

Zhang said the Chinese trade union movement, the world’s largest with over 100 million members, is “ready to develop relations with any trade union movement in the world on the basis of mutual respect, independence, and autonomy and non-intervention in each others affairs.” He added, “We’d like to join hand-in-hand to make common efforts for workers rights.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.