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Analysis and Commentary

China’s official trade union still fails to get the message

After 35 years of rapid economic development, just about everyone in China accepts that something needs to change. China’s workers understand this, the farmers understand this; even the newly installed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party now realizes the increasingly urgent need to create a fairer, more equitable and more economically sustainable society.

The only group that still seems oblivious to the need for change is the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The world’s largest trade union stubbornly refuses to move with the times. It seems to be paralysed by fear, scared that if it does change it will lose its power and standing in China.

Last October, the Party’s new General Secretary Xi Jinping tried to jolt the ACFTU out of its torpor, outlining two clear goals for the union to focus on in the near future: Providing more channels to resolve workers’ grievances, and perfecting the system of collective consultations (the ACFTU’s currently ineffective version of collective bargaining).

The response of the ACFTU to Xi Jinping’s initiative was disappointing to say the least. In six commentaries published from 28 October to 4 November, the ACFTU spouted jargon, platitudes and archaic rhetoric and basically ignored the issue at hand. The only “constructive” suggestion the ACFTU came up with was for senior union officials to walk out of their grand offices and spend more time with ordinary workers, “listen” to their complaints and “ask” if they have any grievances.

These empty words and condescending gestures do not mean however that the ACFTU is daring to defy the Party; rather it is the case that the ACFTU simply does not know what to do. It still sees itself as a third party, as a broker between labour and management, rather than as a representative of the workers. And it is this fundamental misconception of what a trade union is and what a trade union should do that is preventing it from moving forward.

On 27 November, China Labour Bulletin published its own commentary 中华全国总工会的危险游戏 (The Dangerous Game of the ACFTU) in which we provide the ACFTU with some suggestions on how to start acting like a real union and better serve the workers it should be representing. Moreover, if the ACFTU starts to act like a real union, we suggest, it might actually help the Party achieve its stated social and economic reform goals.

CLB argues in the commentary that the ACFTU should adopt two main strategies:

  • Reform enterprise trade unions by making them truly democratic. By having democratically-elected worker representatives as trade union officials, the wanted “channels to resolve workers’ grievances” would open up immediately.
  • Establish an effective system of collective bargaining in enterprises. This would reduce the number of strikes and allow workers and management to negotiate as equal partners.

China’s workers have shown that they are willing to stand up for their rights and interests and many are demanding a proper trade union to back them up. The ACFTU has an opportunity to move in a new direction; however it will require a lot of help to get there.

On the other hand, if the ACFTU continues to ignore the writing on the wall, it will jeopardize not only its own future but the wellbeing of millions of workers as well, and even the legitimacy of the Party it claims to serve.