Tea Leaf Nation

The World’s Largest Union: A ‘Capitalist Running Dog’

Some Chinese say their massive trade union isn't standing up for worker rights.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

China boasts the world’s largest trade union, but its labor movement may still need a bit of help.

Well into its second week, a shoe factory workers’ strike in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan — possibly one of the largest strikes in recent Chinese history according to U.S.-based NGO China Labor Watch — shows no sign of reaching a resolution. Since April 14, more than 40,000 employees at the Dongguan plant of shoe manufacturing giant Yue Yuen have gone on strike to protest what they claim are underpayment of social security benefits as well as labor contract abnormalities. But one item on the list of worker demands may come as a surprise: The right to elect union leaders.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, or ACFTU, is the world’s largest trade union, strictly speaking. It has 280 million members, according to Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, but its power and size don’t necessarily translate into gains for China’s labor force. Union leaders are appointed rather than elected, and legal restrictions on Chinese workers’ rights to collective bargaining and striking are significant. As China’s only legal labor union, the state-controlled ACFTU has sometimes attracted criticism for prioritizing economic development over worker concerns, as well as for trying to prevent social unrest by seeking harmony between labor and capital rather than fighting for worker demands.

The local union representing the Yue Yuen workers did not exactly win worker hearts and minds, by its own admission. The Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, an ACTFU regional affiliate that is responsible for negotiating on behalf of Yue Yuen employees, complained in an April 20 post on Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, that "since the work stoppage occurred, Yue Yuen Shoe Factory trade union officials have had to deal with the pressure of being called ‘labor traitors’ and ‘lackeys,’" as the officials have "tried to guide workers to return to their posts and continue production" while working to "peacefully resolve the incident."

The responses of many angry commenters appeared to confirm the local union’s contention about its own unpopularity. "You’ve just proven yourselves to be labor traitors," wrote one user. "The labor union’s responsibility isn’t to make workers resume production, it’s to help workers protect their rights." Another user wrote that the insults were "deserved — what have you done for us recently?" One  woman observing the mess from Beijing, whose Weibo byline includes the phrases "Long live Chairman Mao, long live the Communist Party," complained that labor unions have become "capitalist lackeys." Another avowedly Maoist user called the union a "capitalist running dog." The ACTFU did not respond to an email request for comment.

Chinese workers nonetheless have reason to be hopeful. Wages in China are projected to increase 10 percent in 2014, and a worsening labor shortage due to demographic changes driven by decades of China’s one-child policy, as well as growing labor demands from the burgeoning service industry, means workers may have more bargaining power than any time in the past three decades of China’s rapid economic expansion. But if workers do manage to leverage their increasing advantage in the labor market, it is likely they will have only themselves, not trade unions, to thank.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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