From the TUC

Should unions be getting on that slow boat to China?

07 May 2009, By

I’m part of the team putting on a major seminar on the impact of China on the world economy and what the union response should be. The seminar is here at Congress House next Monday, 11 May. The seminar is a collaboration between the Union Ideas Network and the TUC’s European and International Relations Department.

Why now? Well an immediate reason is that this weekend, Saturday 9 May, sees the twentieth anniversary of the crushing by the Chinese authorities of the democracy movement protests in Tianamen Square and we thought we ought to mark that significant date. Since that momentous day there have been great changes in Chinese society and China has become a major player in the world economy and, with that, there has been a loosening of the bonds which have restricted Chinese society following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

As the Chinese economy continues to expand rapidly there is a growing view from the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party that the unrestrained growth has not led to a “trickle down” effect,  and has exacerbated problems in terms of social inequality, environmental problems and an imbalance in the Chinese economy. These lie at the heart of the increased levels of protest among Chinese workers.

Like almost all institutions in China, it is clear that the All China Federation of Trade Unions is neither free nor independent of the governing Chinese Communist Party. But some trade unionists, at grass roots level, are acting in ways that closely resemble the ways that independent trade unions would act, and the ACFTU has learnt much from the serious debates around the new labour and collective bargaining laws of recent years which have seen bodies, like the American Chamber of Commerce, arguing against increased legal protections for workers.

Chinese trade unionists face many of the same challenges, in radically different circumstances, that the rest of the world trade union movement faces: vulnerable employment and unemployment at the bottom of the labour market, the growing power of multinational enterprises, which require a more global collective bargaining approach.

So how does the ‘Western’ trade union movement support the growing free trade union movement while at the same time encourage the ACFTU to look outward for support from the TUC and similar organisations? How does the trade union movement engage with the main players in the Chinese economy to ensure greater influence in the global collective bargaining mentioned above?

The  seminar on Monday, I’m sure, will raise more questions than answers but it will also be giving pointers to directions we need to develop to lead to a free trade union movement in China, able to engage with other trade unions around the world in answering the demands on workers of global capital. We have some great speakers including Paul Mason (BBC Business Editor), John Evans (TUAC General Secretary) and leading China academics Prof Jude Howell (LSE) and Dr Tim Pringle (Warwick University). The seminar is being Chaired and facilitated by Rodney Bickerstaffe (Chair of Global Network) and Ben Chapman MP (Chair of the All Party China Group). The heart of the day will be around the discussions following contributions from the speakers in the four sessions the day has been divided into. More information is available at the TUC webpage .

There are still some places places left. So if this seems the sort of area of interest to you, or you feel you may have a contribution to make to the discussion, please contact Joanne Adams on [email protected] to reserve a place.  The seminar takes places here at Congress House on Monday 11 May and registration is from 9.30 to 10.00am. And by the way, the seminar is free.