The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) seems about as certain of its message as Joe Lieberman on the campaign trail.
One day it puts itself forward as a business-friendly alternative to foreign labor movements. For example, a particularly galling China Daily piece featured an ACFTU official in a Korean-owned factory in China disparaging the "too-powerful union" in Korea that was responsible for driving his employer to China and landing him his job.
Another day, the ACFTU flexes its muscle for the world media by pushing Wal-Mart to accept union organizing in its Chinese stores (in its stores, mind you, not its factories but STILL a victory, I believe, for the push to unionize Wal-Mart worldwide).
The union is experimenting with collective bargaining, though the contracts it has signed have so far mainly merely re-stated the legal obligations of management and labor--no wages or hours or anything concrete. And it is opening law aid clinics for workers.
Workers Daily, the ACFTU's paper, contains some good reporting and solid advice columns for migrant workers.
And now, as David Wolf has noted, the ACFTU is in the strange position of being used as a punishment by the government for wayward corporations. In Wolf's words, "Be good to your people, or we'll unionize you" (see his post Not Norma Rae). For example, the government has forced Foxconn, the lying, reporter-intimidating, iPod manufacturing, sweatshop behemoth, to establish an ACFTU branch because of its numerous errors.
But what will it mean to establish these branches? What will they really do? As a punishment, the opening of an ACFTU branch probably mostly just means added bureaucracy for company managers, more Communist Party interference, more people to pay, etc.
Apparently, Hu Jintao is behind this push (see the China Labour Bulletin article). Where he ultimately wants to take this is an open question.