Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sign of the times

The All China Federation of Trade Unions-affiliated Workers Daily carried the headline above in an issue I picked up on a plane in China. The bold text reads (roughly) "Closely Unite Ourselves with Enterprises." Which, coming from a trade union, is disappointing.

On the surface, this sentiment is not that far from the thinking that lies behind the United Auto Workers' recent concessions: the economic crisis changes everything. But the UAW's concessions were concessions, and extraordinary ones at that, not a reversion to established form, as in the ACFTU's case.

The second part of the headline is more interesting: "Shaanxi Union Deeply Advances 'Mutually Agreed Upon Actions.'" "Mutually agreed upon actions" (gongtong yueding huodong) is the rallying cry of a new, national program by the ACFTU, wherein, according to a recent proclamation, the union will "both protect employees' rights and promote enterprises' interests" (see this article).

In a conversation with a Chinese union organizer recently, I got a sense of how this kind of engagement can, sometimes, pack a punch, when the whole idea of real unions is new: the company hashes out a collective contract and then finds the workers helping with efficiency in other areas; the company then sees the union as a real force of its own, capable of sticking up for workers and pulling things off production-wise that even the company can't. A different sort of dance follows.

But that's all premised on the rights-protection portion of "mutually agreed upon actions" having some substance.

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