| Kent Wong |
This article will be published in the upcoming volume of the New Labor Forum.
A Toast to Solidarity
After touring the massive port of Shanghai in 2007, a delegation of Los Angeles labor leaders had lunch at the onsite restaurant hosted by the dock workers union of Shanghai. In the private dining room with Chinese and U.S. labor leaders seated together around a large, round table, the president of the Shanghai dockworkers union stood up to propose a toast to David Arian, former President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU). This gathering of two dockworker union presidents was remarkable, considering the fraught history of US and Chinese unions.
The Shanghai union leader thanked the ILWU and the U.S. labor movement for the birth of May Day, International Workers’ Day. “Every year, workers throughout China have a holiday on May Day thanks to the U.S. working class and the spirit of international worker solidarity,” he said in Chinese as he was accompanied by an interpreter.
David Arian in turn rose to speak in English. He thanked the hosts for the lunch and tour of the Shanghai Port, as the interpreter quickly translated his remarks in Chinese. “While I am happy that the Chinese working class celebrates May Day, back in the U.S. we have to work on the first of May. However, I want to thank the Chinese working class for celebrating lunar new year each year because during the two weeks that the Chinese dock workers are on vacation, we don’t have to work either because we have nothing to unload on the Los Angeles docks.”
This humorous exchange between two labor leaders from Shanghai and Los Angeles reflects the deep connection between workers in the world’s two largest economies. The dockworkers provide a special strategic link, as workers who control the largest ports in our respective countries and the logistics flow between the U.S. and China. The U.S. and Chinese economies are deeply interconnected, mutually reliant, and together have a greater impact on global trade and global labor standards than any other countries on earth.
The history of AFL-CIO’s Racialized Anti-Communism
The AFL-CIO has had a troubled history with China and Asian American workers. The link between AFL-CIO foreign and domestic policy has historic roots. Samuel Gompers, the founding president of the American Federation of Labor, was a lifelong opponent of Chinese migration to the United States, and refused to allow Chinese and Asian American workers to join U.S. unions. Gompers was a staunch advocate of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. He wrote: “Racial differences between American whites and Asiatics will never be overcome. The superior whites have to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or if necessary by force of arms.”
During the McCarthy Era, the AFL-CIO purged union leaders with socialist or communist affiliations, and enacted anti-communist clauses. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the AFL-CIO joined the U.S. government in the global fight against communism. The federation’s commitment to anti-communism included support for the U.S. War in Vietnam, the U.S. blockade of Cuba, and U.S. backed military dictatorships in Central America.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the AFL-CIO was at the forefront of anti-China campaigns, among them a boycott of Chinese goods, the petitioning of the George W. Bush Administration to impose sanctions on China, efforts to oppose China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and calling for penalties against China for currency manipulation, a charge raised again by Donald Trump as president. The AFL-CIO leadership also opposed the attendance of U.S. labor women at the international women’s conference in Beijing in 1995. In the 1990’s, the Teamsters Union invited right wing politician Pat Buchanan to address their members during an anti-China rally organized by the union, while the International Association of Machinists published a special anti-China magazine using racially offensive language and quoting right wing Republican Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the military threat posed by China.
The AFL-CIO anti-China campaigns were a continuation of decades of Cold War ideology, and advanced the erroneous analysis that China was to blame for deindustrialization, capital flight, and worker dislocation caused by U.S.-based multi-national corporations. Not only were they wrong politically, they failed miserably. The anti-China campaigns did not result in a single policy victory. Instead, these campaigns promoted racism among white union members that ultimately provided fertile ground for Trump to make inroads among the white working class with his anti-China, “America First”, protectionist, and nativist rhetoric.
In sharp contrast to the official policy of the AFL-CIO, in 2001, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) invited leaders of the Chinese labor movement to attend the APALA national convention held in Honolulu, Hawaii. This was the first time an AFL-CIO organization had invited the Chinese unions to speak before their conference. The APALA leadership met with the Chinese labor delegation at the convention, and discussed a mutual interest in strengthening relations between our two labor movements. In response, the Chinese union leaders invited APALA to bring a delegation of U.S. labor leaders to visit China. APALA leaders have continued to engage in solidarity delegation exchanges between China and the U.S. over the past twenty years.
In 2002, APALA arranged for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern and other key labor leaders to visit with labor leaders of China, breaking with the AFL-CIO policy of no engagement. The Change to Win Federation, in which SEIU is a founding member, established formal relations with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in 2005, and explored collaborative projects together.
One outcome was a joint meeting between ACFTU and U.S. labor leaders to discuss the fierce anti-union policies of Walmart in the U.S. In subsequent years, the ACFTU successfully unionized 107,000 workers at 411 Walmart stores. While this represented a major organizing victory for the ACFTU, some U.S. union leaders dismissed this victory and asserted that the ACFTU functioned as a “company union.”
Although there was an agreement to develop a health care worker exchange program to share front line experiences in combatting the spread of AIDS, the Change to Win leadership withdrew from the initiative before it was launched. The Change to Win Federation’s internal implosion caused them to abandon many of their global and domestic ambitions, including pursuing relations with Chinese unions.
In 2007, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor established the very first formal partnership between unions in the U.S. and unions in China. California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who was then the leader of the Los Angeles labor movement, led a delegation of Los Angeles labor leaders to meet with leaders of the Shanghai Municipal Trade Union Council (SMTUC). Maria Elena Durazo and her counterpart, Chen Hao, the leader of the SMTUC, signed a memorandum of understanding between the two labor councils to meet regularly, to promote friendship, and to advance labor solidarity. During the inaugural trip, the Chinese dock worker union and the ILWU toast was one of many meetings to discuss common interests. This partnership still continues fifteen years later.
In follow up labor delegation visits, Maria Elena Durazo and Rusty Hicks, another former leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, toured the BYD corporation in Shenzhen which manufactures electric buses and cars. On a separate trip, Hicks and Los Angeles labor leaders also toured the China Railroad Corporation (CRRC) in Changchun. During the delegation visits, the Los Angeles labor leaders met with the union leaders representing workers at CRRC and BYD.
Subsequently, in 2013 BYD and in 2014 CRRC opened up manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles County. In part through these labor exchanges with BYD and CRRC, both Chinese-based corporations agreed to “project labor agreements” in the construction of the factories in Los Angeles, and both agreed to union neutrality. Workers of both the CRRC and BYD facilities in Los Angeles are currently represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Sheetmetal Workers Union. In a separate delegation visit, the presidents of the IBEW and the Sheetmetal Workers Union also toured the CRRC facility in Changchun.
These exchanges represent concrete mutual advantages of engaging in communication and dialogue between unions and workers in the U.S. and China. CRRC and BYD are two examples that benefited from U.S. labor engagement where Chinese corporations agreed to project labor agreements as well as union contracts that now are providing high wage, union manufacturing jobs to U.S. workers.
Although the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Shanghai Municipal Trade Union Council partnership represents a breakthrough in relationships between unions and workers of our two countries, at the national level, there is still no formal relationship between the AFL-CIO and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, nor has the AFL-CIO yet articulated a cohesive position regarding relations with the Chinese labor federation.
A major change in policy came at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles in 2013. For the first time, leaders of the Chinese labor movement were invited to attend the convention, and a special workshop was held to address union-to-union relationships between the AFL-CIO and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), representing 302 million workers in ten national industrial unions. Later that year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka visited China and met with leaders of the Chinese labor movement. He was greeted by Chen Hao, the former leader of the Shanghai Trade Union Municipal Council who had since been promoted to the national headquarters of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in Beijing.
This was a historic breakthrough, representing the first time the President of the AFL-CIO traveled to China to meet with ACFTU union leaders. Richard Trumka visited national and local union bodies, work places including the Port of Shanghai, and a university for mine workers. Unfortunately, this was the first and only trip by an AFL-CIO President, and plans for future exchanges at the national level never materialized. The factors that have led to this set back included the AFL-CIO’s support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the heightened geo-political conflict between the U.S. and Chinese governments, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Relations with the ACFTU, the only legally sanctioned union in China, is not without its challenges. Greg Mantsios wrote an article in New Labor Forum about the complexities of engagement the ACFTU, which I largely agree with. The ACFTU does not play the same role as unions in the U.S. There is no right to strike in China, and the ACFTU assumes many of the responsibilities that would be overseen by government agencies in the U.S. However, Mantsios argued that worker-to-worker and union-to-union exchanges remain the only way to strengthen communication and understanding.
With the election of Liz Shuler as the new President of the AFL-CIO in 2021, once again an opportunity exists to re-establish relationships between the two largest labor movements in the world, to explore mutual interests. Improving union to union relationships would provide a sharp contrast to the counter-productive anti-China rhetoric that has become so ubiquitous in the U.S.
Anti-China Rhetoric and Asian American and Pacific Islanders Hate Crimes
U.S. – China relations took a turn for the worse under the Donald Trump Administration. Not only did the “America First” rhetoric and China-bashing harm U.S.-China relations, but it also functions as a distraction from the central problem confronting workers in both countries: the excessive power of multinational corporations to exploit workers and drain resources from working-class communities. The anti-China rhetoric advanced by unions confuses American working-class voters and union members, and has provided fertile ground for white workers in particular to embrace the Trump agenda.
Unfortunately, the U.S. labor movement has a long history of supporting Asia-bashing and the rise in anti-Asian violence, thus obscuring the class interests of U.S. workers. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, U.S. manufacturing unions blamed Japan for the demise of the U.S. auto industry. The UAW held public events to encourage their members to vent their anger by smashing Japanese imported cars. In 1982, two white unemployed auto workers murdered Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit who they mistakenly believed was Japanese. The killers were sentenced to probation for their crime, which ignited a national protest from the Asian American community.
In March 2020, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and a coalition of 188 organizations co-signed a letter to the Trump White House, the Department of Justice and the FBI urging them to publicly recognize and denounce the escalating racist attacks and discrimination against the Asian American community in the wake of rising concerns over COVID-19. Not surprisingly, the appeal fell on deaf ears by the Trump administration.
The unfortunate reality is that anti-Asian violence has been a facet of life for the Asian American community for more than 150 years. It has been exacerbated and encouraged by racist rhetoric, including the dehumanization of Asian people and attacks on China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and other Asian countries over the years.
Even elected officials are not immune from anti-China rhetoric. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who is Chinese American, recently enacted public health safeguards due to the pandemic. She was flooded by racist attacks that called her “Mayor Wuhan.”
The Asian American community has stood up and organized against anti-Asian hate nationally. The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance is currently engaged in a national campaign to stop Anti-Asian Hate in partnership with key unions with a large Asian membership base, and to draw the link between the rise in Anti-Asian violence and other forms of racism and anti-immigrant policies, and to forge multi-racial unity. APALA has stood with Black Lives Matter in actions throughout the country to link the attacks on Black people with attacks on other people of color.
Opportunities to Build Cross-Border Solidarity
Noam Chomsky addressed the heightened tensions between the U.S. and China in a talk on February 4, 2022 entitled “Work Together or Perish Together.” He criticized the Biden administration’s provocative actions towards China, and Biden’s continuation of the Trump policy in the region. Chomsky also challenged the Pentagon framing of the “threat” posed by China as a pretext for U.S. military expansion, and called for diplomacy and negotiations to improve U.S. China relations.
If relations between the U.S. and China continue to deteriorate, leading to more trade wars and potential military conflict, it is workers in China and the U.S. who will suffer. It is in this context that union-to-union and worker to worker engagement are critically important.
A new opportunity currently exists with the new leadership of the AFL-CIO to advance a forward-looking approach to develop communication and partnerships between unions and workers of China and the U.S. around mutual interests. The global pandemic has clearly shown the necessity of global cooperation to address our collective needs to distribute vaccinations and to advance public health practices at the workplace and in the community. Health care and public health workers of China and the U.S. would benefit by learning from one another during this critical time.
A strategic focus of China-U.S. labor solidarity should be joint efforts to rein in multi-national corporations that have huge joint investments in both the U.S. and China. Many U.S. based multi-nationals have taken advantage of the massive and growing consumer markets in China. There are more U.S. automobiles manufactured and sold in China than the entire U.S. domestic market. Many Chinese-based multi-national corporations are also investing heavily in industries throughout the U.S., and the CRRC and BYD are only two examples. Exchanges between Chinese and U.S. unions representing workers in the very same multi-national corporations could strengthen collective bargaining and a stronger pro-worker agenda in both countries.
Worker solidarity between the U.S. and China should also train its sights on advancing labor policies that protect worker rights, promote sustainable wages and benefits, and demand that multi-national corporations that are operating in both U.S. and China respect worker rights, provide good union jobs and benefits, and address climate change.
As the two largest polluters in the world, the U.S. and China have a shared mutual benefit and responsibility to implement aggressive policies to counter climate change. We should demand that the labor unions in both countries embrace changes to green our economy and prepare for workplace policies that actively reduce global warming. Concretely, there are huge green energy initiatives in China that the U.S. labor movement would benefit from learning about.
Even in this challenging political environment where relations between the U.S. and China are strained and conflictual, the AFL-CIO should expand dialogue, communication, and partnerships to advance the interests of workers in both the U.S. and China. Asian Americans and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, who have historically been excluded by the AFL-CIO in the formulation of their China policies, need to be included in this process.
1 The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, 2015, James Bradley
2 “Tea for Two: Chinese and U.S. Labor” by Gregory Mantsios, New Labor Forum (2002).