Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Teamster's Hoffa sees Change in China

As US China trade talks occurred in Washington, James Hoffa president of the Teamsters is paying a visit to China to meet with trade union counterparts. In a National Public Radio interview Hoffa who had just returned from a visit to the Forbidden City, had positive things to say about his visit. When asked by the interviewer if China "state-run" unions really represented the workers, the Teamsters president pointed to the unionization of Wal Mart and other companies as signs of progress. He indicated further that in bilateral talks they encouraged Chinese workers to organize state companies in addition. When prodded about whether Chinese workers were truly fighting for workers interests by winning back jobs, and engaging in collective bargaining, Hoffa stated that they were "surprised" by the progress achieved pointed to the great strides in the "standard of living. "So maybe they are finally having an effect" he said. Hoffa expressed hoped that an increase in the wage scale of Chinese workers would make for less competition with US workers for jobs by reducing the export of labor.

According to the Teamsters website, Hoffa is leading a Change to Win delegation. Hong Kong was

"the first stop by a Change to Win fact-finding delegation to China. Hoffa is leading the delegation, which includes International Vice President and Port Director Chuck Mack, International Vice President John Coli, Change to Win Secretary-Treasurer Edgar Romney and representatives from SEIU. Change to Win Chair Anna Burger and SEIU President Andy Stern will join the delegation in Beijing.

After Hong Kong the delegation continued to the mainland:

In Shanghai, the delegation toured facilities and met with officials from Meridian, a subsidiary of Yellow Roadway Systems, the Teamster's second largest employer. The delegation will also tour the Shanghai deepwater port and meet with representatives from local representatives of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). ACFTU is the only trade union in China and has had recent success in organizing Wal-Mart.

Opinions it seems are changing.
joe sims


Joel said...

I think there is a lot of room for developing labor relationships between labor unions in China and the US. Knee-jerk anti-China attitudes aren't always helpful. A multinational labor agenda, I think all around is better. For that, working people and their unions have to get together and talk, compromise, and stand together.

John said...

I wonder if Hoffa asked about independent labor organizers who have been imprisoned by the authorities.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if they talked to their Chinese counterparts about reports of religious persecution, environmental problems, poverty, shrinking access to health care, reproductive rights, ethnic and racial problems, military buildup, the country's relationship to problem regimes like Sudan, the use of the death penalty, resolving Taiwan issue, police brutality, etc.

ethnicguy said...

This is my third attempt to respond to this article.

President Hoffa was interviewed on NPR this week about the trip. It's true that there are knee-jerk reactions and great complexities to President Hoffa's (and other labor leaders')trip to China and that the easy reactions don't help us understand the complexities, but some points seem worth bringing up now.

1. This trip comes as the per- centage of American workers covered by union contracts takes another dip. This raises the question of who and what the labor delegation is realistically able to represent in China.

2. This trip comes at a time when we are all acknowledging that none of us have a model for American trade unionism which works or will work to bring in and actively engage new members. The trip has to be seen in the context of a search for what can be adopted and adapted from other experiences, whether the labor leaders traveling to China publicly acknowledge this or not. And we on the American left need to ask ourselves also what there is in the Chinese models of trade unionism which might work here and how they could be put in place.

3. Impotant as this trip is, it should not be viewed as a new beginning for labor or for the labor leaders traveling or, for that matter, as a bedrock for progressive labor work. The trip is motivated by a search for models and also by the self-interest of the labor leaders involved. Self-interest in American trade unions does not have a necessarily progressive history or context and some of the labor leaders making this trip having nothing or little in their pasts which gives one hope for a radical turn by them.

4. This then raises the question of what our relationship should be with progressive forces in the Change to Win unions, and to Change to Win overall. The hoped-for and much-needed mass organizing which helped push CtW forward has not materialized and the older progressive forces in the Teamsters and SEIU have not been included in the changes taking place in these unions.

5. The self-interest of the labor leaders on this trip has not been publicly defined. Certainly there are organizational needs and bargaining needs involved, but we need to be in conversation with these labor leaders about their agendas. We need to meet these labor leaders where they are, but let's not confuse that with progressive or left politics.

6. The question of our relationship to the progressive forces in the IBT, SEIU and other CtW unions mirrors another difficult subjective question: where are the top-level labor delegations going to Venezuela, India, South Africa and Vietnam? American-based corporations are also going to these countries and there are also models for organizing in these countries which might be adaptable for us. Our unions have bargaining relationships with some of these corporations.

7. In light of this trip, we need to ask if there is indeed a relationship between unions and capital in the US now or not and what characterizes that relationship if it does exist in any meaningful way. With such small numbers and loss of influence, we are not even consulted or brought in to manage capitalist crises as we were in the past; its impossible to speak realistically about a labor aristocracy or labor lieutenants of capital because even those forces have been discarded. And class struggle is not the main feature of the current moment. We on the left have also assumed that in the absence of a relationship between organized labor and the capitalists in the US that workers would turn to the left, but this has not been so. In this situation labor leaders are freed to pursue individual interests, with all of the good and bad that this brings with it, and the terrain of union organizing shifts so that we speak now of "union density" and signing low-wage and basic-benefits contracts. There is a trend towards larger and amalgamated unions, some not based in the workplace, with service centers built on the Australian model. The trip to China raises questions about these developments in new ways.