Union made in China

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Article Politics Social Justice
Workers might have to go half way around the world to celebrate Labor Day this year. 

In the United States the union movement still endures a regular excoriation at the hands of the right-wing media any time economic issues come up in the news, but the truth is this emperor not only doesn't have any clothes, he barely has teeth. With a diminishing hand in 7 percent of private industry, the great power of the unions in the United States, despite apparently unironic conservative fear-mongering, was broken decades ago.

Most of the manufacturing jobs that were the backbone of U.S. unions have gone, and they are not coming back. The middle class that was built on unions has forgotten its roots or likewise been demoralized by decades of declining economic vitality and political relevance. Unions have little to show for the vast sums they've pumped into the Democratic Party over the years, though current union bosses have placed all bets on the 2010 prospects of the Employee Free Choice Act. In 2009 U.S. union rolls declined to 15 million, about 12 percent of all workers-public and private sectors combined-from about 20 percent in 1983. One senses a lack of optimism in the whole enterprise and a complete dearth of new ideas to reinvigorate unionism.

As state budgets constrict violently, unions in the public sector have joined their brothers and sisters from the manufacturing sector in the crosshairs of unionism's relentless critics, their sometimes absurdly indulgent and economically unsustainable retirement and pension packages juicy targets for class warriors eager to breach the last stronghold of organized unionism in local, state, and federal jobs.

The next few years will be crucial to the future of public sector unions, and the dance of accommodation they will likely have to turn in response to the new economic realities will require clear-eyed, courageous, and creative campaigners. There is little evidence to suggest such individuals will be found in union leadership. Look for obstruction, confrontation, and defeat to be replayed here as they were in the long demise of manufacturing unionism.

Global unionists seeking good news on the state of the unions need to look east, to an unlikely source of hope. China has been the world's great manufacturing sucking sound since its entry into the World Trade Organization was glad-handed by an allegedly pro-union Democrat, President Bill Clinton. Its regrettable labor standards, rock-bottom wages, and accommodating socialists made it the favorite offshore site for jobs that had been for decades secure in the United States. Such outsourcing has been wonderful for U.S. corporations' profits.

But a funny thing has happened to this capitalist-socialist marriage: Chinese workers have begun to find their voice. And when they find the courage to speak, they have called out: "Union."

Brushing aside the Beijing authority's official unions, workers at a number of foreign-owned factories, including Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai plants, have deployed modern social networking tools to organize wildcat strikes demanding recognition and higher wages. They have been spectacularly successful so far, doubling wages and for the first time since China began its industrial revival under Deng Xiaoping, putting workers' legitimate aspirations into the foreground of China's civic dialogue without-so far-provoking a counterstrike from Beijing's "Communist" leadership.

A previous generation of Chinese workers was satisfied to have any work under any conditions, but this emerging generation has a taste for the consumer gadgets they splice or solder together for U.S. and European markets, and they want the income and leisure time to enjoy them.

This natural and completely welcome social evolution in China, backed by the longstanding support of unions in papal social encyclicals, could be a beacon held high by international workers that could help the U.S. union movement find its way out of a wilderness partly of its own making. If you're looking for new ideas and new vigor for working people as they confront the worst job market and overall economic conditions since 1933, don't scan your local papers or union newsletter this Labor Day. Look east, toward that endless horizon. Solidarity forever! 

This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 9, page 39).