The “better than nothing” approach to trade unionism

From a report in Sunday’s Washington Post about a Chinese factory producing cheap stereos for Wal-Mart:

Kong Xianghong, the No. 2 official for the party-run union [independent unions are outlawed] in Guangdong province, acknowledged that low wages, long hours and poor conditions are common in factories that supply Wal-Mart and other U.S.-based corporations.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “Labor protections, working conditions and wages are related to a country’s level of economic development. Of course, we want better labor protections, but we can’t afford it. We need the jobs. We need to guarantee people can eat.”

Mr. Kong talks just like a US or UK free-trader. If only American or British union leaders thought like him, we wouldn’t have all these pie-in-the-sky ideas about conditioning trade on principles like the right of workers to organize freely.

Still, Kong said, the party-controlled union has been frustrated that Wal-Mart has refused for three years to allow it to set up branches in the 31 Wal-Mart stores in China — even though he has assured the company that the union wouldn’t help workers struggle for better pay. Wal-Mart has also fought efforts to unionize its U.S. stores.

I know some of our readers have tried to explain to me why I shouldn’t worry so much about little things like labor rights in China– and that if we just wait patiently for economic development to take its course, it will all work out for everyone’s benefit in the end. (At least that’s how their explanations look to me.)

But here’s a serious question: if we can’t use access to our markets as a means of improving the rights of Chinese workers, what can we use?