Trade Unions

On supporting workers’ rights everywhere

One kind of hypocrisy I especially despise is expressed by those who support struggles for workers’ rights under repressive regimes– most notably the Solidarnosc movement in Poland in the 1980s– but who disdain efforts by workers in democratic Western countries to organize and act to improve their lives, or who toss around the hoary claim that “trade unions were needed at one time, but not any more.” (Union haters were making that claim as far back as the 1920s.)

As a wave of labor unrest and strikes sweeps China, largely bypassing the government-approved Chinese trade union federation and shutting down nearly a thousand plants, Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson makes an uncomfortable comparison between Chinese and American workers.

In both countries, workers who agitate for unions or for better conditions are frequently fired. In China, to be sure, the consequences seldom stop there; in the United States, employers’ penalties for such nominally illegal firings are negligible. No other major industrial nations are as hostile to independent unions as China and the United States. In a 2009 survey of more than 1,000 union elections (pdf) over the preceding five years, Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner found that union activists were fired in 34 percent of the campaigns. Efforts to effectively ban such firings foundered this year when the Senate couldn’t muster the votes to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Chinese communism and American capitalism may be two very different systems, but under both, workers assert their rights at their peril.

Yes, and these days it seems Chinese Communists and American corporate capitalists have more in common with each other than they do with the workers in their respective countries.

To paraphrase Stephen Spender: Unless you’re for workers’ rights everywhere, you’re not for workers’ right anywhere.

Update: I should add that equally repulsive is the hypocrisy of those who support trade union struggles in Western capitalist countries while shrugging off the absence of free and independent trade unions in “socialist” countries like Cuba.

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