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Trade Unions at Wal-Mart and Foxconn

The ACFTU uses new grassroots organizing techniques to take on resistant foreign enterprises

This first round of translations from China Labor News Translations includes three Chinese newspaper articles, all related to recent trade union development in China. They report the All-China Federation of Trade Union’s (ACFTU’s) now famous campaign to establish trade union branches in Wal-Mart and Foxconn.

1. ‘Labor’s’ Breakthrough at Wal-Mart
2. Talks between the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and Wal-Mart (China) Head Office Reach Agreement with a Five-Point Memorandum
3. The Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions sends out a union to organize workers at Foxconn

The ACFTU is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party. It is the only trade union in China, and all workplace unions must be affiliated with it. Traditionally, Chinese workplace unions have been established through agreement with company management, and often with management involvement. As a result these unions are not function like additional human resources departments at best, and inactive and unknown to the workers at worse. Ostensibly they are supposed to work for the good of the enterprise as a whole. They rarely advocate on workers’ behalf. As far as most workers understand, the principal role of a workplace union is to organize social events and welfare benefits. Very often in the Asian contract factories that produce for Multinationals, company mid-level Chinese managers are assigned the position of union officials.

But when the ACFTU wanted to set up trade union branches in resistant foreign enterprises like Wal-Mart, this old union-building model did not work. Wal-Mart management refused to allow the ACFTU in. This situation has forced the ACFTU to re-think its strategy.

In 2006, to force Wal-Mart to establish a trade union, the ACFTU went to the grassroots and covertly organized a small group of workers to apply to set up a union in one of Wal-Mart’s stores in Quanzhou City, Fujian province. This was the first time that the ACFTU had started the process of union-building from the bottom-up. From the first article “Labor’s Breakthrough at Wal-Mart” you can read interesting details how the first trade union in a Wal-Mart store was set up and how success in this one Wal-Mart store prompted the ACFTU to organize unions in other stores. Wal-Mart could do nothing to stop the ACFTU setting up unions in this manner, and so in August 2006 chose to formally co-operate with the ACFTU in establishing workplace unions in every Wal-Mart store in China.

The second article in this mail-out is the five-point memorandum signed between the ACFTU and Wal-Mart. This document will form the template for setting up unions in Wal-Mart and other foreign enterprises.

The ACFTU has been encouraged by the success of this new union-building strategy. From article number three you can see that the ACFTU has now taken this grassroots organizing approach to Foxconn in Shenzhen – a massive Taiwanese electronics company, reported in 2006 for appalling conditions in its facility producing Apple iPods. This is the same plant where the ACFTU is organizing a union.

Whether these unions will actually grow into effective, democratic workers’ organizations is unclear. These foreign enterprises are not welcoming of unions. Furthermore, workers have very limited understanding of trade unionism or collective bargaining, and ACFTU cadres lack experience and training in grassroots organizing.

Nonetheless, these three articles reflect an interesting development in the ACFTU’s own union-building strategies, and in its stance towards foreign enterprises in China. It will be interesting to watch how this situation progresses.

Here are the translated articles

1) “‘Labour’s’ breakthrough at Wal-mart
CLNT_Walmart_union .pdf [297.99KB]

2) “Talks between the ACFTU and Wal-mart reach agreement with a five-point memorandum
CLNT_ACFTU_Walmart_5pt_memo .pdf [102.45KB]

3) “The Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions sends a union out to organize at Foxconn
CLNT_Foxconn_union .pdf [94.08KB]

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