One big union: Joe Hill goes global

What does the American labor movement hope to gain by hobnobbing with China's government lapdog union?

Published May 23, 2007 4:43PM (EDT)

"I think there will be global unions in the next five to 10 years," said Andy Stern, president of Service Employees International Union, quoted in a Wall Street Journal article reporting a conclave in China between the Change to Win federation of seven American unions and China's All China Federation of Trade Unions.

Stern is a man to take seriously, even if questions abound as to why American unions think they can make common cause with a government-controlled organization like the ACFTU -- the only union allowed in China. Under Stern, SEIU has become the largest and fastest-growing union in the United States, at a time when the labor movement is generally perceived to be at its lowest ebb in a century. Stern is also primarily responsible for the decision by seven major unions to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO in 2005, sparking the creation of Change to Win.

Stern gets it. The transnational corporations that have made the global economy into their plaything can only be effectively opposed by a labor movement equally adept at moving across borders and exploiting the networking power of globalization. "We all increasingly deal with the same group of multinational employers," said Stern, quoted in a superb profile in Fortune Magazine. "By working together we may be able to use the global economy to our advantage."

In that same profile, Stern made a fascinating prediction about China's ACFTU: "I believe that during historical moments of transition people transform themselves to represent the interests of their constituents." If I'm interpreting that correctly, he's declaring that even though the ACFTU takes its orders from the Chinese Communist Party, in the current blazing hot crucible of the global economy, in which cheap Chinese labor has become the linchpin of global trade, the ACFTU will ultimately become a force for advancing the welfare of Chinese workers, because civil society will demand it.

It's a bold statement, equally as ambitious and optimistic as his prediction for global unions forming just around the corner. The obstacles to overcome in achieving global labor solidarity are vast. Some on the left call the very idea utopian and unworkable. The rump unions left in the AFL-CIO want nothing to do with the ACFTU, which they feel condones and facilitates slave-laborish exploitation. Sovereign governments and multinational corporations will both look askance at any kind of cross-border challenge to their autonomy.

But there's a reason why SEIU is the fastest and largest growing union in the United States. And that's because Andy Stern recognizes the nature of reality. One big union. Somehow, some way.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works The Labor Movement Unemployment