U.S. Unions and China

Posted on July 7, 2011 by

American labor leaders have to be careful when they talk about China. 

Though U.S. unions now fully embrace Asian-American workers, this wasn’t always true.  A hundred years ago, Chinese workers in California were vilified by railroad and construction unions.

In the 1980s and 1990s, you could detect traces of xenophobia among some American manufacturing workers who were blaming competition from Japan for  job losses here. 

Criticizing Chinese trade and monetary policies, American unions are quick to call attention to poor working conditions, long hours and the low pay of Chinese assembly line workers.   The discussion of shoddy production quality, however, can get dicey if its implied that Chinese workers don’t have the skill to do the job. 

But no one watching this issue closely can conclude that American unions are China-bashing.  It’s job-killing trade policies that concern labor and the public. 

Controversy broke out recently over the reconstruction of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bride when it was learned that giant steel modules were forged in China and shipped to California.  United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard made the case that the steel should have been union-made in the states (the bridge building itself is union work). 

Organized Labor has also piped in on the question of currency manipulation by Chinese government officials. 

Last month, the union-backed Economic Policy Institute reported that a readjusted Yuan could bring more than two million jobs to American workers.

Some of the analysis and rhetoric around trade and currency issues may arouse patriotic sentiment.  But there’s nothing here to suggest that labor is revisiting its historic legacy of anti-Asian racism.

Comments (5)


  1. David Sickler says:

    We as American labor have been very late in joining with our brothers and sisters all over the world who are being eploited by the same corporate enimies. This is a global problem that needs a global solution.

  2. Thom Davis says:

    A hundred years ago the Wobblies were demonized as crazy radicals. Maybe their problem was that they were to far ahead of their time.

  3. John Connolly says:

    Both Thom Davis and Dave Sickler are dead right in their comments on the twin cancers of xenophobia and racism that seem to re-infect the US working class and labor movement every couple of decades.

    In the late 1970′s as the US industrial economy collapsed (in the first phase of modern globalization) even traditionally left-liberal trade unions like the UAW were confronted by xenophobic racism.
    One of the most infuriating and tragic episodes occurred in Detroit when a gang of white auto workers set upon a fellow worker, a Chinese-American (Vincent Chin, I think was his name), and beat him to death for being a job-stealing “Jap”.

    To this day racism remains one of the most potent and disgusting capitalist tools used to drive wedges of hatred between working people worldwide.
    It scares me when I think how stupid, isolated and frightened workers must be to continue to fall for it.

    Widespread use of Black workers as strikebreakers in the late 19th and early 20th century underlined both the cynicism of the employers and their agents, and the foolish segregationist policies that white workers fell for throughout the union movement. Often the craft-union based leadership of the old AFL initiated and sustained this idiotic and hateful policy for decades. it’s one of the factors that led to the founding and explosive growth of the progressive CIO in the 1930s.

    (My wife’s Jewish-immigrant grandfather was trapped in the same predicament when he was recruited as a strikebreaker during the early days of the NYC subway system at the turn of the 20th Century. Ironically, my Irish-immigrant grandfather was a charter member of the Transport Workers Union a little later.)

    In an awful way the self-defeating behaviors of working and poor people worldwide mirror each other.
    In the 1920s and ’30s Nativist, poor whites joined the re-born KuKluxKlan in record numbers and participated in or condoned a hurricane of anti-Black terror including the lynching-murder of thousands of Black people.
    As well, the horrific spectacle of Hutus murdering hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, their Rwandan countrymen in the 1980s and ’90s was practically numbing in its seeming raw insanity.
    So too, the shameful fratricide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq ignited by the vastly unjust war of personal pique and oil unleashed by George Bush & Company, serves only to convince Western working people that all Muslims are vicious and insane.
    And in perverse preview of the “Clash of Civilizations” theory, the massacres of European Bosnian Muslims by their erstwhile Serb fellow citizens of the former Yugoslavia, tragically underlined the moral and political collapse of Stalinist Communism — even its Titoist liberal variant. Thus — like in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea — even a philosophy at least nominally founded on principles of liberty, equality, fraternity through a Workers’ Government can go disastrously off the rails.

    Of course the workers of the world and their then-powerful Socialist Parties could not stop and eventually jumped on board the greatest fratricidal conflict of all time, World War I.

    And now here at home our New Nativists, organized into the Koch Bros Front Group Subsidiary, The Tea Party, are building their Smash-the-Unions rightist alliance with the NRA, anti-choice terrorists, racists, and the like.

    So Lou, and Dave and Thom are right: American workers need to find Solidarity with China’s working class — the largest in the world — in the face of collaboration between cynical US capitalists who will sell us all down the river for the price of a Starbucks, and the increasingly bizarre Chinese “Communist” Party … Joseph Stalin’s bastard progeny … who are completing a like Bill-of-Sale on Chinese workers even as we speak.

    It’s a tough World out there.

    And with no workers’ political party, weak unions, dazed and cowardly Democrats, and shredding social solidarity, I tremble for our future.

  4. Rudy Corral says:

    And so it goes as in the history of labor unions in this country bigotry and racism , we have come a long way but the truths about our labor movements pass is painful.

    Capitalism you live by it and you will die by it. How do you change the fundamental principals of global capitalism maximizing profits and margins, corporations have and will continue to go where its the cheapest to produce. Workers of the World Unite hey that sounds familiar. What better time then now an American Labor Party build in the good’ol USA now that’s what i call a world leader.

  5. Wayne Kennan says:

    China’s economic rise was fueled by blatant theft of and resale of American and European patents and copyrights. It was helped along by globally based manufacturers electing to hire children and peasants to assemble their products under shoddy, dangerous. and environmentally bankrupt working conditions.

    If they paid up what they owe us in patent and copyright infringement, those clowns in D.C. wouldn’t be arguing about the debt ceiling and whining about how they missed their summer vacations. Why are we so spineless?

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