U.S. Export: Union-Busting
Beth Shulman, a lawyer and former labor union vice president, is the author of The Betrayal of Work (The New Press, 2003) and a spokesperson for the Russell Sage Foundation's Future of Work program.
China, that bastion of cheap labor, announced last week that it will soon pass laws to empower real unions. China’s leaders said its millions of workers need genuine labor unions to help bridge the growing gap between rich and poor, to prevent social unrest and to curtail the country’s notorious worker abuses.
So where is the thunderous applause from the global community? Isn’t this extraordinary announcement just what globalization is supposed to produce? We have been told for years that open markets would better the lives of workers in less-developed countries. And didn’t Poland’s Solidarity movement prove that freedom of association would lead to democratization?
Well, yes. But American corporations are not cheering China’s move. In fact, they are vehemently opposing it. They are even threatening to build fewer factories in China if the idea goes forward.
We should not be surprised. American corporations take the very same position here at home every day. According to a 2000 Human Rights Watch report, “Workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”
When faced with union organizing drives, 30 percent of U.S. employers fire pro-union workers, 49 percent threaten to close the plant if the union prevails and 51 percent offer bribes or favors to coerce negative votes, according to a 2005 study by the Center for Urban Economic Development.
American corporations do everything they can to eliminate workers’ right to organize because they know that the Chinese leaders are right: unions do raise workers’ wages and health and retirement benefits, and they do narrow the gap between rich and poor. The Economic Policy Institute says unionized workers earn roughly 20 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts. In traditionally low-wage jobs, workers make 27 percent more.
And wages are not the only difference. Fully 86 percent of union workers are covered by health benefits through their employer, compared to 59 percent of non-union workers, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Unionized workers are also 54 percent more likely to have employer-provided pension plans, and they receive 26 percent more vacation time. When unions have a large presence in an industry, they set norms that influence non-union companies competing for workers.
I can just hear corporate leaders warning the Chinese government about another thing unions do: they get involved in politics. American unions have led the fight for aid to education, promotion of civil rights, housing assistance programs, social security, unemployment compensation, Medicaid and Medicare. Unions, in short, can create a counterweight to the kind of unfettered capitalism that now reigns in China.
American corporate leaders are enjoying in China what amounts to the good old days before unions changed the face of America. They can see what China’s plan could lead to, and they want to nip it in the bud. It’s the classic anti-worker attitude they practice every day here in the United States. It’s the worst face of America. It’s up to us to hold the line against that attitude here, and to make the kind of decisions that ensure we do not export it abroad.