BEIJING—U.S. labor leaders, beset by a relentless decline in union membership at home, laid out a plan Tuesday for joint action with China's massive labor federation to force global corporations to pay higher wages.
The call for a partnership is a turnabout for the U.S. trade-union movement, which boycotted relations with China's labor federation for decades—until last year, when the Chinese federation forced China's Wal-Mart stores to accept unions.
"It is important for us to work together," said Anna Burger, the chairwoman of Change to Win, which represents seven unions and 6 million U.S. workers. She said that by sharing strategies and information, the American and Chinese labor movements could jointly challenge corporations to raise workers' pay.
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa hailed the All-China Federation of Trade Unions—the world's largest labor coalition, with 100 million members—for its campaign against the global corporations that are operating in China. But he said the federation shouldn't stop at multinational companies.
"You shouldn't just be going after Wal-Mart. You should be going after the national companies, the state-owned companies. They need to be organized as well," Hoffa said he told Chinese officials.
The U.S. labor delegation met with China's fourth-ranking leader, Jia Qinglin, who told them the Communist Party "would support cooperation between the two countries' unions, and discuss the role of trade unions in economic globalization," said Xinhua, the state news agency.
U.S. trade unions have watched membership plummet in recent years as corporations moved factories offshore, erasing millions of American manufacturing jobs. This month's 10-day trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing marked the first time that the leaders of a major U.S. labor coalition have traveled to China.
Labor leaders traveling with Burger said trade union movements had to coordinate tactics to challenge the companies that were scouring the globe for low-wage locales.
In addition to pressing Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, to accept unions last year, China is urging global fast-food chains McDonald's and KFC and other foreign companies that are operating here to accept trade unions
The move to approach China's labor federation followed a wrenching debate, according to one U.S. trade-union leader.
Andrew L. Stern, the head of the largest U.S. union, the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union, said "a lot of American trade-union leaders were very unhappy" when he made an individual visit to China in 2002.
Stern said global corporations kept getting bigger, however, and that "it is crazy for unions to believe that somehow they can stay local and be nationalists."
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is the nation's only legal labor group. The ruling party doesn't permit union members to call strikes, and the labor group has been accused of averting disputes for owners rather than defending workers' interests.
Working conditions in Chinese factories can be abysmal.
"Chinese workers are indeed very exploited. Workers are working for 12 hours a day, very often without any days off for a whole month," said Anita Chan, a researcher on labor issues at Australian National University in Canberra.
Burger said the federation in China was changing, though, and its leaders "demonstrated to us that they have a sincere commitment to representing the workers of China and making sure that prosperity is shared in this country."