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Global trade union leaders are calling the current worldwide recession a “crisis of distributive justice.” According to The Global Unions “Washington Declaration” (November 2008), one answer to the increasingly extreme economic imbalances that have produced this crisis lies in “…more balanced growth in the global economy between regions, as well as within countries, between capital and labour, between high and low income earners, between rich and poor, and between men and women.” Specifically, the global union leaders identified the “…imbalance between the U.S. and other parts of the global economy, the imbalance between finance and the real economy and the imbalance of bargaining power between workers and their employers.” The Solidarity Center’s work on China seeks to address these imbalances.

The Solidarity Center advocates for freedom of association as an indispensable element of an industrial relations system capable of resolving industrial disputes and ensuring decent work and living standards. Workers everywhere should be free to form unions and peacefully voice their grievances, without retaliation from employers or government. The Solidarity Center works with counterparts and colleagues in Chinese civil society—trade unionists, worker rights advocates and lawyers, and legal and industrial relations scholars—to provide comparative labor law and industrial relations expertise relevant to amplifying workers’ voice and introducing more bargaining equality into the relations between workers and employers.

The pace of China’s current industrial revolution is unprecedented: What took Western nations centuries to do, China has accomplished in decades. In creating a new industrial powerhouse in just 30 years, China has called up a new working class—including millions of rural workers who have migrated to instant urban industrial zones. At the same time and pace, China’s short three decades of industrialization have fueled a “race to the bottom” in wages, hours and working conditions, accelerated by deregulation policies. But China’s laws and practice do not allow for freedom of association or widespread collective bargaining. They relegate peasant workers to second-class citizenship, with limited access to education for their children and social security benefits. Existing labor laws are not implemented, fueling competition between employers and regions based on evasion of labor standards.

Multi-national employers and brands, their Chinese contractors, and Chinese employers outside international supply and contracting chains have too often adopted business models premised on a relative lack of enforcement of labor standards, environment protections, and consumer safety measures. The Solidarity Center’s dialogue with Chinese counterparts seeks to contribute to reversing this race to the bottom and to eliminating competition between Chinese and American workers based on “blood and sweat.&rdquo

China has passed a series of laws that cover most industrial workers and create some basic standards. These laws do not protect freedom of association for workers in choosing a union or create the set of institutions necessary to adequately define and enforce collective bargaining. Yet, within a limited scope, the 2008 legal reforms provide a start on addressing some of the imbalances that burden China’s workers. Important voices in China are urging collective bargaining as a means to overcome workers’ lack of purchasing power, cut down on the large number of strikes and industrial disputes, and begin to empower workers as proponents of healthier and safer workplaces. At the same time, employers of all stripes are urging suspension of the new laws and their implementation pending resolution of the economic crisis.

The Solidarity Center works with Chinese counterparts on models and advice for strengthening labor laws and their enforcement, on labor law legal aid for workers, and on improving occupational health and safety. In addition, the Solidarity Center aims to assist trade unionists and worker rights advocates in realizing the policy of collective bargaining in the private sector. U.S. trade unions have long history of collective bargaining with multi-national employers, and this experience can be useful to Chinese workers’ organizations.

The Solidarity Center also attempts to engage American and global unions in the great Chinese debate—so similar to our own past and current debates—about labor law, collective bargaining, and workers’ role in society. This debate strongly affects the purchasing power and standard of living for Chinese workers, as well as the rates of occupational accidents and diseases. The outcome of this debate also has a direct impact on industrial wages, hours, and working conditions for workers worldwide.

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