Chinese model is not workers’

March 23, 2012

Workshop Talks

by Htun Lin

As I watched the news of a state visit by the designated next President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, sealing important trade deals with the U.S. President, I couldn’t help but think about another “state visit,” to China, by Andy Stern, former President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Stern penned a love letter, a sort of ode to state-capitalist planning, in an Op-Ed piece entitled “China’s Superior Economic Model” (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2011). He confessed his gushing admiration of a symbol of China’s success–a skyline of cranes, continuously erecting new factories and other real estate, “building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily.”

Stern exclaimed that, “The Global Revolution–coupled with Deng Xiaoping’s government-led, growth-oriented reforms–has created the planet’s second-largest economy. It’s on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025.” Stern lectured, “While we debate, Team China rolls on. The ability to plan is what is missing in America.”


Stern curiously omits, in his exaltation of the Chinese economy, the point of view of Chinese workers: they have no rights and suffer rampant labor and human rights abuses. There is no collective bargaining and workers are forbidden to strike or form independent unions. It is no mystery that in order to enforce work rules, company thugs have the backing of the Chinese government, corrupt local bureaucrats and state-sponsored unions.

As Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, points out, labor policy in the PRC is set exclusively by the government. “Economic growth in China happens through the sacrifice of workers’ lives….The few people in China who benefit the most from Chinese economic growth may agree it’s a great system, but not for migrant workers in factories.”

If one is willing to listen, workers speak well enough for themselves in innumerable wildcat strikes (see “Widening labor and peasant revolts threaten Chinese rulers,” Jan.-Feb. N&L). Stern surely is aware of the punishing work environment that is common in Chinese factories, yet he says not a word about the role of multinational corporations or of the global supply chain in fostering such conditions. Technology giants like Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard offshore their manufacturing to China and other developing countries to capitalize not only on the low wages but on the power of the state to suppress workers’ independent voices.


Li’s description of the Chinese model has an eerie parallel in the “Labor-Management-Partnership” (LMP) in my shop. Over a decade ago, in collaboration with our company CEO behind closed doors, Stern planned the LMP from the top. It soon became clear that its mission was to suppress workers’ independent voices in the name of meeting company goals–to minimize cost and maximize revenue.

Kaiser management successfully stole a recent union election for the SEIU, its “partner” union. Like in China, we have no independent voice through the LMP, with company union SEIU as the ruling party.


For Stern, China is but a reflection of our right-to-work future. He urges us to partner with American corporations and their efforts to outsource our jobs to help cut costs so they can “stay competitive.”

Stern has witnessed the growing labor unrest in protests by the Occupy Movement, Wisconsin public employees, and elsewhere. His remedy for America is “a streamlined government as a partner with the private sector”–a plan the Wisconsin governor would heartily endorse.

Stern’s love for state-capitalist planning represents what Karl Marx called the “despotic plan of capital.” He admonished the rank and file to “learn to adjust to new economic realities” and said that we should be glad that we even “have a job.” My co-workers and I wondered how often Chinese workers must have to listen to that kind of lecture by their production foremen.

Today Team China rolls on, in partnership with Pennsylvania Avenue and beyond. They think rank-and-file democracy belongs in the “ash-heap” of history.  We rank-and-file workers of the world beg to differ.  We are united in that difference.

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