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Why is the Left Silent Over Chinese Labor Unrest? By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 18, 2002

MARXISTS always used to argue that class struggle was the motor force of history. All human life could be explained by looking at the never-ending class struggle between the exploiters and the exploited a struggle that only could end when the triumphant working class ushered in an end to exploitation of man by man and the glorious classless society, in which the omniscient Communist Party ruled on behalf of the exploited and created the first truly just society.

We all know, of course, how that dream turned out. The working classes in the capitalist societies achieved a standard of living and a free way of life unheard of in the early days of industrial capitalism; they had free trade unions to represent their economic interests; the vote enabling them to represent their political interests, and the ability to move ahead in life and gradually enter the ranks of the middle class and beyond. The first great American labor leader, Samuel Gompers, understood well that the socialists in the ranks of labor were the real enemies of the American workingmen. Gompers fought those who dreamed of pie in the sky, opting instead for working for rights within the existing new economic system.

As the Communist system in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European colonies was on its last death throes, one of the great moving forces for an end to the reign of Communist terror was that of the beleaguered working classes. Unlike their brethren in the supposedly undemocratic capitalist West, who had free trade unions and the voteunions in the Soviet bloc were formed as Lenin defined them, as "transmission belts" to see to it that the view of the Party was forced upon the subjected workers. If the Party economic planners determined a massive speedup in production so that the State could have more of a product to export, the so-called unions saw to it that the working day would now be 12 hours a day instead of eight. And of course, any remuneration for the work undertaken was to be minimal. As the old Soviet era joke had it, "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

In Poland, of course, Communism began to crumble when the workers let it be known that they had enough. Lech Welesa led the dockworkers of the port city of Gdansk to form Solidarity, and the beginning of the end was in sight. Gompers’ modern descendants, led by the AFL-CIO’s leader, Lane Kirkland, saw to it that the largest national American trade union federation would stand firmly behind the new Polish movement; they provided aid, money, printing presses, copying machines and the like, but most importantly, they offered the support of union leaders in America who fought on their behalf. (We await the definitive story of Kirkland’s magnificent effort in Arch Puddington’s forthcoming biography.)

Now, the only area in the world where the working class remains oppressed is once again being heard fromthis time, it is in the remaining would-be Communist giant, The People’s Republic of China. Recently, a rare report about the hidden reality of daily life in China appeared in The Washington Post. Filed from Dafeng, an industrial town 150 miles from Shanghai, the story by reporter Philip P. Pan told in gruesome detail of how workers at the Shuangfeng Textile Factory, an enterprise built in 1931 that once produced great amounts of yarn and cloth for China’s garment factories, are at the point of complete desperation.

Pan notes how banners used to tell workers about how they were the "masters" of the societythe State was their State. Now, with strikes forbidden (after all, who do workers have to strike against when they own the State?) the workers’ pay has been drastically cut; the stock shares they were given when the State began to sell off old and obsolete State owned enterprises are worthless, and the pension funds they were once guaranteed have disappeared down an unknown sink hole. The condition of the workers who have lost all is so severe that it makes the American "victims" of the Enron stock collapse appear as millionaires even after their losses.

They risk their lives and their freedom because, as the report puts it, they are "struggling to survive without the help of effective labor unions, courts or other institutions that provide checks and balances in a market economy." Privatization is being carried out in a way that guarantees misery; State factories are sold to former Party apparatchiks for a song, while those who worked within them lose their jobs without benefits while their savings are stolen by the former Party bosses who remain their managers. The result, since formal protests and picket lines are against the law, is an informal sit-in in which the workers go to their jobs, and remain at the site of the machines around the clock, refusing to leave or to work. They are met by police raids, electric batons (like those used by Bull Connor against civil rights demonstrators in Alabama in the 1960s) and even the State militia.

The Party, of course, tries to cover up the labor protest, although it is acknowledged in secret publications that there were around 30,000 protests of large size in the year 2000 or 80 incidents per day! No wonder. At the Dafeng factory, 4000 workers were forced by edict to buy shares in a worthless milland told to invest their meager life savingsabout $600 per workermore than one year’s salary, in the stocks. Promised high annual dividends and shareholder rights, they actually received nothing. The company filed for bankruptcy while the firm’s owners and former Communist managers made out like the bandits a Chinese Enron scandal, except that in China, the story was not reported. What the workers suffered is called a "false bankruptcy," which means that corrupt managers hide assets, declare bankruptcy and then buy the firm at an extra low price, using embezzled funds.

Were such a scandal to break out in the United States, there would be ten Congressional inquiries, newspaper editorials galore, and every pundit worth his or her name weighing in. In China, the facts are hidden, and those who find out and try to protest find that they are fired from their old job, or employed at a 50 percent pay cut which amounts to anywhere from $25 to $40 per month. (That is not a mistakethe amount is per month, not per day.) One worker, the story reports, screamed, "Officials live off the labor of the workers!" Too Maoist a slogan, the workers, including two young mothers, were fired precipitously after eleven years on the job. There is, it is obvious, no Wagner Act allowing unions to bargain and affording elementary rights for workers in the People’s Republic. The Party may teach children that Mao began his career organizing miners and railway workers, but as the Post reports, "the government has also absorbed the lesson of how strikes helped bring down Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union."

There is, in fact, no freedom to strike in Communist China. As always, no Communist regime can allow free and independent trade unions. Dafeng workers tried to get around this by pretending they were not a union, but were simply staying at their posts refusing to work. Their official union did nothing; radio and television never reported what was happening. But every night, between 2:00 and 3:00am, police charged the factory and removed the workers. The government arrested strike leaders, and tried to install video surveillance to prevent reoccurrences. When one brave man, a twenty-year factory veteran, tried to explain what had happened, he was arrested and taken from his wife and child. Also incarcerated were outsiders who expressed sympathy with the factory worker’s plight. Some had traveled to Beijing, where they thought that the central government would come to their help once they made known what local officials were doing. But they too were arrested by Beijing police. Eventually the company declared a "vacation," forced everyone out, and reopened the factory after remaining workers agreed to come back after accepting the pay cut and the loss of their pensions. One worker summed it up: "We lost…anyone who speaks out is arrested, so no one dares say anything…it’s useless."

Back in the days of the Reagan ‘80s, the AFL-CIO under Lane Kirkland’s leadership worked hard in cooperation with the Reagan administration to support worker’s rights in the totalitarian Communist regimes, and to give aid and comfort to those organizing against their oppressors. But now, the AFL-CIO is in different hands. John Sweeney and his cohorts have shifted the Federation to the far Left, and closed down the once strong anti-Communist labor arms such as AIFLD and the Free Trade Union Committee. Condemned as obsolete Cold Warriors, the AFL-CIO has sought instead to link its fortunes to the remnants of the New Left, and to join hands with those involved in the anti-globalization protests. If they talk up the situation in China, it is usually to protest the nation as a haven for cheap labor and as a competitor whose firms interfere with jobs for American workers. Check their web site, and one will find scores of statements in opposition to bringing China into the international trading system. Gone is the single-minded and tough opposition to the repressive Communist regime that one found easily in Kirkland’s day.

As for the other remnants of the Left, they prefer to yell about the evil effects of globalization for workers in the US, and to persist in supporting class struggle policies at home, where such policies are totally irrelevant and wrong-headed. In China, where labor has no rights at all and needs solidarity and help, they are silent. It is up to others to come to the aid of the courageous and undaunted workers forced to try and make a living in the Communist "worker’s state."

Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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