China has been something of a problem for the American labor movement over the past, oh, half century: It's absorbed hundreds of thousands of formerly American jobs, playing a big role in the collapse of U.S. manufacturing. During that time, no sitting AFL-CIO president has seen fit to pay a visit -- until this past week, when Richard Trumka took a break from shutdown madness to do so.
It was a quick junket, lasting only four days, and low profile. The AFL-CIO issued no press releases about it, and there were no photo ops with state officials. Independent labor unions are still officially banned in China, after all, outside the official party.
Instead, Trumka just took a look around, meeting workers and public interest lawyers in Beijing, Xuzhou, and Shanghai. The trip included a visit to a training center for migrant workers, a coal mine, the GM plant in Shanghai, the Yangshan deep water port, and a mining and engineering university to talk about worker health and safety issues.
"President Trumka's trip was focused on promoting more worker to worker exchanges between our countries," said a spokeswoman.
The AFL-CIO is fairly well networked overseas, supporting Solidarity Centers to advocate for labor rights around the world. China, though, has been a special challenge. The AFL-CIO has kept up a constant drumbeat of concern about its currency manipulation and systematic violation of worker rights. Both Trumka and AFL-CIO economist Thea Lee -- who accompanied Trumka on his tour -- appeared in last year's China-bashing documentary "Death by China," warning of the menace overseas.
"Think about a relative that just got laid off or a factory that just got shut down," Trumka said, responding to a question about people buying goods made in China. "Think about the school that is doing with less because the manufacturing base has gone and the tax base has left. Think about the lower income that you're receiving now because we're not making products, and we're not buying our own products."
Other labor unions have tried to open channels with Chinese workers. Back in 2011, leaders of the rival labor coalition Change to Win visited the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which had made some inroads unionizing Wal-Mart stores back in 2006. But it's also officially sanctioned by the Chinese government, which made the AFL-CIO wary.
"It became clear that the ACFTU units in the Wal-Mart stores were dominated by the company, and so interest in the Change to Win initiative waned," explains Rutgers labor relations professor David Bensman. "The fact that Trumka is going to China could conceivably be a sign that the AFL-CIO has decided that it needs to find a way to engage with Chinese workers, even though the ACFTU is not to its liking."
Better conditions for Chinese workers are desirable for humanitarian reasons, of course -- but they also raise labor costs, which tilts the calculus for an American company back towards keeping jobs in the United States.