Trade Unions in the United States and China

The work focuses on the comparative analysis of labor unions of the United States and China. In the first case, such organizations created by the workers focus directly on the protection of their rights while also being quite diverse in their nature. In turn, the efficiency of their work is relatively high. However, their position also leads to the confrontations with the government and employers as well as the negligence towards the interests of non-members. As a result, their stability and survivability are often jeopardized, as the governmental agencies and the media tend to perceive them as a threat to the well-being of the business. On the other hand, the Chinese system is grounded on the principles of strict governmental control, lack of diversity, and the alignment with the policy of the ruling party. In turn, it is more stable than its American counterpart, as the government directly participates in the financing and management of labor unions. However, the presence of only one association of workers as well as numerous limitations imposed by the country's legislation also makes it less flexible and efficient. Consistent violations of the interests of workers, especially against the background of improper protection of their rights by the Chinese law, have continuously been exacerbating the issue. Thus, even despite their numerous problems and shortcomings, the trade unions of the United States have an advantage over the ones of China by being more democratic, unbiased, and comprehensive in their activities.

Trade Unions in the United States and China

The labor movement has become a major driving force behind the process of formation of the modern society. Specifically, it was one of the facilitators of the improvement of working conditions and increase in salary and wages contributing to the emergence of the contemporary middle class. However, for each country, its governing principles were quite different, featuring a wide array of the social, economic, and political factors. Such difference can be particularly pronounced for the regions with the opposing ideologies  for example, capitalism and communism  and its understanding is quite important for the efficient protection of workers rights under the conditions of a globalized society. Therefore, it is crucial to review the labor unions in the countries that rely upon the different political principles and systems, namely the United States and China, and identify their strong and weak sides.

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Labor Unions: An Overview

Prior to the conduction of a comparative analysis, it is necessary to identify the meaning and significance of a labor (trade) union. In general, the researcher can describe it as a voluntary public association of people that are connected by common interests, namely the nature of their activity in production, in the sphere of services, culture, and so on. The initiators of such organization usually aim at representing and protecting workers' rights in labor relations as well as their socio-economic interests, with the possibility of a wider representation of employees at the political arena of a state (Wood, 2017). Thus, it is possible to assume that these principles must be governing for such organizations in any country of the world. However, the information presented further will demonstrate that the approaches to these goals may be quite different.

Labor Unions in the United States

In case of the United States, labor unions feature the down-top principle, meaning that the workers establish them directly to create as a medium between them, their employers, and the government. This approach to their establishment means that such organizations can be quite diverse in their nature. Thus, they may cater to the interests of the different groups of employees (healthcare professionals, actors, and so on) while taking into account the peculiarities of their work (Wood, 2017). Moreover, it ensures the consistency with the primary goals of the American labor movement linked to the asymmetry of the real rights of the individual wage workers and entrepreneurs. Specifically, in case the former refuse to accept the conditions offered by the entrepreneur, they risk being fired and unemployed. On the other hand, the employers that refuse to satisfy the worker's requirements can dismiss the latter and hire the new ones losing almost nothing in the process (Wood, 2017). In order to achieve some equalization of real rights, the employees must be able to enlist the support of their colleagues in the conflict situation. For example, in most cases, an entrepreneur does not need to respond to individual speeches and protests of workers. However, when the latter unite and the overall production process is threatened, the employer is forced not only to listen to their demands, but also react to those (Wood, 2017). In other words, the American associations gave the employees the power of which they were deprived when acting individually.

Additionally, the modern labor unions of the United States have an impact not only on employers, but also on the financial and legislative policies of the government. The primary advantage of such diversity is in the fact that the trade unions can ensure the comprehensive protection of the workers rights as well as the optimal working conditions for its members. At the same time, the inclusion of a wide array of goals into their policy may result in the dispersion of resources of such associations, potentially affecting the efficiency of measures they implement (Fernie & Metcalf, 2013). However, it is necessary to note that when struggling for the interests of their members, trade unions often remain indifferent to the needs of the other employees, specifically the ones that do not have a membership. Furthermore, they make attempts to restrict migration because the foreign workers may have a negative impact on the well-being of the country's citizens. Another method of limiting labor supply is the requirement to strictly license many activities. As a result, trade unions provide their members with a higher salary than the one received by the non-unionists (around 20-30% increase in the United States), but this gain is largely due to the worsening of non-trade union wages (Fernie & Metcalf, 2013). Thus, the activity of the American associations cannot be viewed unambiguously.

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Labor Unions in China

In comparison to the United States, China utilizes a different approach to the protection of the workers' rights in general and the establishment and management of the respective associations as a whole. In general, these tasks are the responsibility of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Currently, it is the largest organization of such type in the world, having 134 million members as well as including 1,700,000 primary, 31 regional, and 10 industrial organizations (Brook & Frolic, 2015). The ACFTU was established in 1925, with its subsequent closure in 1941 by the Kuomintang government, and revived in 1948 (Brook & Frolic, 2015). With the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, it was disbanded once again, until the death of Mao Zedong, and reopened only in 1978 (Brook & Frolic, 2015). Since then, the organization has played a key role in the rule of the Chinese regime.

Labor Unions and the Government

It is necessary to note that in China the modern labor unions were created and organized on the basis of the top-down principle. In other words, these are not the organizations established by the workers of the country in order to unite their ranks and protect their personal interests, as it was in the case of the United States. The members of trade unions not elect their delegates to congresses and conferences, but rather chose the latter on the basis of the so-called democratic consultations. Moreover, the composition of the governing bodies of trade unions is also not subject to election (Li, 2016). On the one hand, such approach allows avoiding the situation similar to one with the American associations of workers. Specifically, with the onset of the era of Reaganism in the United States, people often viewed trade unions in the negative light. No organizations invited them to a partnership, the press encountered them in a hostile manner, and legislators imposed many restrictions making organizing workers difficult or even impossible. The offensive against trade unions, a theoretical basis was also an obstacle to the maximization of the profitability of the companies (Fernie & Metcalf, 2013). On the other hand, in China, where the trade unions are directly connected with the country's government, the possibility of such confrontation is minimal, if not non-existent.

However, the close relations with the authorities also result in the major disadvantage in the form of a strict control over the activity of the Chinese trade unions. This situation is facilitated by the fact that the ACFTU is not funded by the membership fees like in most countries of the world, including the United States, but rather from the state budget. As a result, the state pays the trade union officials as civil servants. In turn, all more or less significant appointments in the hierarchy of such organizations must go through the party committee of the ruling party of the country (Unger, 2014). The official inspection showed that the participation of small and medium-sized private enterprises in these unions was quite insignificant. This fact underscores the nominal function of the ACFTU with the establishment of trade unions in private enterprises being nothing more than an attempt to strengthen the governmental control over the workers (Unger, 2014). Additionally, the companies with foreign capital that operate in China have no right to refuse to create a branch of the ACFTU on their basis (Unger, 2014). Such rigid limitations are not present in the United States, which makes it possible to speak of much more favorable conditions for the development and functioning of trade unions in the country, especially when it comes to the protection of the workers rights.

The Policy of Labor Unions

Various political factors heavily influence the activity of the labor unions. For example, the Chinese government consists of a wide array of opposing factions that seek to use workers organizations for their own purposes complicating the campaign for streamlining and building labor unions their forms and methods of activity (Li, 2016). In this regard, it is possible to draw a parallel with the United States since the members of the country's trade unions are also involved in the political life of the country. Specifically, these organizations participate in the funding of the election campaigns and may influence the ideological and political beliefs of their members and their attendance at the elections (Wood, 2017). In addition, trade unions are leading one of the most effective and widespread initiatives to increase the literacy of voters and involve their members as well as their relatives in the electoral processes. Thus, they often provide the necessary preponderance of the votes of the political parties, especially when it comes to the working class voters that tend to be the main base of the electorate. They also work with the other groups, expanding the reach of the working class with the help of organizations such as Working America (Wood, 2017). In this case, it is difficult to speak of a direct advantage of one state over the other, as trade unions often play the role of a political tool in both of the reviewed countries. However, in case of the United States, such activity is likely to be more unbiased in its nature due to the independence of the associations of workers from the government while in China it will be aligned with the course of the ruling party.

It is also necessary to note that the charter of the ACFTU states that the main function of the organization is to protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers and employees as well as their democratic right to organize and participate in the processes of implementation of reforms, to fulfill the task of economic and social development. It also provides the conditions for the workers participating in a democratic management as well as their education with the purpose of continuous improvement of their ideological, moral, technical, and cultural level (Li, 2016). In other words, its goals are more numerous than those of the American trade unions, with the political component being quite considerable. On the other hand, in the United States, trade unions, as a rule, focus on the purely economic demands (higher wages, better conditions of employment, and so on) and emphatically distance themselves from the majority of the political movements, especially the ones of a radical nature. As a result, they are more loyal to the goal of protecting the workers' rights instead of influencing their political opinion. At the same time, the Chinese unions' focus on a wide array of tasks makes it possible expect the emergence of the problems similar to those of the United States including the dispersion of limited resources and thus the lowered efficiency of work of the organization. In this regard, it is difficult to speak of a particular advantage of one country over the other.

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It is important to mention that the ACFTU is the only labor union organization permitted in China, with the prohibition to create other similar associations (Unger, 2014). Thus, in comparison with the American system that is quite diverse in its nature primarily due to the reliance upon the down-top approach, the Chinese one is more totalitarian. Moreover, the authorities often arrest the organizers of protests, labor disputes or working groups (Unger, 2014). However, despite all efforts aimed at suppressing workers, the number of labor conflicts, both individual and collective, is constantly growing in China, which is a sign of the development of the trade union system. Still, being a driving belt for the Communist Party and the Chinese government, the ACFTU consistently surrendered the interests of workers in order to implement the government programs of industrial growth while also guaranteeing social and political stability in the country (Brook & Frolic, 2015). The organization has never challenged the policy of the country's leaders in the field of restricting the human rights including the fundamental labor standards. It is necessary to note that China has signed only four of the eight fundamental Conventions of the International Labor Organization, namely the ones related to child labor and combating the discrimination at a workplace. The positions on the right to unite and engage in the processes of collective bargaining as well as the prohibition of the forced labor are still not ratified (Brook & Frolic, 2015). Thus, the nature of protection provided by the ACFTU is far from being comprehensive, especially in comparison to the one received by the workers of the United States. This situation makes it difficult to expect positive dynamics in the field of the labor movement in China in the long-term perspective.


The comparative analysis of the trade unions of the United States and China has made it possible to conclude that both countries have their own set of advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the organization of the labor movement. On the one hand, the American associations more focus on the protection of the workers' rights and tend to confront the country's government and employees to provide its members with the social guarantees. In turn, citizens often perceive them in a negative light, which does not contribute to their stability and survivability. At the same time, they are quite diverse in their nature, meaning that they can cater to the needs of specific social groups with a higher degree of efficiency. On the other hand, the system of trade unions in China is more stable due to its direct connection with the government, as well as the alignment with the policy implemented by the ruling party. However, it is also much more restricted in terms of protection of workers' right, with the government controlling the majority of its internal processes, including the appointment of the managers and delegates. Moreover, the protection it provides is incomprehensive in its nature. The imperfect legislation of China exacerbates the problem, with the country not prohibiting forced labor and not supporting the workers' right to unite and engage in the processes of collective bargaining. Thus, despite their shortcomings, the American trade unions are more efficient, flexible, and unbiased than the Chinese ones.

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