U.S. Workers Face Chinese Employers

January 20th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

Much of the discussion of Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States is focused on China’s treatment of its dissidents and its workers, but another issue is becoming increasingly important: the treatment of U.S. workers by the Chinese companies that are rapidly expanding their presence in the United States.

Hu’s decision to include a stop in Chicago is not meant primarily as an homage to President Obama’s hometown. He wants to spotlight a Chinese-owned company called Wanxiang America, which from its suburban Chicago headquarters has built an auto parts and renewable energy conglomerate that has become the largest example of direct foreign investment in the U.S. from the People’s Republic.

Until recently, China accounted for a negligible portion of overseas money flowing into the American economy. But in the past two years there has been an enormous influx. The Washington Post cites a consulting company estimate that the Chinese stake has jumped to $12 billion since the beginning of 2009.

There’s every indication that number will continue to rise rapidly. The Chinese government is encouraging the trend to help protect its access to American markets, and the job-hungry U.S. seems to no longer have any of the objections that thwarted the efforts of Chinese companies to buy the oil company Unocal and the appliance firm Maytag a half dozen years ago.

Many U.S. observers are celebrating the arrival of Chinese capital, but this is actually a very dismaying state of affairs. The fact that companies from a country in which many workers are paid near-starvation wages find it economical to produce here says a lot about the dismal state of labor in the United States. The anti-union hostility of American employers has forced down pay rates in this country to the point that the U.S. is now considered a low-wage haven, at least among the countries of the developed world.

There’s no indication that investors coming from a dictatorship of the proletariat will do anything to reverse the decline of U.S. workers’ power. If anything, they will follow the pattern of companies from heavily unionized countries in Europe and Asia that eagerly embrace the culture of union-busting once they arrive on these shores.

Chinese investment in U.S. industry has already shown signs of anti-union animus. Not long after China International Trust and Investment Corp. (CITC) took over bankrupt Phoenix Steel in Delaware back in 1988 with the support of the United Steelworkers, the new operation, named CitiSteel, refused to recognize and bargain with the union, which had represented the Phoenix workforce for decades.

And when appliance-maker Haier Group became the first large Chinese company to build a factory from scratch in the United States, it chose South Carolina, one of the states most hostile to labor unions. In subsequent years, Chinese firms have continued to concentrate on right-to-work states. For example, Tianjin Pipe is planning to build a $1 billion production facility in Texas.

Today’s U.S. affiliates of Chinese companies are not entirely non-union. Wanxiang America has taken over unionized auto parts operations being shed by major U.S. companies, but many United Autoworkers members depart during the buyouts and other workforce reductions that accompany the change in ownership. The UAW has also survived GM’s sale of Nexteer Automotive to China’s Pacific Century Motors—a deal that went through after union members approved a contract that cut wage rates.

The ability of these companies to maintain good relations with their unions will depend in part on whether they engage in the kind of restructuring ploys favored by U.S. employers. It was not an encouraging sign when Neapco Components, an affiliate of Wanxiang America, announced last year that it was shutting down its manufacturing plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and transferring the operation to Nebraska, where state officials arranged for the company to get $1 million in federal stimulus funds to underwrite the move.

The larger labor relations challenge is the inevitable clash between Chinese and U.S. workplace cultures. Even in non-union companies, U.S. workers are used to a certain level of respect for individual rights. Many Chinese firms retain the remnants of a repressive collectivism. The Haier plant in South Carolina, for instance, is festooned with motivational banners exhorting workers to “make the impossible possible without an excuse.” The original Chinese managers there caused resentment by chastising individual workers for slip-ups in front of the entire workforce.

It remains to be seen how U.S. workers take to the pseudo-Maoism of contemporary Chinese business, but there’s no question that the rise of Chinese investment is another strong argument for the revival of an aggressive U.S. labor movement.

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