Friday, January 28, 2011

Chinese firms hoping that workers of the world don't unite? Another labor round-up from the South and Global South

(The accompanying photo was taken by the author in Singapore last May. It shows an interesting mix of capitalism and communist ideology with posters of Mao decorating a storefront in Singapore's Chinatown.)

This latest round-up of labor activity in or related to the South clearly shows the growing connections between Dixie and the Global South as fast-growing China deepens its investment in the U.S. with new plants planned in labor-hostile South Carolina and Texas, and as Arkansas-based Wal-Mart extends its reach into the African continent.

Even the recent killing of coal mine safety legislation in the U.S. Congress has global implications when you consider the sufferings of coal miners not only in West Virginia but around the world in the past year.

China and the South

The world's largest communist country, China, may have been founded on the pro-proletariat theories and preachings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, but it today increasingly stands shoulder to shoulder with the world's premier capitalist economy, the United States, in its attitude toward workers and unions.

As reported recently by Phil Mattera of Dirt Diggers Digest and Facing South, Chinese investment in the U.S. has soared in the past two years. Those investments include plans by the appliance-maker Haier Group to build a factory in South Carolina as well as Tianjin Pipe's plans for a $1 billion plant in Texas. Chinese companies have had an eye on the U.S. appliance industry for some time and tried unsuccessfully several years ago to purchase the Maytag company.

China has also been eyeing the U.S. auto market for some time, of course. GM sold Nexteer Automotive to a Chinese firm, and a Chinese automaker has looked at a site in Mississippi for a possible future plant. If that ever materializes, the United Auto Workers should be ready for them. UAW President Bob King said earlier this month that his organization is going to be increasingly focused on the South in its future organizing efforts. That is, after all, where the industry is going.

What would Mao say to all this? What's particularly interesting is that these companies are looking to the South, where they hope to capitalize on low-union rates and low wages as well as from relaxed regulatory and environmental regulations.

What is the message here? "Workers of the World Don't Unite"?

Wal-Mart in South Africa

The South's own global mega-corporation, Wal-Mart, recently got the nod from the shareholders of the South African retail chain Massmart to allow the Arkansas-based firm to purchase 51 percent of the company's shares. This sets the stage for Wal-Mart's entry into the continent of Africa, and from a base in its most prosperous country. Wal-Mart stores are already in South America and Asia.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions opposed the purchase. Sidumo Diamini, president of the congress, told the Associated Press the purchase offers "nothing for the workers. ... Wal-Mart ... has never done anything for the workers."

Massmart stores stretch across 14 countries on the African continent.

Holding a magnifying glass to Wal-Mart operations, however, are U.S. unions through the Web sites Wake Up Walmart and Walmart Watch, which just announced that they are joining forces and creating "one unified voice to hold Walmart accountable for its impact on communities, the American workforce, the retail sector, the environment and the nation's economy."

In fact, the combined operations have launched a petition-signing campaign to get Wal-Mart to engage community groups in "ensuring quality job creation."

Although Wal-Mart remains non-union in the U.S., Wake Up Walmart and Walmart Watch have put public pressure on the firm that led to change in some of its practices, such as the forcing of employees to work off the clock.

Coal Mine Safety At Risk Here and Abroad

Finally, in the U.S. Congress, the lameduck session that many heralded as a huge success for President Obama failed to produce legislation that might prevent future disasters such as the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners last April. House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., pushed hard for a bill that would have made it easier to shut down unsafe mines, set up new protections for whistleblowers, and increase penalties against derelict mine owners.

However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers sent their army of lobbyists into the fray and got 99.9 percent of House Republicans and a couple dozen Democrats to oppose and thus kill the bill.

The year 2010 was the deadliest for U.S. coal miners in 18 years. Forty-eight miners died. However, mine safety is not just an issue here. It's truly a global issue, as we saw with last year's dramatic rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners.

To get an idea of how bad things are for miners, we have to turn our attention back to China, which ranks first in the world in miner deaths. In the year 2009, 2,631 miners in China lost their lives. Just last October, 37 miners died in Yuzhou City in the Hunan province after a gas explosion.

The Chinese government has adopted new regulations aimed at making coal mining safer. Critics, however, say such efforts thus far have been insufficient and too disjointed to meet the problem.

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