In February, I discussed in this space the role of Egyptian workers and labor unions in setting the groundwork for their nation’s political explosion, a role largely overlooked by the American media — as is virtually anything having to do with labor. The very next day, worker challenges to the regime leaped into the public consciousness, their impact becoming too pronounced for journalists to ignore. Since then, we’ve seen one regime after another topple in the Middle East.
With Yogi Berra’s caveat in mind — predictions are difficult, especially about the future — let’s turn our attention to another place where labor unrest is both fairly common and overlooked, and where it truly could shake the world.
China has for years experienced worker protests, strikes and occasional violence. Last summer’s auto strikes were particularly dramatic, but few economic sectors have been left unscathed. Recently, Chinese workers returning from Libya staged an airport sit-in over pay demands.
While these developments likely don’t pose a threat in the near future to what has proven to be a supple regime — particularly because they don’t involve coordinated union activities but rather spontaneous job actions by workers fed up with central mandates and local management practices — at some point they may make things dicey for those who run the world’s most populous nation.
After all, any claim to legitimacy by communist rulers rests on the notion that their dictatorship is on behalf of the proletariat. The official trade union movement is an institutional key to that, transmitting central planning targets and discipline to those very workers. Hence, any challenge to the official labor movement would threaten the regime itself.
China’s government faces two looming challenges — environmental and labor. Satisfying the desires of workers for a voice on the job may be the toughest, given the inherent contradiction facing unions that purport to serve worker interests while demanding their subservience. The longer this voice is denied, the more likely it is that pent-up frustrations will explode.
In early 1989, Al Shanker, leader of the American Federation of Teachers, noted cold warrior and head of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Committee, told me of the incipient independent unions bubbling up in Eastern Europe, including Liga in Hungary and Podkrepa in Bulgaria. Though small and mostly overlooked in the West, these worker actions had the potential to threaten the survival of the Soviet-backed regimes in ways that protests by students, intellectuals, artists or consumers couldn’t, Mr. Shanker told me.
The AFL-CIO was assisting these fledgling movements — quietly, given the risks involved. I wrote about the issue, but my newspaper editors at the time downplayed it. The Warsaw Pact seemed sturdy. By the fall of 1989, those same editors dispatched me to Budapest to cover what would turn into the dissolution of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. I interviewed in person some of the union leaders — who Mr. Shanker had put me in touch with by phone — about the role of ordinary workers and their fledgling movements in the historic events that were unfolding.
Clearly, China differs in profound ways from the Soviet Union, including the fact that the former has held a tight political rein while allowing some economic freedom, while the latter relaxed political control while maintaining a socialist economy. Moreover, American journalists are emphasizing other potential challenges to China’s established order, including those related to the Internet and social media, even as experts contend that worker unrest poses no real threat to regime survival. But journalists and experts were caught off guard in 1989, and again in 2011, and having seen firsthand the potential impact of worker uprisings, I’m not so sure.
• Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.