Image: Customers shopping at Wal-Mart in China
Elizabeth Dalziel  /  AP
Customers shop at one of the outlets of the American supermarket Wal-Mart in Beijing, China. All of Wal-Mart’s 62 Chinese outlets have unions. Chinese law gives employees of any company with a work force of at least 25 people the right to form a union. Wal-Mart, which employs 30,000 people in China, has few unions elsewhere in its worldwide operations.
updated 10/12/2006 5:19:45 PM ET 2006-10-12T21:19:45

China’s state-sanctioned labor body is targeting Kodak and Dell in a campaign to organize unions at foreign-owned companies after its success at unionizing Wal-Mart’s 62 Chinese outlets, an official of the body said Thursday.

“We are going to exert very high pressure on these companies until unions are established there,” said Guo Wencai, director of grassroots organizing for the All-China-Federation of Trade Unions.

The campaign is aimed at doubling the ACFTU’s presence in foreign companies by the end of this year to 60 percent of the total, or some 90,000 enterprises, Guo said at a news conference.

ACFTU-affiliated unions have been set up in more than 300 foreign companies since the first Wal-Mart Stores Inc. outlet was organized on July 29, Guo said. He said they include Swiss food company Nestle SA and General Semiconductor Inc., a unit of Malvern, Pa.-based Vishay Intertechnology Inc.

Guo’s comments were the ACFTU’s first detailed explanation of its unionizing goals since its Wal-Mart campaign.

Foreign-financed companies employ millions of Chinese workers but have remained largely outside the country’s union system.

The ACFTU is the umbrella body for unions permitted by China’s communist government, which doesn’t allow independent labor groups and harasses and jails activists. Unions affiliated with the body represent some 150 million Chinese workers.

Anti-union employers
The body is encouraging its local branches to target major foreign companies, especially those deemed anti-union, Guo said. He cited Eastman Kodak Co., Dell Inc. and Taiwan’s Foxconn Electronics Corp. as examples of anti-union employers.

When asked for comment, Dell spokesman Colleen Ryan would only say the company had “nothing to report at this time” on the matter. Round Rock, Texas-based Dell employs about 6,000 workers in China. Phone calls on Thursday to Kodak’s China headquarters in Beijing weren’t answered.

The ACFTU often is regarded not as an advocate for better pay and working conditions for employees but as an intermediary that represents employers to workers.

But Guo rejected suggestions that it isn’t aggressive enough in representing workers and said it hoped to win better pay and benefits for employees of foreign companies.

“In fact, the ACFTU has done a lot to protect the rights and interests of Chinese workers,” he said.

A Wal-Mart in the eastern city of Jinan signed an agreement in September to hold talks on a union contract, Guo said. He said other stores were expected to follow suit.

At Wal-Mart, the ACFTU plans to focus first on trying to raise wages for part-time workers, he said.

Chinese law gives employees of any company with a work force of at least 25 people the right to form a union. But foreign employers often are accused of pressuring employees not to organize.

Reluctant partners
Wal-Mart, which employs 30,000 people in China, has few unions elsewhere in its worldwide operations. It resisted efforts to organize its Chinese workers for two years before agreeing in August to help set up official unions at all its China branches.

Guo gave the first inside account of the Wal-Mart campaign, an effort that involved a nationwide network of organizers, a local mayor and cloak-and-dagger tactics including secret midnight gatherings of employees.

“Trade union federations in every city where Wal-Mart stores were located gave very detailed instructions,” he said.

In Jinjiang, the southeastern city where the first union was formed, organizers moved into hotels around the Wal-Mart store so they could meet employees, Guo said. He said they gave out copies of China’s labor law and promised to find new jobs for any employees who were fired for joining the union.

The Jinjiang mayor met with the local Wal-Mart manager to lobby for his support to set up the union, Guo said. Employees met before dawn one day to vote on the union.

A Chinese newspaper reported in August that the Wal-Mart campaign was prompted by an order to the ACFTU from President Hu Jintao, who also is general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, to step up its presence in foreign companies.

Guo didn’t answer directly when asked whether that was true, but he said, “China’s highest-level leaders have paid close attention to trade unions and have encouraged unions to improve the unionization rate in China.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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