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Brian Topp

What have the unions ever done for us? Add to ...

If you haven't already seen it, check out this much-beloved (in my world) Australian video, " What Have the Unions Ever Done for Us?"

Everyone who has ever sat on the union side of a bargaining table imagines there are meetings like that. And bosses at the head table who look like that.

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But in the real world, alas, the meeting might well have moved on to another agenda item. The part where the boss and his minions talk about what they'll do if they fail - which is to move jobs and investment overseas.

The labour movement in its current form is well into the second century of its history. For all of that time, victory has led to a predictable response from employers of a certain type. When they can no longer operate sweat shops; pay starvation wages; exploit children; forget about pensions and health benefits; and leave health and safety to some future time when it can be "afforded," they move somewhere else - where they can keep doing those things.

In the past twenty years, to be specific, they have been relocating to China.

Where all of those good things are available directly or through contractors to thousands of Western-based, freedom-loving, free-enterprise, god-fearing, Conservative-funding corporations from a friendly Chinese Communist government formerly prepared to deliver an exploited workforce to them using whatever means necessary.

But then, this summer a funny thing happened.

Check out this video:

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Apparently in part because the Chinese government has decided that wages in its foreign-owned or controlled manufacturing sector have become a national embarrassment; and in part because Chinese workers are discovering the power of common action, runaway employers are in the early stages of an encounter in China with their familiar old friend - the labour movement.

Not tame corporate-friendly-Communist rat unions. But real ones, organized spontaneously by workers themselves.

The basic principles are the same wherever those employers run. Sometime, somehow, people will step forward with the same demands. They will want to be paid fairly for their work; they will want basic security and dignity; and they will want to be safe.

In some plants, striking Chinese workers scored 100 per cent wage increases this summer in just a few days. Which speaks volumes about how brutally exploited they had been.

I don't want to overstate this point. Chinese workers have many, many miles to go. But it is hopefully not too much to say that this summer, they made a start.

Some business analysts have responded huffily about how this "loss of wage competitiveness" by Chinese workers will cause employers to relocate to more pliant jurisdictions, like Bangladesh or Vietnam. And perhaps some will. But the world is finally beginning to run out of suitable hellholes to run to.

Meanwhile those remarkably determined Chinese workers not only show us the real face of bravery. They remind us once again that it is possible for ordinary people to win - anywhere. Another thing unions have done for us lately.

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