EAST MONTPELIER — Local warriors in the battle between capital and labor are moving their ops — to China.
Over the past few years, veteran Vermont activists Ellen David-Friedman and Stuart Friedman have been teaching community organizing to university students in southern China while also quietly working with labor groups not sanctioned by the communist government. Now the East Montpelier partners are leaving their respective Green Mountain jobs — Ellen as an organizer for the Vermont teachers’ union and as vice-chair of the Progressive Party, Stuart as a clinical social worker at Central Vermont Hospital — in order to focus more intensively on their work in the People’s Republic. Their ambitious aim is to help mitigate the negative effects of the global market economy model espoused by Gov. James Douglas and the Vermont business leaders who recently concluded a joint prospecting trip to China.
“My fond hope is that I can work with people in trade unions and share my experiences in Western labor-organizing practices and collective bargaining,” David-Friedman says. Ellen, 55, and Stuart, 59, will return in August to the Pearl River Delta region where they have lived for a few months each year since their son, Eli, began studying Chinese there in 2000. The couple received faculty appointments in Guangzhou University’s social work department a couple of years ago because “social work is a new field in China and there was a need for foreign teachers,” David-Friedman explains. The couple will return to Vermont next February.
Not long after visiting Eli for the first time, David-Friedman got involved with small independent groups that were raising money in Hong Kong to support efforts to improve working conditions in the People’s Republic. These grassroots Chinese organizers work cautiously outside the aegis of the government-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions to try to enforce minimum-wage guarantees as well as occupational safety and health standards.
Child labor and dangerous, slave-like circumstances are believed to be widespread in China, a nominally socialist country that has prospered enormously by adopting a cowboy form of capitalism. David-Friedman, a self-described Marxist, acknowledges “there has been a lot of material gain for a lot of people” in the quarter-century since the Communist Party decreed that “to get rich is glorious.”
In the past decade, however, there has also come “a dawning recognition of what has been lost” in China’s headlong sprint to achieve developed-nation status, David-Friedman adds. She cites slippages in the quality of public education, erosion of the national health-care system and the undoing of what had been a virtual guarantee of lifetime job security. Unrest has spread across China in the form of rural rioting and workplace protests as political discontent and economic insecurity have metastasized.
The communist authorities have responded both with promises of reform and threats of crackdown. The independent labor groups are now finding it harder to operate even as the government advances legislation intended to strengthen enforcement of labor protections and to toughen penalties for abusive employers.
In this political environment, David-Friedman’s activities and analysis are fraught with ironies and subtleties.
As a labor organizer from the world’s leading capitalist country, she gently prods her students to ask questions about the direction taken by a society founded on principles of economic equity. David-Friedman notes ruefully that most of the students say they have little use for the Marxist worldview that she regards as essential to understanding history and politics. China’s unconditional embrace of the private market has made socialist theory seem irrelevant to many Chinese. “The state is presumed not to be challengeable,” David-Friedman observes. “The state is considered to have full responsibility for making decisions about the country’s economic development — which is really a way of saying its move to marketize everything.”
The anxieties and frustrations troubling millions of Chinese workers are felt in many other countries, including the United States, David-Friedman suggests. And she argues that if the world’s most dynamic developing country does manage to ease the pressures squeezing its working class, the result could be a slowing or even a reversal of the “race to the bottom” in which workers worldwide are being forced to compete.
It was this grand vision, along with the day-to-day excitement of teaching and organizing in China, that led David-Friedman to leave her 20-year-long job with the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association. Her absence will be sorely felt, says Vermont NEA director Joel Cook. He says her “key achievement” was organizing hundreds of support staffers in the state’s public schools. “Ellen brought a unique perspective to the work of this association,” Cook comments. “She is unrelenting in her dedication to the interests of working people and issues of social justice.” Cook notes the Vermont NEA now has one of the highest percentages of school support staff members of any state teachers’ union in the country.
Similarly, in her leadership roles with the Progressive Party, David-Friedman gets major credit for electoral gains outside the Burlington area.
Though organizing comes easy to the diminutive, irrepressible David-Friedman, she regards the present period as among the worst of times in terms of workers’ movements. Still, that’s no reason to despair, she says, citing the axiom of 19th-century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” Earlier this year, she raised funds for and organized a three-week speaking tour of the United States by Liu Cheng, a Shanghai scholar and a principal architect of the government-backed labor-reform legislation.
Cheng had denounced an arm-twisting exercise by American and European corporations that had already succeeded in weakening the proposed reforms. Cheng accused Western business associations based in Shanghai of impinging on China’s national sovereignty by implying they might move their investments to a more pliable Asian country, such as Pakistan, if wages and workers’ protections were elevated in Chinese factories.
The whirlwind U.S. tour, which included more than 40 meetings with trade union leaders and government officials, “had quite an impact,” David-Friedman recounts. She says Cheng was subsequently able to help prevent further dilution of the proposed reforms because he could plausibly argue that his hang-tough position enjoyed support in sections of American society.
David-Friedman points to the Chinese government’s move to improve working conditions as one reason why she feels “empathy” for the People’s Republic. China meets some of the standards for a socialist nation, she says. And China does not conform to many Americans’ depiction of it as a monolithically repressive and exploitative state. “Sure, there are sweatshops” and strict limitations on individual freedom, David-Friedman concedes. But there’s much more to China than that, she adds. Communist Party apparatchiks and overseers at Guangzhou University have never attempted to censor her or Stuart’s teaching, David-Friedman points out. “We can say anything we want to in the classroom,” she notes.
But China’s communist revolution has gone off the rails, David-Friedman adds. The party “has divorced itself, tragically, from allowing itself to be led by the needs of workers,” she adds. But maybe, in some small measure, these Vermont Progressives can help put the world’s largest country back on the track toward socialism.