Li Jianming, 53, is a Beijing-based division chief of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the 80-year-old official union that today has 137 million worker members spread across China. He has spent almost two decades working within the ACFTU, which now faces the task of sustaining membership as China shifts from a planned state economy to a market-based one. Also, some local governments fear that encouraging the union to open in their cities will frighten away overseas investment.
At union headquarters, Li recently met with BusinessWeek Beijing Bureau Chief Dexter Roberts to discuss the changing role of his organization, including the challenge of unionizing Wal-Mart (WMT) and convincing migrant workers that the ACFTU represents their interests. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Could you talk about the role of the ACFTU in China?
A: One basic role or obligation is to protect workers and their rights. But we also manage and organize social affairs for China's workers, as well as provide education to improve workers' technical skills. Before, China had a planned economy, but now we have a socialist market economy. So the relationship between workers and management has changed greatly. That means the tasks and obligations of the ACFTU are becoming more and more complicated.
We are pushing forward to involve the government, the workers, and the union in regular consultations. Another key goal of the ACFTU is to make efforts to build a sound system for labor arbitration. Because labor-management relations have become so much more complicated in China, we are also seeing many more labor disputes than before. That makes the establishment of a labor arbitration system much more important.
Q: So the role of the ACFTU is changing?
A: Our No. 1 task continues to be bringing more workers into the union. That has become much more complicated with the changes in China's economy. Before, all enterprises were state-owned, and it was easy to ensure they joined the union. Today China has many foreign-invested and private enterprises. And it also has huge numbers of migrant workers. Nevertheless, our goal remains the same: Wherever there are workers, we will attempt to bring them into the union.
Our goal now is to sign up 6.6 million new members every year. Because of the industrious efforts of our organization, last year we were able to sign up 13.54 million new members. In all our years of history, this is a record. Just a few years ago, our numbers were actually declining. That was the result of the ongoing reform of state enterprises.
Q: How do you ensure that foreign-invested and private enterprises open their doors to the ACFTU?
A: In reality, many private enterprises are unwilling to allow our union to enter. This is also true of some foreign joint-venture companies. So last year we carried out an inspection to check whether private and foreign enterprises were in compliance with the Trade Union Law [which requires a company to allow the official union to open if 25 or more workers ask for it].
I'll give you one example. Wal-Mart has opened  stores in China, and they employ more than 25,000 people. But they have long refused to allow our union into their stores. We have put a lot of effort into trying to get them to allow our union, but Wal-Mart has long found ways to block our efforts. Finally, last year Wal-Mart issued a statement saying that they would allow unions if workers at their stores requested them.
Q: Has the ACFTU established branches in Wal-Mart stores then?
A: As far as I know, no union branches have been opened. I think that is because workers at Wal-Mart are eager to ensure they keep their jobs, which in reality are quite good. So they are not willing to risk their employment at Wal-Mart by asking for a union. Basically they are afraid of losing their jobs.
Actually, some multinationals here in China perhaps misunderstand what it means to allow the ACFTU into their companies. They think that having a union might disrupt the normal carrying out of their China operations. But that isn't true.
Our purpose is to protect workers' rights, but it is also to ensure the enterprises continue with their steady and stable development in China. Also, some local governments are afraid that if they encourage the union to open in their cities, it will frighten away overseas investment.
Q: I recently spoke to a number of workers in Guangdong province who told me that the ACFTU was basically ineffective in protecting their rights. How do you respond to that allegation?
A: Well, first of all, many migrant workers come from small villages and so aren't aware of our role in helping them. But it is also possible that some branches of our trade union have not fulfilled their role protecting workers. Some of our staff may be of low quality.
But in my opinion, the ACFTU from the provincial to the local level has made great progress in promulgating workers' rights. Nevertheless, there is no question but that we must improve and perfect our work protecting the rights of workers.
Q: Do you envision a day when China will allow unions other than the official ACFTU to also form on the mainland?
A: Of course, other countries have more than one union. But we will always have just one union here in China. First, our Trade Union Law specifies that there is only one legal union.
And according to China's Constitution, there should only be one union as well. Finally, one union is the appropriate system for China's situation, and one union reflects the desire of the workers of China.