BEIJING (AP) - A U.S. labor federation has agreed to find ways to cooperate with China's state-controlled union group, officials said Tuesday, arguing that improved standards for Chinese laborers would help protect U.S. workers.
The tentative cooperation, agreed to by Teamsters President James Hoffa and other leaders of the "Change to Win" federation of unions on a landmark trip to China, marks an about-face. For decades, American labor has generally shunned the All-China Federation of Trade Unions because it answers to the ruling Communist Party.
''This new direction that we're taking is propelled by the new challenges we face in a new world economy,'' Greg Tarpinian, executive director of Change to Win, told reporters. ''Our mission is to fight for the American Dream and we don't believe we can fight for the American Dream and restore the American middle class without linking up with Chinese workers.''
Anna Burger, chairwoman of Change to Win, would not call the cooperation with ACFTU a ''formal'' relationship but said the two groups shared the same mission of eliminating sweatshop conditions, stopping exploitation of workers and helping raise wages. She said the groups would exchange ideas but was not more specific, saying they had only begun talks on how to work together.
The labor leaders' comments came as Chinese and American officials were to begin high-level discussions in Washington aimed at lessening economic tensions. Beijing said it was trying to narrow the trade gap and pledged to import more U.S. goods.
Hoffa said unionizing companies in China would raise the cost of doing business here, which would help American workers stay competitive.
''It's certainly in our interest to see that the workers here have a higher standard of living, that the manufacturers pay a better wage and as they do that, that obviously has an effect on American workers and the competitiveness of the two economies,'' he said.
Change to Win, which represents seven unions and 6 million workers, has invited ACFTU officials to visit the U.S. in the next couple of months, and the U.S. labor leaders want to return to China before the fall.
Confronted with the steady loss of U.S. jobs to factories in China and elsewhere overseas, American unions have criticized China for its working conditions.
One of the largest union groups, the AFL-CIO, has called for trade sanctions against China for violations of international labor standards. The union has said that U.S. companies have moved to China to take advantage of rock-bottom wages, forced overtime and a lack of benefits for Chinese workers, causing the loss of more than 1 million U.S. jobs.
In contrast, Change to Win's members have been among the most enthusiastic about establishing overseas contacts, especially the Service Employees International Union, America's largest.
The Teamsters, which separated from the AFL-CIO two years ago, have built a reputation for pragmatism under Hoffa's leadership. His China visit appears to reflect that more independent approach.
The Teamsters traditionally represented workers in the transport industry, but has merged in recent years with printers and railway workers unions. Change to Win also includes the United Farm Workers.
China does not allow independent unions and jails and harasses unauthorized labor activists.
But the ACFTU recently has taken on a higher profile. Among other moves, it succeeded in getting McDonald's restaurants and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to permit union branches in their China operations.
China's leaders are believed to support such moves, as long as their absolute authority is not challenged, in part because a need for more resources to deal with rising labor disputes.