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Union for iPhone workers is pure PR

When the Chinese factory giant Foxconn – famous for mass suicides and military-style management – announced recently that it would begin allowing workers to elect their own local union leaders, it brought a wave of positive press for its Western customers like Apple. But will it make any difference for Foxconn employees, the workers who make wildly popular products such as iPhones?

“The precedent we have for these democratic union elections is not very encouraging,” said Eli Friedman, a professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell. Even if “they’re run reasonably well, and you get some kind of activist” elected as a local union leader, “the problem is when they actually try to do anything for their members, they – as in many places – will face retaliation from management.” Worse, “oftentimes higher levels of the trade union, or the government, will collaborate with management to either make this person’s life incredibly difficult, or just force them from office.”

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