#ISS14: Chinese workers are not passive victims of repression

This article draws on the plenary ‘The Long March of Chinese Labour’ at the GLI International Summer School.

You won’t hear much about it in the Western media but since 2010 a transformation of China’s labour relations has been gathering pace. After decades of oppression by the state and its puppet the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) – the only legal ‘trade union’ – the first winds of change are being felt by Chinese workers. Workers are organising independently of the ACFTU, taking successful collective action, entering into formal collective bargaining with employers and even making some inroads into reforming the ACFTU into a genuine independent trade union.

This new climate of worker self-organisation has seen a massive wave of strike action grip China with at least 1,171 strikes and protests taking place between June 2011 and January 2014. The strikes have been most concentrated in manufacturing, but there have also been large numbers of strikes in transport and services.

During the plenary session “The Long March of Chinese Labour”, Zhang Lingji of China Labour Bulletin drew upon some major case studies in order to illustrate the transformation gripping labour relations in China. The first case study was that of the June 2010 strike by thousands of Honda workers at a car parts factory. The strike was sparked by outrage at salaries which were so low that many workers were scarcely scarping a living whilst working for a multi-billion dollar company.  Two weeks after the start of the strike, the workers faced the traditional barrier to independent worker organisation, the ACFTU, which sent its strike breakers to attack the striking workers. However, despite this attack, the workers remained on strike. In an important precedent Beijing did not order a heavier clamp-down on the workers, despite the strike costing Honda around ¥3 billion. Instead the Communist Party remained eerily silent, leaving the local authorities, the ACFTU and the employer to find a resolution to the dispute with the workers. The workers eventually received a 35% pay rise.

Following the success at Honda, around a thousand workers went on strike at the Citizen Watch factory in Shenzhenin during October 2011. One of the major grievances was that workers had been forced to endure 40 minutes unpaid overtime each day since 2005. The workers, helped by a law-firm, forced management to enter into formal collective bargaining. This allowed them to win pay-deal for 7% of their overtime. However, most importantly, this constituted the first ever case of real formal collective bargaining. Zhang Lingji argued that this dispute raised major questions around the role of trade unions in such disputes.

The question of the role of the official trade union was again raised, and this time partially answered, by events at Hitachi Metals factory in Guangzhou. Workplace leader, Zhu Xiaomei, attempted to set up and be elected as leader of an official union. Although Zhu was fired before she could be elected, some reps were elected to the union committee and there is hope that this will be the first step towards the official state-sanctioned union becoming a real union. In fact, when Walmart attempted to close a store in Changde, managers were shocked to be confronted by an organisation which arguably constituted a ‘real’ union. This union had a president who actually led the workers in dramatic protests for fair compensation for workers who had had their contracts terminated.

Although workers still lack the political space with which to set up independent trade unions, Zhang Lingji argued that the workers’ ability to transform ACFTU into a real union represents a realistic way forward. However the question is this: what is fuelling the changing approach of the state towards trade union organisation? Much like the social movements which have gripped much of the globe since 2009, social media seems to have played a crucial role. Whilst Facebook is banned in China, the Chinese social media outlets of Weibo and WeChat have been of central importance in enabling workers to massively increase their levels of communication. This has allowed greater coordination and dissemination of collective actions. The sheer scale of this social media facilitated labour strife has made it hard for the state to use repressive tactics without causing major disruption to the economy. One might also argue that being tolerant of collective bargaining is actually in the Communist Party’s own interest as this would lead to higher wages and thus boost consumption levels within the domestic market. Such an explanation coheres with the Chinese government’s aim of reducing China’s reliance on poorly performing export markets.

Alex Wood is a guest blogger for the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.

You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14.