By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).
The recent wave of strikes in foreign-owned enterprises in China may surprise many foreigners, but it is really another chapter in the history of the struggle by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1949 to define its role in the organization and control of the labor force. Basic tensions that have marked Chinese labor since the economic reforms began in 1979, and the latest spurt of labor activism could evolve into a challenge to the CCP’s control over state and society. Millions of migrant workers could become a powerful social and political force if they cohered in some fashion to protest working conditions, low wages, and, possibly, other sources of grievances. At the moment, it is too early to tell either what challenges labor activism might generate beyond protests at individual enterprises, or what strategy the CCP might devise to quiet the activism.
China has had only one union since the PRC was established in 1949. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was first organized in 1925, de-emphasized after 1949 because the CCP was deemed to represent the interests of all workers, and then ceased operation during the Cultural Revolution. It was re-established at the end of that social upheaval and endorsed by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. A Labor Union Charter, its basic organizational document, was enacted in 1983. That document states that the ACFTU is independent — subject to the supremacy of the CCP.
After the rise of opposition to Communist regimes in Europe in the 1980’s, notably by the Polish Solidarity movement and the establishment of independent labor groups during the Democracy movement that ended in Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, the Chinese leadership realized the potential power of conflict between the interests of workers and state policy. The economic reforms that began in 1979 led to many urban workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) losing their jobs and their entitlement to their “iron rice bowls,” and also to the erosion of union numbers. The arrival of foreign invested enterprises (FIEs) stimulated state attempts to strengthen the role of labor unions without endowing them with real independence or power, creating the potential for tensions that are now rising to the surface.
The unions at enterprises are authorized by law to organize educational, cultural and athletic activities; participate in meetings at the enterprise on matters that involve the interests of workers and staff; and engage in collective bargaining. However, the privatization of the Chinese economy stimulated the CCP to treat the unions as tools to exercise its control. The China Labour Bulletin, published by a workers’ rights organization based in Hong Kong, issued a report in March 2009, “Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party,” which states “for decades, the main role of the ACFTU has been to assist the authorities in the process of social governance.” Its role in protecting workers’ rights and interests “has been consistently subordinated to the need to maintain social stability and to bolster the political legitimacy of the Communist Party … the protection of workers’ rights is guided largely by political expediency and can be withdrawn or refocused as and when the government requires.”
The strikes that first gained international attention were at three enterprises in Guangdong province owned by the Japanese company Honda. “Chinese Workers Challenge Beijing’s Authority,” Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2010, Earlier this month, Honda offered increases in wages and benefits at an auto assembly plant in Foshan that prompted workers to return to work, but at a parts factory in Zhongshan, Honda offered lower wages increases and hired hundreds of replacement workers. “With Concessions, Honda Strike Fizzles in China,” New York Times, June 13, 2010.
Other labor protests have since been reported. Among them was a “brief protest” on June 6th in Shenzhen at a factory owned by Merry Electronics, a Taiwan company described as an “audio electronics-maker.” “China: Strike Force,” The same report mentioned “clashes between police and workers at KOK International, another Taiwan-owned factory,” a few days later. Later in June, workers at a plant in Tianjin operated by Toyota walked off the job for two days, which the factory management said had been resolved “in principle” when the it agreed to “review the pay structure” at the factory. “Toyota affiliate hit by strike in China.”
Largely absent from these protests was any support for the striking workers from the ACFTU, which is not surprising in view of the union’s standard passivity. In Foshan, ACFTU representatives clashed physically with striking workers. One employee was reported to have said of the union representatives, “they’re mafia,” and others said that although they paid union dues they received nothing from the union, “least of all help negotiating with managers.” “Strike Breakers,” In Zhongshan, the local branch of the ACFTU was reported as involved in trying to reach a solution, but the workers were reported as representing themselves without the union, which some characterized as “useless” and a “traitor” – a term with particular resonance in modern Chinese politics. “Toyota affiliate hit by strike in China” cited above.
Do the recent strikes signal the possibility of an independent labor movement arising in China, one that might more vigorously assert workers’ complaints about working conditions and waves? At the Honda plant in Zhongshan, workers organized a factory council that a New York Times article characterized as a “sophisticated, democratic organization” and demanded the right to form a trade union separate from the ACFTU. Symbolically, when the article was first published, the headline announced “An Independent Labor Movement Stirs in China” but the later online version dropped the adjective “independent.”
It does seem premature to consider the recent strikes as foretelling the rise of a new labor movement, even if vigorous rights-conscious workers armed with the ability to use text messaging and online videos could swell the audience for messages urging activism. “In China, Labor Movement Enabled by Technology” The government has not been passive. It has enacted legislation intended to protect workers, dramatizing the strengthening of workers’ rights – at least on paper – by producing a Labor Contract Law in 2008. It also expanded a three-step system of mediation, arbitration and litigation of labor disputes. Ronald C. Brown, Understanding Labor and Employment Law in China (Cambridge, 2010) 168-183. In 2008, the number of labor cases in arbitration rose to 700,000 and the number of labor cases in the courts rose to 280,000, both enormous rises over previous years. “As China Aids Labor, Unrest is Still Rising”
Might the ACTFU be energized to be more protective of workers, as it was when it succeeded in organizing unions at Walmart stores in 2006? Can the widespread lack of worker enthusiasm for the ACFTU be overcome? Will the expansion of legislation to protect workers’ rights provoke even more forceful assertion of those rights? Might union organizing be impeded by local governments that want their profits from FIEs to remain undisturbed? Will the government restrain forceful resistance to worker activism for fear of alienating large segments of Chinese society? These and other issues challenge the Party-state, and will be discussed in a future blog post.