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 strikes in May and June at foreign-owned factories have stimulated some speculation about the possibility of an independent labor movement arising in China.
Although that seems impossible at the moment, the question will not go away.
In the short term, the strikes have caused some Western observers to ask whether the only union permitted by law to exist, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, or ACFTU, which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, will have a more active role in bargaining for higher wages and improved working conditions than it has had until now.
Longer-term developments, however, could inspire more powerful and destabilizing protests than the recent scattered strikes, and provoke stronger government efforts to repress worker activism.
Western history suggests that economic development has led to collective organization with far-reaching political implications.
For this reason, it is useful to explore the broader implications of the strikes for the ACFTU.
The ACFTU has the dual mission of protecting the rights of workers and supporting the CCP and the Chinese government. It is a nation-wide mass organization headquartered in Beijing, extending downward through federations at the provincial, municipal, county, rural township and municipal district levels to 1.7 million “grassroots” branches at enterprises. While election by the workers of the enterprise union chairs and committee members is technically possible, according to a recent report measures introduced by the ACFTU in 2007-08 make it clear that “any elections should be under the purview of the local Party and higher-level trade unions.” (”Going It Alone: The Workers’ Movement in China, 2007-2008.”) Not all factories have workplace union branches, but where they do, as the latest report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, or CEEC, states, “firm level union branches are weak, non-democratic and subordinate to management.” (Congressional–Executive Commission on China, Annual Report 2009.) A China Daily article on the recent strikes by Professor Anita Chan, a well-known expert on Chinese labor at the University of Technology in Sydney who edits an online journal that includes critical analysis of labor-related policies and developments in China, suggests that the ACFTU’s role in representing workers should be expanded. Her article, “Labor unrest and the role of unions,” is notable, first of all, because of where it appeared; the China Daily usually echoes current policy. She notes that during the Honda strike, in the eyes of the workers the union was “useless” because it “blatantly sided with the local government, which in turn was on the side of the employer.”
Professor Chan also observes, however, that in some state-owned enterprises, or SOEs, and large foreign-invested enterprises, or FIEs, a small number of workplace unions “play an intermediary role” between management and workers, and “a handful” of workplace unions “can even negotiate better wages for workers.”
The ACFTU has for many years had “a policy of urging workplace unions to sign collective contracts with the managements.” In this connection, the CEEC (cited above) has recently reported that the government supports “an enlarged trade union role” in negotiating contracts with management.
Professor Chan points out, however, that in FIEs in the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong, workers’ representatives are appointed by local governments and are expected to support their localities’ quest for foreign investment.
Professor Chan argues that the workplace unions should be put under the jurisdiction of higher-level labor union organizations rather than local governments, and that the ACFTU should allow workers to elect their representative to their workplace unions, which in practice has only occurred in “a small number of factories.”
She characterizes the labor laws as “favorable” to workers, and believes that Chinese workers would be willing to join the ACFTU if their workplace union could bargain for them. Some American union officials who have visited China report that within the ACFTU there are undoubtedly union officials genuinely dedicated to improving workers’ conditions.
Professor Chan does sound one note that may seem discordant to government officials concerned with labor relations, namely her suggestion that the ACFTU “exchange experiences with unions in other countries.” This has already occurred to some extent; but it is unlikely that the government would permit relations between a Chinese union and foreign one that might encourage militancy in the future.
A key as to why an article by a foreign expert was published in a government-sponsored paper is provided in the author’s final point: She states that workers—like Honda strikers last month–who demand the right to elect the members of their union branch committee are not demanding an independent labor union. They have the right under existing law to elect their union representatives, and the ACFTU could “win the trust of such workers” by supporting such elections, which would “help place labor relations on a legitimate, constructive footing.”
She concludes: “A union committee recognized by workers as their own is a pre-condition to successful collective bargaining.”
If my guess is correct about why this article was published in the China Daily, it is a signal of the limits of how far the government will be willing to go in order to ease any continuing pressure for higher wages and improved working conditions at FIEs and SOEs.
The government could allow the number of worker-elected workplace union committees to expand if worker activism increases in those enterprises. Further support for such a policy was expressed in an article, “Collective contracts sought for workers’ rights,” published in the China Daily on July 9, quoting an ACFTU spokesman as saying that “the signing of collective contracts is key to protecting workers’ rights.”
Recent events also suggest the possibility that the government could permit a broad move toward increasing ACFTU unionization at FIEs that do not presently have functioning branch unions.
The Economist reported in May that the Beijing offices of many multinationals received inquiries in the previous month from local offices of the ACFTU asking for detailed information about salaries because efforts to increase unionization were being contemplated. The same article recalled that Chinese president Hu Juntao has called for multinationals’ activities to be unionized in accordance with his promotion of a “harmonious society.”
Other problems will continue to roil Chinese labor relations. A number of FIEs have moved or are considering moving factories producing products for export from southern China and the Coast to other areas inland, closer to the homes of workers who would otherwise migrate to areas where industrial jobs and higher wages might be available. Foxconn has already moved facilities to Chongqing and other places where wages are lower than in coastal locations. Also, where foreign-owned companies have raised wages under pressure from strikes, such as the recent ones in Guangdong, the increased use of machinery to produce goods more efficiently may cause additional losses. In addition, workers have been angered when local governments attempt to close down inefficient ctories. If changes in the location of factories, increased automation or other developments cause increased labor protest, the ACFTU and the Chinese government will encounter new challenges.
At present, worker activism is fragmented and confined to individual enterprises, but factory workers can use mobile phones and the Internet to spread the news of rising discontent with harsh conditions. Perhaps it is far-fetched to recall here that widespread miserable working conditions in 19th and early 20th century Europe led to the rise of collective worker organization that permanently transformed national politics throughout the world.
One scholar has already speculated that analogous developments are appearing in China because of the resonance of worker dissatisfaction with peasant and middle-class demands for greater protection of legal rights. (Ching Kwan Lee, “Against the Law: Labor Protest in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt” (University of California Press, 2007).)
Worker protest does appear to present an ongoing threat to social stability that will require the Chinese government to fashion ways of quieting such protest–without repressing it.