China's workers burst into the world headlines again recently (see here, here, here, and here, for example)—taking to the streets to protest wages and working conditions, and exciting speculation about the possible political, social, and economic implications. Strikes and protests by Chinese workers are increasingly common. The Economist, citing an official Chinese publication, reported that "labor disputes in Guangdong in the first quarter of 2009 had risen by nearly 42 percent over the same period in 2008...." (These are government numbers, so the real numbers are likely to be even higher.)
Why all the attention? Is there something different about these strikes? Of course, global giants Honda and Toyota were both targets. So was Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned firm that assembles products for Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, and other electronics multinationals. At Foxconn, the protests took a tragic and bizarre form—in five months, 10 young workers committed suicide by jumping from the company's buildings; two others attempted suicide. This is compelling human drama. But, to seasoned observers, there were elements to the Honda strike that were unusual and interesting. In conversations over the past several weeks, the following came up:
First, the Honda workers' wages were better than average for China. Most strikes over wages occur when employers are paying less than legally required (or not paying at all). At Honda, workers thought (rightly) that, given their productivity, they were being underpaid. For one legal analyst, the Honda strikes were notable because workers' exercised their perceived right to pursue their interests in the workplace, and were not protesting a labor law violation. It was this new sense of worker rights that was different, according to this observer.
Second, the strike leaders were well-organized and tactically shrewd. For example, at one point, they played on nationalist sentiment to garner worker and community support against Honda (a potent tactic, given long-standing anti-Japanese feelings). In addition, both the leaders and the rank-and-file strikers were adroit in modern communications technology; they switched wireless platforms when the authorities started snooping around and used their cell phones to take photos and to network with media and supporters. While the regime shut down news coverage, shutting down mobile phone networks is another matter entirely.
Third, in one of the most striking images to hit the internet, cameras caught thugs from the government-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) — the workers' only legally-sanctioned representatives—beating up Honda workers -- their members -- in an effort to break the strike. Again, from the Economist: "... 'They're mafia,' fumed one employee, as another showed a long cut on his face that he blamed on the union men."
No one who knows anything about worker rights in China believes that the ACFTU is a real union (even the ACFTU makes no claim to independence). Still, the sight of "trade unionists" assaulting workers was jarring. Subsequently, the Honda workers demanded—and got—the right to elect their own bargaining committee. One wonders what the leaders of those U.S. unions who have recently embraced the ACFTU are thinking.
This is pretty bad public relations for the ACFTU. According to worker rights activist Han Dongfang, executive director of the China Labour Bulletin, "Even the communist party boss of Guangdong now thinks proper trade unions are essential if workers' rights are to be protected. In a telephone conference to discuss the recent strikes in the province last week, Wang Yang stated that 'unions should stand up for workers in their struggle.'" Whether a party boss really thinks that or not, it's significant that he feels he has to claim to believe it. Party officials must be losing sleep thinking about the scenes of the ACFTU attacking workers —scenes that were broadcast and emailed all over China.
Fourth, the workers' committee met with management and bargained a collective agreement, which won the support of their members. It is a simple exercise of workplace democracy, but very significant event for Chinese workers.
The question of course, is: What next? Close observers of the labor scene in China suggest that is unlikely to follow the trajectory of Solidarnosc in Poland. For example, in Poland the employer was the State, so workers' grievances were automatically directed at the government. They quickly turned political. In China, at the moment, the employers concerned are mostly private companies – which allows the government to play a "peacemaker" role. That is largely what it's been doing. The protesting workers can appeal to/make use of the pro-labor rhetoric currently coming from the top Chinese leadership. So, their basic line is: 'we support the central government, the central government supports us, and it's these greedy private employers that are the problem.' This is a cautious, sophisticated strategy, conceived in the context of a still relatively popular, albeit deeply repressive regime.