Honda Strikers Victorious in China

by Paul Garver

An extraordinary strike has succeeded! 1800 young workers overcame obstacles that seemed insurmountable to win a two-week-long strike at a Honda transmission plant in Foshan City, Guangdong Province, China. They overcome threats by management, violent attacks by union officials that hospitalized four strikers, the absence of legal protection for strikers, and the fact that the majority of the workers were student “interns” from vocational schools that are unprotected by any labor law. They won a 70% wage increase for interns (who were being paid the minimum wage with no benefits), a 35% increase of the somewhat higher rate for regular workers, and a management commitment not to retaliate against strike leaders or participants.

The strikers’ victory is attracting a great deal of attention in the Chinese media, and could be a breakthrough for a more functional collective bargaining system in China. Much depends on whether the workers can consolidate their victory by creating a real workplace union to represent them in the future. We wish them good fortune! (Background in a previous article on this blog.)

On May 31, many student interns had resumed work after management compelled teachers at the vocational schools to threaten interns that they would not be awarded graduation certificates if they continued the strike. However some 40 workers maintained a picket line. They were assaulted by a squad of district level trade union officials sent by the district government, sending four of the young workers to the hospital. But most of the workers then walked out again, and agreed to conditionally return on the following day June 1 only for three days while negotiations continued.

On June 1, apparently though mediation by members of the National People Congress and in the presence of management and higher level union officials, the workers elected 16 worker representatives. These worker representatives immediately met, reiterated their proposals for salary increases and job promotion mechanisms, demanded an apology from the district trade union for the violent actions of its representatives against the strikers, and demanded the restructuring of the workplace “union” at the Honda Auto Parts transmissions plant. After the general manager of the Guangzhou Automobile Group (the Honda joint venture that operates the Honda assembly plants that had been shut down by the strike at the transmission plant) agreed in principle to negotiate over these demands, the workers resumed production beginning with the night shift.

Several virtually unprecedented events followed over the next few days. The newly elected worker representatives, called the Delegation of Representatives of the Strike Workers for Negotiation, made every effort to ensure that production workers on every shift and department had the opportunity to express their views to the negotiating committee. They pledged not to reach any agreement without the endorsement of a workers’ assembly, and demanded from management time off for workers’ assemblies for all production workers on all shifts.

Another unprecedented development was the fact that an open letter of “apology” was actually sent to the workers by the district and town general trade unions. The tone of this letter was defensive and begrudging, claiming that the union was only doing its job, making dark allusions to outside negative influences, but finally admitting that some of its methods were “ a bit difficult to accept” and might have been “misunderstood as siding with management.” The elected Honda worker representatives have responded by pointing out that their victory was won by the tremendous pressure on Honda created by the workers’ strike despite the complicity of the branch and district trade union with management, expressed continued outrage over the “trade union’s appropriation of the fruits of the workers’ struggles” and insisting that the branch trade union of the factory be elected by the workers themselves.

On June 3 the Delegation of Representatives brought in the respected Beijing professor Chang Kai (School of Labor and Human Resources of the Chinese People’s University) to advise them in negotiations. Chang Kai is perhaps the most outspoken proponent of collective bargaining in China, and a key organizer of the ground-breaking international labor conference held in Guangzhou last November. After several hours of negotiations on June 4 Chang Kai was able to announce the provisional agreement. The major outstanding task is the actual reorganization of the workplace union, which will be conducted “on the basis of the existing legal framework.” (That is of course precisely the problem and the potential danger — there are in fact no viable examples of real workplace unions created under the current ambiguous legal framework. Perhaps Honda could become that model).

The Honda workers have become fully aware that the renewed coverage of the strike in the Chinese media has focused attention on their conduct. The Delegation of Representatives of the Strike Workers for Negotiation quotes in detail an editorial in the official XinHua news agency on 2 June:

“The full-scale implementation of the collective wage consultation is the most urgent issue to be addressed at present. It should be promoted by means of a sound collective consultation and co-decision-making mechanism on workers’ salary, a regular wage incremental and payment system, increase in the take-home remuneration of workers especially the production line workers, effective functioning of the worker representatives’ assembly, implementation of the right to know, right to participation, right to expression and monitoring of the whole workforce, for heightened enforcement of the legal rights of workers and building of harmonious labour relations.”

The Delegation also appealed to the general Chinese public:

Our “wei-chuan” struggle (struggle for rights) is not a struggle to protect the mere interests of 1800 workers. We are concerned with the rights and interests of the workers in the whole country. We want to demonstrate a good example of the ‘wei-chuan’ struggle of workers. We are aware that the factory also employs a sizable number of dispatch delivery workers. They are not the direct employees of Honda company but they work at the same place as we do. We are informed that the dispatch delivery workers are also electing representatives for negotiation with the management. We express our full support to them! At the same time, we are in urgent need of support from the media and the society! As for the support that has been given to us so far, we express our deep gratitude for it.

Here is another document that has just been translated into English: An Open Letter of Thanks from Elected Worker Representatives of Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co. (June 7).

For the protection of workers’ rights and the right to democratic election of worker representatives, the workers of Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co. Ltd has stopped work for nearly half a month. During the stoppage of work, we received support from both the domestic and international communities. The support has given tremendous boost in the morale of the workers’ struggle!

At 3pm on 4 June, the management and the worker representatives had formal negotiation. In the presence of Mr. Zeng Qinghong, member of the National People’s Congress (Deputy Director and General Manager of Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., Ltd.) and Mr. Chang Kai (Director of the School of Labor and Human Resources of Renmin University of China), both sides reached consensus in the negotiation of workers’ wages.

The labour disputes have brought great damages to both the management and the workers. It is our wish therefore to build an effective communication platform as the next phase of work. On the worker side, we hope to achieve democratic election of trade union representatives and the establishment of a collective negotiation mechanism to ensure protection of the interests of both the management and workers. Only with a real and effective communication platform between the two sides can further disputes be prevented and harmonious labour-management relation established.

On behalf of all the production line workers, the negotiation delegation would like to express our truest and most sincere gratitude to all the people who have shown their concern and given their support to us in the domestic and the international communities. Without your support and encouragement, our strength was limited and our demands would not have gained attention and resolution.

To many people who have conveyed their apprehension about us, we would like to assure you that we will act according to the law and regulations for what is entitled to us in a reasonable manner. We strongly believe that through adequate communication and mutual trust, we will be able to resolve disputes and establish good cooperative relation with the management in the future.

Elected Workers’ Representatives
Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co. Ltd
Nanhai District, Foshan City
7 June 2010

The first impression I formed of the Honda strike was that we could be witnessing an significant event in the history of the Chinese working class. This appeal to the public and the open letter of thanks strengthens that impression. I can only express my awe and admiration that a small group of young workers, barely out of their teens, can wage such a courageous and sophisticated struggle.

4 Responses

  1. […] had barely resumed production at its four assembly plants in China following the end of the /victorious workers’ strike> in Foshan, when a second Honda parts plant went on strike in the same city. On 7 June twenty […]

  2. […] between workers and management, allocating that mediating role to local governments. The first strike at the Nanhai Honda Auto Parts transmission plant in Foshan City succeeded in winning wage increases for both “student interns” and permanent […]

  3. […] CHINESE WORKERS: Young migrant workers carried out a series of strikes in the auto parts industry in China, winning significant wage increases and agreement to demands for the election of local […]

  4. […] Xianghong to permit the workers to elect their own enterprise union officers.  I posted a fuller account of their initial victory on this blog in June 2010, and in July 2010 explained how the wave of strikes at other auto parts […]

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