Honda China Workers Strike Two More Parts Plants

by Paul Garver

Honda 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 workers staged a demonstration at the entrance to the Foshan Fengfu Autoparts plant (producing exhaust systems for Guangqi Honda Automobile), and by evening 250 of the 300 front line production workers had joined the strike. The strikers demanded higher wages, less strenuous working hours, and the right to elect their own trade union chairperson. A tentative agreement has been reached, and the strike has been suspended. The details of the settlement are not yet available.

On 9 June 1700 workers at a plant producing mirrors and other parts for Honda went on strike in Zhongshan, also in Guangdong province. More than half of the strikers are young women, with less vocational training than the Foshan strikers. The strikers are demanding wage hikes similar to those won by the strikes at the Foshan parts plants. They are also demanding pay for the down time when their plant was idled by the transmissions plant strike. In an attempt to defuse the strike, management has offered a modest compensation for the lost wages.  But the strike continues, and the workers defied heavy police presence to stage a brief march on June 11.

Similarly the exhaust system workers had demanded the same wage increase won by the strikers at the transmissions plant, and were outraged because they had been forced to work unpaid overtime to make up for hours lost when their plant was closed due to the strike at the transmissions plant.

Just as in the two Foshan plants, the workers at Zhongshan are demanding the right to elect their own trade union officers. Like the strikers at the transmissions plant, the striking workers have elected the equivalent of a negotiations committee (although they are reported to be fearful of repression if that committee assembled as a group for negotiations with management). The committee at the Foshan transmissions plant had successfully brought in a highly-respected academic proponent of collective bargaining from Beijing (Prof. Chang Kai) to assist them in negotiations. Following the settlement, the worker representatives reasserted their right to elect their own union officers, but stressed that they would pursue their goals within the framework of the law (hence not in opposition to the ACFTU,the official government-sponsored All-China Federation of Trade Unions).

Keith Bradsher writing in The New York Times on June 11 interpreted the demand at Zhongshan as one for a trade union independent of the ACFTU. Management (correctly) pointed out that it is not in their power to agree to such a demand, and referred the matter to a labor court.

The Zhongshan strikers, in their frustration with the do-nothing workplace trade union, may not be formulating their demands in a way that is acceptable to the authorities in China. It is possible, though very difficult, that procedures could be developed to permit the election of enterprise trade union representatives that actually represent workers rather than management or local governments, yet within the framework of the current law that grants sole legitimacy to the ACFTU. There have been limited “experiments” with electing union chairpersons in other provinces, and reformers within the ACFTU have advocated widening the practice. Resolution of the Honda strikes would seem to offer an excellent opportunity to do so in the bellwether Guangdong province.

Most strikes in China go unreported, and are quickly settled or repressed. For instance a major strike that began on 5 June at the Taiwanese-owned KOK International (rubber)plant in Kunshan (Jiangsu province) resulted in a violent assault on the strikers by riot police, resulting in at least 50 injuries and 30-40 arrests. The strike is over unbearable working conditions, poor health and safety, enforced unpaid overtime, as well as low pay. The strike is continuing, but strikers are locked inside the plant, and denied access to the media.

The Honda case is different. The Honda strikes were reported extensively in the national and business press, though apparently not in the mass media read in populous Guangdong Province. But news spread rapidly through chat rooms and the internet, and perhaps also through the vocational schools where many of the Honda parts workers in Foshan are or have recently been students.

Honda’s highly profitable and rapidly expanding system in China is based on “just-in-time” production, and assembly and parts plants alike do not build up inventories. Therefore a labor dispute anywhere in the system rapidly shuts down all Honda production, which is mainly for the booming internal Chinese market (though one model is exported to Europe). Honda, which demands relatively skilled technical workers on its highly automated production lines, can afford to pay higher wages, and has every incentive to avoid disruption. 

Chinese reformers who want to build up mass domestic purchasing power to reduce over-reliance on exports, and therefore favor a more effective collective bargaining system that would permit controlled wage rises are cheered by the peaceful resolution of the Honda transmissions strike. However it is likely that pro-capitalist elements in the Chinese Communist Party will so fear the spreading “wage contagion” might involve losing control over the working class that they will block institutional advances by self-organizing workers.

There is much trepidation in the global business press that the Chinese low-wage economy is being threatened by worker unrest, as well as some optimism among socialists over the awakening and growing consciousness of Chinese workers. It is not clear yet whether those fears or hopes are justified. We cannot yet speak of a growing strike wave in China, even if the second and third Honda strikes were clearly inspired by the success of the first. There are indeed more strikes being reported throughout China, but many of these have remained sporadic and confined to individual workplaces. The legal prohibition of independent union activity will likely remain in effect. Can the official trade unions reform themselves quickly enough so as to “ride the tiger” of workers’ struggles, or will they continue to be  a roadblock to the legitimate aspirations of a whole generation of Chinese workers?

I reported earlier on this blog that ten “trade union officials” tried to physically shut down the workers’ picket line at the Foshan transmission plant. It is clear that these individuals sported badges of the ACFTU, that they identified themselves as union officials and that they were sent by the local government. District level unions also issued a limited and qualified apology for their actions. However it also seems to be the case that this shameful intervention was made without informing or obtaining sanction from higher level provincial trade union authorities. Just as it is important that management and union roles be separated at the workplace level, it is similarly crucial in China to separate trade union functions from those of local governments. 

Collective bargaining will function properly in China only if workers have confidence that trade unions are primarily responsive to their interests, rather than those of management, state or party.  Surely the young Honda workers are demonstrating  capacity for self-organization and are ready to assume mature social responsibility.  I hope that China welcomes their initiative by permitting them to elect their own legitimate workplace representatives.


One Response

  1. […] wave of strikes triggered by the success of the Nanhai strike swept parts plants producing for Honda, Toyota and […]

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