Auto Strikes Open Up Space for Union Reform in China

by Paul Garver

The workers who struck numerous auto parts plants in China have gained substantial wage increases. More significantly their successful struggles mark the emergence of China’s new industrial working class as a major active force in the Chinese economy and society. Some trade union officials are beginning to reposition their organizations as advocates for workers rather than “neutral” intermediaries 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 workers through courageous actions and strategically sound tactics, but had to overcome violent strike-breaking efforts by Nanhai district trade union officers sent by the local government. The Nanhai workers elected their own bargaining representatives, and demanded the right to elect their own enterprise union chairperson. Although this has not yet occurred, a fair election procedure has been promised them by Kong Xianghong, Vice-Chair of the Guangdong provincial trade union federation that will supervise the election, and reportedly a team of academic specialists will be invited to observe the procedure.

A wave of strikes triggered by the success of the Nanhai strike swept parts plants producing for Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, with roughly similar outcomes, negotiations resulting in major wage increases and promises that workers will have the right to select their local union officers in the future. Generally the striking workers regarded the enterprise and higher level trade unions as useless or irrelevant. At the Honda Lock plant at Zhongshan, after the strike faltered when management brought in scabs and threatened strikers with dismissal, some frustrated strike leaders were reported in the New York Times to be calling for an independent trade union.

However when the strike wave reached Honda Nansha in the city of Guangzhou, the municipal trade union federation reacted positively and pro-actively. The trade union leadership encouraged the election of worker representatives to participate in bargaining, and made a public statement that the union would be on the workers’ side and represent their interests. When the local labor bureau officer asked the local trade union to serve its traditional role as “mediator” in the dispute between workers and management, the trade union officer refused and insisted that the government’s labor bureau play that role. The trade union official even resisted the customary “vetting” of the elected chairperson of the worker representatives by the local police.

The Nansha strike was settled with a substantial monthly raise of 800 Yuan, little more than the typical settlement of the other Honda parts strikes. However the important difference was that the Guangzhou trade union had explicitly stood on the side of the workers, thereby differentiating its role from that of management or local government. If this stance becomes a precedent for trade union behavior elsewhere in China, it will constitute a major step in shaping not an “independent labor movement” (which remains illegal in China) but towards creating a more autonomous trade union function within the existing Chinese legal framework.

Aspirations towards trade union reform are not confined to the municipal federation of Guangzhou, but under the impetus of the workers- self-organization in the auto parts industry are being voiced by provincial level Guangdong trade union officers. In an interview with the Yangcheng Evening News, the President of the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, Deng Weilong, announced the creation of a trade union legal services department to represent workers and activists. He also announced the union’s intention to conduct democratic elections to replace management officials with workers as union chairpersons in workplace unions. The Vice-Chair of the Guangdong Federation of Trade unions, Kong Xianghong, conducted a wide-ranging interview in the Hong Kong press that defended the legal rights of workers to conduct economic strikes. Unions must listen to the workers, support their legitimate demands and aspirations through collective bargaining. Kong points out that the younger migrant workers are better educated and more demanding than their parents were. He adds that if higher wages drive some labor-intensive industries out of China, China will follow the developmental model of the four smaller Asian “dragons and move away from ruthless exploitation of human and environmental resources that has characterized the recent economic boom towards more balanced social and economic development.

Wearing the hat of his position on the National People’s Congress, Zeng Qinghong (who is also the the CEO of Guangzhou Auto, a joint venture partner with Honda!), took an active and constructive role in negotiations at both the Nanhai and Nansha factories. Recent media interviews indicate that other key high-ranking government and Communist party officials support a trade union movement that strives to represent the interests of workers. Wang Yang, the highest government leader in Guangdong Province, is reportedly encouraging the Guangdong trade union federation to “democratize” the trade union by experimenting with the election of local trade union leaders. Reactions at the highest levels of Chinese government are mixed: although an internet site (China Worker Research Web)t hat openly called for the democratization of the ACFTU has been shut down, both the auto parts strikes themselves and the comments of reformers have been publicized within China. And Chinese premier Wen Jiabao made a prominent public statement calling for better treatment for China’s younger migrant workers.

Union reformers have expressed good intentions before; Chinese labor legislation has been improved through their lobbying within government institutions. However without a coherent and sustained social movement of the workers themselves, little substantive progress has been made at the grassroots. The difference today could well be the greater sophistication, access to technical tools of communication, and increased willingness of younger migrant workers to engage in collective struggle. The trade union organizations of China face a stark choice – either to lag behind and try to repress worker initiatives rising from below, or to welcome the upsurge and make use of it to make structural reforms that allow an organized working class it could learn to represent assume its rightful and legitimate role in Chinese society.

On 21 June 2010 the ACFTU issued a *Research Report on the Problems of New Generations of Chinese Migrant Workers” that advocated that Chinese local governments should provide every citizen with equal access to social services and community facilities, regardless of their “urban” or “rural” household registration status. According to the ACFTU Report the one hundred million migrant workers who are between 16 and 30 years old make up nearly half of the country’s 230 million workers. The study reported that these workers are more aware of their rights and had higher expectations of getting equal jobs, social welfare, education and public services than their parents’ generation. Moreover they were much less fearful of official retaliation and much more willing to file collective complaints rather than take individual grievances to the labor courts. The study was conducted in ten cities between March and May 2010, before the wave of auto parts strikes.

The twin symbolic icons of Chinese labor unrest to date in 2010 have been the tragic suicides of a dozen electronics assembly workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen followed by the uprising at the auto parts plants. The suicides awakened sympathy, pity and shame in China, and resulted in promises of wage increases to the Foxconn workers in Shenzhen. Many Chinese deplored the tragic loss of young life, and somewhere down the line major Foxconn client Apple may have to shave its profit margin on its iPods and iPhones. (According to a report published in the New York Times on 6 July the cost of assembling the $600.00 iPhone 4 is currently $6.54 whereas Apple’s profit on each iPhone 4 is some $360.00). The hourly wages of some 350,000 Foxconn assembly workers in Shenzhen could be doubled by lowering Apple’s profit margin on each iPhone4 by about 1.7% to a mere $354. But unless Apple feels great pressure from awakened morally concerned consumers to adjust what it pays Foxconn to assemble its products, Foxconn will likely move hundreds of thousands of its jobs from Shenzhen deep into interior China to avoid paying higher wages and providing less inhumane working conditions.

On the other hand, Honda and Toyota intend to sell their cars to a burgeoning domestic Chinese market, and with just-in-time technology would have difficulty running far enough away from China’s industrial belt to escape paying higher wages. Therefore Chinese auto workers have a strong bargaining position, and are learning how to use it. For China’s new working class as a whole, a journey of ten thousand li begins with a single step. The Honda and Toyota strikers took that first step when they shut down the production lines, brought a powerful and profitable industry to a standstill, demanded and won a greater share of its wealth, and called for the right to elect their own leaders.

I do not believe their struggle can end at the factory gates, nor can it limit its demands for reform only to the trade unions The household registration system that deprives most migrant workers of essential social and political rights in urban communities is unsustainable. As the ACFTU Report spells out, the younger generation of migrant workers has neither the aspirations nor the farming skills to return to rural villages, and has every right to demand that they will be able to settle down and raise families, educate their children and receive social services in the communities near their workplaces. Chinese society will find it difficult to accommodate their rising expectations, but even more difficult in the long run to suppress them.

Which image of the young Chinese migrant worker will prevail – the anguished solitary suicide victim or the smiling young worker with fist raised in triumph?  The future of Chinese society – and perhaps that of the global working class as a whole — hangs in the balance.

3 Responses

  1. Wow! Why does it take meandering thru little links that might easily be missed to find such an intelligent, informative article on what is going on? The major media is such a failure at informing the American public about anything that is happening in the world, and so much time and space is spent on trivia, while important developments that may really affect everyone globally are mostly ignored, that I wonder if people can ever wake up.
    Thanks for REAL news for a change!
    Whether you are interested in business, economics, the future of working-class jobs in the U.S., fear future military confrontations with China over resource competition, or due to political instabliity, or just want to follow the well-being of fellow humans, this movement and how China’s government responds has potentially great implications and consequences for most people around the world.

  2. […] wave of successful wildcat strikes in the Chinese auto parts industry in the summer of 2010, along with public sympathy for the numerous young workers who committed […]

  3. […] the wave of strikes at other auto parts plants triggered by this first victory at Honda opened up new possibilities for labor union reform in China.Kong Xianghong kept his promise, and a fair local union election process observed by Chinese […]

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