Worker Rights and Collective Bargaining Advance in China

by Paul Garver

At the same time that the rights of public sector workers to collective bargaining and effective union representation are under unprecedented attack in the USA, some Chinese workers are beginning to make substantial progress in achieving collective bargaining and worker rights. Even though Chinese politicians and bureaucrats are trying to prevent the democratic revolts in the Arab world from impacting Chinese society, they appear willing to allow modest internal labor reforms that do not directly challenge their authority.  In the USA right-wing movements fueled by the wealth of billionaires and pandered to by ambitious politicians have seized upon the budget effects of the great recession caused by their own financial recklessness and greed to destroy long established rights of public employees.


Sometimes workers’ victories are not dramatic.  Confrontational scenes like those recorded in the accompanying June 2010 photo of young workers fighting off yellow-hatted goons sent by the municipal trade union to break their strike did NOT characterize negotiations at the same Honda auto parts plant in Nanhai (Foshan City, Guangdong Province) in March 2011.

On March 1 enterprise union leaders elected by the workers and the provincial trade union federation, accompanied by 40 rank-and-file workers acting as observers, negotiated a new wage agreement for 2011 that raised the monthly wage of production line workers by RMB611 over 2010 levels (about a 30% increase).   The enterprise union had rejected the Japanese management’s earlier two offers, but with a mediating effort by Kong Xianghong, the Deputy Chair of the ACFTU’s provincial union federation, accepted a higher compromise proposal.

This all sounds routine enough, but in the Chinese context it marked a remarkable advance for worker rights and collective bargaining.  It consolidated the gains won by the heroic wildcat struggles of young workers, many still student interns in their teens, that not only won a substantial wage increase, but exacted a commitment from Kong 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 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 academics and advocates of collective bargaining elected a representative enterprise union leadership at the Nanhai plant. The hope is that this pattern of careful union reform and the institutionalization of collective bargaining will proceed not only at other auto parts plants in Guangdong, but that the reforms will be emulated in other industries and other provinces in China.

While in the USA the billionaires and reactionaries dream that crippling unions of teachers, nurses and firefighters in Wisconsin and Ohio will spread contagion to the remaining states and destroy the possibilities for any democratic challenge to their dictatorial rule. Or are theirs only Pharaonic delusions that will waver and shatter like those of Mubarak or Qaddafi when enough people have the courage to take to the streets in defiance?

We live in interesting times! Whether this is a curse or a blessing depends to some extent on our own willingness to stand up to fight for our rights. In every nation, whether Egypt, China or the USA the struggle for worker rights and collective bargaining are crucial components of a democratic society, essential for any sustainable social and economic development. Whenever a migrant auto worker in China, textile worker in Egypt, or teacher in Wisconsin fights back in resistance to oppressive authority, she/he is striking a blow for all of us.

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