Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13

China Labour Bulletin

CLB-searchingfor the union
[Editorial Note: For many years the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) has been a reliable source for information on and analysis of the workers’ movement in China. Alhough the CLB remains highly critical of the official trade union structures, its editors have documented and encouraged efforts by certain regional union officials to initiate badly needed reforms essential for meeting the workers’ rising demands for a genuine voice in the workplace. However, as this excellent new report shows, the real impetus for positive change is coming from the rising consciousness of Chinese workers themselves.–Paul Garver]

China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force. Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions.

However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals.  As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

In China labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement, published today, we examine this evolving relationship between the workers, the trade union and civil society and look at how the government is struggling to respond to rapid social and economic change.

CLB recorded 1,171 strikes and worker protests from mid-2011 until the end of 2013, about 40 percent of which were in manufacturing industries particularly hard hit by the global economic downturn and the decline in China’s economic growth during this period. Factory workers staged protests when they were cheated out of their wages and overtime payments, when their bonuses and benefits were cut back and when the boss refused to pay the social insurance premiums mandated by law. Workers also went out strike to demand higher pay, equal pay for equal work, and proper employment contracts.

Outside the factory: Transport workers staged strikes over high costs, cumbersome regulations and unfair competition; teachers protested at wage arrears, low pay and attempts by the government to introduce a performance-based salary system in schools, and sanitation workers, some of the poorest-paid in China, staged numerous strikes and protests in Guangzhou and eventually won a long-overdue raise.

Local governments often got dragged into these disputes and responded with a mixture of conciliation and coercion, putting pressure on both sides to reach a consensus speedily. The police intervened in about 20 percent of the protests recorded by CLB and occasionally conflicts erupted, leading to beatings and arrests.

Some local trade union federations did respond positively to workers’ demands for support but despite attempts by the new Communist Party leadership in Beijing to energise the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, it remained inert and stuck in the past. Nevertheless, China’s workers will continue to push for more effective trade union representation and greater workplace democracy. And in so doing, they will lay the groundwork for a more stable and sustainable economy in which ordinary workers can finally share in the benefits of the “economic miracle” they helped to create.

Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13 is published today as a 50-page downloadable file.  This is CLB’s fifth sequential report on the workers’ movement dating back to the Year 2000. All reports are available on the Research Reports page of our website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: