The High Human Cost of Creating a Real Union in China

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More than 50 students and workers were arrested this summer during a weeks-long struggle to form a union at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen, China.

by Elaine Hui

University students lent tremendous support. But their employer and the Chinese government cracked down on both the workers and the students with firings, detention, surveillance, and the threat of jail sentences.

Workers at the welding-equipment manufacturer Shenzhen Jasic Technology initiated the process of forming a union in May. Among their biggest complaints were arbitrary fines and the company’s underpayment into government-run funds that help workers pay rent or buy houses.

Workers followed the law in setting up a union, including requesting and receiving permission from upper-level unions affiliated with the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only unions authorized in China.

In response to a rising tide of labor disputes, since the mid-2000s the ACFTU has built up more workplace branches, especially in foreign-invested firms, through a top-down effort. But these unions are notoriously ineffective at representing workers, focusing instead on organizing recreational activities and providing small holiday gifts. They mainly serve to preempt organizing.

Moreover, many companies are still not unionized, including Jasic, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The company employs 1,000 workers at this factory.

‘WE ARE LIKE TINY BUGS’

After workers collected signatures to form a union, in July the district-level union federation and the company denounced their effort as illegal—since the company had quickly formed a union to forestall the workers’ effort.

Jasic changed the job duties of union supporters and fired six of the most vocal. On July 20 the sacked workers attempted to return to work, but were beaten up and taken to the police station. Twenty other workers and supporters who went to the police station to protest were also arrested.

“The boss owns billions of yuan [equivalent to hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars] while we toil all year long just to make 20 to 30 thousand [$3,000-$4,000],” said a former Jasic worker in a speech at the protest. “What’s wrong to ask for a raise and get back the illegal deductions from our wages?”

Addressing the police, the former worker added, “When the boss says we’re making trouble, you, the cops, trust them and rush to the factory, beat us up and take us to the police station… In your eyes we are just like tiny bugs waiting to be stepped on.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The Jasic workers’ struggle has attracted significant attention in China.

Their demand to set up a union is much less common than demands for raises, payments into pension insurance, or compensation related to factory shutdowns or relocations, which have been the focal points of thousands of labor disputes in China in recent years.

Of the 1,745 collective actions by workers listed on China Labor Bulletin’s strike map between September 2017 and August 2018, the Jasic struggle is the only one over organizing a union.

Publicity through Chinese social media platforms has overcome the mainstream media blackout on strikes and labor disputes in the increasingly repressive political environment under President Xi Jinping.

As they learned of the struggle, workers from other factories and university students from throughout the country rushed to Shenzhen to support the Jasic workers. “Students today are workers tomorrow,” said a student from Beijing at one protest. “People asked me why I am here. I asked them back, ‘How can I not be here?’”

CRACKDOWN

Disturbed by the outpouring of support, on July 27 the government arrested 29 Jasic workers and supporters, accusing them of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a criminal charge often used by the government to suppress protests.

Chinese Worker-Activist Speaking Tour

Chinese labor activists are touring the U.S. to speak about the book Striking to Survive: Workers’ Resistance to Factory Relocations in China (Haymarket, 2018). Countering the popular myth that Chinese workers are ‘stealing American jobs,’ Striking to Survive documents a recent wave of factory closures in China’s Pearl River Delta and struggles by workers there to hold onto their jobs, their pensions, and their livelihoods. The events will also be an opportunity to hear recent news from China’s labor movement.

  • September 30-October 3: Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Detroit
  • October 5-11: Bay Area

For a list of events, or to order the book, visit: bit.ly/strikesurvive.

In response, workers and students formed a support group to demand that the government release all the detainees and respect the workers’ right to unionize. Thousands of workers and students signed online petitions.

Xinhua News, the government’s mouthpiece, has attempted to scapegoat two labor NGOs (similar to worker centers in the U.S.)—Shenzhen-based Dagongzhe and Hong Kong-based Worker Empowerment—for the workers’ actions. The government arrested a staff member and the registered agent of Dagongzhe. In 2015, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on groups like these, smearing them as foreign-funded organizations attempting to undermine the country’s stability.

Before dawn on August 24, riot police with full gear and shields broke into the apartment where members of the support group were staying and arrested more than 50 students and workers.

On the same day, two workers involved in the support group and two activists from the website “Pioneer,” which had been releasing frequent updates on the struggle, were arrested in Beijing.

CALL FOR SOLIDARITY

Most of the detainees have since been released, but four Jasic workers are still in prison awaiting trial on criminal charges. Two workers from other factories and six activists are still in detention and at high risk of facing criminal charges too.

Meanwhile the released student supporters have been disciplined by their universities and are under police surveillance at home.

Many of those detained have been denied the right to meet with their lawyers. The government has also constantly harassed and threatened lawyers willing to represent them. A number of lawyers were warned by authorities that those involved in the case would be putting their legal licenses at risk.

Solidarity actions have been organized in Hong Kong, Germany, and the U.S. You can sign the petition calling for the release of the arrested workers and students at bit.ly/jasicsolidarity.

Elaine Hui is a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #475. Don’t miss an issue, subscribe today.

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Mexican Auto Unions Create New Federation

by Jeffrey Hermanson

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Mexico’s auto workers are for the first time forming a national federation in what is a very significant development both for Mexican labor and for Mexican society as a whole. Ten organizations representing over 25,000 Mexican workers have committed to the new organization.

There have been conversations between Mexican auto industry unions for 20 years, and there have been good relations between the oldest independent auto unions, SITIAVW of Puebla and SITNISSAN of Morelos, but until recently the conversations have included some CTM auto unions that were trying to legitimize themselves as relatively independent. The CTM unions have now dropped out of the conversations, and the truly independent and democratic unions are moving to formalize their alliance and found a legally recognized federation.

SITIAVW (Independent Union of Workers of Auto Industry VW) is a founding member of the new federation, along with SITAUDI, SITNISSAN (the independent union of Nissan-Cuernavaca, Morelos), STIMAHCS (an auto parts union affiliated with the FAT), los Mineros (miners) of Bombardier Hidalgo (aerospace and auto parts), SNTGT (General Tire), SINTB (Bridgestone Tire), SEGLO (logistics services) and the newly formed SITGM (Goodyear Mexico) of San Luis Potosí.

SITIAVW and SITAUDI are independent, single-factory unions based in Puebla, SITIAVW with over 10,000 members, SITAUDI with somewhat less.

The addition of auto parts unions and rubber worker unions is an important move, since for every auto assembly worker it is estimated there are at least twice as many parts and component supplier workers.

The project is sponsored jointly by IndustriALL and IG Metall, and the project organizer is José Luis Rodríguez Salazar, a former president of SITIAVW. Find here a link to a recent IndustriALL article about the struggle of the union at Goodyear.

This is an incredibly important development in Mexican labor, as the auto, auto parts, tire and aerospace industries are one of the biggest, most important and most advanced industrial sectors of the Mexican economy. The leading role of SITIAVW in this is due to their long history of independence, democracy and militancy, earning them the best contracts in the industry and the respect of the entire labor movement. The project director is also widely respected, as he led SITIAVW through some of its most difficult struggles during the Vicente Fox sexenio (six-year term) and is the only SITIAVW president to have been re-elected and to serve more than one term.

Equally important in the leadership of this initiative are los Mineros, a powerful national miners union whose leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia broke with the corporativist labor movement (CTM, CROC, CROM, allied in the Congreso de Trabajo or Congress of Labor) fifteen years ago and embarked on militant organizing and collective bargaining campaigns, challenging the biggest, most powerful Mexican industrial conglomerate Grupo Mexico, expanding their jurisdiction to aerospace and auto parts, aiding progressive independent organizing projects like CAT-Puebla and CFO on the border.

Gómez Urrutia was falsely accused and threatened by the Mexican government and has been living in exile in Canada for over ten years, but has been elected Senator on the list of MORENA, the reform party whose presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was just elected president. Gómez will return to Mexico to take his seat on September 1, giving the independent labor movement a powerful voice in the Senate. Los Mineros have an affiliation agreement with the United Steel Workers (USW), which represents workers in Canada and the United States.

This is happening at a time of historic change in Mexican politics, with the defeat of the presidential candidates of the PRI and PAN by López Obrador or AMLO, the founder and leader of MORENA, who was elected in a landslide. This could mean the reform of Mexico’s labor laws. The independent labor movement is working to take advantage of this opportunity to become a leading force in Mexican society.

Jeffery Hermanson has been a union organizer with ILGWU/UNITE, the Carpenters and the Writers Guild of America since 1977. He was the Field Representative in Mexico for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center from 2000-2003 and currently works with the International Union Educational League.  This article first appeared on the New Politics blog at http://newpol.org/content/mexican-independent-and-democratic-auto-unions-form-new-federation

Organizing Walmart

by Paul Garver

 

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Working for Respect: Community and Conflict at Walmart is not for breezy summer reading on the beach or in the mountains.  Save it for cooler weather at a comfortable desk in September. But if you are either a prospective or current labor organizer or labor studies major, do read it and take notes.  Other than actually becoming a Walmart “associate,” there is no better way to learn what it is like to experience “Walmartism.”

Organizing Walmart workers is both totally necessary for the future of the workers’ movement and a quixotic project that requires enormous persistence and a huge leap of faith.  It is the largest employer in the USA and in the world.  “Walmartism” combines a huge centrally controlled bureaucracy with the arbitrary authority of layer upon layer of managers in such a way that Walmart “associates” have little control over their working conditions and lives.

Reich and Bearman describe in excruciating detail how Walmart workers make sense of their jobs on the shop floor.   Their information comes from the experiences and reports of twenty student activists who spend an intensive summer researching and helping organize Walmart associates in five different urban areas in conjunction with OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect at Walmart].

The major source of resources for the OUR Walmart project, the United Food & Commercial Workers [UFCW], pulled the plug on its commitment the same time that the students’ summer project ended in September 2015.

By then the students had undergone much conflict, learned a lot, but organized few associates. However their interviews with current and former workers prove an invaluable source of insights into the complex obstacles to organizing at Walmart.

Drawing on a wide array of methods, including participant-observation, oral history, big data, and the analysis of social networks, Working for Respect is a sophisticated reconsideration of this pivotal workplace.  The most detailed and valuable sections of this book describe the variety of reasons why folks work at Walmart, why they remain or leave employment, and which issues are most important for them.

Current union organizing models are not effective at Walmart given its sprawling scale and its sophisticated management methods. Since employees have various reasons why they work at Walmart, no single organizing method is a magic key that reaches all associates at each store.  And Walmart, owned by the wealthiest family in the USA, is ruthlessly determined to stamp out any organizing among its associates.

The authors, like the students and the UFCW,  can offer no easy answers.  They do share a few insights with the reader.  One is that issues like respect and dignity on the job  mobilize Walmart workers more effectively than purely economic demands.  Another is that while face-to-face organizing is crucial, but Walmart, social media networks have to play a major role in sustaining networks of workers across the vast sprawl of the Walmart empire.

There is nothing in this book about Walmart organizing in other countries, but I will add an observation about China, where Walmart is well established and growing.  Whereas Walmart in the USA and Canada has closed whole stores and departments rather than allowing any kind of union foothold, Walmart in China embraced Chinese-style management- and Communist Party- dominated “trade unions.”  Walmart associates in China who insist on real collective bargaining are shut out by management and “union” alike. Sporadic communications among Walmart employees persist mainly through social media.

Welcome to 21st century global capitalism!   The essential, though seemingly impossible,  task for workers is to overcome Walmart and its clones through self-organization.  This book provides a few useful hints how to begin..

Adam Reich is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. He is the author of Hidden Truth: The Young Men Navigating Lives in and out of Juvenile Prison (2010); With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital (2012); and Selling Our Souls: The Commodification of Hospital Care in the United States(2014).

Peter Bearman is the Cole Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theories and Empirics at Columbia University. He is the author of Relations Into Rhetorics (1993) and Doormen (2005) and coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology (2009), as well as coeditor of the Middle Range series at Columbia University Press.

Korea and Labor Unions

Korea Reflectionsby Michael Leon Guerrero, Exec. Dir., Labor Network for Sustainability

LNS Part of Union Peace Mission to Korea

 

LNS executive director Michael Leon Guererro reports on a delegation of US trade unionists, Black Lives Matter, and other social movement activists to trade unions in Korea, sponsored by US Labor Against the War and the Korean Trade Union Confederation. Michael reports that the Korean labor movement played a key role in the peace process:
 
The road to the peace process was paved by the Candlelight Revolution – a popular movement uprising that lasted for months – ending in December 2016 with the impeachment of Korean President Park Gun-hye. Anchored by the KCTU, the movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in a series of protests against the corruption of the Park government and political domination by the family-owned conglomerates known as chaebols. On May 9, 2017, Moon Jae-in, a human rights attorney, was elected as the new President.
 
The delegation learned the history of the KCTU, which has grown to be a powerful organized voice of workers and changed the political landscape of Korea since being established just 30 years ago. Some of them met with former KCTU Chairman Han Sang-gyun and former vice-president Lee Young-Joo, both imprisoned by the Park administration on trumped up charges while protesting labor law reforms that would further limit workers’ rights.
 

Support Striking Oil Workers in Australia

Eric Lee, LabourStart

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Last year maintenance workers at Exxon Mobil’s onshore and offshore facilities in Australia received a shock when they heard that their employer, maintenance contractor UGL, was firing the whole workforce. 

They were told that they could keep their jobs if they signed up to a new agreement that cut wages by 15-30% and other entitlements, and forced them onto new fly-in, fly-out rosters that tore them away from their families.

These workers have now been on strike for a phenomenal 350 days, resisting Esso and UGL from exploiting ugly legal loopholes that undermine workers’ fundamental rights.

They’ve asked for our solidarity, and for us to send messages to the company demanding a fair deal.

Please take a moment to show your solidarity today:

Click here

And please share this message with your friends, family and fellow union members.

Abolish ICE Demonstration-Sacramento

Poster - Abolish Ice - DSA nationalLACLAA ( Labor Committee for Latin American Advancement)  organized a  dynamic demonstration today at the ICE offices in Sacramento to oppose the policies of jailing children and to slow down ICE.  Photos, videos, and sound recordings contributed to the scene.

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Desiree Rojas, Sacramento LACLA President pointed to large photos and said we have now seen children put into dog kennels.  We have seen ICE Separate families. And, we must resist.

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Desiree Rojas LCLAA

“We will fight for the children !  We will fight back against ICE !”

LACLAA , a part of the AFL-CIO, has been organized and active in Sacramento since 1982 and was particularly active in the anti NAFTA efforts and in organizing annual Cesar Chavez marches.

Local residents of the Japanese Citizens League,  who had themselves been incarcerated in 1942 in the Japanese Incarceration told of their stories.  And, how the incarceration haunted them for decades.

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Fabrizio Sasso

Fabrizio Sasso, Executive Secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council  described today’s effort as a part of the battle for Freedom and Democracy.

The video is here. https://www.facebook.com/sacramentolabor/

Duane Campbell (DSA) the Co Chair of the Immigrants’ Rights Committee of Democratic Socialists of America told the crowd of some 200 of the DSA campaign to Abolish ICE.

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Duane Campbell – DSA Immigration Committee

“This issue before us is one of human decency.  Under the Trump Administration ICE has developed a new policy of deliberately separating families of immigrants and refugees.  They are separating parents from their children as a form of collective punishment.    We have seen the photos. We know what is happening! Continue reading

Reject the Republican Repressive Immigration Bills

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Getty Images

Republicans in Congress have rejected a way to fix DACA and protect Dreamers. Now they are forcing a vote on two cruel bills that hold dreamers hostage to the Trump Administration’s deportation machine that separates kids from their families, deports hard working immigrants from the country, eliminates the diversity visa program, restricts family unification and prevents people fleeing violence and death from seeking asylum.

This is not who we are as a country.

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When we rip babies from their parents arms, build prison camps for children, raid workplaces and round up anyone who is not white, and threaten the 800,000 DACAmented Dreamers who have only ever known America with deportation we have to step up. This is a moral crisis and people like you and me must stand up to this.

Congress must know that these bills allowing the most inhumane parts of Donald Trump’s immigration policies can not pass. Tell your Representative that they must vote NO on these cruel bills.

When President Trump needlessly ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—a temporary fix to help individuals who came to this country as young immigrants—it became Congress’ responsibility to solve the problem. At every turn, Congress has failed miserably to come up with a solution that protects Dreamers from deportation. And now, House Republican leadership has blocked a fix that has overwhelming public support and a majority of the members of the House want to vote on.

Continue reading