Think about this. There are more unemployed workers in China than there are workers in the United States. The ranks of the unemployed in China have ballooned to about 150 million people. The shut down of state owned enterprises in the last decade left millions of urban workers out of jobs and changes in agricultural policies and a lack rural development pushed millions more off the land, fueling a massive migration from the country to the cities. The result was the creation of a giant reserve army of the unemployed, to use Marx’s memorable phrase.
With so many workers competing for jobs, wages are at rock bottom rates, hovering at about $100 month for industrial workers—this for long hours in often deplorable working conditions. The lack of enforcement of existing laws and the dismantling of the social safety net has added to the woes of China’s workers. While a small elite has prospered from the extraordinary growth of the last decade, it’s still pie in the sky for most of China’s workers and peasants. About 250 million Chinese live on less than a dollar a day and another 700 million people--almost half the population-- lives on $2 a day or less.
In the time honored tradition of the textile mills of 19th century New England, and of export processing zones of today, employers seek out young women workers fresh from the countryside to staff the factories. The belief is that young women are more passive, less likely to stick with the job long enough to organize themselves, and faster and more efficient than other workers. The New England mill owners learned otherwise when women textile workers struck for bread and roses. There is evidence that a similar fight back is underway in China.
The Chinese working class as a whole is hardly passive. The Chinese government reported that there were more than 87,000 "public order disturbances" in 2005, many of them strikes and other forms of direct industrial action.
Labor needs to take notice and support these efforts. The Chinese working class is constructing responses to the emergent freewheeling capitalism that will transform China.
In classic fashion, there are three aspects of the fight-back: informal responses, institutional responses, and emergent responses.
Three excellent papers presented at the Cornell Conference on Global Corporations and Global Unions on February 10th by scholars who have recently studied the Chinese working class on the ground in China provide insight into each of these responses. We hope these papers will be made available to the public, and when they are we will let you know how you can access them.
Andrew Ross describes in The Fast Boat to China: Corporate Fight and the Human Cost of Free Trade how Chinese workers employ the oldest form of protest: they quit in large numbers. Ross reports that after the traditional week-long Spring Festival vacation in 2004 nearly 10% of Guangdong’s workforce failed to return to work. Many of these migrant workers traveled back to their home villages where they either decided to remain or they found other work when they returned to the industrial centers.
The result was something of a crisis that left employers scrambling to find new help, employers ….were forced to recruit on the basis of the pathetic slogan, “paying wages on time.” This was a response to China’s biggest labor problem—the back wages owed to migrant workers. Emboldened by seeing employers at a disadvantage, worker walkouts and wildcat strikes spread, and the aggrieved flocked to legal aid centers that were increasingly handling labor disputes as part of the country’s rocky transition to a ‘rule of law’.
In fact, China’s migrant industrial workers often vote with their feet. Turnover is so high in industry, that many employers actually fear a labor shortage! Not that there aren’t enough workers, but that there aren’t enough young women workers. Ross reports the total lack of loyalty shown by employers is returned by workers up and down the occupational skill ladder for whom “job hopping is a national pastime.”
The second type of response is institutional: trade unions and the law. Many Chinese workers belong to unions. Xiaodan Zhang of Columbia University studied Chinese unions and she presented a nuanced picture of how they operate in today’s economy in her paper. Do Trade Unions Bargain in Today's China?. Chinese unions are not free and independent: they are still extensions of the state, as they always have been, but as the state’s role in the economy has changed, so has the role of unions.
….[U]nions still function as the state’s rubber stamps… [but] the actor who uses the stamps has shifted its role...
By changing lifetime employment to a labor contract system, it [the state] no longer provides workers job security and full benefits in housing, medical insurance, and pension. The new reform policies brought the bankruptcy of many state-owned companies and unemployment to many workers. A crowded labor market with a large army of unemployed urban [workers] and migrant workers further weakened workers’ power at the bargaining table with their owners and managers, even if there is one [a bargaining table]. Their autonomy on the shop floor is also considerably thwarted. Workers dismay over the reform policies was first reflected in the 1989 student movement, and then their unrest over job issues, unpaid wages and pensions, unsatisfactory severance payment and other violations of their basic rights is increasing nationwide especially in the second decade of reforms in the 1990s.
The Party-state is fully aware its legitimacy of rule is at stake if it does not take into account the negative impact of the reforms on workers…..[W]hile ruthlessly quelling large-scale protests and curbing any possible development of independent organizations by workers, the state tries to reset itself as the workers protector. Instead of providing protection over job security and fringe benefits, the state [through the unions] shifted to a new arena: protection of workers’ legal rights…
As a result, according to Xiaodan Zhang, unions at national, provincial, and municipal level have promoted efforts by workers to demand their rights in the various courts and administrative agencies available to them. In addition, labor affiliated newspapers often run stories about workers fighting for their legal rights and winning.
But if unions promote what Xiaodan Zhang calls “a rights discourse” at the national, provincial, and municipal level, the situation on the shop floor is very different.
As in pre-reform period, unions at the enterprise level are virtually part of the management structure, sometimes the union officials are managers. The role of unions, as it was in the pre-reform era, is mostly to promote workers-management cooperation to increase production. As Xiaodan Zhang says,
[E]nterprise unions, no matter what kind of ownership, do not side with the workers in any dispute between them and management; rather they play a peacemaker and only pacify workers in the dispute or do certain kinds of bargaining that can prevent disputes in advance.
Beyond union structures, it’s important to note that within the legal framework of the industrial relations system, ten’s of thousands of Chinese workers use the courts and administrative agencies to seek redress for their grievances. And they frequently win. So while what the “discourse of rights” promoted by the unions is designed as a means for worker control it also occasionally produces good results for workers. The use of these legal means is thus an important part of the way workers are constructing a strategy for resistance and redress within the new Chinese economy.
Given the role that unions play in the Chinese system, how should global labor relate to the Chinese unions? Today, almost all union centers in the world have relations with the All China Federation of Trade Unions [ACFTU], China’s national labor center. The AFL-CIO, however, does not, arguing that the ACFTU and Chinese unions are not independent but are arms of the state and thus not true unions.
The AFL-CIO’s position is in many ways a remnant of its Cold War “shunning” doctrine, of not talking to Communist, state affiliated unions. (Interestingly, the AFL-CIO did have relations with non-Communist state linked unions such as those in Mexico. There, the AFL-CIO refused to talk to newer democratic and independent unions for a very long time.)
We think it’s time to abandon this last vestige of the Cold War. The AFL-CIO and CtW should talk to the Chinese unions. China and its unions are in a period of enormous and rapid change. Talking is not the same as endorsing. Dialogue aimed at encouraging a shift toward independence could have an important impact, especially since the rest of the world’s labor movement is already talking to the Chinese. In addition, information sharing could help the AFL-CIO and CtW develop programs to aid in the development of an independent Chinese labor movement.
That brings us to the third kind of worker resistance—emergent grassroots strategies. Jenny Wai-ling’s Chan of the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese Working Women Network (CWWN) describes how such an independent labor movement is emerging today in China in her paper, Chinese Migrant Workers in Global Production: Bringin Wal-Mart to Corporate Social Responsibility. She describes conditions for workers at some of Wal-Mart’s 20,000 Chinese suppliers. It is a picture of super-exploited, mostly young women, migrant workers. Working conditions are harsh, workers are often cheated out of wages, and laws and corporate promises such as Wal-Mart's “code of ethical practice” rules are regularly ignored. But it is a work-world in which workers are fighting back. And because unions are part of the state apparatus and “are not adversarial or confrontational” workers are “…actively exploring other forms of organized labor.”
One form of organization which may offer great potential is the development of Worker Committees. Says Jenny Wai-ling Chan:
A workers’ committee at the workplace level is a collective platform that promotes workers’ participation and workplace democracy. It is not a branch under the auspices of an official trade union..
Jenny Wai-ling Chan describes how CWWN helps workers’ get organized:
Firstly, CWWN and partner NGOs prepare a comprehensive training curriculum covering the major topics such as globalization and workers’ rights, international labor standards, local labor laws and regulations, and collective bargaining. Second, CWWN collaborates with either international NGOs (such as Social Accountability, Clean Clothes Campaigns, and Ethical Trading Initiatives) or multinational corporations (for example Reebok) in selecting medium-sized factories of about 400 to 500 workers on average for holding training programs. Third, CWWN coordinates two-phase frontline training sessions. The first part is provided for all the production workers in the factory. Then, in the second-part, we will facilitate those who are more enthusiastic to learn about the mechanisms of worker representation and democratic election by providing them with follow-up trainings. Finally, the candidacies of a Workers Committee are ready to compete. The ratio of committee members and workers is usually around 1 to 30, making a Workers Committee of totally 12 to 14 members. The candidates will take turns to make a speech in the election period. By secret ballet, a Workers Committee will be successfully formed.
Even though independent unions are against the law in China, workers’ committees have been able to take root in some shops through careful attention to what can and can’t be done. The result is a new form of bottom-up organization that could serve as a model for future organization.
Providing support for the development of these new models of organization should be a priority for the global labor movement’s outreach to Chinese workers.