China's workers have demonstrated remarkable solidarity and organizational ability for several years now in strikes and protests across the country. They have demanded and in many cases obtained higher wages and better working conditions from their employer. Moreover, they have done this on their own and without the help of the trade union, which is usually seen as ineffectual or merely a tool of management.
Today however there is evidence that workers are no longer simply ignoring the union in their struggle but instead are demanding that it shows solidarity with them and does a much better job in protecting their rights and interests in the workplace. Over the past few months, for example, Chinese workers have demanded the ouster of a democratically-elected but under-performing trade union chairman, gone on strike in protest at a wage agreement negotiated by management and union, and demanded union assistance in their quest for equal pay for equal work at a state-owned enterprise in the revolutionary heartland of Yan'an.
The response of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to these worker initiatives was generally guarded but not unsympathetic, suggesting that while the official union clearly has not yet got up to speed with the rest of the workers' movement in China, at least pressure from workers is now forcing the union to reassess its role and the way it interacts with the people it is supposed to represent.
In May last year, the employees at Japanese-owned Ohms Electronics in Shenzhen were given the chance to democratically elect their trade union chairman. They chose a senior manager named Zhao Shaobo, largely because they felt at the time that he was best placed to convey their concerns to the company. But just nine months later, on 28 February, after Zhao failed to effectively intervene in several contract disputes involving long-serving employees, workers posted a notice on the factory gate demanding he be removed and new elections held.
More than 100 employees signed the petition and it was duly taken to the district trade union office where officials promised to consider the request and come to a decision within one month as required by law. Meanwhile, the under fire Zhao Shaobo made a staunch public defence of his record as union chair, saying the accusations against him were unjust.
At the Nanhai Honda automotive plant, site of one of the most important and ground-breaking strikes in recent Chinese history, about 100 junior staff went out on strike again on 18 March in protest at a new pay deal agreed by management and the union that would have given them a mere 10.2 percent increase in salary, while senior workers would get 19.8 percent. The next day, management increased the offer for junior workers to 14.4 percent and the strikers returned to work.
Although some union officials at Nanhai Honda reportedly criticised the workers for going out on strike, one local union official did say that the work stoppage had actually advanced the negotiations between workers and management and was thus a useful adjunct to the collective wage consultation system already in place at the company.
Two months earlier, around 600 auxiliary workers at Yanlian Industrial, a state-owned oil company in Shaanxi, sent an open letter to the provincial trade union in Xi'an stating that they would go on strike from 17 to 21 January if management refused to discuss their demands for equal pay for equal work.
The provincial trade union federation had supported the workers in a dispute the previous month over management plans to reclassify auxiliary employees as agency workers, a move that would have eliminated the job security they enjoyed at the state-owned enterprise. This time however union officials were more circumspect in their support of the workers' demands for equal pay. The acting chairman of the enterprise union, for example, said: “Our trade union should represent workers' best interests. But although equal pay for equal work is a government policy, it is still difficult to implement.”
Throughout much of the reform era in China, the workers' movement and the trade union travelled separate paths, barely if ever coming into contact with each other. Perhaps now, with worker activism on the rise, there is a chance that those two paths will begin to converge.
But for that convergence to really bear fruit, both workers and the trade union need to develop a new set of practical skills. The trade union is taking small steps in the right direction but it still has much to learn about running an effective and genuinely representative workers' organization. But once the union begins to attain these skills, it will start to gain the trust of the workers, who then in turn will be more willing to learn new organising and bargaining skills themselves.
As such, at present, there is clearly both a need and an opportunity for the international labour movement to get involved in China. By exchanging information, offering practical help and skills training, international unions can help Chinese workers and union officials to fully appreciate how trade unions really work and understand how they can effectively work together in the future.