Strikers in China demand own unions, defy capitalism

The new September-October 2010 issue of News & Letters is online.  Here’s the lead article:

Strikers in China demand own unions, defy capitalism
by Bob McGuire

A wave of strikes in China that began in mid-May in auto and continued through the summer is challenging the foundations of China’s world-leading production system. Workers striking key auto suppliers, beginning with the walkout at the Nanhai Honda axle plant in the industrial city of Foshan in Guangdong province, repeatedly halted production at Honda and Toyota plants for days at a time. Strikers have been winning substantial wage increases–and have raised the demand for independent unions.

Despite confronting both the wealthiest corporate bosses and the government authorities–first of all in defiance of their official union–the primarily migrant workers at dozens of major factories have won wage increases as high as 50% on top of their previous pay, which had fallen below subsistence.

A SEASON OF LABOR REVOLT

Workers in China’s factories have carried out more than ten thousand officially recorded wildcat strikes, walkouts and job actions, each year. The authorities have typically intervened with an iron fist in support of capitalist factory owners.

It is not the sheer number of strikes alone that makes this season of labor unrest in China so remarkable. Police intervened again in this year’s strikes, and thugs from the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), physically beat up strikers at Nanhai Honda in May. But workers this year have seized a moment when they had more breathing space and could make their voices heard because there are doubts among the rulers on how to control the working class.

Remarks by Communist Party Chairman Hu Jintao in April that it was necessary to “…allow the vast majority of the people to engage in decent work,” provided a little cover for strikers confronting state authority when they could demonstrate they did not have “decent work.”

Honda plants became the focus of the strike wave, partly because workers there were toiling for very close to the local minimum wage despite working in highly automated and highly productive factories. Honda, in their Chinese factories, had driven down the cost of labor to 5% of production costs. Honda drove workers’ living standards down by hiring so-called “interns” connected to trade schools. They comprised up to one-third of the workforce and were paid even less than the minimum wage. Honda had also eliminated most of the overtime that, in a typical factory in China, allowed underpaid workers to survive. Wages were so low at the Nanhai Honda plant, that some strike leaders had decided to quit and seek work elsewhere.

THE NECESSITY OF OVERTIME IS A KILLER

Factory workers–from toy, shoe and garment factories to heavy industry–who need all their overtime, 72 hours a week and up, just to make a subsistence living, might be swept up in this labor movement. Even workers at elite plants like Foxconn, manufacturers of high-tech iPods and iPads, had been so pushed to the brink that their epidemic of suicides has become well-known–although Apple’s Steve Jobs, in a stunning show of capitalist inhumanity, publicly declared that 13 suicides wasn’t that bad in a workforce of 450,000.

Authorities reacted to these strikes at critical points in the economy, aware that, if workers from hundreds of thousands of other factories joined the strike wave, it might spiral out of control. The government reacted inconsistently, as if uncertain that repression could confine this strike movement.

Strikers at Nanhai Honda, who began their strike May 17, were confronted by police lines and later were roughed up by ACFTU thugs; then the regime called off its dogs. The acts of intimidation by the government and by Honda expanded the strike, especially after Honda fired strike leaders. Strikers have supplemented traditional means of communications with cell phone and internet messages, trying to stay one step ahead of government censorship.

In a surprising development, state-controlled newspapers and TV covered strikes on the news. Officials soon changed course again, however, confining coverage to English-language newspapers not readily available to most migrant workers, who had come from interior provinces with fewer educational opportunities.

COMMUNIST PARTY ZIG-ZAGS

The Communist Party then publicized Premier Wen Jiabao telling migrant workers in Beijing, “Migrant workers should be cared for, protected and respected, especially the younger generation.” This is the same Communist Party that has relied on migrant workers, precisely because they were “undocumented” and had fewer rights than local citizens, to create the wealth that has fueled the annual double-digit growth that has made China “the world’s sweatshop” for two decades.

In fact, until 2008 the largely migrant workforce at foreign-owned enterprises could join no union at all. Since the Labor Contract Law of 2008, the ACFTU, the company union for state-run enterprises, also represents foreign-owned plants. But ACFTU has become in effect the company union for private bosses too. It is the kind of union that Wal-Mart, whose facilities in China are “unionized,” can like, or at least live with.

Workers at one factory, Foshan Fengfu in Guangdong, which supplies mufflers for Honda, settled for no more than a 15% raise but with a promise to recognize as their independent union the strike leadership that maintained the wildcat strike. This is a challenge to the Labor Contract Law, which currently makes illegal every union except ACFTU.

From the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, the regime has waged total war against every demand for an autonomous trade union, anything not controlled by the ACFTU. Yet under pressure both the giant industrial city of Shenzhen and Guangdong, the province it is a part of, are reportedly preparing revised labor laws, including language on independent unions.

They are responding to the way strikers made a category of the strike committees they created. Committees chosen by the workers maintained strikes for as long as two weeks without strike benefits or government aid. Changes in the law would, for the first time, allow workers to choose their own union representatives, but only from a list of approved candidates, overseen by the ACFTU. What a step back from workers determining their own strike leaders!

The wave of strikes that halted production at Honda and Toyota, and stopped the production lines of Panasonic and Brother and other leading multinational corporations, has caused concerns for the capitalists and stock markets internationally, which for two decades have maintained their profits at the expense of Chinese workers.

These workers are young, many hired in as teenagers, heavily female, and ideally fresh from distant provinces, separated from family–and they are supposed to be under corporate control. The recipe for the worldwide “race to the bottom” in labor costs and environmental and other costs of production makes no allowance for workers in revolt.

AN ARTIFICIAL LABOR SHORTAGE

This idealization of a certain kind of young migrant worker, from which foreign corporations could squeeze a lifetime of work in a decade, has created a kind of artificial labor shortage and probably aided workers striking at Honda and elsewhere.

There were millions of workers who had lost their jobs when the state shuttered Stalin-style state enterprises like steel mills and cut the workforce at banks and other institutions. But these workers were not in line for jobs at the new export-oriented factories in Guangdong and coastal cities. Workers at state enterprises faced police brutality and imprisonment just for fighting for severance pay, but many never found work again.

If workers born in the 1990s are what recruiters sought, they had to contend also with the effects of 30 years of the one-child policy and the norm being an only child. Therefore, even with over one hundred million workers actually unemployed, to fill the factories with a second or third generation of migrant workers, recruiters have had to cast their nets ever wider.

One prime example is the movement of young Uighur workers from Xinjiang into coastal factories. This recruitment of Uighur workers is not the cause of friction between Han Chinese and Uighurs so much as the result of Han domination. Jobs created in the exploitation of natural resources of Xinjiang like oil and natural gas are largely reserved for Han Chinese, who have arrived in such numbers that Uighurs have become a minority in their own land. Taking away grazing land has uprooted many more, and as a minority people Uighur families had been allowed two children under the national population policy.

The recent harsh punishment of Uighurs demonstrates the degree to which China’s rulers will go to stamp out criticism. Halaite Niyaze was sentenced to 15 years in July for critical writings after the bloody repression of 2009. Three webmasters, Nureli, Dilshat Perhat and Nijat Azat, were tried in closed courts and sentenced to three, five and ten years respectively earlier in July.

Likewise the Sichuan Court has upheld the five-year sentence for Tan Zuoren, most well-known for putting online a report exposing the criminal negligence in construction of schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. He was charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” Harsh justice elsewhere puts into relief that the space unexpectedly allowed for workers to strike in China is not a tolerance of dissent but a fear that repression of strikes might spread them and lead to what the Communist Party could no longer control.

There is hope that the borders of China will not limit the movement. The Chinese working class has become the workforce of “the world’s sweatshop” for global capitalists. That pivotal position makes Chinese workers potentially the vanguard of the international working class.

Nowhere is the experience of Chinese workers more needed than in the U.S. Anti-union companies (including Honda and Toyota) find right-to-work Southern states inviting; and, since Reagan, workers have the fear of being legally replaced by scabs. And many U.S. workers could see their own union in the behavior of the official Chinese union trying to rein in workers. Despite such obstacles, workers at Mott’s in upstate New York have maintained a strike since May as Dr Pepper Snapple attempts to slice workers’ wages by up to $7 an hour and gut pensions and benefits–for no better reason than the company expected they could get away with it. (See Editorial: Capital on strike.)

LABOR AT A TURNING POINT

U.S. workers have much to learn from Chinese workers if Americans do not buy into campaigns to demonize them, deflecting blame from the capitalists who shuttered shops here and moved them to China.

GM and the UAW both joined in a similar campaign in the 1980s blaming Japanese workers for hard times in the U.S. auto industry. Felix Martin, a GM worker and an editor for News & Letters, wrote “An open letter to Japanese workers,” which Toyota workers in Japan published. It read in part:

“Today more and more workers are not believing the lies that it is the Japanese worker who’s to blame for this crisis…they know their jobs are not being taken away by you–they are being stolen by the capitalists who are trying to drive down the wages of all workers….The road to change for us is the same road to change as for you–a social revolution.”

A union representative of ACFTU explained to a reporter from China News Weekly why they were not helping workers at Nanhai Honda get a pay raise: “This is a matter between labor and employers. It is inappropriate for the trade union to intervene.” Workers pushed such unions aside, and labor in China is at a turning point.

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