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Chinese Workers Flex Muscles

By / 7.15.2010

PPI Special Report

The following is a guest column from PPI friend and sometime contributor Earl Brown, Labor and Employment Law Counsel for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.

Over the last few months, thousands of workers, toiling in the Chinese factories of Japanese car manufacturers, have struck for improved wages, hours and working conditions—autonomously, without foreign input and with astonishing tenacity and shrewdness. These strikes have attracted much international media and scholarly commentary ranging from “nothing new” to “a new era dawns.” To adequately understand these strikes, however, we need to heed to the words of the strikers themselves.

Let’s look at the strike that garnered the most international coverage; the roughly two to three week strike at the Honda transmission plant in Foshan City near Guangzhou in the industrial province of Guangdong. Although Honda’s China operations are quite profitable and a key to Honda’s overall success, workers down its supply chain remain locked in a labor regime of low wages, speed-up and long hours. Of the roughly 1900 workers at the Foshan plant, some 800 plus are classified as “interns” and thus get even lower wages.

Facing announcements of a dramatic speed-up, the workers spontaneously struck. The strike at the Foshan transmission plant idled the whole Honda “just-in-time” system — a continuous production with low inventory — as completed transmissions could not be fed into the assembly plants. At first, Honda reacted with firings of strike leaders and threats, accompanied by minimal offers of wage improvements. When this didn’t work, Honda management, local government and the local government union used muscle.

Thick thirty-year-olds, connected to local government and decked in polo shirts and yellow hats, attempted to push and herd the massed, lean twenty-year-old striking men and women back into the factory. It didn’t work. At that point, Honda was desperate to get production back up as market analysts all over the world lasered in on Honda’s inability to crank out cars in China. Having exhausted heavy-handed labor relation’s tactics that weren’t working, upper management reached out to the elected representatives of these young, rights-conscious workers and quickly hammered out an agreement and a return to work.

Direct negotiation with real plant-level worker representatives, in the glare of international and national publicity, is a telling event. China has had many strikes. In the nineties, there were protests, which aimed at recouping unpaid wages from failed factories, or challenged privatization. More recently, strikes have occurred all over China for wage improvements in the logistics sector, in public transportation and, of course, in manufacturing. But this is the first time that workers, acting on their own, have compelled a major multi-national employer to deal directly and formally with their elected grass-roots representatives, on the stage of China and the world.

Many commentators, sensing the significance of this development, have looked to Poland and Detroit in the thirties to parse these events. These young Foshan workers, however, live in the China of now. They are imbued with a new rights consciousness, buttressed by recent advances in Chinese labor law. Operating within the framework of existing Chinese law, they want a decent life, not a wholesale revisiting of China’s history or political arrangements. In their very words:

“…. [our] fundamental demands are…salary raises…for the whole workforce including interns; improvements in the wage structure and job promotion mechanism; and last but not least, restructuring the branch trade union at Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co.’ Ltd. Another fundamental demand… [is]…non-retaliation and no dismissal of workers participating in the strike.”

Many outsiders have confused the demand for “restructuring the branch trade union at Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Company” with insistence on an independent union, apart from the official sanctioned union. It is not. As Chinese law provides, these workers are asking for the opportunity to elect “branch” grass roots representatives, as is their right under Chinese labor law. In short, they have not asked for an independent union but a union that acts independently! A grass-roots union that speaks for them and not the employer or local government. More wages, more and better personal life and more “industrial democracy.”

In every industrial society thus far, underpaid industrial workers, without recourse to mechanisms for negotiating with employers, have struck as a last resort. Many strikes end without gains for workers. But where industrial workers can stop production, even in complex and diffuse supply chains, they are sometimes able to compel recalcitrant employers to recognize them as partners in the production process and make economic concessions. If we listen to the words of the striking Honda and Toyota workers in China, we will discover that this industrial drama is now being played out in China at the peak of its industrial system in auto manufacturing.

There are no outside agitators here, just young, educated and patriotic Chinese workers fashioning “industrial democracy” in China, on uniquely Chinese terms. They are doing so in front of a national and international audience. Because of this international context, these Chinese workers are also affecting the global economy. They could be leading the way towards an end to the global “race to the bottom” in working and living conditions for the world’s majority — at least as far as China is concerned. Our own Justice Brandeis, who at a similar stage in our industrial story put forward the need for industrial democracy and income equity, would welcome these Chinese events and be proud.