Photo by Lennon Ying-Dah Wong
Asia-Pacific / China

Grassroots Democratization on the Factory Floor

This past April, workers at the Yue Yuen Dongguan shoe factory swarmed out into the streets in protest. Despite the hundreds of riot police swarming the streets, the workers’ numbers only swelled as they continued to protest the company’s ongoing failure to pay its employees and the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, preventing them from enrolling their children in local schools and forcing them instead to pay for migrant workers’ children’s schools. However, official union presence was minimal; the protest was organized independently of China’s one legal trade union, the All China Federation Trade Union (ACFTU). These kinds of grievances and protests are common among the millions of migrant workers along the southeastern coast, as is the conspicuous absence of China’s one legal trade union, the ACFTU.

Some have seen China’s labor movement as a “chink in the armor.” They have asked whether continued labor reform might suggest a burgeoning democracy, pointing to the increasing number of independent organization in the form of “wildcat strikes” outside of the ACFTU’s jurisdiction. However, a large-scale workers’ movement that would institute real reform seems unlikely without significant changes in the way workers organize and protest.

The ACFTU is the arm of the Chinese government that has arguably faced the biggest challenges in adapting to China’s transition to a market economy, thanks to its dual responsibility to both the state and the workers. In the pre-reform period, China’s economy was dominated by state or collectively owned enterprises in urban areas in the north, where workers enjoyed an “iron rice bowl” under the danwei system – a series of benefits including welfare, housing, political and social status, and lifetime employment. Furthermore, the vertical hierarchy of the system, controlled by the centralized Chinese Communist Party and the state apparatus that it runs, prevented any horizontal coalescing of class interests. Workers in a socialist party-state are not allowed to establish horizontal linkages freely. Under this system, managers and workers were assumed to have the same set of interests: whatever benefitted the party-state.

However, the expansion of the private sector and industrialization of the southeastern coast, coupled with the relaxation of migration restrictions, collapsed the hierarchical certainty of the Chinese labor system. Privately owned businesses outcompeted state-run firms, which are now overrun by bankruptcy and unpaid pensions and wages. For the ACFTU, these changes represented a diversification in China’s labor force and the relinquishing of the state’s paternalistic role under the command economy These changes have put the ACFTU’s dual responsibilities – serving as a tool of communication and collective representation for the workers while simultaneously maintaining social order and maintaining party control over labor protests – in direct contrast with one another.

Ultimately, however, the ACFTU is a state institution. Officials are elected and appointed by management from above, and its inability to openly support workers’ interests has led to widespread perception of the ACFTU as merely a tool of the party-state, compromising its ability to lead or control workers. The lack of any outlet or forum for discussion within the ACFTU has made wildcat strikes increasingly common for migrant worker. Wildcat strikes are strike actions undertaken by workers without union leadership’s authorization, support, or approval and are a key pressure tactic in the Chinese labor reform movement – by taking protests to the streets, workers are able to immediately draw the attention of the state.

These strikes are notable in that they are sometimes successful, resulting in wage increases and legislation against abusive labor practices. Certain victories and changes in legislation such as the Honda strikes or the more recent Yue Yuen strikes have led some observers to suggest a shift in structural balance and power between workers and employees.

However, the focus of these strikes and protests have not shifted from immediate issues of production and living standards to broader economic, social, or political issues. A closer examination of the role of workers in Chinese society, and how these wildcat strikes are often resolved, points to the apolitical nature of China’s labor movements.

Factories in contemporary China are filled almost entirely by migrant workers. Unlike under the command economy, the distinction between home life and working life has been severed. The position of these workers is no longer seen as enviable, but rather looked down on; they are seen as selling themselves as cheap labor.

The transience of migrant workers prevents any real unified movement. The majority of migrants come into the cities assuming that they will earn as much money as they can before returning back to their villages in the more rural areas of China. In the city, migrants do not enjoy access to any of the public services that other urban residents have, including health care, housing, and education. All of this results in an almost 100% turnover rate in some factories.

As a result, although these ‘wildcat strike’ movements are powerful, they are often isolated to the factory that they occur in. Migrants protest only for their most immediate and pressing need – wages. Anything outside of this is irrelevant to them as they are separated from the local community and lack any rights as city residents.

Furthermore, the transience of these workers often makes them pessimistic and reluctant while protesting. The Yue Yuen strike is often perceived as a victory, as it is one of the largest ‘wildcat’ protests to have occurred within a foreign investment company. A protestor at the Yue Yuen strike stated that the strike had failed, noting that some workers stopped the struggle after a minimal pay raise concession, or continued but only with a pessimistic outlook since they did not expect a better outcome. This suggests distrust among the workers, which prevents unity.

However dismal the situation may seem, Chinese workers have real power to draw the state’s attention and demand action from it. Should these migrant workers find a way to a build a more united, organized, and broadly focused coalition, broader structural change from below may become possible.