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, notes China Labour Bulletin. Moreover, they have done this on their own and without the help of the official 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 and do a much better job in protecting their rights and interests. 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 defense of his record as union chair, saying the accusations against him were unjust…..
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 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 organizing and bargaining skills themselves.
As such, at present, there is clearly both a need and an opportunity for the international labor 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.