Do Spreading Auto Strikes Mean Hope for a Workers’ Movement in China?

A flurry of strikes in Honda parts plants in China has produced the longest and most significant work stoppages and wage gains for workers there in recent years. Is this the opening wave in a tide of resistance that will lead to a transformation of work and labor in China? The beginning of the end of the global race to the bottom? Or something else?

The historic events unfolded when a two-week strike at the Honda transmission and engine parts plant in southern Guangdong province shut down the company’s four assembly plants and many parts plants throughout China in late May. Worker-representatives met with management for six-hour negotiations June 4, and, in the presence of top local officials, reached an agreement to raise monthly wages by 24 percent, to about $280.

In addition to a pay increase and a better training system, workers also demanded the right to democratically elect the factory’s union officers.

Notably, the strike was organized and fought by the workers themselves. The factory branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the country’s sole official union, did not stand by them or represent them in negotiations.

This is perhaps not surprising given that the ACFTU in practice has worked in line with the government and employers to enforce labor discipline and mediate labor-management conflicts to keep production running smoothly.

As one of the striking Honda workers complained in an Internet posting, “at this critical moment our great trade union did nothing for us. Instead they just wanted us to go back to the production line! Is this what a union should be doing? You take from our monthly wages 5 yuan [75 cents] for union dues but look what you have done for us!”

ASSAULT ON STRIKERS

Indeed, the union fought the strikers. The district government sent district-level union officials and others to assault workers May 31, hospitalizing four young workers. In response, most workers walked out again.

The turning point came June 1, when the workers elected 16 worker-representatives through mediation by members of the National People’s Congress and in the presence of management and higher-level union officials.

The new representatives pledged not to reach any agreement without the endorsement of a workers’ assembly, and demanded from management time off for assemblies for all production workers on all shifts. After the general manager agreed in principle to negotiate, workers resumed production, beginning with the night shift June 1.

The wage settlement was accepted by a workers’ vote three days later, but it’s not yet known if they will be allowed to democratically choose their union representatives.

The district union, in an unprecedented move, sent an open letter of “apology” to the workers. Defensive and vague, the letter claimed that the union was only doing its job as a mediator between management and employees, and urged both sides to make concessions. The letter admitted some of the union methods were a bit difficult to accept and might have been “misunderstood as siding with management.”

The elected worker-representatives responded, emphasizing that their victory was won by the strike despite the union’s complicity with management. They expressed outrage that the union tried to take credit for “the fruits of the workers’ struggles” and insisted that the factory union should be elected by the workers themselves.

Inspired by the victory, workers at Honda’s other two part plants in Guangdong province—one producing exhaust systems and the other vehicle locks—walked out June 7 and 9, demanding higher wages, less strenuous working hours, and the right to elect union officers.

Some workers agreed to an enhanced wage-and-benefits package and resumed some production June 12, while the door-lock strike was apparently busted by scabs and threats made against strike leaders, one of whom went into hiding.

YOUTH IN BLOOM

The strikers’ success has demonstrated the growing bargaining power and consciousness of the younger generation of Chinese workers.

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In the experience of auto workers in the U.S. in the early 20th century and in Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, the first generation migrating to work in the plants generally did not protest the harsh conditions of work and life. Management’s arbitrary power over hiring, firing, and job assignments went mostly unchallenged.

But the second generation became the backbone of militant struggles that radically transformed relationships with the factory and throughout society. The Honda strikers seem to be in this tradition, demonstrating their willingness, determination, and capacity to mobilize collectively to struggle.

Indeed, the strikes quickly produced a ripple effect, with a wave of strikes in several cities pushing a rapid trend towards wage increases.

The Honda strike also illustrates the growing power Chinese workers derive from a labor shortage caused by changing demographics and increasing education levels. China’s transition from an export-led economy focused on rock-bottom cheap labor to a more balanced one based on domestic consumption and thereby higher wages is also sure to push through major changes at the workplace.

TURNING POINT?

Will other factory workers be able to seize the opportunity to demand the right to represent themselves and confront harsh working conditions?

The peaceful resolution of the Honda strikes may invite the opportunity to establish a real collective bargaining system in China. Although it will be very difficult for such an effort to survive within the government-controlled ACFTU framework, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

For one thing, the ACFTU will likely become more aggressive and responsive, under the pressure that it might become totally irrelevant to both workers and state bureaucrats. If it cannot deliver any meaningful gains for workers, it cannot play its historical role of containing labor unrest.

Faced with mounting unrest in recent years, government leaders have explicitly required unions to help “build a harmonious society.” But given that the government tightly controls the ACFTU and is unlikely to allow any independent unions to exist, it will be hard for the ACFTU to dramatically transform itself.

A more realistic expectation might be that local-level unions, in particular, the municipal and district unions, could become more representative. Recent studies have found growing bottom-up experiments in some regional unions, which have become more engaged in organizing workers and negotiating with employers as local governments lean on both to guarantee industrial peace.

More than anything, workers’ bottom-up protests drive meaningful change, in both organizing and reform of the official unions. Yet it is also possible that workers’ enthusiasm for developing institutionalized collective bargaining and organizations under workers’ control may be tamped down as their wages increase. There is also the danger of a backlash by the “pro-capital” camp within the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite the uncertainty, it’s a moment to celebrate. The Honda strike represents the culmination of waves of labor unrest in China since the mid-1990s. Chinese workers from laid-off state workers to the new migrants from the rural interior have been participating in strikes and demonstrations in increasing numbers and with increasing frequency in recent years.

The Honda strike, along with the scandal over workers’ suicides at an Apple supplier factory, have brought questions about the rights and power of Chinese workers front and center. Voices of labor advocacy inside China, from some top government and union officials to journalists and lawyers, are arguing the workers’ side. International labor allies should take cheer.


Lu Zhang is a post-doctoral fellow at the Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business at Indiana University-Bloomington. She studies labor and the new generation of workers in the Chinese auto industry.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #376, July 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.