Debate over role of unions opens in China
Published Jul 11, 2010 11:33 PM
Strikes at foreign-owned companies in China continue to proliferate.
Factory workers at Mitsumi Electric, a Japanese-owned company, walked out on
July 1 demanding a wage increase. Some 30 of the young workers, mostly women,
then sat down at the main entrance to the plant, located in northeast China in
Tianjin, the sixth-largest city in the country with a population of nearly 12
Strikes are continuing in China. Here,
workers sit down at the main
entrance to a Mitsumi
a wage increase.
Even as U.S. business media are starting to warn that, if strikes continue and
wages rise in China, some companies will pull out and go elsewhere, the
workers’ struggle is gaining sympathy in the Chinese media and among
high-level government officials.
A July 2 China Daily report on the Mitsumi walkout explained the workers’
“One [worker] told Xinhua News Agency earlier that he received just 1,500
yuan (US$220) a month despite working on Saturdays and putting in two hours of
overtime every workday.
“One employee, who declined to be named, told China Daily she earns only
700 yuan per month, which is below Tianjin’s minimum wage. ... The
factory is the latest high-profile target in the slow-burning but persistent
labor unrest that has been rocking foreign-owned companies, often left
vulnerable by their position in complex supply chains and a tightening labor
“No specific law in China defines strikes as legal or illegal, but it is
clear that authorities discourage such activity. However, those who have been
taking the risks have been winning rewards.
“Workers in South China’s Honda engine gear factory won a
24-percent wage increase after a two-week strike. Those in Pingmian Textile
Group factory in Central China also got a 25-percent pay hike after a two-week
“Liu Kaiming, the executive director of the Institute of Contemporary
Observation, said the government should remain neutral whenever there is
friction between management and workers.
“‘Local governments in South China generally realize that a
crackdown is not the right reaction to a labor dispute,’ Liu said.
“‘It’s one reason the Honda strike could end with an
agreement on salary increases. Local governments in Central China should learn
“There also have been calls to urge Chinese labor unions to play a more
active role in protecting workers’ legal rights and improving their wages
and working conditions.”
Growth of class antagonisms
This brief mention in the Chinese press of the role of local governments and
the official trade unions gives a glimpse of the class struggle going on within
the state structures as China’s young workers assert themselves and
demand improvements in wages and conditions.
For more than three decades, since adopting a long-term policy of “market
socialism,” People’s China has opened up to foreign imperialist
investment as a way of acquiring the capital to develop a modern industrial
infrastructure and raise the standard of living. It has also allowed Chinese
entrepreneurs to open businesses and grow rich. Within the last decade,
capitalists have been allowed to join the Communist Party.
The official position is that these warring class interests can be accommodated
peacefully within a mixed economy. The state still controls heavy industry, the
basic levers of finance and the infrastructure, and is developing the economy
according to a centralized plan.
However, especially in the past decade, the wealth gap between the workers and
this new bourgeoisie has widened enormously. The presence of millionaires with
ready cash has led to widespread corruption of officials and an erosion of the
socialist principles on which the Chinese Revolution was based.
Burgeoning working class
At the time of liberation in 1949, China’s working class was a small
group in an overwhelmingly peasant country. Just 2.4 million out of 8 million
workers were organized into unions.
Since then, the number of workers in China has increased over 35 times.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is the officially recognized
organization of the workers. As of 2008 it was the largest labor federation in
the world, with 212 million members out of a total workforce of 287 million
workers. It represented workers in 3.8 million enterprises. At least 70 percent
worked in privately owned enterprises. (www.acftu.org.cn)
In the last two years, unions in the federation have successfully negotiated
contracts for workers at a number of foreign-owned companies, including
Wal-Mart and Yum Brands (owner of KFC and Pizza Hut), both of them notoriously
anti-union U.S. firms.
The recent strikes that have broken out are not officially sanctioned by the
ACFTU. However, a debate is raging within China over the federation’s
role, particularly with regard to labor disputes.
This is inferred by the disappearance from the federation’s website of
documents pertaining to labor disputes and migrant labor. It would appear that
its positions on these topics are being revised. But there is also explicit
evidence of a vigorous ideological debate among present and former
A “Position Statement of Old Revolutionaries on the Present Upsurge of
Worker Action in China,” issued on June 6, called on the Communist Party,
the People’s Congress, the State Council and all compatriots to support
the Honda workers’ just struggles and declared that “unions should
clearly stand on the side of the working class to represent and uphold the
interests of the working class as prescribed by the constitution.”
The statement was signed by five well-known “old revolutionaries,”
including Han Xiya, former alternate secretary of the Secretariat of the
This statement is very different in tone from reports in the Western media,
including both the commercial press and social-democratic leaning publications,
which push the building of “independent unions” in China and write
off a role for the ACFTU in fighting for the workers’ demands.
In the imperialist press, this dismissal of the ACFTU is often coupled with
references to the “independent” Polish union called Solidarity,
which became an important vehicle in the counter-revolutionary movement there.
Most U.S. unions were caught up in support for Solidarity — which was
manipulated by the CIA and led the Polish workers into a trap.
Its celebrated leader, Lech Walesa, was rewarded by becoming president of a
capitalist Poland. The shipyard workers he had misrepresented in Gdansk lost
their jobs when the yard was bought by imperialist investors, stripped of its
equipment and then closed down.
Such “independence” is not what workers striking today in China
Next: Where is China heading?
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