A striking pose — labor resistance explodes in China

As if in anticipation of May Day, one of the largest episodes of labor resistance in decades unfurled in Southern China like a great red carpet of contention throughout the month of April. Beginning on April 5 and seething intermittently for several weeks, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated at the Yue Yuen factory in Dongguan. The Yue Yuen incident should be seen from the perspective of China’s nascent labor movement, as an episode in a steady trajectory of resistance.

Yue Yuen is the largest sports shoe manufacturer in the world, supplying Adidas, Nike, Puma, Crocs, Timberland, and many other brands. The demonstration against the factory came to its first crescendo on April 14 as hundreds of police attacked the workers. The strikers were undaunted and by the following week the number of workers on strike had risen to around 40,000. Students in nearby Guangzhou glued posters outside of Nike stores in solidarity with the striking workers. Meanwhile, according to China Digital Times, government censors issued directives that domestic media delete all content related to the incident.

The workers had taken to the streets in protest of the company’s ongoing failure to pay its 70,000 employees their full social security and housing allowance. Worker grievances also included the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, which prevented their children from enrolling in free local education, forcing them to pay for specialty migrant worker children schools. These are common grievances among China’s some 250 million migrant workers, who are building lives in the cities rather than returning to the countryside with their wages.

A 2010 survey conducted by China’s National Bureau of Statistics noted 61.6 percent of all migrant workers were born after 1980. This new generation of migrant workers differ from their parents in fundamental ways.

A theme explored in Lixin Fan’s 2009 documentary “Last Train Home,” is the shifting of identity away from the village to the city. Many new generation migrant workers grew up in or were born in cities. This urban identity is associated with more education and skills than their parents, a more independent attitude, and a greater fluency in the Internet and social media. Such differences have arguably influenced the evolution of labor resistance.

Yue Yuen workers were supported by independent labor rights organizations, such as Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Dispute Service Center. Labor activists from this organization, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong, helped coordinate the action through various social media platforms, and urged the workers to remain nonviolent. In response, the police detained Zhang and Lin on 22 April 22. At the time of writing, Lin Dong was still being held in criminal detention. Union representatives, on the other hand, were conspicuously absent during the strike.

“I personally have not seen any union staff, although I heard that they have issued a comment, which no one gives a damn about,” a striking worker told China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights organization. “They are now giving us instructions, but where the hell were they when the company violated our rights?! I have worked at Yue Yuen for almost two decades, and I don’t even know who our union president is.”

Where is the union?

The largest trade union in the world, the All China Federation of Trade Unions has 239 million members according to 2010 figures. However, the reputation of the ACFTU as the protector of workers’ rights in China has long been suspect due to subordination to elite interests within the ruling Communist Party of China.

When it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on March 27, 2001, China made a reservation to Article 8.1(a), which guarantees the right to form and freely join trade unions, stating that its application must be consistent with relevant domestic laws, the typical rhetoric of exemption. Although the Chinese Labor Law encourages collective bargaining on paper it is clear from precedent that the collective bargaining process has most often been shallow and disproportionately favors enterprise, while the freedom of association that is purportedly guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution is often infringed.

China has, furthermore, continually failed to ratify fundamental International Labor Organization conventions, including CO87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and CO98, the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

With a regulation stating that union chairs must be approved by Communist Party officials, it is not uncommon that union representatives are appointed from among factory management or that union officials beat workers back from strikes with truncheons. It is little wonder that the rise in labor resistance is more attributed to horizontal organization within and between factories and supported by independent labor rights organizations rather than through union coordination.

Two episodes that are often accepted as benchmarks in labor resistance, due to the nature of their grievances, sophistication of organization, and relative successes are the 2002 demonstrations by unremunerated workers against the Ferro-Alloy factory bankruptcy and the 2010 strikes at a series of Honda factories over unlivable wages and worker representation.

Resistance at Honda

For weeks in May and June of 2010 workers from several Honda auto parts factories in southern China orchestrated a series of nonviolent demonstrations beginning in Foshan. Most labor disputes in China arise over unpaid or underpaid wages, but the Honda demonstrators demanded large wage increases and a graduated wage scale. According to interviews at the time, as the strike continued, workers “developed higher consciousness of the importance of setting up a democratic union organization in their factory” and included in their demands the right to freely elect representatives.

On the afternoon of May 31, rather than responding to these demands, the local trade union dispatched around 200 officials. Identifiable by matching yellow hats, they attacked a small crowd of gathered workers. Many were beaten. The confrontations escalated but the demonstrators remained firm. They demanded a response from the union and the company and eventually succeeded in gaining limited rights in electing their own representatives and earned a 35 percent wage increase; student interns received an even higher percent wage increase. The successes of the first strike spread to several other Honda factories in June.

Two of the early organizers in the Foshan demonstrations, in their early 20s, had already quit but decided to organize for the benefit of their fellow employees while they waited to be transferred. In Foshan, several workers wrote updates on personal blogs and many of the demonstrators and supporters were active on QQ, a popular Chinese social media platform. At follow up actions, Honda workers uploaded cell phone videos online.

The success of Honda workers has been hailed by labor rights organizations as something of a turning point. Their demands demonstrated increasing awareness of the need for worker representation and that migrant workers are increasingly eager to negotiate their own terms and build sustainable lives in cities.

Ferro Alloy

In early March 2002, after three years of simmering tensions, thousands of employees of the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy factory in the northeastern province of Liaoning marched on the city government building. They were joined en route by thousands of workers from other factories. Later, the arrest of several Ferro-Alloy worker representatives sparked greater coordination and swelled the numbers to more than 30,000 demonstrators by March 18. Among their main grievances were unpaid housing allotments, pension contributions, social security payments and owed wages. Workers demanded investigation into the misappropriation of funds that they claimed had lead to the company’s bankruptcy and refusal to pay workers.

While also creating petitions and making legal demands, the Ferro-Alloy protests, as noted by UCLA sociologist Ching Kwan Lee in her 2007  book Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, “involved inter-factory coordination and political demands for the removal of city officials.” These tactics set it apart from previous labor protests. Like the Yue Yuen strike, ACFTU representatives were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations in Liaoning and later sided with the state’s hardline stance against workers.

By the middle of March, the government — no longer willing to negotiate — launched a series of counter-strikes. At first attempting to subvert the movement from within through agents provocateur and political spin in domestic media. The state eventually responded with mass arrests. While several of the main organizers, such as Yao Fuxin, were arrested, so were those targeted by worker claims. Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years for illegal assembly and subversion, while the former director of the Ferro-Alloy factory was sentenced to 13 years on smuggling charges. Other company and party officials were also sentenced. The central government instituted new provisions that made it more difficult for enterprises to declare bankruptcy without guaranteeing provisions for workers, as the Ferro-Alloy factory had attempted.

Labor looking forward

While such episodes demonstrate that coordination is possible, it is arguable whether China has a labor movement. The sustainability and national coordination of individual episodes of labor resistance is underdeveloped and the Communist Party works tirelessly to constrain national mobilization. The bulk of labor resistance is still often spontaneous, but younger workers are injecting innovative ideas with the guidance of increasingly professional labor activists inside China and abroad. The nascent movement has made strides. As collective identity among workers has increased, so has organizing capabilities; with new support, workers are becoming more proactive and successful.

The international community can continue to support labor resistance in China by expressing solidarity for all nonviolent labor resistance and making consumer or political decisions at home. When the Yue Yuen strike started, Adidas moved a bulk of its orders to other suppliers. In response, solidarity actions were staged at Adidas stores from Hong Kong to Istanbul and New York. Monitoring the situation of labor rights defenders and standing resolute on arbitrary detention, communicating with international organizations and local political representatives have contributed to the international struggle for labor rights and will continue to benefit Chinese workers.

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