Written by Xuebing Cao.

The September 2013 Yantian Dock strike was a prominent event in the recent Chinese labour movement, not only because of the workers’ partial victory, but also due to the exposure of the ACFTU’s failure on workplace union reform. Moreover, the event showed Chinese dock workers’ persistent struggle with transnational capitalism within the global seaport industry.

The strike broke out on 1 September 2013 at Yantian International Containers Port (YICP), the world’s biggest single container handling dock. The action at such a high profile port attracted substantial attention for its noticeable impact on the regional and global cargo supply chain. As the dock’s operations were actually controlled by Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH), a Hong Kong based TNC and one of the major players in the global port industry, one can speculate whether Yantian dockers were inspired by their counterparts who launched a similar action at the HPH port in neighbouring Hong Kong a few months earlier. However, there is little evidence that the two strikes were linked, as workers in these two ports were in two completely different systems, including the labour market, the industrial relations climate and legal environment. Hong Kong dockers’ 40-day dispute was a classic industrial conflict featuring independent unions that led the strike and collective bargaining from the beginning to the end. In contrast, the Yantian strike was a spontaneous dispute as the official union had nothing to do with the initiate or lead of the stoppage.

Striking workers usually need to have justifications for their behaviours. To this end, YICT workers’ demand for a 2–3,000 yuan pay rise was linked with discontent over the company’s changes on housing benefits and education subsidies, something that would see their actual income being reduced. With a few agitators starting the initial action on their own, the strike was not an organized dispute and no union officials were aware of it in the beginning, nor did any striking workers ask the union to step in. At the beginning it was a group of 200 or so crane operators who stopped working, which soon spread to the majority of the workforce who also supported the demands for pay rises. Without the participation of the workplace union, these workers were able to stand together in their collective demands, with many of them having experienced a previous spontaneous strike in 2007. As with many ad hoc actions of this sort, workers who are not organized react to oppressive conditions in the only ways open to them as individuals.

Facing the Chinese authority’s strict control over “collective incidents”, YICT workers’ courage is worth mentioning. But their self-mobilization capacity reflected the strength of dock workers’ sense of community and occupational culture based on long-observed higher degrees of emotional involvement in work tasks that are often dangerous, physical and skilled. In a few hours, the strike quickly spread to the whole port and the entire on-site operation was halted. HPH was hit by this unprecedented stoppage and the pressure from the market loss forced the company to carefully consider the workers’ demands, leading to the final settlement that offered workers about 20% pay rise.

Despite being an unorganized collective action, the 2013 Yantian strike quickly drew people’s attention because of the role of the YICT workplace union. Within a few hours of the stoppage, the union was asked by management to quickly jump in and workers were persuaded to accept the union as an official representative body at the negotiation table. As an union official said, in fact Yantian 2013 strike workers ‘didn’t want to stand out by themselves as they might worry about their job security …. So by the end they agreed the union could represent them to negotiate.’ With workers needing a formal leadership so that somebody could help them to manage the discontent, the union mediated between the management and workers while the final deal was sealed after few rounds of intensive talks. The contribution of the YICT demonstrates how union intervention can help to institutionalise conflict. As a result, the collective bargaining process was eventually materialized when both the management and workers accepted union to take an active role.

Unfortunately this collective bargaining process was not institutionalized, and after the strike the union could only continue its traditional role as a transmission belt. Hence the strike really embarrassed the ACFTU who had regarded the YICT union as an exemplary model after the 2007 direct election that established the first union in this port. Much propagandised by the ACFTU and authorities, the YICT union had become a shining star of union reform for having had two direct elections and six consecutive wage collective consultations, as well as ‘comprehensive’ workplace representation. It seemed that YICT workers had benefited from continuous pay rise as a result of the union reform and ‘harmonious’ industrial relations, and nobody predicted another strike would happen just before the 7th collective wage consultation to be held in October 2013. Apparently the union reform at YICT was not successful because consultation could not replace negotiation. Without an institutionalized collective bargaining system, workers’ views would not be properly represented through a collective consultation framework, and their discontent would not necessarily be channelled through negotiations. Such tensions were exemplified by the 2013 strike in this market-leading port within the global supply chain.

 Xuebing Jack Cao is a Lecturer at Keele University. Image credit: CC by Pieter van Marion/Flickr.