Written by Manfred Elfstrom.

Chinese labour unrest is rising dramatically. Annual mediated, arbitrated and litigated disputes increased more than ten-fold between the mid-1990s and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently found that employment-related grievances accounted for the largest number of “mass incidents” involving 1,000 to 10,000 individuals over the previous decade-and-a-half (environmental protests accounted for the most incidents involving 10,000 or more people). An online map that I maintain called China Strikes and a similar but more up-to-date project run by the Hong Hong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin show strikes, protests, and riots involving workers to be scattered across the country, from the bustling port of Shanghai to up-and-coming cities like Chongqing to small interior towns in Yunnan. Whereas labour once fought defensively to protect a tattered “socialist social contract” and ensure the protection of its most basic rights under the law (see, for example, the work of Ching Kwan Lee), in a recent article in Industrial & Labor Relations Review, Sarosh Kuruvilla and I  find that workers are making more aggressive demands: higher wages, irrespective of legal minimums; more employer attention to the”details” of working life; and simple respect. Other observers might add a fourth demand: a voice in production decisions. All this turmoil has led some to dub China the “epicenter of world labour unrest” (see here and here).

Principle Actors

Who are some of the principle actors in this wave of industrial contention? The most important actor is, of course, the Chinese working class itself. Empowered by labour shortages, new labour laws, changing family responsibilities, social media, and perhaps most of all, two decades of accumulated experience challenging their bosses in a market economy, today’s workers are less willing to suffer hardships (吃苦) than their forebears. Yet, the bitterness they refuse to stomach still confronts them at every turn: poorly maintained machines that maim and industrial chemicals that lead to lifelong illnesses; managers who demand long work hours past legal limits, in part because they themselves are operating on thin profit margins imposed by the scrimping of fleet-footed multinationals; construction projects that go bottom-up, leaving subcontracted employees who have toiled for months or even a year on just IOUs in the lurch; local authorities who refuse to pay teachers the same salaries as other public servants; and taxi cartels that charge steep rental fees from drivers, while providing little in return besides coveted medallions. Workers are responding to these challenges with strikes that last days or weeks, not hours as in the past; lawsuits; banners and street theater; online outreach; and a powerful new body of labour poetry. In the process, they have begun to develop a fresh and quirky class consciousness.

Aside from shadowy associations of workers from the same hometown, the organizations closest to the action are a handful of labour non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are clustered in the south. Their closest analogues abroad are the worker centres in the United States that serve immigrant and service employees, such as the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. But Chinese NGOs don’t fit any definition well and are very much in the process of defining themselves, drawing on a range of institutional models from law firms to reading rooms to foreign trade unions. After long being careful to maintain a low profile in strikes and protests, some are now willing to play a public role in large-scale standoffs. Most organizations are forced to register as businesses (if they can register at all) and face significant pressure from local employers and authorities. This pressure ebbs and flows and impacts some groups more than others, but the overall trend seems to be toward closer monitoring and greater harassment.

A final actor of note is the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Along with other “mass organizations” like the All China Women’s Federation, the ACFTU is intended to act as a “transmission belt” between workers and the Party. Middle- and higher-level officials in the union rarely come from the rank and file and do not even necessarily have roots in the union’s own bureaucracy: they can be transferred from, say, the sanitation or tax bureau, and, if they are lucky, promoted later to a position in the mayor’s office. Within enterprises, union cadres frequently hold concurrent managerial positions. The ACFTU expends considerable resources on cultural events and “sending warmth” to worker families with special difficulties. Nonetheless, the union has a dramatic pre-revolutionary history and has repeatedly made cautious bids for greater autonomy. In recent years, the ACFTU has pushed “collective consultation” (though many of the agreements it has signed merely restate the existing legal obligations of the parties) and has signed sectoral agreements in a few local industries, most notably the Wenling wool industry. More daringly, it has begun to experiment with direct elections of union chairs, a process long provided for by law but rarely implemented until now.

Other actors that could be examined if space allowed: lawyers, mediators, arbitrators, and judges; the police; and, of course, foreign and domestic capital (and state-owned enterprises).

Questions About the Future

It may appear from the description above that China is treading a path similar to that of countries that industrialized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If so, we should expect greater institutionalization of labour’s voice in the future. Yet, several questions present themselves. First, as China’s economy slows and companies shift inland (and even abroad) in search of cheaper labour, what will happen to the new militancy of workers?  Conceivably, a reduction in opportunities could put labour back on the defensive: strikes and protests could decrease, with only workers facing rights violations that threaten their very subsistence daring to raise their voices. Alternately, labour’s raised self-confidence and tactical lessons learned over the past decade might simply be put to new uses.

Second, does the current government have the same concern for reducing inequality as its predecessors? Under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, onerous agricultural taxes were slashed, improving the lot of farmers (and, indirectly, migrant workers, who gained a stronger fall-back option), while a slew of relatively progressive labour laws were passed, such as the Labour Contract Law, the Labour Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law, and Employment Promotion Law. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have focused on fighting corruption, strengthening the “rule of law” (or “rule by law”), and deepening economic reforms. Corruption, of course, is a significant burden on ordinary Chinese, including workers, and labour would certainly benefit from more even-handed courts. But depending on the form they take, further market reforms could hurt. SOE restructuring in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the layoffs of millions of people.

Third, what role, exactly, will the ACFTU come to play? The union’s experiments continue and there seems to be a fresh sense of urgency in the organization, at least in those regions where strikes and protests are most common. But national ACFTU leaders have also sent signals of political retrenchment. In a widely-discussed interview, Vice-Chairman Li Yufu spoke of protecting workers legal rights but said little about collective bargaining, let alone direct elections (while warning darkly of “enemy forces” from abroad supporting labour NGOs). A union piece in Workers Daily recently argued that collective bargaining should not be construed as only being about wage increases. Of course, many aspects of workers’ lives besides earnings should be subject to union agitation and negotiation, from work hours to medical benefits to grievance processes.  But the tone of the piece suggested that some in the ACFTU are still more concerned with reassuring economic elites than mapping a path forward for their members.

International Solidarity

How can the international labour movement show solidarity with Chinese workers? This is a perennial question and one with no easy answers. Over the years, activists from abroad have alternately conducted sweatshop investigations, supported Chinese NGOs, and engaged the ACFTU. Although they have achieved  successes with each of these tracks, misunderstandings and frustration have often followed. Reports about poor working conditions have put pressure on multinationals, but labour advocates have found themselves scrambling to prevent companies from simply washing their hands of problematic suppliers and moving to other, possibly worse places—or have seen their demands disappear into toothless corporate social responsibility programs. Meanwhile, whereas the ACFTU tends to view union-to-union exchanges as a form of state-to-state diplomacy, trade unionists abroad often hope these dialogues will result in practical support for their campaigns against multinationals—something the ACFTU is apparently unwilling to provide on a sustained basis. The evolution of Chinese labour NGOs from service-providers to worker-mobilizers has been too gradual for some foreign supporters, who pine for a full-fledged movement to get behind, while fluctuations in international project funding and priorities have put a strain on NGOs.

If labour abroad is to play a constructive role in helping Chinese workers translate their activism into lasting gains, creativity is needed. Sweatshop investigations should be built more around existing campaigns by workers on the ground. There are exceptionally thoughtful and committed individuals within the ACFTU who can gain from exposure to the practices—and challenges, failures, and debates, too—of their counterparts abroad; international unions should find new ways to engage these people, while clearly articulating their own ideals. Chinese NGOs are at present engaged in an intense round of self-analysis; traditionally competitive, they are supporting each other and sharing ideas more than ever before. Foreign activists should find ways to join in this important conversation on an equal basis, not just dole out grants and advice.  In other words, an “all of the above” approach is in order, but one that is guided by a clear-eyed appraisal of past programs’ strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, Chinese workers’ own actions, not those of their allies, will be decisive. In fact, at a time when a financial crisis has led to rollbacks of labour’s hard-won gains around the globe, the world’s largest working class may have much to teach others struggling for more just societies.

Manfred Elfstrom is a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Government and author of The Changing Nature of Labor Unrest in China. Image credit: CC by Matt/Flickr.