BEIJING -- From the beginning, Dong Xin had one thing on his mind as he steered his little red taxi year after year through the crowded streets of Beijing. In a Communist-run country, he figured, cabbies should be able to bargain with the bosses who own their cars, control their working conditions and set their meager incomes.
"The reason I keep hoping is that I think our country is a republic," Dong said over a lunch of Peking duck recently, at which he described his long campaign to establish a taxi drivers' union. "It belongs to the people."
Cabbie Dong Xin, far right, at a 1998 meeting where drivers voted overwhelmingly to organize an independent labor union. The government-owned firm then refused to recognize it, calling it illegal.
After nearly 10 years of struggle, however, Dong and his fellow drivers remain stuck with 15-hour workdays, low pay and lopsided relationships with the approximately 300 companies that control the Chinese capital's profitable taxi industry. In a pattern reproduced in workplaces across the country, their interests have been left to a branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is part of the same vast government bureaucracy that ultimately controls their cars and their lives.
"A union?" scoffed Liu Jingqi, 45, who has driven passengers around Beijing's polluted avenues and alleys for seven years. "We have a union, all right, but it's of no use."
The powerlessness of Beijing's estimated 65,000 taxi drivers goes to the heart of a complaint that has arisen repeatedly as China's economy moves toward free-market liberalism while its one-party government retains a monopoly on power. In the disruptions brought about by economic change, millions of workers have been left defenseless by a government that will not allow independent organizations capable of challenging official authority on their behalf.
The judicial system remains subordinate to the government and the Communist Party. Religious leaders must work within government-approved churches or face prosecution. Security police have jailed large numbers of people for trying to start independent political movements or even unsanctioned discussion groups. And workers have been barred from starting their own unions, even in companies run by the government.
Dong, 45, decided he was going to change that, at least for his group of taxi drivers.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, he set out to organize an independent union with elected leaders to represent the 70 drivers in his relatively small, government-owned firm, Tianyun Taxi Co., and negotiate with management for a bigger share of the profits. Having invested in the taxis with seed money, skill and long hours, Dong reasoned, the drivers deserved more than the roughly $300 a month most of them take home.
"All taxi drivers try to protect their interests, but we're different," Dong said in the bleak suburb in eastern Beijing where he lives. "Most try to reduce the amount of money they turn over to the company and reduce the amount of time they have to work. But we try to establish some kind of democracy, to share in the company's management. This would be done by forming a labor union. That way we could protect our rights."
More than most workers, veteran taxi drivers such as Dong have a vested interest in their work.
When the industry started to grow after economic liberalization in 1992, most companies, often founded by local government bodies, started by taking out loans to buy taxis. But when the loans came due two years later, company managers demanded that drivers buy their taxis if they wanted to keep working, thus providing funds to pay back the loans.
Two years after that, the Beijing municipal government nullified those deals and ordered the companies to resume ownership and return what drivers had paid for their vehicles. But drivers complained that, in complying with the order, companies calculated the cars' value at discounted rates, leaving the defenseless drivers to bear the difference.
Li Zenglin, 47, a veteran of a dozen years on Beijing streets, said he paid nearly $16,000 for his used taxi in 1994, but received only $13,000 in 1996 when the company bought it back. And his payback was higher than most, he said, because he had attempted to organize a strike. The average was about half the original price, Li estimated.
"At that time, some of us were desperate," he said. "We even stopped our taxis on a railway track to protest."