China's workers learn to speak up -- but carefully

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The workers are rising in the workers' republic. In China's south coastal provinces, which long ago supplanted the American Midwest as the world's premier manufacturing belt, employees have gone on strike at a series of factories. Nobody knows how many plants have been threatened with shutdowns or have ground to a halt; one American attorney who's spent a good deal of time with such workers estimates that it may be close to 1,000.

The cause of the unrest is no mystery. China's rise to industrial preeminence (in a quantitative if not qualitative sense) has come on the backs of workers whose wages the government has, until recently, suppressed to keep the price of exports artificially low. The official Communist Party-dominated All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is not really a union. Workers do not choose its leaders, who most frequently come from management. "The union," says the attorney, "is less state-dominated than employer-dominated." That is a logical consequence of two party priorities: to build an industrial sector that dominates global markets through low prices; and to prohibit the existence of any organizations that could eventually challenge party control.

While the latter priority is an iron rule, the former is merely situational. Now that China's industrial might is established, and many of the world's leading manufacturers are so deeply and profitably invested in China that large-scale relocation is almost unimaginable, the wage suppression that fueled China's rise is beginning to cause the party as many problems as it once solved. Inequality is rampant; a young, better-educated workforce, cognizant of the new Chinese prosperity and frustrated at their inability to share in it, is no longer content simply to reap the marginal benefits of swapping rural for factory life. Having gone online and seen Par-ee -- or, at least, Shanghai -- there's no keeping them down on the farm or in sweatshops.

Thus, the strike wave -- and the government's semi-demi-support for the striking workers. In recent weeks, as Honda factories and others have been shuttered, some provincial governments have raised their minimum wage while national officials have vowed to remedy the plight of the tens of millions of migrants who toil in the factories. The government has permitted media coverage of some strikes, which has highlighted the long hours, low pay and poor working conditions that employees endure.

For the moment, strikes are okay in China; spontaneous collective bargaining is fine. Independent unions, however, are not. Yet it seems that the Communist Party doesn't have much to fear. To the extent that strike leaders have been quoted, they make clear that the job actions are about wages and working conditions -- not about challenging the party's hegemony. "If they give us 800 renminbi a month," one such striker told the New York Times, "we'll go back to work right away."

"There are some demands for independent unions," says the American attorney, "but most workers I've encountered stay within the existing Chinese legal system. They want more pay, not a political discourse. This isn't [the Polish union] Solidarity. What they're demanding is a Chinese solution -- collective bargaining but not an ongoing independent organization. Of course, if they begin electing their own leaders within the ACFTU, that would be a challenge to the party. That hasn't happened yet, but they now have experienced the positive effect of their own power."

Genuine labor movements around the world have greeted the strikes with uncharacteristic silence -- in contrast, for instance, to the vocal and material support they gave Solidarity. It's not that they don't welcome the Chinese strikes, says one U.S. union official; they just understand that public support would probably cause the Chinese government to respond with charges of foreign meddling and a harsher crackdown on the striking workers.

I wonder, though, whether the declining power of American workers over the past 40 years hasn't increased U.S. union leaders' understanding of the constricted options that Chinese workers confront. In both countries, workers who agitate for unions or for better conditions are frequently fired. In China, to be sure, the consequences seldom stop there; in the United States, employers' penalties for such nominally illegal firings are negligible. No other major industrial nations are as hostile to independent unions as China and the United States. In a 2009 survey of more than 1,000 union elections over the preceding five years, Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner found that union activists were fired in 34 percent of the campaigns. Efforts to effectively ban such firings foundered this year when the Senate couldn't muster the votes to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Chinese communism and American capitalism may be two very different systems, but under both, workers assert their rights at their peril.

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