FOSHAN, China — China’s only legal trade union organization, a tool of Communist Party control long scorned by workers as a shill for big business, is experimenting with a novel idea: speaking up for labor.
“We have to win back the trust of workers,” said Kong Xianghong, a senior trade union official. “Only if we truly represent workers will the workers not reject us.”
Kong, deputy director of the Guangdong province branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, has firsthand experience of the perils of rejection. When workers at a Honda car-parts plant in Foshan went on strike last summer, the party-controlled ACFTU played no role in the stoppage — which set off a rash of labor unrest — and didn’t even know it was coming.
Kong rushed to Foshan from nearby Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to figure out what was going on. Getting 1,850 Honda workers back to work took nearly two weeks of testy talks, scuffles and a hefty pay raise.
More critical, though, has been Kong’s mission since. He is trying to convince workers that unlike their restive brethren in Poland before the collapse of communism or in Egypt before the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, they can rely on a labor organization beholden to the ruling party to champion their rights.
“We realized the danger of our union being divorced from the masses,” said Kong, a veteran Communist Party member.
The shift in thinking helps explain why China, though prone to thuggish outbursts by a vast security apparatus, has avoided the turmoil afflicting brutal Arab autocracies: China’s system is rigidly intolerant of political dissent but often supple and responsive on economic matters.
After helping to secure a 24 percent pay increase for Honda workers in Foshan as part of last year’s strike settlement, Kong took part last month in wage negotiations that got them a further raise of about 30 percent.
Shuttling between Guangzhou and Foshan, he has led a drive to reinvigorate the Honda plant’s previously passive official union and pressed management on a host of issues, including the quality of food in the canteen and complaints of allergic reactions to certain chemicals.
Takayuki Fujii, a spokesman for Honda in Beijing, said that the Foshan plant always offered good conditions but that improvements had been “accelerated” since the strike.
Lobbying on behalf of workers marks a departure for a labor organization that, though nominally committed to socialism, has generally focused on keeping workers in line and ensuring that the main motor of China’s economic rise — a steady supply of cheap, docile labor — keeps turning.
The party hasn’t softened its view that workers, along with all others, must never disrupt “stability.” Indeed, in recent months, it has hardened its hostility to even the faintest flickering of public defiance.
But the very success of China’s economic model has meant that workers, particularly migrants from once-impoverished inland regions, now have far more choice over where they work and for how much. This new generation, Kong said, is “not afraid” to make demands.
Last week, truck drivers, most of them migrants, clashed with police near Shanghai’s container port, the world’s busiest, during a wildcat strike over rising fuel and other costs. The truckers returned to work this week after authorities promised to cut various fees. The party-controlled trade union network was again reduced to the role of spectator.
Han Dongfang, a Chinese labor activist who went to jail after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 for setting up a now-disbanded independent trade union in Beijing, says leaders of the official labor organization, at least in prosperous coastal areas, “now understand that they have to try their best to work in the direction of representing workers.”
Trade unions independent of party control are still a non-starter, but labor organizations must at least be “independent from bosses,” said Han, who now lives in Hong Kong, where he heads China Labor Bulletin, a group that lobbies on behalf of Chinese workers. It wasn’t directly involved in the Honda strike but backed its demands.
The official labor organization’s willingness to speak up for workers has been accompanied by a broader push by authorities in Guangdong, an incubator for many of China’s boldest reforms, to curb the raw exploitation that marred, but also fueled, the country’s initial economic takeoff.
The Guangdong provincial government, worried about labor shortages as migrants find work closer to home, last month raised the minimum wage in cities such as Foshan by nearly 20 percent. This covers all companies, not just foreign-owned multinationals.
Authorities also calculate that paying more attention to the interests of labor will deter workers from taking matters into their own hands, as they did last year in Foshan at the Honda facility. The two migrant workers who organized the strike shunned the official union.
Mary Gallagher, an expert on Chinese labor at the University of Michigan, described China’s strategy as “helping workers so as not to empower workers.”
Higher wages and better conditions aim to ensure that “they won’t ask for independent unions.” The Communist Party, she added, came to power in 1949 in part through its ability to mobilize labor, so it “is well aware of the threat” posed by labor activism it doesn’t control. Turmoil in the Middle East, where corrupt, state-controlled trade unions lost control of workers, has served as another reminder of how dangerous ignoring labor grievances can be.
China, Kong said, “cannot be compared to Egypt.” But he added that “we need to absorb the lessons” of uprisings in Arab nations.
When talks to end the Honda strike stalled last summer, his union showed little sympathy for workers and joined with the local labor bureau to try to force them back to work. Fighting broke out as officials tried to videotape strikers and screamed at them through bullhorns. Kong said the strikers had already secured a pay raise and should have returned to work, but he conceded that the clashes had only alienated workers and didn’t help resolve the dispute.
In recent months, Kong has worked to repair the damage by beefing up the ACFTU’s presence in the factory and making it more responsive to workers’ concerns.
But Honda workers still haven’t secured their principal demand, aside from more money: the right to choose who heads the factory union branch. Still in charge is a Honda manager who makes 10 times the amount earned by the workers he is supposed to represent. He takes instructions not from workers but from the local branch of the ACFTU, which operates out of a government office.
Han, the former Beijing labor activist who is now in Hong Kong, denounced the failure to change Honda’s union chief. “He should be swept out,” Han said.
How much headway the official union has made in regaining workers’ trust is difficult to gauge. Honda, supported by the ACFTU, bars employees from talking to the media without permission, which it declined to grant.
Workers who agreed to talk, on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, gave mixed reviews. One dismissed the union federation as a “tour agency” that does little but arrange company excursions. Another said it still just relays management decisions. But others said they now have a little more faith that it will stand up for them.
“Before the strike, I did not know much about the union and didn’t think it would help us much,” said one, speaking in a company-provided dormitory above a shopping center. “Now I think it can give us some help.”
Researcher Wang Juan in Foshan contributed to this report.