Unemployment remains high in the U.S. and the Senate appears unable or unwilling to pass an extension of unemployment benefits. As the New York Times reports: “Since June 1, when federal unemployment benefits began to expire, an estimated 325,000 jobless workers have been cut off. That number will swell to 1.25 million by the end of the month unless Congress extends the benefits.”
Tragically this situation seems to evoke little more than hand-wringing. Growing numbers of workers are losing hope in the government but that shouldn’t keep us from taking direct action in our own defense.
Interestingly, in China–where we often dismiss workers as passive puppets of the government and its controlled trade union–workers are beginning to take just such actions. Perhaps instead of blaming China for most of our economic problems, we should begin taking inspiration from their efforts.
The struggle is China that got has received the most recent attention took place at a Honda owned transmission factory in Foshan. On May 17, 2010, more than 1800 Honda workers at the facility decided to go on strike. By May 27, all four Honda assembly plants in China had been forced to stop production because of a lack of transmissions.
The Honda transmission workforce is divided into two groups, regular workers and so-called “intern” workers. The latter also work full time but are still classified as “students” since they remain formally enrolled at technical schools whose mission is to produce workers for the big factories. Pre-strike, the regular workers took home approximately 1200 yuan (US$175) a month on average, while the intern workers—who made up 80% of the workforce—earned 900 yuan (US$131) a month. The intern workers are not protected by the national Labor Contract Law and are not covered by any social insurance. This dual labor system is a big reason foreign companies in China are able to keep costs low and export so successfully.
The workers at the plant struck demanding a significant increase in wages. You can read a statement that was issued in support of their strike by a number of scholars here.
The company sought to negotiate with the interns separately from the regular workers but the workers stayed united, demanding a large increase that would be given equally to both groups, meaning a much larger percentage increase for the interns than for the regular workers. The workers also elected their own representatives to negotiate with the company.
Their demands were as follows:
(1) an increase in wages of 800 rmb per month (roughly 75% raise) for all workers.
(2) additional cash bonuses based on duration of employment—a cumulative wage increase of 100 rmb every year for ten years.
(3) an immediate return of worker ID cards to workers upon resumption of work; workers cannot be fired or pressured to resign after returning to work; those already fired will be reinstated; a promise that workers will not be held legally or financially responsible for the strike.
(4) all wages lost, dating from May 21st up until the resumption of work, will be repaid to workers.
(5) within a month of returning to work management shall respond to the various suggestions posed by workers on May 17th.
(6) a reorganization of the local trade union; reelections should be held for union chairman and other representatives.
You can read about their strategy here.
Honda was eventually forced to capitulate, granting a 700 rmb wage increase (close to what the workers sought) and promising to meet the other conditions. This victory has encouraged workers at other Honda plants and other companies to launch their own strikes. This development is described in a New York Times article headlined–Power Grows for Striking Chinese Workers.
Increasingly the strikes are becoming part of a broader challenge to government efforts to promote growth at all costs. Several former high ranking party officials have issued an open letter to the government, which seeks to expand the agenda from defending labor rights, or even the establishment of independent unions, to one that encompasses the entire trajectory of the country’s political-economy. For example, in point five of their letter they say: “we call for the restoration of the working class as the leading class of our country and the re-establishment of socialist public ownership as the mainstay in our national economy.”
The letter can be read here.
We shall see what all this will bring—but it is inspiring to see people struggling openly and directly in the own defense. For more on worker tactics you might want to read the New York Times article here, which reports on how workers are using cell phones to coordinate actions, web sites to share pictures and demands, and bulletin boards to debate strategies.
Business Week has also taken note of the new militancy of Chinese workers. A recent article highlights an evening at which “The New Labor Art Troupe, a performance group with a cast of laborers, ran a graphic photo of a Foxconn worker who had just killed himself. Poems were read commemorating the hard lives of migrant workers in electronics factories and on construction sites. A guitar and harmonica were hauled out and songs were sung with titles like Marginalized Life, Industrial Zone, Working Is Our Glory and Our Hell, Get Back Our Wages, and Fighting in Solidarity.”
The last paragraph of the article includes the following:
It may be a long summer for Chinese officials trying to contain this unrest. On June 3 more than 20 women workers were detained when police tried to shut down a two-week strike at a formerly state-owned cotton mill in Pingdingshan, Henan. Thousands of workers had stopped operating the looms to express their anger at their factory’s privatization and to demand higher wages, reports the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. Although workers are back on the line at the Honda transmission plant that strikers had shut down, their language is anything but conciliatory. “We call all workers to maintain a high degree of unity and not to allow the capitalists to divide us,” the Honda workers declared in a statement released on June 3. “We are not simply struggling for the rights of 1,800 workers, but for the rights of workers across the whole country.”
I wonder what Chinese workers would think if they read U.S. papers to learn about how we are dealing with our own problems?