Notes from the Field: The Changing Landscape of Chinese Labor Politics

by Lefeng Lin, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Since 2010, when China was hit by a national strike wave, media and activists have often portrayed Chinese workers as restless, engaging in countless riots, strikes, and walkouts. But today, labor NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and young labor scholars tend to tell similar stories: especially in Southern China, where most of the country’s global manufacturers are located, workers’ resistance is moving from individual legal action to collective action, from unplanned riots and work stoppages to strategic strikes and bargaining. Behind all this, labor NGOs and activists play a key role in mobilization and organizing.

At the same time, labor scholars and activists have long criticized the Chinese trade union system as bureaucratic and unrepresentative. Many observers suggest that perhaps the only tangible thing that trade unions do for workers is to lobby for new labor laws: union chairs often hold leading positions in Communist Party committees and People’s Congresses at both the national and local levels, so they have a visible role in making laws. Generally, the union system runs like a bureaucratic party organ: union officials are appointed by the party, and may have little contact with workers or knowledge of labor relations. Furthermore, many officials care more about how many union members they represent – and how many fees their union collects – than they do about labor rights. In strikes, observers often see the union officials cooperating with government officials or employers, trying to persuade workers to go back to their jobs. On the shop floor, unions often seem more interested in controlling workers than in solving their grievances.

When I began my fieldwork in Shenzhen, I assumed that labor NGOs and activists – not official unions – held the key to labor’s future, and if I had limited my observations to NGOs, factories, and communities, probably I would still believe that NGOs were central to labor struggles. However, once I gained access to local trade union offices, I began to see that unions as well as NGOs are adapting to China’s rapidly-changing system of labor relations, and that Chinese labor politics are being reshaped by both trade unions and NGOs.

The involvement of labor NGOs in organizing and mobilizing workers is a relatively recent development. For the past decade, labor NGOs have mostly provided services to workers from rural areas, who have little access to the social resources available to China’s registered urban residents. NGOs offer legal aid to workers who know little labor law and have no money to find a lawyer, and provide simple entertainment like movie screenings, or other community services like after-school programs.

Since 2010, however, many workers have begun to participate in workplace actions. In response, some labor NGOs now train their staff to help with union organizing and collective bargaining. But labor NGOs face real challenges: their agendas are often constrained by international funders, and they face political repression from the Chinese state. Many labor NGOs are very small, and have limited resources for organizing work. Further, labor NGOs are often relatively isolated from one another, due to disagreements among funders or ideological differences. Some NGOs also have narrow organizational interests: if one NGO gets involved in a strike, it may push other NGOs away. These organizational issues often complicate what outside observers sometimes assume to be a cohesive “civil society” strategy.

Knowing that labor NGOs compete for workers’ support, China’s trade unions have begun to move into areas long associated with NGOs. Increasingly, trade unions offer their members legal aid, psychological assistance, poverty relief, scholarships for continuing college education, skill training, tuition discounts for getting professional certificates, training for union-building, and collective bargaining. With greater resources and access, trade unions can often accomplish much more than small NGOs. Some unions are paying more attention to mobilizing workers on the shop floor, even going so far as to hold democratic elections, promising to become accountable to members and to represent their interests.

However, unions’ beneficial programs and their reform policy still do not reach down to most factory branches. China’s trade unions have seven administrative levels: central, provincial, municipal, district, street, community, and factory. Only factory-level unionists are employees; at all other levels, union cadres are officials recruited by the party. Though unions have a vertical administrative structure, higher-level unions cannot command the lower level, because the union officials at each level are appointed by the corresponding party committee rather than by the higher-level union – a common political structure in China, sometimes described as the segmentation of “trap-and-block”.

The problem is especially obvious when both trade unions and labor NGOs intervene in workers’ strikes. Last June, workers went on strike after a restructured shoemaking company in Long District in Guangdong Province failed to reach an agreement with its workers on wages and benefits. An independent NGO helped workers organize, coaching them on how to deal with the employer and police. In response, the municipal union took an unusual step: it sent officials to the region, asking the district union to support the striking workers.

However, neither the district union nor government agencies followed the municipal union’s suggestion. Instead, on the advice of the district party leader, they allowed the employer to fire strikers, and the police to arrest workers’ representatives, hoping to repress the strike – which they did, albeit at a cost. When a fired worker committed suicide by jumping from the factory building, subsequent media exposure put significant pressure on the city government and party committee. The municipal union angrily criticized the district union and government officials, but the matter ended there: the municipal union has no mechanisms to hold the district union accountable.

In response to workers’ collective action, both labor NGOs and trade unions are transforming themselves. Over the past year, labor NGOs have built a labor network and integrated their resources. Their efforts to organize labor protests are increasingly coordinated. In a particularly intriguing shift, the Shenzhen municipal union last year created an experimental zone, breaking up its old organizational structure and recruiting professional organizers, seeking new ways to organize workers, charting a path between social upheaval and conservative bureaucratization.

With interaction among trade unions, state, employers, labor NGOs, and workers, could a new form of industrial unionism be emerging in China – one that is different from that found in other late industrializers? In a time when global labor activists tend to ignore the potential role of the state in labor relations, China may yet offer an example where state and society still play a central role in improving citizens’ lives at work.

Direct all correspondence to Lefeng Lin: llin@ssc.wisc.edu

China, Volume 5, Issue 3

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