The Xianyang textile workers' strike was a major event in the recent history of China's labour movement for several reasons. The number of workers who took part in the strike – over 6,800 – is highly significant, as is the fact that most of these workers were women. And the length of the strike – almost seven weeks – makes it probably the longest recorded industrial action in China's post-1949 history. But perhaps most important is that the Xianyang workers' grievances stemmed from contract negotiation disputes that had arisen from the factory's recent switch-over from government to private ownership. The Xianyang strike action thus reflected, in a particularly dramatic form, a wider systemic problem in China affecting workforces throughout the many thousands of state-owned enterprises that have undergone radical restructuring and privatization over the past few years.
The mass strike by workers at the Xianyang Huarun textiles factory, located near to the Shaanxi provincial capital, was triggered by the workers' anger at a restructuring plan revealed in autumn 2004 by China Resources, a Hong Kong-based mainland conglomerate which had recently acquired the formerly state-owned factory. According to the takeover announcement, the entire workforce would have to accept a one-off severance payment equivalent to a month's basic salary for each year of service in the factory, after which an undisclosed number of the workers would be re-employed on short-term contracts of one to three years' duration. Worst of all from the workers' point of view, China Resources signalled that it would not be paying their future retirement pension and medical insurance premiums once the new contracts have been signed. The conflict was further exacerbated by rumours that while individual managers were slated to receive 32,000 yuan in compensation for their loss of state-owned enterprise benefits, the workers would be getting nothing.
On 14 September 2004, the textile workers began a seven-week protest in which they halted all production at the factory and maintained a 24-hour vigil in rotating shifts (of around 200 workers at a time) on either side of the factory's main gate. Their demands included long-term contracts for workers (many of whom had been employed at the factory for more than 20 years), revocation of the demeaning six-month "probationary work period" requirement, a central-government inspection team to review the terms of the factory's merger with China Resources, and compensation for their loss of state-owned enterprise employee status.
About a week into the strike, a CLB staff member went to Xianyang to make contact with the textile workers and to gather first-hand information on the causes of the strike. While speaking with workers outside of the factory, he was detained and questioned by police, but managed to extricate himself without major incident. From a neighbouring city, he was later able to arrange to meet with several of the Xianyang strike leaders and help to plan strategies by which the workers might accomplish their goals in accordance with China's own labour laws. During the course of this discussion, it was discovered that the factory had no trade union. All agreed that greater organization was needed if the strike was to succeed. CLB argued that, by seeking to form a factory-level union in accordance with the Trade Union Law, the textile workers would both legitimize their struggle – strike leaders usually get arrested in China, but elected union officials enjoy many legal protections – and also provide themselves with a much-needed exit strategy. (The onset of winter was just a few weeks away, and the striking workers' family savings were fast running out.) Our advice to the workers was therefore: first form a union, then call off the strike and announce a readiness to start good-faith negotiations with the company.
Further, it became clear that the authorities were prepared to use force to break the strike. Only a few days into the strike, as many as 1,000 police appeared in front of the factory gates carrying water cannon, presumably to forcibly disperse the demonstrators. However, after thousands of other workers and their families came out to protect the workers stationed at the factory gates, the police withdrew from the scene without using the water cannon.
Meanwhile, CLB's director Han Dongfang began direct discussions with the strike leaders by telephone from Hong Kong. Aware that it was probably only a matter of time before the police moved against them, they readily embraced the "constructive exit strategy" proposed by Han. He then drafted two lengthy documents, outlining the necessary steps that the workers would need to take in order to legally form their own trade union, and detailing the various rights and protections afforded to Chinese workers by the Labour Law and the Trade Union Law. Upon receiving these documents, the strike leaders in Xianyang began mobilizing the workers to form the necessary workshop-level committees to elect and establish a provisional trade union body, which would then proceed to oversee a factory-wide election of the final trade union branch. Moreover, we urged the striking workers to invite the official General Trade Union of Xianyang to approve their union-forming initiative and also to represent the workers in immediate negotiations with the factory management and local government.
On the eve of the workshop-level preparatory elections and in response to an urgent request from the workers for on-site legal representation and advice, CLB arranged for a prominent Beijing lawyer to fly to Xianyang. Upon arrival in Xianyang City, however, the lawyer was detained by police and sternly informed that it was "forbidden to provide legal advice to Chinese workers." The police added that if he didn't abandon his mission, he would be charged with "endangering state security" – a grave criminal offence in China. He was released three days later, after finally agreeing to "voluntarily withdraw" from the case. Meanwhile, the textile workers' strike continued.
The reaction of the Xianyang government to the prolonged strike and to the workers' attempt to organize seemed to be one of panic. In a pre-emptive move in mid-October, for example, the General Trade Union of Xianyang City itself appointed a "trade union organizing committee" at the factory. The workers themselves had no say in the setting up of the union committee, and since no elections were either called or envisaged it was technically illegal. However, the officially imposed committee effectively prevented the striking workers from continuing with their own trade union election, thus depriving them of a vehicle for conducting fair and open negotiations with management. In other words, the local government actively prevented the workers from using peaceful and rational means to resolve the dispute; and as the strike dragged on without any progress or breakthrough, some of the workers became impatient and even desperate.
In late October, groups of workers started going to the managers' residential block every night to denounce what they saw as generalized corruption and malfeasance on the company's part, and some of the more hot-headed among them threw stones and smashed windows. CLB strongly urged them to refrain from any further such action, so as to avoid giving the authorities any pretext for a crackdown; but since the peaceful union-organizing channel had been effectively closed off by the local government, more radical voices among the workers began to prevail.
On 20 October, despite a government-ordered news blackout on the Xianyang Huarun textile workers' strike, members of a special task force from the Shaanxi provincial government appeared on a local television broadcast ordering the striking workers to end their protest action immediately and return to work. The same day, task force officials visited the factory gate (where workers were continuing their 200 person-strong, 24-hour vigil) and gave the protesting workers the same blunt message.
On 24 October, several hundred of the Xianyang textile workers staged a railway blockade on the Longhai Route and were only "persuaded" to leave when the deputy governor of Shaanxi Province arrived at the scene with around 1,000 anti-riot police. The railway blockade (combined with the hurling of stones at management windows) provided police with the excuse that they needed to begin a crackdown. Over the next couple of weeks, around 20 workers deemed as strike leaders were rounded up by the police and arrested.
The strike was thus brought to an end, and for the next several months, all further contact between CLB and the Xianyang textile workers became impossible. We later learned, however, that shortly after the police crackdown the local government and Xianyang China Resources had made three important concessions. First, the workers would be rehired on longer-term contracts, and second, the six-month "probationary work period" requirement would be dropped. Moreover, the threatened wage reductions appear also to have been largely abandoned.
In the aftermath of the crackdown, about 3,000 workers – mostly those who had been working at the factory for some ten to twenty years – accepted the severance payment offer and relinquished their jobs at the factory. Around 2,000 other workers were eventually assigned to new jobs at the restructured enterprise, while the remainder of the original workforce was transferred to work in other local concerns – for example, in schools owned by the Tianwang Textile Group (the factory's previous owner).
In a surprising but welcome conclusion to the case, by early 2005 all twenty of the detained workers' leaders had been released from jail, most of them without having been formally charged. Five of the workers were tried and convicted, but they received suspended sentences and so also walked free.
Although the Xianyang textile workers' historic strike was prematurely ended by the police action, in several respects it had won substantial concessions for the workers. Moreover, the fact that all the detained workers were freed within a relatively short period of time seemed to confirm that CLB's strategy of advising workers to act strictly within the confines of Chinese law was an effective one, as in the end it left the judicial authorities with no legally defensible grounds for jailing any of the detainees.
In a CLB press statement welcoming the Xianyang textile workers' release, Han Dongfang said: "The Xianyang workers wanted to set up a trade union branch so that they could begin a constructive process of collective bargaining with the factory's new owners… If the Chinese government seriously wants to 'build a harmonious and stable society', then traditional repressive tactics against China's workers have to end and they must be allowed to have an organized and independent voice of their own in society."