Five years ago, in late May 2010, more than a thousand workers at the Nanhai Honda automotive components plant in Foshan were creating history; staging a high-profile, ground-breaking strike that would come to symbolize the rise of the workers' movement in China.
The strike secured the workers a 35 percent (500 yuan per month) pay increase plus the promise of more effective union representation after the official trade union was humiliated in its attempts to get the strikers back to work.
This week, China Labour Bulletin returned to Foshan and talked to some of the strike veterans about what has changed over the last five years and what still needs to be done. All workers' names have been changed.
"I want to cast my vote and directly elect the union chairman"
Around midnight, after a strenuous eight-hour shift on the Nanhai Honda gearbox assembly line, Jiang Daqiao got off the blue company shuttle bus and shuffled into his favourite diner, a congee and barbecue restaurant next to the local market.
A slightly-built young man from the neighbouring province of Guangxi, Jiang was just 18-years-old and newly graduated from vocational school went the strike broke out on 17 May 2010. He enthusiastically joined the strike and unlike many who subsequently left, Jiang has stayed at the factory working on the production lines.
Jiang's monthly salary has more than doubled from 1,500 yuan in 2010 to 3,300 yuan this year but he says it is still not enough, given the high cost of living in Foshan. He said the factory trade union, which is now chaired by a senior Chinese manager, has been under-performing and that production line workers are always kept at a distance.
The trade union holds three or four rounds of bargaining meetings with management every year, Jiang said, mostly about wage levels, and after each meeting, the union staff issue public notices about the outcome of the bargaining and get feedback from the workers. However, Jiang was dissatisfied with this arm's length approach and wanted to be more directly involved:
"I know that the process is always more important than the result and I want to be part of the process. As a union member, I need more than just getting fed with information and giving useless feedback on a deal that has already been done. I want to cast my vote and directly elect the union chairman."
Under the current hierarchical election system, workers at Nanhai Honda can only vote for the leader of their own working group, which usually consists of about 20 to 30 people. These leaders then elect union delegates, and only the delegates get to vote for the union chairman.
Jiang's frustrations were shared by another strike veteran, Tan Jianwei who pointed out that:
"The way workers vote actually turns the union into management's twin brother. Workers only vote for their group leaders, and group leaders only vote for their managers. Usually, people don't even know who the candidates are or how they become candidates in the first place.
As a result, the union quickly fills up with mid-level and senior managers. Whatever results they come up with in terms of wages and benefits, there are no procedures in place for ordinary workers to veto the agreement. Only the delegates can vote on whether or not to accept the bargaining results, and most of them are managers. We need more participation from ordinary workers in the collective bargaining process."
In March 2013, however, a group of about 100 young assembly line workers took matters into their own hands and staged a strike in protest at a wage agreement negotiated by the union under which they would get a 10.2 percent pay increase, about 160 to 220 yuan per month but senior employees would get 19.8 percent. After a one day strike, the company and union backed down and offered the younger workers a better deal; a pay increase of 14.4 percent, or 310 yuan per month, plus a housing subsidy of 50 yuan.
Many of the strikers voiced concerns at the time that they would face retaliation from the company in the future, and Tan said this is precisely what happened.
"I have not been promoted and my salary has remained stagnant since 2013. Many of my colleagues think that the company is punishing me for my involvement in the strike. I think it is a clear message telling me to back off."
Following the 2013 strike, management added a clause to the company handbook saying that any worker who causes 5,000 yuan or more in damages at the factory will be subject to dismissal. Tan said this clause was specifically intended to deter workers from taking strike action.
Nevertheless, the workers will always have the memory of that summer five years ago when they made history. Another worker, 26-year-old Zhou Jiahua, said:
"I miss those wonderful days with my brothers and sisters: We sun-bathed during the day and enjoyed light breezes during the night. Even the company canteen remained open for the strikers."
Looking back on the afternoon of 31 May 2010 when the local township trade union dispatched a group of around 200 "officials" to force the strikers back to work, Zhou said:
"It was a funny scene when the township union guys came and got in a scuffle with dozens of us at the company gate. Everybody was pushing and kicking and everybody was pissed off. But looking back over the years, I realised that strikes and confrontations don't solve long-term problems, only bargaining and negotiations do that."
The attitude of workers today at Nanhai Honda clearly shows how the workers' movement in China has matured over the last five years. Five years ago, many of the strike leaders left the company soon afterwards, and most workers did not even know who the strike leaders were. Today, workers in other Pearl River Delta factories are able and willing to elect their own representatives and engage in collective bargaining with management, and this is something many of the workers at Nanhai Honda want too.
The current situation at Nanhai Honda presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the trade union. It can either maintain its very cosy relationship with management and risk alienating the workers even more, or it can become a truly democratic organization that really stands up for the rights and interests of its members.
Five years ago, Nanhai Honda had the chance to lead trade union reform in China. Today, it has retreated to the backwaters of the workers' movement but the opportunity for leadership remains.