Guangzhou factory workers get their trade union but keep their feet on the ground

It took nearly three months of relentless effort by around a hundred workers at the Japanese-owned Sumida electronics factory in southern Guangzhou but, on 10 July 2014, the factory held its first ever democratic trade union election.

Around 5,000 employees had earlier chosen 267 representatives to sit on a selection committee, and it was these representatives who voted for the new trade union chair and the 25 union committee members.

The election was undoubtedly a victory for the workers but no one was getting too carried away when workers from the factory met up with labour rights activists on the following Sunday to discuss the election and plan for the future.

Everyone knew that the election process had been flawed; many of the key activists who had pushed for the trade union had failed to win election or were not even on the ballot, but the workers were still in high spirits. “The union is like our son, and we are the mothers,” said 39-year-old worker Liang Zhengxian “Although it came out hastily and is not ideal, we will still embrace it.”

Workers representative Wang Zhenmei added:

It is just the first step in a thousand-mile-long journey, and the union chair is now sitting on the hot seat because thousands of people will be watching. We will exert our rights as union members to the fullest and will keep the organisation on the right track.

The veteran labour lawyer, Duan Yi, who attended the meeting, agreed:

This infant trade union might be a little deformed, and so many questions loom over its birth, but the workers and activists involved in the process should see the election as an encouraging sign. They are at the forefront of using a bottom-up approach to setting up factory unions and I hope this approach will be welcomed by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

The ACFTU, the world’s largest trade union, has traditionally set up factory branches in a top-down manner, negotiating with factory owners and managers but largely ignoring the workers. And this was indeed the initial response of the officials at the local sub-district (街道) union when the Sumida workers first approached them in April.

The officials were rude and condescending and attempted to humiliate the workers by making them read out the application form word for word. “They mocked us saying ‘you can’t even write properly, and you want a union!?’ but we bit our lips and did what it takes,” said Liang.

Following this meeting, the sub-district union officials immediately tipped off the managers at Sumida about the workers’ application.

However, the situation began to change in May when the Sunflower Women Workers Centre helped the workers file online complaints at the city and provincial level trade union federations, as well as create their own micro-blog to keep the momentum going.

Luo Hongmei, director of the Sunflower Women Workers Centre, discusses the trade union election with workers from Sumida Electronics.

The workers’ Weibo was crucial in that it made the entire trade union application process open and transparent. CLB Director Han Dongfang pointed out that the union could no longer hide behind closed doors and had no option but to respond to the workers’ demands for a democratic trade union.

Indeed, the higher level union federations did eventually invite ten workers’ representatives to a meeting on 9 June. “All of the federations sent their representatives from the sub-district right up to the Guangdong provincial union,” said Wang Zhenmei. “We were firing cannon balls on to the sub-district officials for their previous mistreatment of us and they could only sit there and take it.”

The union officials at the meeting promised to facilitate a democratic union election as soon as possible and the union newspaper even reported the event. The Guangdong union officials kept their word and quickly launched a high-profile campaign to get more than 5,300 workers to join the enterprise union and organized a preliminary election in late June.

The official media then reported on 2 July, that the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions plans to make democratic trade union elections universal across the province’s enterprises within five years.  However, having a democratic trade union election is just the start of a long process. As Han Dongfang points out:

The fact that the ACFTU decided to hold the election in response to workers' pressure marks an important step. But it is just the beginning of the long journey for change. The next, more important, step is to make sure the elected union will represent workers and bargain for wages and benefits on the workers' behalf.

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