The Tonghua Incident: Five years on

Five years ago today, Chen Guojun, a senior manager at the Tonghua Iron and Steel Works in Jilin was killed during a protest by workers angry at the takeover of the plant by the Jianlong Group, at the time China’s largest privately-owned steel company, which Chen represented.

The “Tonghua Incident” became one of the most talked about events of the year. It focused attention on the volatile state of labour relations in many workplaces in China and the need to find a more effective and peaceful way of resolving labour disputes.

But while government officials, policy makers and commentators were debating the issue, China’s workers themselves were showing everyone the way forward.

2010. Workers at the Nanhai Honda automotive components plant in Foshan went out on strike for higher pay. The remarkable determination and solidarity of the workers in the face of tremendous pressure not only won a 35 percent pay increase but showed workers all over China how effective peaceful strike action could be.

2011. Workers at the Citizen Watch factory in Shenzhen went out on strike in October in protest at management’s non-payment of overtime dating back five years. The strike was not initially successful so the workers hired a local law firm to act as their advisor in collective bargaining with management. The following month, the two sides agreed on a deal whereby Citizen would pay 70 percent of what it owed.

2012. More than 700 workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen went out on strike, which led to a modest pay increase. The workers had also demanded new elections for their trade union representative, and, just two months later on 27 May, with the help of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions, they got just that.

2013.  After dozens of strikes and protests by sanitation workers in Guangzhou, the local authorities agreed to increase their monthly wages by 400 yuan. The determined and organized campaign by some of China’s lowest-paid and most marginalized workers received tremendous support from civil society, students and ordinary members of the public.

2014. Around 40,000 workers at the Yue Yuen shoe factory complex in Dongguan staged the largest strike in China in recent history. The workers were successful in getting the company to pay social insurance contributions in full and forced the provincial trade union federation to reorganize the factory trade union so as to make it more representative and effective in the future.

A lot has changed in China’s workplaces over the last five years, and it is the workers’ movement that has been largely responsible for generating that change. China’s workers have shown that they are not rabble-rousers: They are determined to stand up for what is rightfully theirs but crucially they are also willing to sit down with management and work out their differences in peaceful, face-to-face negotiations - as was shown just this week in the Shenzhen QLT factory strike.

Five years on in the city of Tonghua, the privatization deal that triggered the Incident is history. The plant has been integrated into the Shougang Group, one of China’s big three iron and steel corporations, and currently has a production capacity of 5.2 million tons of steel per year. And a scapegoat for the incident has been found: Ji Yigang, an employee at the Tonghua No.2 Power Plant with a criminal record, was as found guilty intentional wounding by the Tonghua Municipal Intermediate Court on 15 April 2010 and sentenced to life in prison.

No one talks about the Tonghua Incident much these days but it is important to mark the anniversary, if only to remind us of how far the workers’ movement in China has come.

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