Frontline trade union officials kept in the dark as leaders hold meetings

In this case study from China Labour Bulletin’s ongoing trade union reform and accountability program, we ask why frontline trade union officials in the Anhui city of Lu’an were unaware of a major transport strike on their doorstep and why they were kept in the dark about an important initiative to recruit transport workers to the union.

The incident. On October 28, 2018, self-employed coach drivers in Lu’an, Anhui, went on strike to protest against the introduction of a new integrated urban/rural public transport system that focused on energy efficient buses. The drivers, who would lose their existing private franchises under the new scheme, demanded compensation from the government. City transport officials and local police went to meet with the striking drivers at the bus terminal (see photo below). In a public statement that day, the transport bureau claimed that the issue has been resolved and that 63 coaches and extra drivers had been assigned to carry passengers to their rural destinations. A few days later, the franchised private buses were formally withdrawn from service and replaced by the new public bus system.

The response. The following month, CLB called the Lu’an Municipal Trade Union’s organizing department and rights protection department to follow up on the incident. None of the union officials we talked to were familiar with the strike but they were quite open to our enquires. One official from the rights protection department noted that if the drivers were union members and their rights had been infringed, the union should definitely step in.

However, an official from the organizing department confirmed that even though there was a trade union for bus drivers under the local transport bureau, the striking drivers were not members because they owned their own coaches and were not enterprise employees. The Lu’an trade union could not help the drivers to organize unless they were employed by an enterprise, the official said.

Rather than organizing striking workers, the Lu’an union’s organizing department had been focusing instead on a government-sponsored program entitled “Building Civilized Industries” (创建文明行业). The program even had an office right inside the trade union building and officials spent their time sorting through submissions from county and district trade unions. These submissions were then discussed and reports made to the local government. The union also ran the usual “model worker” competitions and a “labour technical ability contest” (劳动经济技能大赛). Asked why the department was spending so much time on tasks not related to its remit, the official replied,

To be frank, I am just a functionary, I don’t know why, maybe the leaders know. Even if the leaders have some thoughts or arrangements on our work, they will not talk to me, they will only talk to the department head, right? Maybe it is just me who doesn’t know, just like what you said today about the drivers’ strike, it is possible that the head of our department heard about it but did not tell me…

It is unfortunate that the Lu’an trade union does not trust its frontline officers enough to tell them what is going on in the department or provide them with enough training to organize workers.

In the spring of 2018, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) launched a major recruitment drive for eight groups of workers employed primarily in the transport and service industries. Anhui was selected as a pilot province; however, the organizing department official said the city of Lu’an had not yet been involved in any organizing work for these sectors. She said it was a very complicated matter and that their leaders were still doing a lot of research on the issue.

You talked about recruiting these eight groups of workers to join the trade union. I was not even aware of it until I attended a tele-conference a few days ago where the provincial trade union people talked about it and where our leaders said that we should do it as the next important mission. I don’t usually know these matters; our leaders only communicate with department heads, while they give orders to us officers. We only listen to orders from the leaders…

She then added: “I am sorry, I can’t answer your inquiries. I feel bad in my heart that I don’t know about these issues you mentioned.”

Again, why is it that only the senior officials in the Lu’an union are doing research and holding important meetings on key policy initiatives while ordinary officers are not involved in the process at all? It is obviously not the fault of this junior officer. The real issue lies in the rigid bureaucratic structure of the Lu’an trade union that results in capable and enthusiastic officers, who should be at the forefront of real trade union work, being prevented from actually serving their members, the workers.

Please see our original Chinese-language analysis of the case工会改革观察与促进 第三期 安徽省(第4/6个案例) and full transcript of the Lu’an interviews 安徽省案例 4/6 文字稿:六安西客站农班车司机罢工 for more details.

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