What’s behind ACFTU’s call for stronger SOE unions?

On 11 November 2009 the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) released a notice that called for the strengthening of union work during State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) restructuring, more independence from Party and government departments, and an end to the merging of ACTFU departments with Party departments. The notice lays out the problem quite clearly:

During the SOE restructuring process, in some SOEs there has appeared the phenomenon of union organizations being revoked, union work organs have been merged with Party mass work departments (党群工作部), specialized union workers have been dramatically reduced. Doing this severely weakens enterprise union organizations, severely influences enterprise union work, and impedes the communication channels between enterprise management and employees, causes conflicts in labour relations to be unable to be adjusted and resolved in a timely fashion, results in being one of the main causes of mass incidents, and severely influences the harmonious stability between enterprises and society. Each level of the union − especially unions at SOEs – must fully recognize the importance and necessity of having healthy union organization during enterprise restructuring, must see clearly the danger in getting rid of union organizations and merging union them with other working departments (工作机构), must unify thought, adopt effective measures, and uphold and rectify and restrain the phenomenon of getting rid of (撤销) union organizations, and merging union with other union work departments.

The notice goes on to call for legal independence (依法独立自主) for unions in carrying out their work, while under the leadership of the Party. It points out that in this crucial stage of China’s reform and opening, the union plays an important role in coordinating labor relations and protecting workers’ legal rights, and thus the union should only get stronger, not weaker. The notice gives SOEs who have merged their union departments with other departments until the end of December to fix the problem, and set up independent union departments.

What is one to make of all of this? All of this sounds like welcome news. CLB’s research report “Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party: The way forward for China’s trade unions” warned that the ACFTU had become too subservient to the Party to be effective in defending workers’ rights. And we’ve seen that when push comes to shove, when the rubber hits the road, when SOEs employees need the union the most, the union’s role has often been conspicuous by its absence. For example, in the recent attempted restructuring of Tonghua steel, which ended in with massive protests and a murdered company boss, the union played a pathetic and feeble role:

As a 34-year-old Tonghua employee told the China Daily, even though he and most of his colleagues were union members; “I can’t remember the last time we had a conference with our union representative. The union certainly didn’t go any good the day Chen was killed.”

An elderly retiree at the plant told the newspaper that union consisted of just two people, a chairman and his assistant. “It is hard for two people to do a good job for thousands of workers,” he said. Tonghua Steel currently has about 13,000 staff on the payroll.

Therefore, to some extent, this notice is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the notice  mentions that by the deadline, the unions should be ready to do things like nominating model workers, giving out awards, and other appraisal and evaluation activities – the document doesn’t specifically mention collective bargaining or other more specific legal functions it could play to defend workers’ interests, however.

Interestingly, as well, when talking about the importance of the role that unions can play independent of the Party, the notice says, “The Centre’s Third Generation Collective Leadership and Comrade Hu Jintao as the General-Secretary of the Party Central Committee, have all deeply elucidated…(and so on)” (中央三代领导集体和以胡锦涛同志为总书记的党中央,都深刻地阐明了...) Could this phrasing be a not so veiled attempt to once again bring up the political importance of a certain prominent member who happened to be the core of the Third Generation? I’ll let the readers be the judge….
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