The Workers' Movement in China 2015-2017: A new report from CLB

In December 2015, the Chinese authorities launched a sustained and coordinated attack on civil society labour organizations in the southern province of Guangdong. Several activists were arrested and the organizations they worked for were disbanded. This brought to an end a crucial period in China’s workers’ movement (as outlined in previous China Labour Bulletin reports) in which civil society labour organizations essentially did the work of the trade union in building worker solidarity and helping to resolve disputes through collective bargaining with management.

However, as one door closed another one opened. In July 2015, the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) ordered the country’s official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to initiate a series of reforms that would enable it to do a better job in representing ordinary workers and thus help address long-standing social and economic inequality in China.

Workers and labour activists celebrate victory in the Lide shoe factory dispute in the summer of 2015. Photo taken from the documentary film We the Workers.

In China Labour Bulletin’s latest (Chinese-language) research report on the workers’ movement in China (中国工人运动观察报告2015-2017), we examine the key developments in worker activism, civil society, trade unionism and government policy from 2015 to 2017. It was a period in which labour conflicts continued to erupt over an increasingly broad range of industries, within the construction and services sectors in particular: ordinary workers struggled to make a decent living and the CCP realised it had to take concerted measures to tackle the massive disparity between rich and poor that was threatening to destabilise the country.

The report comprises three sections. The first uses the 6,694 cases recorded on CLB’s online Strike Map during this three-year period to analyse workers’ collective actions and identify trends in the workers’ movement. The data illustrates how the lack of an established collective bargaining mechanism and the absence of an effective trade union at the enterprise level meant that workers had no option but to stage strikes and protests when their fundamental labour rights (to be paid in full and on time, to receive social insurance and severance pay when laid-off, etc.) were violated. The second section looks at how the work of civil society labour organizations showed the way forward for effective trade union representation by organizing and training workers, electing bargaining representatives and helping to turn wildcat strikes into productive negotiations with management. The third section shows how the CCP’s attempts to narrow the wealth gap in China will require the ACFTU to become a genuinely representative organization that can improve the lives of ordinary people. Up to this point however, the ACFTU’s efforts have fallen well short of the Party’s expectations. In the concluding section, CLB offers several constructive suggestions on how the ACFTU can further deepen reform.

The report makes the following specific observations:

  • With the continuing structural adjustment of the Chinese economy, traditional industries such as mining, iron and steel and manufacturing have declined while new service industries have expanded rapidly. There has been a concomitant decline in the proportion of collective actions by factory workers and a rise in the proportion of strikes and protests by workers in a broad range of new industries such as couriers, food delivery and other online service providers.
  • Worker protests, previously concentrated in the factories of the Pearl and Yangtze River Deltas diversified and spread across the whole country. The inland province of Henan, for example, recorded the most protests of any region by construction, transport and retail workers during the three-year period of this report. Collective actions by workers are now not only widespread but increasingly normalized.
  • The workers’ movement entered a new phase of more organized and purposeful collective action in which workers utilized the latest internet and telecommunications technology to more effectively pursue their objectives. Whereas in the past, strikes and protests could easily dissipate, workers now have the will and ability to engage in sustained collective action and bring about positive results through bargaining.
  • Civil society labour organizations demonstrated on numerous occasions that they were able to train workers to elect and protect bargaining representatives and initiate collective bargaining at the enterprise level. Although they lacked the organizational capacity of a trade union, these civil society organizations were still able to successfully resolve disputes and showed at a basic level how a trade union should operate. Indeed, they provided the ACFTU will a model of how to create a systematic bargaining mechanism and enhance the role of the union at the enterprise level.
  • The CCP initiated a new phase of trade union reform in China characterised by both top-down coercion from the Party and bottom-up pressure from the workers’ movement. The CCP understood that, if it was to maintain its own political legitimacy, it could no longer neglect the obscene wealth gap created by three decades of economic reform and a deliberate lack of government oversight. The desire of ordinary workers for a decent life and an end to social injustice made the task of transforming the trade union into a truly representative organization even more pressing.
  • The ACFTU began a series of reforms to its organizational structure, management model and operating mechanisms. At the grassroots level, the ACFTU sought to create new unions, recruit new members and protect the rights and interests of its members. However, the union has not really changed its basic identity, and the reform measures introduced so far still betray a paternalistic attitude, seeing workers as victims in need of help rather than persons of value in need of representation. As a result, workers still do not identify with the union or have a sense of belonging or commitment to it.

In conclusion, China Labour Bulletin argues that the ACFTU can no longer merely indulge in superficial structural reforms which in reality do more to protect its own vast self-interests than China’s workers. The reforms undertaken so far do nothing more than demonstrate the need for genuine trade union reform. It is now absolutely essential that trade union reforms allow workers to reclaim ownership of the union and for the union to represent workers (not itself) in collective bargaining with employers at the enterprise level. The union needs to be led and driven by those who believe in the core values of socialism — equality, justice and democracy. Only in this way can the trade union, long divorced from the workers’ movement, become a genuine member of China’s family of workers.

The report 中国工人运动观察报告 2015-2017 is published here as a PDF. Selected English-language extracts will be published in due course.

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