This commentary first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 1 May 2014. Copyright remains with the SCMP.
The world's largest retailer Walmart got a nasty shock this year when it tried to close down a small, underperforming store in the central Chinese city of Changde. The company had already shut down several such stores in China without too much incident and was expecting business as usual when, on March 4, it informed the 143 employees of Store No 2024 that they would be out of a job in two weeks' time.
On this occasion, however, the workers decided to take a stand. They blockaded the store and unfurled banners in protest. And at the head of the picket line stood the small but formidable figure of the store's trade union chairman, Huang Xingguo.
Huang is an unlikely hero. Until recently, the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has largely sat on the sidelines of China's growing workers' movement, and union officials have singularly failed to give the workers the support they need. Indeed, the official union's institutional apathy and management-friendly approach was the only reason the notoriously anti-union Walmart agreed to the unionisation of its stores in China in the first place.
So when Huang, a former cashier who was elected head of the Changde store union last year, took the unprecedented step of defying Walmart's closure plan and demanding negotiations with management on severance pay, it not only sent shock waves through Walmart management, it gave the ACFTU officials sitting in their plush air-conditioned offices in Beijing a severe jolt as well.
Trade union officials in other enterprises in China have taken note of what is happening in Changde, Hunan, and they are beginning to realise it is possible to represent their members effectively and not simply acquiesce to management all the time, as the vast majority of them have done in the past. And if more union officials in Chinese enterprises do become more active, the ACFTU in Beijing will have to make an important decision, either to get on board or risk openly defying the workers' movement in China.
The growing activism of China's workers, and now some trade unionists, clearly presents a challenge to the multinationals that have been doing business in the mainland largely unhindered for the past three decades.
Many international companies, just like Walmart, are restructuring or "rationalising" their businesses in China. They have attempted to sell, merge or close down businesses and open new ones, but at no point in this process have they bothered to consult the workers. In the vast majority of cases, just like Walmart, management has simply said, "Here is the deal: take it or leave it".
The workers, however, are refusing to be dictated to. They are demanding proper compensation for their contribution to their employer, and not just the one month's wages for every year of employment prescribed by the law.
When IBM, for example, announced earlier this year that it was selling its server business to Chinese computer maker Lenovo, the more than 1,000 employees at its factory in Shenzhen went on strike, demanding more compensation than that offered by IBM.
On this occasion, the enterprise trade union did not support the workers and after some 20 strike leaders were sacked, most of the employees backed down and agreed to take management's original offer. In an encouraging sign, however, the Shenzhen municipal trade union federation promised to help the sacked workers file an arbitration claim against IBM for wrongful dismissal.
Workers across China have shown on numerous occasions they can successfully organise and force their employer to make concessions, even major corporations like Yue Yuen Industrial. The massive strike at the Yue Yuen shoe factory complex in Dongguan last month was proof of just how effective workers' action can be. A protest over social insurance payments that began with a few hundred employees eventually snowballed into a strike of perhaps 40,000 workers. Even after management agreed to adjust the workers' social insurance contributions and increase monthly living allowances, the workers still stayed out on strike, pressing for even more concessions.
In other strikes, swift concessions have been enough to resolve the dispute relatively quickly. When more than 1,000 employees at a Samsung supplier, Shanmukang in Dongguan, went on strike in March in protest at a pay cut, the company soon agreed to raise overtime rates and monthly subsidies, and the employees went back to work.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of strikes and worker protests across all industry sectors and all regions of China over the past two years. Strikes are basically now an everyday occurrence, and sometimes even get union support.
However, they do not come without risk. Protests can lead to confrontations with the local police and many workers have been beaten and detained. Some have even been prosecuted. Migrant worker Wu Guijun, for example, has spent nearly a year in detention after taking part in a mass protest of workers at the refusal of their employer, a Hong Kong-owned furniture factory in Shenzhen, to discuss compensation for the relocation of the factory to nearby Huizhou.
Coincidentally, Wu is also originally from Changde; he is the same age as Huang Xingguo and, just like Huang, has now become something of a folk hero: a hero not just to his colleagues but to workers and labour activists across China.
These two workers represent the new face of labour activism in China; they are resolute, determined and articulate. They believe workers deserve respect and that employees have the right to collectively negotiate their terms and conditions of employment, not simply have those terms dictated to them by the boss.
It is essential for the smooth and stable development of China that both the official trade union and employers recognise this and adapt to the new reality in the workplace.
Geoffrey Crothall is CLB's Communications Director