Heilongjiang railway worker takes on his own trade union

19 December 2011

China’s Ministry of Railways has been plagued over the last couple of years by corruption scandals, safety scares, credit droughts and project delays. And while high-profile incidents like the Wenzhou train crash of 23 July 2011 have grabbed the headlines, ordinary railway workers in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang have largely unnoticed had to contend with cutbacks and underhand management manoeuvres to get them to work longer hours for less pay.

To make matters worse, the official trade union in the region has done nothing to help the railway workers, and was even reportedly complicit with management in exploiting them. However, when one railway conductor discovered that he and his colleagues had been secretly demoted while at the same time being required to perform additional duties, he decided to fight back with an unusual strategy – demanding the removal his department’s trade union chairman for dereliction of duty.

In early 2011, Zhu Chunsheng took his fight public and talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his increasingly tense battle with the railway bureau and its non-functioning trade union.

Zhu, a 27-year veteran of the railways had been employed at the passenger transport division of the Harbin Railway Bureau, which covers the whole of Heilongjiang and part of Inner Mongolia, since 1987. In 2006, as part of a cost-cutting drive, the division secretly downgraded his job status, cut his salary and increased his job duties. Zhu told Han that in addition to riding the rails for six days a week he now had to clean the carriages as well:

You are on the long lines for four days, and then, after you get back, you have to do another two days on short lines. And then in the depot you have to disinfect and wipe down the carriages. When you finish, there is no time to rest [before the next shift].

Zhu only discovered the change in his status, pay and conditions when he sought to return to work in 2010 after a long layoff due to a work-related injury, and he estimates that more than 1,000 conductors and other workers throughout the Bureau were being cheated in the same way. However, he thinks some may be unaware of it because of the complicated manner in which wages are calculated.

When Zhu approached his trade union for help, he was given the brush off and told to deal with the problem himself. Zhu did just that and started linking up with other victims in a bid to oust the union. Zhu says he wants the union to be democratically elected according to the provisions of the Trade Union Law. To do this he has written to both the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and Harbin Railway Bureau, and collected over 60 signatures from fellow workers. He believes there is a better chance of effectively taking on the bosses through a true union, elected by the workers.

Because its members were not elected by us, nobody knows who the representatives are. Nobody elected them. The chairman ‘fell from the sky,’ so to speak; he was simply installed by the bosses. But under Trade Union Law and the Constitution, the deputy chairman and committee members must all be elected.

Zhu believes the union was complicit in approving the official personnel directive that led to his demotion.

The so-called ‘Party and government working group’ sits in on union committee meetings. They hold meetings, talk, have a show of hands, and ‘personnel directives’ are approved. But if it was a chairman elected by ourselves, this could not have happened. Do you imagine it would have been possible for a union chairman elected by us to demote workers and cut our salaries by arbitrary fiat?

Zhu received no replies to his requests to the ACFTU and the national railway union for help in reforming his departmental union. He therefore started collecting signatures with the aim of doing the job himself — arranging the election of a new leadership and union committee:

Union representatives should be elected by the workers, and then the union representatives should elect a chairman. The election of the chairman should reflect a majority of votes of workers, as under the Trade Union Law. .. I am playing a leading role in all this, urging my fellow workers to understand and use the different methods of legal recourse available to defend their rights and resist the management. I tell them not just sit back and swallow it all because they think the bosses have all the power.

Zhu is determined to get as many workers as possible involved, cutting across job demarcations. But, he said there were a lot of people in the department, “and bringing them together is difficult when people are working on different lines and different shifts, and the work itself is so demanding.”

He also tried to drum up media interest. “I’m in contact with reporters from the China Youth Daily,” he said, “and they are waiting for me to finish collecting signatures.”

Not surprisingly, his campaign attracted the interest of the authorities, who, Zhu said, fear that a strike could break out. Before the New Year in 2011, he was “invited to talk things over” with a local Party official and the union.

They told me to lay off things because what I was doing was ‘instigation of rebellion.’ They said, ‘Maintenance of stability is the main priority.’ Conflict should be avoided. Just going to work is in and of itself a form of stability. They said that I was ‘fostering instability.’ I have all this on tape.

Zhu told Han that he had not considered filing a lawsuit in pursuit of his goal because:

It is very costly in human, material and financial resources. And you are at a disadvantage, because when you go to court in China, often officials are involved, and if you try to sue a bureaucrat, your chances of success are very slim. … The people of China in all have some kind of problem involving officials, but most usually choose to ‘find blessings in disadvantage’ and swallow their humiliation in silence. Over thousands of years of history, Chinese civilization has fostered in the people a culture of servility.

Zhu was likewise doubtful if he could get enough signatures to oust the union chairman: “In the current environment in China, in any attempt at reorganising the railway system I would say the chances of success are low, as the government will get involved.”


Han Dongfang's interview with Zhu Chunsheng was first broadcast in five episodes in January and February 2011. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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