Learning the hard way about trade union elections

09 May 2013

One year ago this month, the Shenzhen Municipal Federation of Trade Unions helped to organise democratic trade union elections at a Japanese-owned electronics factory in the city. The election was hailed at the time as a historic development in labour relations because for first time, a local trade union federation had responded favourably to demands from the workers themselves for trade union reform.

Two months earlier, the 600 employees at Ohms Electronics had gone on strike for higher pay and better benefits as well as more effective trade union representation. The subsequent election took place amid considerable fanfare and the new chairman promised to stand with the workers.  However it did not take long before the new found sense of optimism at the factory began to fade.

By February 2013, the workers had become so fed up with the failure of the new union chairman to protect their interests that they demanded he be removed from office and new elections held. One of the workers involved in the campaign to get rid of the union chairman talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about the background to the conflict at the plant and the workers’ hopes for the future.

Contract dispute

The main bone of contention was the trade union’s handling of an employment contract renewal dispute earlier this year. More than 60 workers at the plant whose fixed-term contracts were about to expire on 28 February were eligible, under the terms of the Labour Contract Law, to sign new contracts without fixed terms. But one-third of the workers were warned by the company in late January that their contracts would be terminated, and were persuaded to sign confidential “severance agreements” with the sweetener of a one-time compensation payment. The surprise move left the other 40 or so worried about their positions and they were unsure what to do. When approached for help, the union reportedly wasted no words - workers were simply told that “this is nothing to do with us.”

In response, a dozen or so workers climbed on to the factory roof in protest. Later they posted a demand at the factory gate calling for the recall and re-election of the trade union chairman. The petition was quickly signed by more than 100 employees and duly delivered to the local trade union office.

The contract issue was important to the workers because it was seen as part of wider move by the company to reduce costs by gradually getting rid of long-term regular employees and replacing them with agency employees. The worker (who requested anonymity) told Han Dongfang:

At the moment, our company is no longer hiring regular employees. They are using people from agencies. It began last year after the strike. They have switched to agency workers for all hiring. Now, there are more than 200 of them. There are only 300 or 400 regular employees now.

The Labour Contract Law was revised late last year, specifically to clamp down on the abuse of agency employees, who are only supposed to occupy temporary, substitute or auxiliary positions, but many companies continue to take advantage of the system and hire temporary workers as de facto full time employees. The revised law will formally go into effect on 1 July this year.

Long standing grievances

The workers’ discontent had been exacerbated by long-standing dissatisfaction over income disparities at the factory, which came to a head in the March 2012 strike. As the worker explained:

If the boss of your department had clout or powers of persuasion, he could get the personnel department to raise wages for his people. But if a department head lacked prestige, his peoples’ wages might be lower. Some shift leaders were being paid less than team leaders. In some departments wages were high while in others they were low, and the difference could be as great as 500 or 600 yuan per month.

The problems worsened when the parent company in Japan brought the factory under its direct control - without changing its name - and introduced its own pay scales. For many workers, this led to promotions and a wage increase, generating a climate of expectation, but some ended up worse off. Moreover, the problem of departmental heads’ personal influence and arbitrary pay rates remained. “What we wanted was collective negotiations, with equal pay for equal work, based on annual performance assessments,” the worker said. However, management was reluctant to reform the system because of the vested interests involved. The worker explained:

This is not something that can be done overnight. It would take at least a year if it were decided… Any organizational change would involve bringing people in, and the managers with clout now would have the rug pulled out from under them and they would just become figureheads.

Eventually, however, a 12-point agreement was reached but negotiations took place over the heads of the workers.

We proposed some things and sent a signed document to the union, and they had meetings. Only a few core negotiators were involved in talks with management. But they were cut out of some meetings, and results were not announced.

In the end, the changes were mostly cosmetic, minor changes to welfare benefits etc:

For the rest, though, the company just let things drag, without making any improvements in core issues. We asked the union to help many times, but they procrastinated and then said that we would have to wait until April 2013 for action. They just kept dragging their feet.

New elections

The trade union election occurred two months after the strike and came about after pressure was applied by the Shenzhen municipal federation. The union chairman at the time was a department chief called Li who had held the position for more than ten years. “Probably a lot of people were unhappy with him,” the worker said. The man who replaced him, Zhao Shaobo, was also a manager, but with a lower rank, that of section chief. Nonetheless, Zhao easily mustered support for his candidacy.

He was a section chief in production. Before there was a department manager above him but now all the production is under his control. All the frontline people report to him. The grassroots representatives were all under his control.

Han asked why the workers thought a representative of management would be a good candidate to serve as the union chairman:

It was just our feeling at the time. He was a recent arrival and because of this we felt that he would be more effective in talking with the management. If we had chosen one of our workers, he would not have had any authority or prestige.

Also voted in by secret ballot were the union council representatives, who nominated Zhao. They too were generally higher in rank than ordinary workers, and benefited from their own departmental power bases.

They were shift and team leaders, who were supported by their own people. There were relatively few grassroots workers standing. People voted for who they knew. People are like this; apt to choose their own boss, because they think their workplace will benefit later, this is the mentality.

The election itself was cumbersome, the worker said, with many sections involved, even down to the workshop level, and many separate meetings.

Things went slowly, there were many procedures. Workers probably did not understand the procedures very well, and, on top of that, we had a high worker turnover. There were always people coming and going, and so they may have felt that it didn’t much matter who got elected... Yes, we did have reservations about voting for members of the management team. We simply did not know what we were doing.

Some of the labour activists at the factory did stand and were elected to the council positions but they found themselves pushing up against a brick wall:  “It was useless. There was no point. The obstacle was the new chairman.”

Siding with management

Before taking up his new post, the worker said, Zhao Shaobo had been a low-key figure. “But after he started serving as chairman, he changed his approach completely.” He became high-handed. For example, without even consulting the workers, he acceded to a management demand that 20,000 yuan in union funds be used to pay for employee work-related trips, a cost that the company had hitherto met itself. Those council members who did not agree with this were persuaded, one by one, to sign a document of acceptance. The workers got very little back.

Just about all they do is hand out gifts at the Lunar New Year. Nothing is done about labour rights or improving working conditions. The union has not lifted a finger in this regard. They just hold meetings all day, and they discuss buying things for employees and they never tell the workers what is discussed at meetings. There are a few women members, with official roles, and they pretty much do as they please, when they feel like it. Very few people on the union council take the work seriously, and only two or three of them really speak for the workers.

Basically, the worker said, “Zhao is on the side of the management… We want him to resign. As far as we’re concerned, the time has come for him to shit or get off the pot.”

Our hope now is that we can make some kind of appeal to the public… As for our efforts to get rid of the union leader; the procedure for removal is underway and a new candidate has been found. We have submitted documents to the local neighbourhood union, because in this kind of matter you have to go step by step.

On 27 March, one month after the workers first demanded the ouster of Zhao Shaobo, the factory trade union held a full committee meeting to consider the proposal. The committee members voted five to two, with one abstention, not to recall the union chair, stating that the reasons outlined by the workers in their complaint did not constitute proper grounds for recall and a re-election.

Han Dongfang pointed out that although the Ohms incident did not reflect well on the Shenzhen Municipal Federation of Trade Unions and its ability to organize elections, the workers at the factory also needed to accept responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes.

He criticised the workers for expecting the union to serve as a kind of intermediary rather than as an active defender of their rights and interests. The workers said they expected their union chairman to have an “attitude of fairness and justice, without bias towards management” but Han pointed out:

If this is the spirit in which you elected the union leadership. You have got the wrong guy. You have chosen someone who can perform the role of an intermediary. But he cannot represent you in a dispute.

In conclusion, Han said, the episode had been a learning experience for all parties concerned. “I feel that one thing is very clear. Workers need to have a better understanding of the role of the trade union. Only then can you elect the right person.”

This interview was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in eight episodes in March 2013.

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