The strike that ignited China’s summer of worker protests

15 September 2010

In May and early June 2010, a two-week-long strike involving more than a thousand workers at the Honda transmission plant in Foshan triggered a wave of strikes across China.

The dispute highlighted the long hours and low pay of Chinese workers, and their growing determination to stand and fight for a decent wage. And in particular, it brought into sharp focus the ambiguous role the trade union in labour conflicts. Not only did the factory union and the local union federations in Foshan fail to represent workers’ interests, or even talk to the workers during the initial stages of the strike, the local township federation actually gathered a mob of so-called union officials to force the strikers back to work, injuring two of the workers in the process.

On 1 June, the day after the clash, CLB Director Han Dongfang telephoned one of the workers at the factory to get an update on the strike situation and to discuss the strikers’ demands and negotiation strategy, and the actions of the union.

The factory was holding a meeting when Han called. “A representative from the National People’s Congress is meeting in there with the company’s union representative,” the worker explained, but “we aren’t talking with him, because yesterday they beat our workers.”

The workers were demanding an apology from the union and that those guilty of violence be handed over to the courts. Until that happened, the worker said, they would be “staging a sit-in and not paying attention to them.”

The workers’ demands

The strike, said the worker, involved “over a thousand workers - everyone in production.” The administrative workers also “absolutely support us,” said the worker, though most did not want to be a visible part of the strike. “The first demand” of the strike, he said, was “about wages, benefits and bonuses; the second is that no striking worker is fired.” A third demand, that “the union chairman must be got rid of, and a new union voted in,” was added after the previous day’s violent incident.

The strike began on 17 May, the worker explained, because:

"The Foshan government increased the legal minimum wage to more than 900 yuan [on 1 May], but our basic wage is still only around 700 yuan. Other companies raised it to 900, but this company didn’t, and that set it off. Then they didn’t handle it well, and it is getting bigger and bigger; it’s really big, and all production has stopped. Now the workers have raised their expectations, and then this beating incident happened, and at this point it’s very hard to manage."

He went on to explain in more detail why the Honda workers were demanding higher wages:

"Now the cost of living has risen; buying vegetables and daily necessities is more expensive. If everyone is earning wages of only a few hundred yuan a month, or even one thousand plus, they can’t keep up with the cost of living, let alone save any money to send back home. Everyone is going along with the strike because it is in their economic interests to do so."

After the initial work stoppage, the workers resumed work for a few days because company’s general manager promised to respond to their demands. But soon afterwards, the workers found out that the company planned to recruit new hires from local vocational schools and then threaten workers that, if they did not accept the company’s offer, they would all be fired and replaced by new hires. The response of the workers was that, “by 24 May, everyone had stopped work, and those called in for overtime did not work either.”

The workers had initially demanded a 200 to 400 yuan pay increase but, the worker explained:

"After production stopped, these Japanese companies here were all increasing salaries by 300 or 400, 500 yuan, so everyone said, that’s no good, we are on strike, and they haven’t learned anything from us yet, so since everyone else’s demands are going up, we want 800 yuan from them."

The worker claimed that regular employees, with a take home pay of around 1,100 yuan a month, were actually earning less than new interns recruited directly from vocational schools. “If you were going to be made a regular employee one day and when you did, you would make a lower wage than when you were an intern, would you still want to?” He claimed that “more than half” the workers at the factory were actually interns rather than regular employees. “We have very few regular employees, everyone feels like there is no future here so everyone leaves.”

Trade union reform

The worker then discussed in more detail the role of the trade union in the conflict:

"The union has not represented us. That union has only represented the company. They have not considered our interests. The union only knows about getting money. They have never taken us workers into consideration… they have been of no use whatsoever, and instead keep escalating the conflict. Now everyone wants that union chairman removed, and the union totally reorganized, with new elections.”

He acknowledged however that he and his co-workers knew little about the Trade Union Law and would have to rely on management to hold union elections, because he felt that “we are all production workers, and we don’t have the ability” to do it.

He himself had never been asked to participate in union elections or any other union activities in the two years he had been with the company. During the strike, the union never gave the workers the opportunity to decide for or against the company’s offer. Nor did the striking workers formally select a representative to negotiate with the company. “Who would dare to be this representative? Surely no one would dare to,” said the worker. However, he acknowledged that this situation was not ideal:

"Being on strike for so many days, you should choose a representative and demand to talk with the union and with the company, and it should be resolvable. But no one dares to make their position known like that."

Taking a collective stand

The worker told Han how the company sought to pressure the workers into giving up their strike. One day, he said, all the striking employees were summoned to a meeting, and then management called in security in a bid to intimidate them.

"They wanted us to go there to sign an agreement to return to work. They weren’t going to let us out… Then they told us to sign the agreement and start work. But everyone knew their intentions; they wanted to surround us, but they didn’t have enough people. Initially they had 40 or 50 people, but later those surrounding us disappeared and only a dozen or so were left. They were in the middle, surrounded by us, and they got scared and also left."

The workers said they were determined to carry on in spite of their lack of legal status or a formally-designated representative, and that they had not been swayed by the company’s pressure tactics so far.

"None of us understand the law very well, and they say our strike is against the law. But no one is afraid, and is saying, if it’s illegal, then it’s illegal. You can fire us all if you like; if you fire us all, your entire production will stop. Each day they are only thinking about how to oppose us, and have not negotiated with us in good faith. Each day they want to work against us, and send those government officials or union people to come to pressure us. As a result, they will probably not increase our wages. If they wanted to increase our wages, they would have done it long ago, and things would not have gotten to this point."

However, two days later, on 4 June, the workers accepted a management offer of a 24 per cent to 33 per cent pay increase. The success of the strike led to numerous other strikes, not only at Honda suppliers, but across the automotive industry in general and throughout China.

The township union federation did eventually apologize for its violent actions, and a week later, the Guangdong Provincial Federation of Trade Unions announced that the factory union would be reformed and that in future its leaders would be democratically elected by the employees. Moreover, federation vice-chair, Kong Xianghong, said that the union chair should be subject to an annual performance review, and would need to obtain an approval rating of more than 50 percent in order to remain in his post.

Han Dongfang’s interview with the striking Honda worker was originally broadcast in four episodes in June and July this year. 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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