The Yue Yuen shoe factory in Dongguan, site of the largest strike in China in recent memory, will be the nucleus of efforts by the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions to institute a system of democratic trade union elections across the province within the next five years.
The head of the provincial federation, Huang Yebin, told the Southern Workers’ Daily that developing a democratic and representative trade union at Yue Yuen was the key to providing a “stable environment for management, reducing labour disputes as much as possible, and building harmonious labour relations.” Moreover, he said, the goal should be to “allow workers to raise their own demands or present their grievances to the trade union which can then negotiate with the employer.”
However, Huang acknowledged that Guangdong federation would have to overcome several obstacles in realising its ambitious plans, primarily the lack of trust or interest in the trade union among the workers. At present, only 1,500 of the 40,000 employees at Yue Yuen had joined the enterprise union, he said. A similar picture was found in factories in the surrounding township of Gaobu, all of which had very low enrolment rates. The Guangdong Federation thus plans to include 33 of the larger factories in the township in its pilot project.
The federation will send in organizing teams to encourage workers to join the union, ensure that democratic elections take place, and eventually create a stable mechanism for resolving labour conflicts and negotiating wage increases. Once this is done, the federation hopes, the project will gradually fan out to other regions in the province.
Making democratic trade union elections the norm in Guangdong, rather than the exception as is currently the case, is clearly a positive move. However, ensuring that the democratically-elected trade union chairman can effectively promote and defend workers’ interests will be an uphill task.
In this regard, it is important that the Guangdong trade union acknowledges and utilizes the skills and expertise that labour rights groups in the province have developed over the last few years in organizing workers and engaging in collective bargaining. Guangdong’s trade union officials are only just beginning to play a more active role and they still lack any real hands-on experience in organizing workers: They will have to learn from the grassroots activities of labour rights groups if they are to be effective.