Can China’s trade unions be reformed?

Issue: 141

Simon Gilbert

Tim Pringle, Trade Unions in China: The Challenge of Labour Unrest (Routledge, 2013), £26.99

When workers at the Nanhai Honda car plant in China’s Pearl River Delta went on strike in 2010, they first had to fight off a gang of thugs sent by their own trade union. By the time they returned to work they had won not only pay rises of up to 33 percent, but also the right to elect their own union representatives. The local union office was forced to make a rather grudging apology too.

The Chinese unions, organised under the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), have historically been a tool of government, committed to maintaining stability at all costs. Is it possible, as the Honda workers’ action suggests, that they could be reformed from below? That they could come to genuinely represent their members in the struggle for decent pay and conditions? In a recent study labour relations researcher Tim Pringle seems to think so. The Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin also puts great emphasis on reform of the existing unions.

Although the Chinese government doesn’t publish strike statistics, all the evidence suggests that they are becoming more frequent. Until the early 2000s workers’ actions were concentrated in the old state-owned enterprises, where millions were losing their jobs. Then the focus moved to migrant workers in the boom towns of the south east. Many of their protests were directed at the local labour bureau—demanding action against employers who had not paid wages or who routinely broke the labour laws.

In recent years, as Pringle shows, these workers have found a new confidence to take on their employers directly. One factor is the labour shortages that emerged from 2004 onwards in the fastest growing cities. Another is the experience of “the factory system” that workers who originally migrated from rural areas have now become accustomed to: “Many have developed a very good idea of what they can get away with and how far they can go, so that short, sharp strikes and protests have become an extremely prompt and effective way of redressing their grievances” (p104).

Strikes and picket lines have been “normalised” in China. But what role have the unions played in all this? At the time of the 1949 revolution the trade unions were already closely aligned with the victorious Communist Party. Nevertheless, ACFTU chairman Li Lisan expected a degree of autonomy in representing workers’ interests, especially while private capital still existed. However, this wasn’t to be. Li was sacked in 1952, accused of “economism”. Following another purge in 1957, as the last companies were taken into state ownership, the trade unions became “thoroughly domesticated” (p65). During the Cultural Revolution the unions, like a number of other institutions, came under attack and virtually ceased to function for ten years. For the remainder of the command economy period (ie until 1978) the unions became “primarily an instrument for controlling the working class” whose main functions were to “maintain labour discipline” and “encourage production” (p22). They also had a secondary role in administering social welfare and as a conduit for individual complaints.

By the early 1990s the significance of the plan was receding, the private sector was growing and the state no longer had the same level of control over workers’ lives. At the same time the government faced an increasing level of labour militancy. The ACFTU’s role now became one of containing workers’ anger.

So none of the strikes or protests are initiated by the union and where the union exists workers have to organise separately to take action, as they did at Honda. The ACFTU didn’t raise even verbal opposition to the wave of restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that followed the fifteenth party congress in 1997, and resulted in millions losing their jobs (p81).

The ACFTU has instead focused on assisting individual workers in taking disputes with their employers to tribunal through the formal disputes procedure. The government put in place a legal framework with the Labour Law of 1995 and subsequent additional laws. But, as Pringle shows, this was as much about creating an environment for the growth of private industry as it was about protecting workers’ rights (pp44-45). The clear intention is to act as a safety valve to prevent more serious action. But this has had limited success. The endemic failure to implement the minimum standards stipulated by law has been one of the most frequent causes of labour protests.

With SOE restructuring, the ACFTU haemorrhaged members. So a big push was made to recruit in the private sector. On paper this achieved spectacular results with national membership rising to 212 million in 2008, from a low of 97 million in 1999. But this was very much a top-down affair, union branches being set up in agreement with employers rather than by recruiting from below. Workplace union branches are financially dependent on the enterprises, as one interviewee explained: “The annual budget for union finances is first approved by the deputy general manager and then the manager himself. Final ratification is also required from the CEO” (p96). Union representatives are often managers or even enterprise owners. Many others are company appointees.

When the notoriously anti-union multinational Wal-Mart agreed to allow unions into their Chinese operation, a spokesperson from the company explained that: “The union in China is fundamentally different from unions in the West… The union has made it clear that its goal is to work with employers, not promote confrontation” (p111).

The official unions’ timidity in the face of employers has allowed others to try and fill the gap. Labour NGOs run legal advice centres. “Black lawyers”—mostly former workers who have gained an elementary knowledge of the law—also provide legal advice and can represent workers in arbitration cases. But both groups are limited by their unwillingness to jeopardise their precarious existence by getting involved in strikes (pp101-102).

As Pringle shows, the growing confidence of workers to take strike action, the demand for elected union officials, and the emergence of alternative labour representation have all prompted the ACFTU to explore new ways of organising. But does this indicate a turn to more genuine labour representation or is it simply intended to rebuild their credibility with workers in order more effectively to control them?

This is where Pringle’s weak theoretical framework rather lets him down. His understanding of the nature of the transition from the command economy, through the reforms that began in 1978, to the current more market-oriented economy, is of one from “state socialism” to a “capitalist market economy”. This is more clearly stated in another work, The Challenge of Transition: Trade Unions in Russia, China and Vietnam (2010), co-authored with Simon Clarke, than it is in Trade Unions in China. As the authors of the earlier work argue, in state socialism the “demands of production were generally assigned absolute priority over all other considerations”, and the trade unions “were fundamentally different from trade unions in a capitalist society”, with “a directive rather than a representative role”. But: “the transition from a command economy to a market economy removed the enterprise from direct state control so that the trade unions, at least in the workplace, ceased to be agents of the state regulation and control of the labour force, but instead mediated the relationship between the labour force and the employer”.

Pringle argues that the failure of the ACFTU to represent its members is: “a direct historical legacy from its role in the command economy and the work practices that this role produced over time” (pp158-159). Presumably it could become genuinely representative if it could just shake off these outdated habits.

The theory of state capitalism offers a better guide. This explains the transition as one from state capitalism to an economy where private capital (both local and foreign) plays an increasing role, allowing us to see some of the continuities between the two periods as well as the differences.

So, for the ruling class, production remains as much a priority today as it was under Mao—you can hardly watch the TV news or read a newspaper in China without hearing the phrase jingji fazhan, or “economic growth”. Society both before and after reform has been characterised by very high rates of accumulation based on extreme exploitation of the direct producers. The form this took was different in each case: on the one hand a paternalistic and enormously intrusive regime that traded subsidies on the basic necessities of life and a degree of job security for low wages; on the other, the more familiar neoliberal poverty wages and insecurity.

At the same time the continuing existence of the authoritarian one-party state has prevented the emergence of independent trade unions, or indeed any independent organisation at all, that could challenge the drive to economic growth at any price. The ACFTU remains an arm of the state whose role is to maintain social stability and the conditions under which exploitation and accumulation can take place, in both the state and the private sectors. In order to do this effectively they need to have some credibility with their members. The experiments in reform that Pringle describes need to be seen in this light.

At the heart of the book are three case studies, all localised experiments in new methods of working for the trade union. In the first case the local union initiated an unusual system of sector-level wage negotiation in Xinhe, a centre of woollen sweater production, which had seen several years of successful strikes. In Yiwu the union set up a labour rights centre similar to those run by the Labour NGOs. The last was an experiment in directly electing officials in Yuhang, Hangzhou City and in Yuyao (see chapters 4, 5 and 6).

While the latter two saw some improvement for union members, neither represents a fundamental break with tradition. As Pringle notes, even elected officials remain dependent on their employers and subordinate to the unelected higher layers of the union. The emphasis on mediation at the Yiwu rights centre means that it is “spending as much time persuading workers to compromise…as it is helping workers pursue employers through arbitration and the courts” (p152).

Both were motivated in part by a desire to pre-empt alternatives such as the semi-criminal home-town organisations. But in Xinhe the union acted much more clearly to stabilise the situation for the bosses and avoid social disturbances. As the local union president explained, the employers could now “concentrate their efforts on business management rather than fighting with other companies for skilled workers, or dealing with labour disputes” (p129). Pringle is clear that this “administrative solution” was prompted by “sophisticated informal mobilisation of migrant workers” and avoided any participation by the workers themselves. Nevertheless he sees potential for a “collective bargaining framework” here. But it seems unlikely that the employers will continue to make concessions once the threat of strike action has receded.

The sort of union reform from below seen at Honda, and also in strikes by dockers at Yantian district in Shenzhen and power workers in Chengdu in recent years, can be seen in a much more positive light. It marks a new level of confidence in the vanguard of the emerging labour movement and a recognition that workers need more permanent organisation than the informal networks behind the strikes. But it also indicates how far the movement has yet to go.

While the Communist Party remains in power the unions will always be a tool to keep the working class in its place. To do that effectively they have to win a degree of credibility among workers. Trade Unions in China provides a valuable account of the innovative ways in which they are doing that at a local level. No doubt too, many of the lower level union officials genuinely want to help their members. But it is something of a leap of faith to see in the Xinhe experiment the “initial stages of freedom of association developing” (p185).

Whether initiated to pre-empt independent organisation, to contain strikes or as a result of demands by workers, trade union reform has only happened at all because workers have organised outside the union. In the past the government has not been slow to purge officials who go beyond their remit—and bring the union back into line. So reforming the official unions is likely to prove a disappointing dead end. Ultimately workers will have to establish independent unions. That will only be feasible with a much higher level of class struggle than we have seen to date.