Time for a new approach to China's official trade unions?
Han Dongfang, the director of the China Labour Bulletin, argues that a new era of worker activism in China has forced the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to look for ways to genuinely represent workers' interests and has called on the international trade union movement to reassess its approach to the ACFTU.
Striking workers at a Honda plant in China in June 2010
The movement "now has the perfect opportunity to reach out," he wrote. "Constructive engagement with the ACFTU at this point in history could produce real benefits - not just for the union itself but for China's workers' movement."
The commentary follows below.
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Strikes and riots are now pushing China's official trade union into properly defending workers' rights
The workers' movement in China is at a critical juncture. As last year's wave of strikes and the recent migrant worker riots in Guangdong clearly demonstrate, workers are angry. They are demanding better pay and working conditions and an end to the social injustice and discrimination they see around them every day. But with no real trade union that can articulate those demands, workers are left with little option but to take to the streets.
This new era of activism has forced China's official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, to re-examine its role and look for ways to become an organisation that really does represent workers' interests. Already this year the ACFTU has introduced initiatives designed to boost workers' pay through negotiations with factory managers and business federation leaders.
How should the international trade union movement respond to the changes in China? It has long been divided between those who refuse to talk to the ACFTU because it is not a real trade union and those who are willing to engage, but only on a superficial level, avoiding fundamental issues like freedom of association and collective bargaining because they think them too sensitive.
Times have clearly changed, and the approach of the international trade union movement needs to change too. It now has the perfect opportunity to reach out. Constructive engagement with the ACFTU at this point in history could produce real benefits -not just for the union itself but for China's workers' movement.
Some of the ACFTU's initiatives have already produced results. In March the union at the Nanhai Honda automotive plant in southern China negotiated a 30% - plus pay increase for production-line workers, with an agreement in principle to further increase wages in 2013. Only a year earlier, union officials from the local township had sided with management and beaten up workers striking for higher pay.
However, other schemes still betray the old bureaucratic habits of trade union officials more concerned with ticking boxes, meeting quotas and making speeches than actually doing anything concrete to help workers. Just last month, when a senior ACFTU official, Guo Chen, announced plans for collective wage negotiations in 95% of the Fortune 500 companies in China, he said the companies should not be worried because "unlike western unions, which always stand against the employer, Chinese unions are obliged to boost the corporation's development and maintain sound labour relations". To reassure bosses even further, Guo stated that mid-level managers, not production-line workers, should represent employees in negotiations.
Although some ACFTU officials are trying to make a positive impact, there are still many others who are reluctant to involve workers in negotiations. And until those officials can overcome their fear of workers and bring them into the collective bargaining process, they will be mere spectators rather than players in the workers' movement.
International trade unions, with their wealth of experience in genuine collective bargaining, can help the ACFTU better serve its members and eventually become a real trade union. In an increasingly globalised market, it is important that the world's largest workforce has a voice in the international union movement. The International Trade Union Confederation could grasp the nettle by discussing affiliation with the ACFTU. If, on the other hand, the Chinese union is excluded, it will probably just carry on making the same shortsighted mistakes that it has always made. Under increasing pressure from strike action by workers it may eventually work out how to be a genuinely representative trade union - but that process will take it much longer.
Of course any decision about the future direction of the ACFTU ultimately lies with the Communist Party of China. But the party's ideals are not set in stone; in today's market economy it has to be flexible, and officials are sometimes open to persuasion, especially on issues related to labour. If the ACFTU can show it can better serve the party's interests (ensuring economic growth and social stability) by standing up for the rights and interests of workers, the party will certainly take note.
Even the party, which in the past only had its own interests to consider, now has to listen to the voice of the workers, and to respond to their increasingly clear and angry calls for change.
Published 7 July 2011