It has to be discouraging to international workers when the Obama administration’s official response to labor unrest in China is indistinguishable from that of the George W. Bush administration….which was indistinguishable from that of the Reagan administration. But the message from the Obama White House to China’s workers is clear: Don’t make waves.
On May 17, nearly 2,000 workers walked off their jobs at Honda Automotive Components Manufacturing (a transmission plant) at Foshan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, the automotive hub of the country. The issue that precipitated the walkout was as old and venerated as the boss-worker relationship itself: better wages.
With the minimum wage in Guangdong province set at 920 yuan a month, workers in the ultra-modern, highly automated Foshan plant were averaging approximately 1200 yuan per month ($175). While it was more than the minimum, given their skilled positions, the rigor and demands of the job—not to mention the profitability of the company—the workers felt they deserved more.
Automobile manufacturing in China is expanding rapidly, with auto sales rising by a whopping 40-percent in 2009 alone. Honda Motors, along with Volkswagen and General Motors, have carved out a sizeable niche in the country. Of course, these enterprises are all state-sponsored ventures. With the Chinese government’s blessing, Honda announced plans to produce 820,000 vehicles per year by 2012, up from the current 650,000.
After Honda agreed to address the wage issue at Foshan—and at the urging of the workers’ nominal union, the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions)—everyone returned to work, believing the brief walkout had achieved its purpose. Because strikes are more or less “outlawed” in China, having been made illegal in 1982 when the Communist government decided to pursue capitalism, staging a “wildcat” was a bold and risky move.
Two reasons why the Chinese government didn’t resort to massive force to suppress the strike: (1) Fear of further damaging its already dicey public image as the world’s master overseer of sweatshop labor, and (2) fear of contagion—worry that industrial unrest could spread to other parts of the country. Thus, even with strikes being technically illegal, the government chose to tread lightly.
But when the company’s wage offer fell well short of expectations, and management insisted on firing the instigators of the strike, the workers walked off their jobs again, on May 22, and this time their solidarity had a profound effect. The lack of the transmissions subsequently forced Honda to shut down four of its assembly plants.
Although the ACFTU advertises itself as the world’s largest trade union (with a staggering 134 million members), in truth it’s a union in name only. Rigidly controlled by the state, the ACFTU functions more as a timid mediator between management and labor than as a bona fide union advocate. Not only does the Federation not directly challenge management, it tends to suppress worker complaints.
Indeed, so terrified was the ACFTU of upsetting the apple cart, its leadership vigorously condemned the May strikes and absolved themselves of any part in them, announcing to the media that it was the workers themselves, acting independently, who planned the whole thing.
After rejecting the strikers demands, Honda management forced the workers to sign “no-strike pledges,” documents in which the workers promise that they “….absolutely will not lead, organize or participate in work slowdowns, stoppages or strikes.” While some workers courageously refused, most signed them.
As a way of dissipating worker solidarity and further lowering labor costs, Honda employs high school students as factory interns at the Fashon plant. Student interns compose nearly half of the plant’s hourly workers. It’s the free market stripped of all pretense. Texas uses prison inmates to assemble toys, Honda uses high school kids to assemble transmissions.
These interns do much of the same work as the regular employees, but for significantly less money. It’s the Chinese way. Under pressure from the schools’ headmasters (one of whom was quoted as saying the strike “has badly affected our national image and ruined ties between China and Japan”), they were all forced to sign the document and keep their mouths shut.
By May 30, most of the workers had accepted Honda’s wage offer (they got a raise, but less than demanded) and reluctantly returned to work, although tensions remained sufficiently high that riot police had to be summoned to maintain order. And—as hard as this is to believe—there were reports of workers being beaten up by their own ACFTU officials, and of union leaders attempting to video-tape the strikers.
Honda’s fear of contagion proved justified. On June 7, another strike occurred at the Foshan Fengfu Autoparts Co, a joint-venture owned by Honda subsidiary Yutaka Giken and Taiwan’s Fuwei Industrial Co. The plant produces exhaust systems for the Accord, Odyssey and Fit models in Guangzhou. The strike resulted in Quangqi Honda being forced to shut down on Tuesday, June 8. And on June 8, yet another strike occurred, this one at the Honda plant in nearby Zhongshan, with the workers demanding higher wages.
These strikes can be seen in one of two ways: As spontaneous bursts of worker rebelliousness and restlessness, or as symptoms of something deeper and more significant. Clearly, social unrest in China is showing signs of growing. The recent suicides at the mammoth Foxconn factory in Shenzhen (400,000 employees producing goods for companies like Apple and Dell ) drew considerable attention.
Labor observers remain uncertain about China’s future. Optimists view these strikes as evidence of a trajectory that could one day approximate that of the American labor movement in the early 20th century. Undeniably, working conditions in China are begging for reform; if there was ever a country that could benefit from a dynamic labor union presence, it’s China.
But comparisons to the U.S. are inadequate. Even with the opposition that was arrayed against it—in the form of corporationism, crooked politicians, corrupt police, company goon squads—America’s early labor battles took place in a democracy. China is a dictatorship. Little happens there without government approval or control.
Chinese workers not only represent the world’s largest workforce, their recent show of defiance gained the respect and admiration of labor unions around the globe. But they shouldn’t expect any help from the U.S. government, no matter how high-minded the American rhetoric. When it comes to promoting “workers’ rights,” we talk it more than we practice it.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at email@example.com