China’s Labor Upsurge

In presidential debate one with Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump ripped into China for abusing the US, more than President Obama ever bashed that nation. For the real story that leaves misleading political rhetoric behind, read how and why migrant workers fight employer abuse in China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance (Haymarket Books, May 2016).

The tales in this book fill a gap in labor reporting for the world’s most populous nation. To this end, China on Strike builds on The Coming of the Global Working Class by Immanuel Ness (Pluto Press, 2015).

The book under review is a collective effort of volunteer translators (English to Chinese, and Chinese to English) and others in many nations, who produced this English-language collection of workers’ oral histories, write editors Zhongjin Li and Eli Friedman. Having spent 13 years co-producing an all-volunteer progressive paper, Sacramento’s Because People Matter, I give a nod to the mighty efforts to bring such a remarkable book to readers.

Talking about labor cooperation is one thing. Achieving it is quite another.

In China on Strike, we read of the risks and rewards for young people, some of China’s 270 million migrant workers (the US labor force has 160 million people), who stand up with co-workers for justice at workplaces since 1990. To call the rise of labor resistance in China explosive is not an overstatement, as we discover as workers share their employment experiences.

At private firms in China’s coastal Guangdong Province’s Pearl River Delta, workers struggle against lockouts and factory closings, wage-cuts and in the third and final part of the book, strikes for higher pay. Editor Hao Ren introduces each of the 10 accounts.

The wage-cut section is by far the longest, with 10 workers sharing their labor history as participants and strike initiators. In one narrative, bosses pressure workers to return to the shop floor; management seek strike leaders to neuter.

Ren is no armchair academic. She writes from her experience on the shop floor, with authenticity and sincerity, on the power relations that shape the for-profit system of production in coastal China.

To step back for a moment, the capital-labor conflict in China has unfolded in the historic shift from communism to capitalism. As the Chinese economy has grown to be the engine of global capitalism, millions of people have moved from the countryside to the cities.

In turn, this growth has expanded the labor actions of workers at the point of production, Ren writes. Their accounts of poor food, and poorly cooled and heated workplaces makes clear how and why such labor uprisings occur in Chia.

In one case, low-quality canteen food triggers a roadblock and strike, planned in secret. Workers won improvements at their factory.

These proletarian tales of harsh working and living conditions reminded me of what the working class faced during the dawn of industrial capitalism. History does not repeat itself, though sometimes it may rhyme, according to Mark Twain.

The case studies of worker self-directed organizing and mobilizing in China on Strike deserve wide attention.

To support more publishing of Chinese workers’ histories, email ghqting@gmail.com.

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Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Emailsethsandronsky@gmail.com

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