Chinese workers: The new prey for ‘independent’ unionism

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The Chinese proletariat is showing signs of militancy and combativity on its own class terrain, against the Communist Party of China and the state unions. Unfortunately, the Western trade unionists and leftist activists are taking notice. Similar to the Polish workers struggles' of 1980-1981, the Chinese workers erupted into self-organized strikes and protests against the company, outside of and against the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Starting in May 2010, workers at parts plants for Honda went on a 2 week strike in Guangdong province. Workers elected their own representatives from among themselves at general assemblies (one of their demands was that all workers be given time off to attend these assemblies during every shift).

Labor Notes, the central magazine for the business union reformers, rank-and-file unionists and their leftist activist allies, wrote a front page piece concerning the Honda workers. The title of the article, ‘Do Spreading Auto Strikes Mean Hope for a Workers' Movement in China?' shows the excitement at the prospect of a spreading 'independent' unionism. The article early on makes a startling confession:  "...the ACFTU in practice has worked in line with the government and employers to enforce labor discipline and mediate labor-management conflicts to keep production running smoothly."  However, if we believe Labor Notes' supporters, this characterization only applies to business unions in the West and state unions in the so-called 'socialist' countries and other authoritarian regimes -- not the rank-and-file, 'independent' unions. Labor Notes goes on to say, "The peaceful resolution of the Honda strikes may invite the opportunity to establish a real collective bargaining system in China."  To union reformers and 'independent' unionists, the goal of working class militancy and self-organized organs (general assemblies, worker-delegates, strike committees) is the establishment of an 'independent' union to represent them, the purpose of class struggle is to get better economic conditions within the 'independent' union system.

The last sentence of the article speaks to the future hopes of the rank-and-filers:  "International labor allies should take cheer."  The history of the Polish proletariat is one of nostalgia for all manner of union leftists, anarcho-syndicalists and revolutionary syndicalists. For the working class it is full of lessons. The Polish Solidarnosc union was founded after the workers established class organs: strike committees, general assemblies, worker-delegates. The environment of statified unions led the workers to reject the official unions, but the mystification of 'independent' and 'free' unions was very strong, leading to the founding of Solidarnosc. With the rise of Solidarnosc, the 'independent' and 'free' union, the workers militancy was funneled into the union struggle. The influence of the class organs declined. Given the similar statified unions that exist in China as in Poland, it isn't beyond imagining that pressure from Western unionists, leftist activists and Chinese democratization advocates could grow the strength of the 'independent' and 'free' union mystification among the Chinese proletariat. Despite this, the self-organization and the struggle on their own class terrain by the Chinese workers should be recognized as a very positive development.

Hough, 7/17/10.