The Chinese economy is supposed to be the exception to the global crisis of capitalism. Tell that to the thousands of Chinese workers who have been involved in a wave of strikes in recent weeks in many parts of the country.
Among the most publicised struggles has been at a number of Honda plants which so far have been hit by three waves of strikes, even after getting a 24% wage increase in the first strikes. At Foxconn, the maker of IPods where there have been many suicides recently, strike action won a 70% pay rise. At the KOK machinery factory there have been clashes between security forces and workers when the former tried to stop the latter taking their strike onto the streets.
These strikes have not been blacked out by the Chinese media because the companies are all foreign-owned and the labour disputes have been used for propaganda against China's Japanese and South Korean regional rivals. In reality, the strike movement has also involved workers in many Chinese enterprises and in a variety of cities. The use of the police and other security forces has been commonplace.
The media outside China has been quick to identify that something significant is underway. With headlines like "The rise of a Chinese workers' movement" (businessweeek.com), "New generation shakes China labour landscape" (Reuters) and "Strikes put China on spot over labour unrest" (Associated Press), the bourgeoisie recognises, in its crude way, that while there has been evidence in the past of the growing discontent in the working class in China, the present movement means something more.
The AP article (11/6/10) says "the authorities have long tolerated limited, local protests by workers unhappy over wages or other issues, perhaps recognising the need for an outlet for such frustrations" but the Financial Times (11/6/10) adds that "Signs are emerging that the labour protests in China are far more widespread and co-ordinated than previously thought, prompting fears of copycat industrial action that could raise costs for multinational companies." A Hong Kong-based economist quoted in the Daily Telegraph (10/6/10) echoes this "All it takes now is a single spark and news will spread all over China, which could lead to similar industrial action in other factories."
Labour and capital
The reasons for the struggles and their tendency to inspire and spread to others is something the ‘experts' try to explain away. "Workers keep themselves up to date on strike action via mobile phones and QQ, an instant messaging tool. They compare wages and working conditions, often with workers from their home province and use the results to bargain with employers, said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. ‘[Labour protests] have been happening across the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta since the beginning of the year' due to labour shortages." (FT 11/6/10) As another ‘expert' summarises: "'One of the strikes happened when workers got together just by sending text messages to each other,' said Dong Baohua, law professor at East China University of Politics and Law. ‘Modern technology makes strikes more likely to happen'" (ibid).
It's true that technological innovations are used by workers, but that doesn't explain why workers strike, why they want to come to come together in struggle. The reasons for that lie in the material conditions in which workers live and work. According to official statistics wages were 56% of Chinese GDP in 1983, but were down to 36% in 2005. In the last five years nearly 1 in 4 workers in China have had no wage increase. Whoever has been gaining from the Chinese economic miracle it's not been the working class. Recent increases in the minimum wage in important industrialised provinces like Guangdong, Shandong, Ningxia and Hubei have been explained as attempts to offset the effects of inflation, but even in the state-run media there are admissions that the prevention of social unrest is also a motive.
In the official People's Daily Online (9/6/10) in an article headlined "More worker unrest coming, experts predict" you can read that "The growing labour unrest originating in South China may make wage hikes a trend in the near future." They try to portray this as an ‘opportunity' and give no explanation for the ‘unrest'. However, like capitalists everywhere, they can do the maths, as one official explained the investment plans of Hong Kong businesses: "If labour costs increase, their profit will fall and they may even shift their factories to other countries that can provide cheaper labour."
Organising - in or out of the unions?
In China there has for a long time been a growing frustration and impatience with the unions. These explicitly state bodies not only discourage and try to prevent strikes, at Honda they used physical violence against workers, who, in turn fought back against union officials. It is no surprise that workers have tried other avenues. An article in the New York Times (10/6/10), for example, while reporting that "scattered strikes have begun to ripple into Chinese provinces previously untouched by the labour unrest", also showed what happened at Honda during one of the strikes. "The strikers here have developed a sophisticated, democratic organisation, in effect electing shop stewards to represent them in collective bargaining with management. They are also demanding the right to form a trade union separate from the government-controlled national federation of trade unions, which has long focused on maintaining labour peace for foreign investors."
While it is possible to see what impulses are at work here it is also necessary to recall the experience of workers in Poland in 1980-81. Here there was a country-wide strike movement in which workers' assemblies created their own committees and other forms of organisation. The whole force of this movement was weakened by the idea of creating ‘free trade unions' as opposed to the state-run monoliths. This idea took material form in the emergence of Solidarnosc, a union that went from undermining the movement at the start of the 80s to leading an austerity government with Lech Walesa as President in the early 1990s.
The attempts by workers to take struggles into their own hands can take many forms, whether with shop stewards, elected committees, delegations to other workers, or mass meetings where workers make their own decisions on the organisation of the struggle. There is no inevitable progression and many potential false turnings. What's important is to see the dynamic of the movement.
During the first Honda strike there was a statement from a delegation that clearly had illusions in the possibilities of unions, but also had other quite healthy ideas. For example: "We are not simply struggling for the rights of 1,800 workers, but for the rights of workers across the whole country". These workers may speak of ‘rights' rather than liberation, but they clearly show a concern for a movement far wider than one factory.
There is also a passage which, although part of a document that asserts "It is the duty of the trade union to defend workers' collective interests and provide leadership in workers' strikes" shows that there are other ideas developing as well. "All of us fellow workers in Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co., Ltd. should stay united and not divided by the management. We understand that there are, inevitably, different opinions amongst us. We appeal to all fellow workers to express their views to the worker representatives. Although these representatives do not cover workers in all the departments, they take the opinions of all workers in the factory seriously and equally. Production line workers who are motivated and would like to participate in the negotiation with the management can join the delegation through election. ... Without the endorsement given by the workers' assembly, the representatives will not unilaterally agree to any proposal of standard lower than the demands stated in the above." This is from the translation that appears on libcom.org. It is interesting to note that the passage on the need for workers' unity is translated on businessweek.com as "We call all workers to maintain a high degree of unity and not to allow the capitalists to divide us".
Whichever is the most accurate, the need for workers' unity, whether against ‘management' or ‘capitalists', is fundamental for working class struggle. In China the material situation that spurs on struggles and the question of how to organise is the same that faces workers across the world.