After two years of relative calm, the Chinese working class is reappearing in the news, with reports of strikes occurring on the Pearl River Delta, in southeast China. This region is home to one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing in the whole world.
The current Chinese economic growth has led to rising inflation, especially food prices, making it unbearable to live on the country’s low wages. At the same time, the combination of increased access to available employment and the ongoing labor shortages are motivating workers to fight back.
Some examples show the current state of workers mobilizations. In Merry Electronics, in Shenzhen, a rally of more than one thousand employees in the subdistrict of Dalang won a 22% increase in wages, in the face of police repression.
In central China, the same phenomenon is visible. In Brother Industries, a manufacturer of sewing machines located in Xi’an, 900 workers led a work stoppage of several days, until their Japanese bosses agreed to open negotiations for wage increases.
There is a continuity of the long tradition of Chinese women’s struggle. More than 20 women workers of a privatized cotton processing factory in Henan were arrested and charged with “stopping production”, after 5,000 workers led a two week strike for salary increases, bonuses and vacation payment in accordance with the law, and retirement benefits for occupational disease.
Strikes in Honda
From a political and economic standpoint, however, the most important strikes were led by workers of the five units of Honda in China. The first occurred on May 21st, at the Honda auto parts factory in Foshan. There, 1,900 workers led by a 23 year old young man stopped production. Their strike closed down the four assembly plants due to lack of transmissions. They demanded a $ 150 monthly pay raise, doubling the current pay.
Taken by surprise, Honda offered a 24% wage increase on May 31st. Despite the enormous pressure exerted by government officials and members of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the workers rejected this offer and continued the strike, demanding better wages. Finally, on June 4th, the workers accepted a proposal of 34%, bringing the highest wages to $ 300. The company’s production losses are estimated at 3,000 vehicles a day during the strike.
The successful strike in the transmission factory inspired workers in other units. On June 7th, two auto parts suppliers went out on strike, again forcing the closure of two automaker factories. After three days, Honda announced an agreement with the workers of one of the factories, without disclosing the details.
On June 9th the most important strike was launched, at Honda Lock, in Zhongshan, with 1,700 workers, more than half of whom are women. The workers demanded, in addition to salary increase of 89%, the right to form an independent trade union separate from the Union Federation. For this, they elected shop stewards from each sector to negotiate with management, assembling a negotiation committee of 20 members.
In this low-skilled workers plant, wages are only $ 132 a month. Moreover, the work schedule is brutal: the workers are forced to stay eight hours standing at their posts, they can only go to the bathroom with a pass given by the head of each department and they are forbidden to talk during the work day – not an unusual practice in many factories. Not to mention that women can only remain seated at work after they reach the last three months of pregnancy.
The demand for freedom of union association, certainly evoked a harsh response from the employers. On Monday, June 14th, they hired scabs. This recruitment was made with the support of the local government, the partner of Honda at the factory. Under the threat of dismissal for employees who did not show up for work, the strike was suspended. However, the Japanese supervisors, who earn wages 50 times higher than Chinese workers, were surprised by the following events. The workers have threatened to go back on strike if the company did not improve its offer of a wage increase – about 20% average on salary and aids.
The threat, which was made hours after Honda said it had resumed operations here, ending a strike that began last Wednesday, suggesting that labor unrest at the factory is not over and that workers would not easily yield to pressure from the factory’s owners and the local government.
The struggle for independent trade unions
The Honda workers won an initial victory: to organize themselves independently of the ACFTU, with the formation of a committee elected by the rank-and-file.
Ever since the Honda transmissions factory strike, there have been conflicts between the leaders of the local union, wearing their yellow caps, and the workers, because the workers do not want to be represented by an union completely subordinated to the Communist Party, which rules the country in favor of the local bourgeoisie (which arose from the cadres of this very Party) and imperialism, mainly the US. According to the workers, the union is “useless”.
In the last strike, however, there was a qualitative change in the form of the call for recognition of an independent union. The company answered by saying that such an agreement was beyond its authority and recommended the workers to take it to the government. But the government is clearly against any workers’ organization outside of its control.
Even if some shop stewards have been forced to go into hiding to avoid arrest, the continuing mobilization of the Honda Lock factory shows that the workers’ organization has already achieved its first results. This example can reinvigorate the Chinese labor movement.