IN May and early June 2010, a two-week-long strike involving more than a thousand workers at the Honda transmission plant in Foshan triggered a wave of strikes across China.
The dispute highlighted the long hours and low pay of Chinese workers, and their growing determination to stand and fight for a decent wage.
And in particular, it brought into sharp focus the teacherous role of the Communist Party run state trade unions in labour conflicts.
Not only did the factory union and the local union federations in Foshan fail to represent workers’ interests, or even talk to the workers during the initial stages of the strike, the local township federation actually gathered a mob of so-called union officials to force the strikers back to work, injuring two of the workers in the process.
The Communist Party was forced to intervene in the conflict.
A representative from the National People’s Congress met with the company’s union representative, because the workers refused to meet with him since they had been beaten by his thugs.
The workers were demanding an apology from the union and that those guilty of violence be handed over to the courts. Until that happened, the workers staged a sit-in and refused to talk with the union.
The strike involved over a thousand workers – everyone in production. The administrative workers also absolutely supported the shop floor, though most did not want to be a visible part of the strike.
The first demand of the strike was about wages, benefits and bonuses; the second was that no striking worker is fired, and that the union chairman must be got rid of, and a new union voted in.
The strike began on May 17 because the Foshan government increased the legal minimum wage to more than 900 yuan on May 1, but the basic wage was still only around 700 yuan.
Other companies raised it to 900, but this company didn’t, and that set it off.
Then they didn’t handle it well, and the strike got bigger and all production stopped.
The Honda workers were demanding higher wages because the cost of living had risen and buying vegetables and daily necessities was more expensive.
‘If everyone is earning wages of only a few hundred yuan a month, or even one thousand plus, they can’t keep up with the cost of living, let alone save any money to send back home’, reported one worker.
He added: ‘Everyone went along with the strike because it is in their economic interests to do so.’
After the initial work stoppage, the workers resumed work for a few days because the company’s general manager promised to respond to their demands.
But soon afterwards, the workers found out that the company planned to recruit new hires from local vocational schools and then threaten workers that, if they did not accept the company’s offer, they would all be fired and replaced by new hires.
The response of the workers was that, ‘by May 24, everyone had stopped work, and those called in for overtime did not work either.’
The workers had initially demanded a 200 to 400 yuan pay increase but, as one worker explained, ‘After production stopped, these Japanese companies here were all increasing salaries by 300 or 400, 500 yuan, so everyone said, that’s no good, we are on strike, and they haven’t learned anything from us yet, so since everyone else’s demands are going up, we want 800 yuan from them.’
The regular employees, with a take home pay of around 1,100 yuan a month, were actually earning less than new interns recruited directly from vocational schools.
‘If you were going to be made a regular employee one day and when you did, you would make a lower wage than when you were an intern, would you still want to?’ More than half of the workers at the factory were actually interns rather than regular employees.
‘The union did not represent the workers. The union only represented the company.
‘They have not considered our interests. The union only knows about getting money. They have never taken us workers into consideration.
‘They have been of no use whatsoever. Now everyone wants that union chairman removed, and the union totally reorganised, with new elections.’
Workers originally thought however that they knew little about the Trade Union Law and would have to rely on management to hold union elections, because they felt that ‘we are all production workers, and we don’t have the ability’ to do it.
The worker had never been asked to participate in union elections or any other union activities in the two years he had been with the company.
During the strike, the union never gave the workers the opportunity to decide for or against the company’s offer.
Nor did the striking workers formally select a representative to negotiate with the company.
He said: ‘Who would dare to be this representative? Surely no one would dare to.
‘Being on strike for so many days, you should choose a representative and demand to talk with the union and with the company, and it should be resolvable. But no one dares to make their position known like that.’
One day all the striking employees were summoned to a meeting, and then management called in security in a bid to intimidate them.
‘They wanted us to go there to sign an agreement to return to work. They weren’t going to let us out. Then they told us to sign the agreement and start work.
‘But everyone knew their intentions; they wanted to surround us, but they didn’t have enough people. Initially they had 40 or 50 people, but later those surrounding us disappeared and only a dozen or so were left. They were in the middle, surrounded by us, and they got scared and also left.’
The workers were determined to carry on in spite of their lack of legal status or a formally-designated representative, and they had not been swayed by the company’s pressure tactics so far.
The worker said: ‘None of us understand the law very well, and they say our strike is against the law. But no one is afraid, and is saying, if it’s illegal, then it’s illegal.
‘You can fire us all if you like; if you fire us all, your entire production will stop. Each day they are only thinking about how to oppose us, and have not negotiated with us in good faith.
‘Each day they want to work against us, and send those government officials or union people to come to pressure us.
‘As a result, they will probably not increase our wages. If they wanted to increase our wages, they would have done it long ago, and things would not have gotten to this point.’
However, two days later, on 4 June, the workers accepted a management offer of a 24 per cent to 33 per cent pay increase.
The success of the strike led to numerous other strikes, not only at Honda suppliers, but across the automotive industry in general and throughout China.
The township union federation did eventually apologise for its violent actions, and a week later, the Guangdong Provincial Federation of Trade Unions announced that the factory union would be reformed and that in future its leaders would be democratically elected by the employees.
Moreover, federation vice-chair, Kong Xianghong, said that the union chair should be subject to an annual performance review, and would need to obtain an approval rating of more than 50 per cent in order to remain in his post.
This situation is now being repeated in all of the industrial areas of China.
The Chinese workers political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy and its pro-capitalist policies is underway, and it is inspiring workers to fight all over Asia.