How fascinating, and inspiring, to see China’s workers continuing to build their fightback against the low pay and grueling working conditions that have unfortunately been part and parcel of China’s recent development.
And how appropriate that it was a fight against a global auto giant, Honda, that finally put the global spotlight on this struggle.
Finally, how ironic that Honda workers (and those working for many other companies — Honda is just the tip of the icerberg) in China have the gumption to organize themselves and take action, against daunting odds, while so many workers in Canada and other supposedly more “democratic” lands stay all too passive in the face of exploitation and hardship that differs from the Chinese experience only in degree.
China’s labour relations system is often derided in the west as consisting of “puppet” unions operating under the thumb of dictatorial government. This thin stereotype was always wrong. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is a much more complex, flexible organization than Western critics gave it credit for. Both the ACFTU, and some independent union efforts, are becoming more active and more determined in addressing the inequities that have accompanied China’s acceptance of foreign investment in much of its economy (let alone the exploitive actions of China’s own new capitalists, who if anything are worse). After all, the ACFTU (unlike our union movement) successfully organized Wal-Mart, despite company opposition and threats. (Pressure on the company from the government helped, of course. Why don’t OUR governments press Wal-Mart to accept unions, instead of tolerating its union-busting???) China recently went through a major and honest public debate over a new labour law that, while imperfect, is at least heading in the right direction (unlike those in most “free” countries).
The new wave of strike action (the Honda strikes were the highest-profile, but there are many others) should put to rest the myth that there’s no genuine labour movement in China. It works in different, sometimes subtle, ways. But it’s there. And it’s clearly going to flex its muscles in the coming years. (Rightly so, given the increasingly skewed nature of income distribution in China’s rapidly growing economy.)
(Incidentally, I am indebted to my former CAW colleague Cathy Walker, Canada’s greatest expert on Chinese trade unionism, for most of what I know about China. She sponsors a highly interesting regular e-mail list-serve about Chinese labour developments; e-mail her at email@example.com if you’re interested in receiving her excellent updates.)
There’s an interesting contrast between the recent strikes at Honda in China, and the situation here in Canada. Honda workers at the company’s very successful auto plants in Canada were infuriated last year when the company imposed unilateral cutbacks in health benefits, time off, and other compensation. Honda, unlike the North American automakers, stayed profitable right through the financial meltdown and global recession: net income equaled 268 billion yen in the year ending March 31 2010, and 137 billion in the year ending March 31 2009 — down from the all-time record 600 billion yen earned in fiscal 2008, but still nothing to sneeze at. Yet the company felt justified in clawing back important provisions from its Canadian workers — and since they have no union, what the company wanted, the company got.
Honda workers in Canada vented their anger, but to really redress the situation they’ll have to take the next step: organizing themselves, and wielding their collective power, to protect what they have and to win a fair share of the wealth they will produce in the future. If Honda workers in China can do it, we can too. And without the collective strength that comes from organizing, workers can’t count on a thing. Historically, our ability to wrest what economic progress we have enjoyed under capitalism has depended completely on our collective ability (at the bargaining table, in politics, and in culture more generally) to demand and fight for it.
Here’s a wonderful op-ed from CAW President Ken Lewenza, pointing to the example of the Chinese strikers to encourage us all to keep fighting for fairness, and stating the obvious point that without unions, workers have no real economic power:
By the way, the Mandarin language edition of my book Economics for Everyone is now available, published in China by Rightol Media:
China’s economy has made impressive progress, and some of that progress has been reflected in improved living standards for many (but not most) working people. To push for a more balancd vision of economic development, and a fair share of the wealth they produce, Chinese workers will have to learn quickly about how capitalism works (as opposed to the idealized vision of free-market economics that, based on my experience lecturing in China, too many Chinese have accepted as authentic). In this regard, hopeully my book makes a contribution to that learning — and the Honda workers (and many other brave Chinese unionists) have shown that they are quick studies!
- “Globalization” and Unions (March 8th, 2012)
- In the Wake of the Crisis: Bully Capitalism (February 14th, 2012)
- Souvenirs de Cannes (November 9th, 2011)
- Neo Liberal Globalization Kills Good Jobs (October 4th, 2011)
- What Newfoundland & Labrador Can Teach the Rest of Canada About 21st Century Globalization (May 20th, 2011)