Follow the Lead of China’s Strikers

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 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:–look-to-chinese-strikers-for-hope

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!


  • Excellent comments, Jim and Ken! I’m delighted you’ve had your book translated into Chinese.

  • If anyone wants to get on the China labour developments email list serve, please feel free to contact me at Mailings average about one a week, but, in practice, they tend to come in bunches, then nothing for a while. If you get on and later want off, just send me an email message.
    Cathy Walker

  • I have to admit one of my interests over the past 6 months is trying to get some of the fundementals of the chinese economy under my belt and of course the workers and unions within China. Here is an excellent article and a vidio from a conference held early this spring. I particularly like Ho-fungs article. It is a fascinating economy and the labour power is trully an amazing specticle. So much potential, but also so much polarization. We’ll see if teh unions can help swing a bit of balance into the equation. I truly do not believe the rumour amongst some of the corporate speak in this neck of the woods that the goevrmenet leaders in China are allowing these strikers to be actibe to bring up the wage floor. There seems to be too much, if Ho-Fungs artcile is correct, collusion between internal interests to keep workers wages down. In fact there has been a shift to dilute soem of the increases in labour rights and union strengths that had been promised.

    So if the workers are making gains, it is coming at the cost of organizing and sacrifice. More research is needed. The migrant labourers are so seemingly so abundant and oppressed I am hoping some of the union action by some of the more stable workers will spill over into the migrant workforce.

    i need to get on this list serve

  • The debate over the new Labour Contract law which came into effect in 2008 which Jim mentions is interesting. As Jim says, it was a debate which was quite active inside China (and with the Shanghai-based American Chamber of Commerce opposing and getting some concessions for fear that labour costs would increase too much). The Law was introduced by a government concerned by the rising number of strikes and wishing to see some trickle down of the benefits of China’s rapid growth to workers in order to maintain social stability. The new law was seen as a mechanism to achieve this and to institutionalize worker protests; the number of labour disputes going though the court system has been increasing dramatically. But the debate over the Labour Law has also raised expectations. We are now witnessing a new wave of industrial protests but which is taking place outside of the legal channels into which the government had sought to direct disputes. How this unfolds will tell us much about how successful the government has been in its attempts to institutionalize industrial relations and how much the labour genie is now out of the bottle.

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