The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 83 (Fall 2010). It was written in June 2010 by a reader of PR in China. A comment by the editors follows the article.
It is simply not possible to underestimate the significance of the rising strike wave rippling throughout China in the last few weeks. Though as yet this first wave has only embraced perhaps tens of thousands of workers taking independent strike action against their bosses in various parts of the country, it represents a watershed in modern Chinese history and is an event of world- historic importance. The gargantuan Chinese proletariat, whose grinding super-exploitation helped keep afloat the bankrupt international capitalist system in the last couple of decades, has begun to stir. China had barely recovered from the shock of the serial suicides of desperation by demoralized workers at the military-style Foxconn plant in Shenzhen when thousands of workers at a Honda plant in Foshan threw down the gauntlet: there is another way out of capitalist misery! The initiative of the Honda strikers, shutting down production of a key company in a key industry, touched off a wave of strike action spreading from the Southeast in Guangdong province up through Jianxi province (Taiwanese sportswear producer Smartball) to the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai (Taiwanese rubber producer KOK), stretching to the Northwest in Xian (Japanese sewing machine maker Brother). There are now reports of new strikes at Toyota plants in the northeastern city of Tianjin. Inspired by the victory of the Honda strike, workers in different parts of the country are initiating their own strikes to fight for higher wages and better working conditions.
Completely bypassing the state-sponsored All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the strikes starkly illustrate the power of independent working-class action and the very real concessions that the bosses will concede in the face of organized resistance. As the workers begin to taste their own power through the strength of unity, the economic struggle has become a political struggle: already Honda workers at a lock plant in Zhongshan have organized a demonstration calling for the right to form their own unions, that is, unions independent of the ACFTU. This is a significant development, as it projects the birth of a nationwide workers movement in China.
The fact that the state media gave extensive and sympathetic coverage to the Honda strike, at least in its initial stages, needs to be understood correctly to prepare for future battles. While it is true that, very generally speaking, the ruling regime seeks to repress and silence independent workers’ actions out of fear that such strikes could trigger wider social unrest, it is also in their long-term interests to maintain a certain “impartial” image and distance from localized conflicts. This buys them important political capital with which to further manipulate and “arbitrate” future class conflict. Particularly in the case of a Japanese-owned factory like Honda, whose striking workers resent the stark wage gap with their Japanese managers and bosses, the regime took a calculated risk that the Honda strike could be “nationalized.”
But the hypocrisy of their patronizing “sympathy” for migrant workers, whom they have auctioned off to foreign multinationals at dirt-cheap wages for two decades, didn’t last more than a few days. Once it was clear that workers in various parts of the country were prepared to repeat the boldness of the Honda strikers, the Communist Party rulers imposed a media blackout. Since then the public can only read meaningless moralizing articles on the plight of migrant workers or about the Premier’s visit to a Beijing construction site to share Dragon Boat rice dumplings with new-generation migrant workers. Papa Wen cares about you, so don’t you go and do anything rash!
The Chinese rulers realize that the widening gulf of wealth distribution in China is unsustainable, even in the short term. In the last few years there has been a half-hearted effort to improve labor laws, raise the minimum wage and enforce payment of wages. Of course, this is not because they think raising the wages or standard of living or the expectations of hundreds of millions of wage slaves is such a good idea, but rather because growing social polarization threatens to explode in their face. They hope to placate a section of the working class with meager wage gains while forcing a readjustment of another section away from labor-intensive industry. This is easier said than done as they are left with little room to maneuver.
Despite its official “presence” in the Honda factories, the ACFTU played absolutely no role in organizing the Honda strike, and in fact was sent to the factory to diffuse the struggle. This is not “lamentable,” as many commentators sigh; it is a fact. And no fact could better illustrate the true nature of this organization. The membership of the ACFTU has increased significantly in recent years, reaching over 200 million. It has also engaged in high-profile campaigns to “unionize” Western multinationals. Many Western employers initially balked at this campaign but now write it off as yet another cost of doing business in China. In fact, they have no choice in the matter. And, more significantly, nor do the workers the ACFTU supposedly represents. And that’s because the ACFTU is not a “union” in the sense of an organization that represents the interest of the workers, but an adjunct of the party-state machine.
A few years ago, regional strikes by Chongqing teachers and taxi drivers forced government officials to the negotiating table without the participation of the ACFTU. One report remarks:
In nearly all these incidents, however, there was one organisation conspicuous by its absence. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the sole legally mandated trade union, is now seen by the majority of China’s workers as irrelevant to their needs, and as such they increasingly take matters into their own hands. In the Chongqing teachers strike, for example, all of the more than 20 directly elected teachers’ representatives in talks with government officials from Qijiang county were members of the teachers’ union, yet not a single union official attended the meeting. (China Labour Bulletin, 2007-08)
It is true that the ACFTU organizes social welfare programs and job training, and even fights for back payment of wages. But there is a class difference between a union born of social struggle of the workers themselves, however bureaucratic it may be, and a state-sponsored social welfare organization. The ACFTU is completely dominated by party-state functionaries and is an integral part of the state machine. The recent “unionization” drives are essentially the drive of state capitalism to maintain control over the rapid growth of the private sector, both its private capitalists and “private” workers: those who have become relatively independent of the state sector.
Under statified capitalism, the interests of individual employers are subordinated to the collective interests of the party-state machine. The ACFTU is an instrument that helps to ensure that subordination, even if it sometimes means promoting the (short-term) interests of workers when necessary. The Honda strike serves as a valuable lesson for class-conscious workers because it reveals the true nature of this organization. When workers take the initiative to organize independent strike actions or political demonstrations, they find that the ACFTU acts to sabotage them. To promote their own interests workers need organizations independent of the ACFTU.
Of course, it is impossible to predict with certainty what kind of organizations Chinese workers will adopt in their struggle to defend their interests and wage their battles. The current slogan raised by striking Honda workers for an independent trade union is supportable as a counterposition to the attempts of the state to corral workers into the state-sponsored ACFTU. But the demand for an independent trade union has its weakness in that it limits the scope of workers’ struggle to industrial unionism, which only represents the interests of the workers of a certain industry or a certain factory. This slogan was probably adopted using the model of the trade unions in the West or in nearby Hong Kong, whose influence is more direct.
The irony is that the relative backwardness of industrial relations in mainland China means that there is the real possibility that a mushrooming of class struggle in the short to medium-term future could completely bypass or “skip” the stage of industrial unionism – thus creating a more nationwide framework of factory committees or even soviets, mass organizations taking on the functions of a rival political power during revolutionary periods. This would be a classic example of combined and uneven development, where the stages in China’s uneven and relatively backward social relations would be “combined” and tend to jump ahead of their Western counterparts. For this reason we prefer a more open-ended or “algebraic” slogan which allows for this possibility. After all, the larger and more inclusive our organizations, the more power we can wield to defend our interests.
The existence of independent unions in the West was of course gained through the hard struggle and sacrifice of working people, and revolutionaries defend them and indeed work within them to fight for our own program. But in China the absence of any independent organizations of the working class means that they must be built from the bottom up. Workers will learn in struggle to form the organizations which best correspond to their needs, and needn’t mechanically adopt organizational models from the West which may limit their scope.
A complete analysis and program is beyond the reach of this statement, but two aspects of the struggle thus far deserve comment. It is reported that the strike leader of the Foshan Honda plant was fired for “sabotage” because he threw the first switch to shut down production when the strike began. The bosses’ desire to find and punish the ringleaders is “natural” from their perspective, but a union is only as strong as its collective will to defend all of its members from persecution and victimization. Particularly in China, where officials have always “killed the chicken to scare the monkey,” union members must be prepared to make the political slogan of amnesty a central part of our demands – Amnesty for all strikers! An injury to one is an injury to all! No persecutions or victimizations!
Another report suggests that Honda has posted public ads for recruitment of replacement workers at a factory gate as a provocation during negotiations. Obviously this is bargaining in bad faith, and it is correct to expose it as such. But a more important question is raised about what a union would do to fight this dirty tactic. Companies, often in connivance with local officials, have also used hired gangs in recent years to physically attack strikers or petitioners. A fighting union requires organization and discipline. Picket squads must be dispatched to enforce union discipline, either through persuasion, or when necessary, by force. We cannot remain passive or defenseless in the face of organized strikebreaking by the use of scabs or hired thugs – For picket organizations of self-defense! Confront the strikebreakers and disarm all company thugs!
The budding workers movement in China must also be a beacon for all the oppressed. The majority of striking workers thus far are migrant workers from the countryside who suffer super- exploitation and discrimination in the bigger cities, and their democratic rights must be championed. They have created most of the enormous wealth in this society, and yet the urban- rural divide prevents them from enjoying the fruits of their labor―Abolish the reactionary Hukou system! Equal access to jobs, housing, healthcare and education!
As revolutionaries, we champion the cause of the working class because it is the only social force in this society that has both the objective interests and the social power to overthrow the capitalist social order. The irony of the last few decades is that a terminal crisis in their system forced the capitalists to create a super-cheap massive working class in China. In the short term the multinationals made enormous profits and the Stalinist rulers kept their grip on power. With a seemingly endless supply of cheap, expendable labor from the countryside, the capitalist bosses around the world never imagined that they were creating their gravediggers.
Now the largest and most concentrated working class in history, the Chinese proletariat is no longer expendable. As labor shortages in southern China undercut the bosses’ cost cutting, many gravitated to other regions in search of an alternative. A new generation of migrant workers grew up in a more modern China and have higher expectations from life. Many young migrant women have tasted the relative freedoms of city life and are no longer willing to accept the fate awaiting them in the countryside.
The quick pace of highly symbolic events in the last few weeks – from serial suicides to collective resistance and political demonstrations – suggests that this wave of class struggle is but a prelude to the coming storm, a revolutionary break with the old society. Given the unprecedented international economic crisis, where working people around the world face mass unemployment and the threat of war and environmental catastrophe, a workers’ revolution in China would electrify the working class and oppressed around the world.
Ultimately, the struggle for workers’ power and the overthrow of the capitalist system necessitates the creation of an international revolutionary party that fights for a socialist revolution. Firmly rooted in the working class, such a party would draw the most important lessons from our key battles and point the way forward to a socialist society of abundance and freedom from exploitation.
Previous issues of PR have analyzed how China’s fake-socialist, bureaucratic-capitalist rulers have used their dictatorial powers over the country’s desperately poor people to provide imperialism with its most reliable source of cheap labor. By so doing, China’s Communist Party (CCP) has built its wealth and economic power, presiding over the most rapid and widespread industrialization in history – and the fastest growth of an industrial working class as well. With the recent strike wave that this article discusses, the multi-millioned Chinese working class is just beginning to sense the tremendous power it has when it fights for its interests.
As our author explains, China’s workers are “organized” by a yellow bosses’ union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACTFU). Run by the CCP in collaboration with private capitalists, the ACFTU has worked to enforce conditions of capitalist super-exploitation for years. No wonder striking Honda workers complained of having to pay union dues without receiving any representation and called for the election of union officials – their factory managers were also the “leaders” of their local union! And no wonder some striking workers went so far as to call for independent unions under the workers’ control.
Our author, however, expresses what we think is an overly cautious attitude toward the struggle for independent unions:
The demand for an independent trade union has its weakness in that it limits the scope of workers struggle to industrial unionism, which only represents the interests of the workers of a certain industry or certain factory. ... Workers will learn in struggle to form the organizations which best correspond to their needs, and needn’t mechanically adopt organizational forms from the West which may limit their scope.
While accepting that the call for independent trade unions is “supportable” in the present period, our author prefers to call for broader working-class organizations:
The irony is that the relative backwardness of industrial relations in mainland China means that there is the real possibility that a mushrooming of class struggle in the short to medium-term future could completely bypass or “skip” the stage of industrial unionism – thus creating a more nationwide framework of factory committees or even soviets, mass organizations taking on the functions of rival political power during revolutionary periods.
We too think it important to warn of the limitations of trade unionism; we agree that China’s conditions of massive poverty and oppression mean that an isolated strike over economic demands could easily spark a broad uprising that would need equally broad organizations of struggle – like the workers’ councils (soviets) that were the backbone of the Russian revolution. Revolutionaries must therefore spread the idea of workers’ councils as well as of the need for workers to arm themselves for self-defense against counterrevolutionary attack.
But we do not think that the struggle for independent unions necessarily builds a barrier to the creation of broader mass organizations; on the contrary, it can itself prove the need for such political organizations, and unions can provide an organizational backbone for the struggle for more extensive political demands and organizations. Therefore, we believe that revolutionary socialists in China should – carefully, in the political “underground” when necessary, and boldly among broad numbers of workers when possible – make a tactical priority of advocating the creation of independent unions free from the control of the Communist Party and private capitalists, and with leaders democratically elected from among the workers themselves. Such a perspective does not free revolutionaries from their duty to explain to their fellow workers that unions can offer no more than a temporary defense of their jobs and living conditions under capitalism; it makes such warnings all the more necessary.
Given the widespread acceptance that the ACFTU is a bosses’ organization, many workers are ready to embrace the idea of an independent union movement. But where workers resist such a perspective and hope that the ACFTU can be made to act on their behalf, a struggle to run local ACFTU organizations democratically could be useful in convincing them otherwise and exposing the CCP’s hostility to independent working-class struggle. To be sure, the ACFTU as a whole cannot be transformed into a genuine and independent union: workers’ struggles cannot afford to act within organizations weighed down by such heavy, repressive bureaucracies. Rather, workers will have to break whatever organizations they have from the CCP’s grip and confront it as their class enemy.