Wildcat Strikes in China

The wildcat strike at the Nanhai Honda factory which formally ended on June 4th with a partial victory for workers, has subsequently inspired two other Honda factories in the Pearl River Delta to go on strike. In addition, workers from several Taiwanese-owned factories have adopted similar tactics, holding a sit-in in Jiangsu and blocking roads in Shenzhen.

The initial Honda strike began on May 17th. It took place in a transmissions factory in Foshan, Guangdong. The strike lasted over two weeks and received considerable coverage in mainland Chinese newspapers. At its height, around 1,900 workers (almost the entire factory) walked off the job. Because the Nanhai factory is responsible for making car transmissions, the strike eventually stopped production at four other Honda assembly plants.[1] In total, Honda’s losses amounted to 2,500 cars per day.[2]

Over the two week period of unrest Honda presented four different offers to the workers, all of which were rejected. The offers were designed to divide the more skilled interns from the bulk of the regular workers by offering the former more. Interns make up one third of the Nanhai factory workforce. Because interns do not sign contracts, receive no insurance plan, and are not protected under Chinese labor laws, their grievances were particularly acute. However, Honda interns are young—many having not yet graduated from school—and so were seen by management as being more susceptible to persuasion. At one point student representatives from the intern’s schools were sent to the factory to convince interns to return to work.[3] In the end, all attempts to divide workers failed.

On May 26th, after management’s second offer was rejected, workers banded together to come up with a list of coherent demands which reflected their collective interests. Thus, on the following day of May 27th workers presented Honda with the following demands:

  1. an increase in wages of 800 rmb per month (roughly 75% raise) for all workers.
  2. additional cash bonuses based on duration of employment—a cumulative wage increase of 100 rmb every year for ten years.
  3. an immediate return of worker ID cards to workers upon resumption of work; workers cannot be fired or pressured to resign after returning to work; those already fired will be reinstated; a promise that workers will not be held legally or financially responsible for the strike.
  4. all wages lost, dating from May 21st up until the resumption of work, will be repaid to workers.
  5. within a month of returning to work management shall respond to the various suggestions posed by workers on May 17th.
  6. a reorganization of the local trade union; reelections should be held for union chairman and other representatives.[4]

Workers at the Nanhai factory organized themselves independently of the local trade union. Email and text messaging seem to have played an important role in facilitating communication. On several occasions over the two week period, workers decided to elect representatives to negotiate with management. This representative structure seems to have developed naturally out of the needs of the struggle and was not originally connected to any specific political goals. However, over the course of the struggle many workers began to demand a restructuring of the local unions along such democratic lines. Later, workers from a different Honda factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong who began a subsequent strike on June 9th briefly reasserted this goal as one of their primary demands.[5]

The official unions in China (All China Federation of Trade Unions) are state-controlled. In the Nanhai factory strike, the unions played only a “mediating” role and refused to openly support the workers. On May 31st, members of the local Shishan Town trade union even physically attacked a group of forty workers, causing seven or eight serious injuries.[6] However, the incident seems to have instilled more solidarity among workers than fear. The following day, the local unions issued a public “apology” to the workers in which they tried to play down responsibility for the assault.[7]

The Nanhai strike formally ended on June 4th. A settlement was reached between the worker-elected negotiating committee and the General Manager of Honda Motors in China, Zeng Qinghong. Worker’s won a partial victory. Honda agreed to raise all employee wages by 500 rmb per month (around 33%), as well as agreeing to regular cash bonuses and other demands.[8] The issue of restructuring the local union was not reported on. Towards the end of the strike the sixteen-member worker’s negotiating committee issued two letters to the public which were published by the Chinese media amidst much fanfare.

Media coverage of the initial Honda strike was surprisingly broad and in-depth. Although, the state-censured media received orders to stop reporting on any labor disputes as early as May 28th,[9] coverage by local Guangdong media continued well up until June 4th. However, since the conclusion of the Nanhai strike, mainland media has remained completely silent in regard to the subsequent wave of wildcat strikes that have rocked other parts of China. This tacit approval of coverage of the initial Nanhai strike seems to reflect a desire on the part of the CCP to see domestic consumption rise. On June 4th, coinciding with the resolution of the Nanhai strike, the Beijing Municipal Government announced it was raising Beijing’s minimum wage by 20%.[10] Later on June 9th, the Shenzhen government followed suit and announced a minimum wage increase of 10%.[11] Since January, a total of fourteen Chinese provinces have declared 10%-20% increases in the minimum wage.[12]

As the Nanhai strike was coming to a close, another dispute erupted on the other side of the country. On June 4th, workers from the Taiwanese-owned (KOK International) rubber factory outside Shanghai began a sit-in to protest low pay and intolerable working conditions.[13] Workers complained of being subjected to toxic fumes and having to labor in temperatures well over 100 degrees fahrenheit. From the beginning, the strike received almost unanimous support from workers.[14] Though the sit-in started on June 4th, reports did not reach Western media until June 7th when striking workers clashed with police. Around fifty workers were injured and dozens arrested in the clash.[15]

Back in Guangdong, a third incident broke out in Shenzhen. On June 6th, between 300 and 500 workers from a Merry Electronics factory—a Taiwanese audio components manufacturer—staged a walkout and blocked roads for the better part of a day.[16] The company immediately responded by announcing a significant wage increase, though a spokesperson denied that the increase had any relation to the strike.

As the week proceeded, two more strikes erupted in Honda factories based in Guangdong.

The second, like the initial, was in Foshan. On June 7th, workers from Honda’s Fengfu exhaust system factory folded their arms and demanded the same concessions granted the Nanhai workers. Around 250 workers, out of a total about 500, joined the strike.[17] Production at the Fengfu factory had not been affected by the events of the previous two weeks, but workers had learned about the Nanhai strike through media reports. The Fengfu strike, though only lasting three days, forced production to stop at two of Honda’s four assembly plants—which had just returned to work after being paralyzed by the initial strike.[18] An agreement was finally reached on the evening of June 9th which granted significant concessions to the workers.

Earlier in the day on June 9th, a third Honda strike broke out in Xiaolan, Zhongshan. The Xiaolan Honda Lock factory is responsible for supplying key sets, door locks, side mirrors, and other components for Honda automobiles. The strike apparently began when several employees were beaten up by security guards for allegedly planning an industrial action.[19] Though demanding wage increases similar to the Nanhai and Fengfu workers, it is this third strike at Honda Lock that seems to have briefly taken on more radical dimensions. According to the New York Times, in addition to an 89% wage increase, Honda Lock workers at one point also demanded the right to form an independent labor union based on elected representation.[20] Workers elected a ten-member “factorywide council” to enter negotiations with management on the first day of the strike. Though Honda agreed to consider the worker’s wage demands, it said it had no authority to approve an independent union. “Management said that a government labor board would decide on the workers’ requests by June 19, and asked that the workers return to their jobs in the meantime.”[21]

On June 11th, around 500, out of a total of 1,500 workers, took to the streets outside the Honda Lock factory to demonstrate.[22] Workers encountered several lines of riot police who sealed off the street, surrounding the protesters for nearly two hours. In the days following the demonstration, workers held several rallies outside the plant while waiting for management to present an acceptable offer. However, Honda Lock appears to be taking a hard-line. Because the Honda Lock factory relies on mostly unskilled labor, management has repeatedly insulted workers by offering a wage increase of 100 rmb and attempting to bring in strike breakers.[23] As of June 17th, the vast majority of workers remain on strike while about 100 have returned to work.[24]

Beijing has maintained a strict silence over the past month. However, on June 15th, Premier Wen Jiabao responded subtly by giving a speech to a group of construction workers on the need for better labor conditions for migrant workers.[25] The central government has refused to get directly involved and seems conflicted over how to handle the strikes. Though no doubt welcoming higher wages as a boost to internal consumption, the CCP does not want to see workers become too emboldened. Calls for autonomous and democratic trade unions, if granted only at the local level, would have far-reaching consequences. But workers seem to have backed away from this demand. No doubt what is of most significance in these strikes is the worker-elected negotiating committees that have sprung up in place of the unions. The Chinese media refereed to the initial Nanhai factory committee as an independent union. However, these committees clearly lack the bureaucratic character of the ACFTU. If workers continue to demand a restructuring of the unions, will the committees we have seen spring up over the past month serve as a model for this restructuring? If so, this would have truly radical implications for the Chinese working class.

  1. [1] On May 25th the Nanhai strike caused production to come to halt at three factories in Guangzhou; one in Zengcheng and two Huangpu. Later on May 27th a fourth Honda factory in Wuhan was brought to a complete stop. Wang Duan, “Bentian zai zhongguo si jia zuzhuangchang tingchan,” (Four Honda Assembly Plants in China Stop Production), Caixin Online, May 28th, 2010.
  2. [2] Huang Xiwei, “Bentian zai hua gongyinglian gaoji: rijun jianchan 2,500 liang,” (Supply and Demand Chain Emergency at Honda in China: Production Drops by 2,500 Cars per Day), NDDaily, May 28, 2010.
  3. [3] Wei Le, “Nanhai bentian tichu di san ge tixin fang’an,” (Nanhai Honda Presents a Third Wage Adjustment Offer), Caixin Online, May 30, 2010.
  4. [4] “Bentian ti di san fen tiaoxin fang’an, gongren jixu tinggong,” (Honda Presents a Third Wage Adjustment Offer, Workers Continue to Strike), INFZM, May 31, 2010.
  5. [5] David Barboza, “More Honda Labor Trouble in China,” New York Times, June, 9 2010.
  6. [6] Wei Le, “Nanhai bentian bagong shijian chuxian zhiti chongtu,” (Physical Confrontation Breaks out at Nanhai Honda Strike), Caixin Online, May 31, 2010.
  7. [7] “Nanahi qu zonggonghui, shishan zhen zonggonghui zhi bentian yuan’gong de gongkaixin,” (Open Letter from the Nanhai District Trade Union and Shishan Town Trade Union to the Workers of Honda), Caixin Online, June 2, 2010.
  8. [8] David Barboza, “Workers in China Accept Deal, Honda Says,” New York Times, June, 4 2010.
  9. [9] Fiona Tam, Mimi Lau, “Shutters Slammed on Reporting of Strikes,” South Chinea Morning Post, June 12, 2010.
  10. [10] David Barboza, Hiroko Tabuchi, “Power Grows for Striking Workers,” New York Times, June 8, 2010.
  11. [11] David Barboza, “More Honda Labor Trouble in China,” New York Times, June 9, 2010.
  12. [12] “14 shengshi qu shangtiao zuidi gongzi, laodong mijixing zaoyu dakao,” (14 Provinces Push-up Minimum Wages, A Big Test for a Labor Intensive Economy), China News, June 11, 2010.
  13. [13] The KOK International factory is located in Kunshan, Jiangsu.
  14. [14] Will Clem, Mimi Lau, Choi Chi-yuk, “Hundreds Clash as Labour Strife Widens,” South China Morning Post, June 9, 2010.
  15. [15] Tom Mitchell, “Protests Pose Challenge for Beijing,” Financial Times, June 9, 2010.
  16. [16] David Barboza, “More Honda Labor Trouble in China,” New York Times, June 9, 2010.
  17. [17] Tom Mitchell, Justine Lau, Robin Kwong, “Protests Pose Challenge for Beijing,” Financial Times, June 9, 2010.
  18. [18] The strike suspended production at the Guangqi Huanpu and the Zengcheng assembly factories in Guangzhou.
  19. [19] Mimi Lau, “Honda Hit by Strike at Third Factory,” South China Morning Post, June 10, 2010.
  20. [20] Keith Bradsher, “Workers at Chinese Plant March in Protest,” New York Times, June 10, 2010.
  21. [21] Ibid.
  22. [22] Reuters, “Striking Honda Workers Hold Out for More Pay,” South China Morning Post, June 11, 2010.
  23. [23] Mimi Lau, “Honda Looking to Recruit as Strike Drags On,” South China Morning Post, June 14, 2010.
  24. [24] John Chan, “China: Honda Lock Strike Continues,” World Socialist Website, June 15, 2010.
  25. [25] Kristine Kwok, Choi Chi-yuk, “Wen Appeals for Better Treatment of Migrant Workers,” South China Morning Post, June 16, 2010.

Comments

3 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Taiwanese employers have a firmly established reputation for abusing and mistreating their Mainland employees.

  2. Ken Hammond,

    Labor militancy in China is in some ways fragmented and atomistic, lacking an integrative organization to coordinate actions across the country. This can to some extent be overcome through use of the internet, cellphones, and other forms of instant communications technology. On the other hand, strikes and other kinds of labor actions seem to share basic features wherever they occur. Some of this may be due to the legal environment, which shapes both the kinds of issues which workers can raise, and the ways in which they can raise them.
    Worker protests and strike actions at this time remain largely focused on immediate economic issues, but the rising tide of militancy may indicate an emerging momentum. The irony of worker organization and action in the context of a formally worker controlled system, the shell of state socialism which remains in China, is that the laws which have broadened the field for working class activity have been passed by the state which has largely endorsed market mechanisms as the main force to be relied on in building the national economy. There is a deep structural contradiction in the contemporary Chinese state and party system, which is more subtle and nuanced than the total embrace of capitalism. This gives Chinese workers some extra levers to manipulate in their struggles.
    It may be that the dialectical development of China, through the initial era of socialist construction and into the era of market driven reform, has created a hybrid form.
    This is clearly not the deformed socialism of the Soviet model, but nor is it simple state capitalism. The remants of a socialist political structure, especially in conjunction with the increasing emphasis on the development of the legal system, may give workers some of the tools they need to try to make the system return to a more truly socialist orientation.
    Very much a work in progress.

  3. So far, most encouragement of wildcat strikes has come indirectly from the state media simply by giving lots of air time and front page space to the strikes: this is consistent with the government’s aim of lessening dependence on export markets by giving domestic consumers more spending power.

    Most factory workers however do not use the Internet and surfing is primarily restricted to office employees with at least a secondary school diploma. That said, lawyers are a rising force in Chinese society and government is still figuring out how to adjust to this, particularly at provincial, county and city level.

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