Although there have been a few major actions in the past few years, it is no secret that strikes have been few and far between in the United States over the past three decades. This even led one bourgeois researcher to lament: “as strike rates in the United States have plummeted to historic low levels, the demand for strike management firms has also declined.” In other words, the lack of strikes even put strikebreakers out of work!
The United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics recently reported that 2015 had the lowest number of strikes in that country since 1893. Until this news was released, 2005 had the lowest number of strikes on record.
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that this superficial “labor peace” has had on today’s militants. Many in their twenties and thirties have never witnessed a major upsurge of worker struggles in the entire lives. They have only stories and history books to turn to.
The absence of open class struggle in most of the developed English-speaking world is likely one of the reasons most of the left and even some genuine anti-capitalists have all but abandoned a perspective that views the working class as the only real possible motor for a transition out of capitalism.
A lack of widespread English-language coverage has made it easy for these individuals and groups to overlook the frequent and open class struggles that have been occurring in many of the so-called developing countries. Not coincidentally these parts of the world are where much of the mass industrialized production work has been sent over the past decades. What would surprise many militants in the English-speaking world more than the occurrence of such battles is that many of the workers have actually won the fights.
China is perhaps the best-known center of strike activity. Thousands of strikes have broken out across the country in recent years. Last year set a record for the number of strikes. As the economic decline continues, this year may set another. More than a few workers have been jailed for their activity but this hasn’t stopped the spread of strikes. It hasn’t stopped them from succeeding either. A plan to fire nearly 2 million steel and coal workers will most likely lead to more struggles.
At least 1,000 strikes have broken out in Vietnam in the past few years. Most of the strikes have occurred in the area around Ho Chi Minh City, where garment and furniture production is centered. Many of the strikes have resulted in victories.
One researcher found that 80 percent of the strikes in a province she worked in over the past few years were partially or completely successful. In early 2015, an 80,000-strong wildcat in one of the largest shoe factories in the country protesting a change in the national retirement laws caused the government to almost immediately backtrack. While information is sometimes difficult to find, it appears that results have been relatively similar across the country.
The Vietnamese government enacted new laws in April 2016 intended to curb strike actions. In practice strikes have long been illegal but the new rules codify that by making local government declare this officially in full collaboration with the state union. These regulations are unlikely to be very effective, however, since many strikes there are unofficial and illegal wildcat walkouts that sometimes include already-outlawed forms of sabotage.
Next door in Cambodia the class struggle is just as fierce. It has also resulted in the enactment of a major anti-union labor law this year. Yet more is reported in the media on the long-gone Khmer Rouge than the frequent strikes that occur in the country. Still, the strikes are happening. And more often than not, they are winning.
Dozens of strikes have hit this small country every year since at least 2010. With a population smaller than the city of New York, this has had a very serious effect. Many rural families are connected to the struggles with relatives sent off to toil in factories to supplement their meager earnings that often amount to just a few hundred dollars per year.
The large garment sector which accounts for $5 billion of the country’s $16 billion GDP has seen the most strikes. The mostly female workers are often joined by male lovers and relatives when they walk off the job. Many strikes have led to violence, more often than not kicked off by the heavyhanded state enforcers. While the Barney Fife–like civilian police presence has long been low around the country, well-armed military and special police forces seem to appear out of nowhere when industrial action takes place.
The most notorious attack on a strike came in 2014. Special armed forces attacked a strike of thousands outside of the Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh where clothing and shoes are made for international corporations like Puma, Adidas and H&M. Four were killed by the attacks. Dozens more were wounded. The strikers were joined and emboldened by an influx of protesters fighting against elections earlier in the year that were largely seen as a rigged game meant to keep the prime minister of three decades in power longer. (The strikers were protesting a South Korean owned factory. Incidentally, the South Korean government was one of the first to officially congratulate the prime minister on his election.)
This attack and other repression against the protest movement put a damper on things for a short time. But workers’ struggles soon broke out again even without the added support. This led to further repression. In 2015, thousands of garment workers were attacked in a special economic zone near the Vietnamese border. They went out on a wildcat strike after promised wage increases failed to materialize. Union leaders voiced an inability to prevent the unauthorized action. The police attack that followed came soon after the Garment Manufacturers’ Association wrote a letter to the prime minister claiming that strikes “severely affect investors’ sentiment and their long-term investment vision.”
Still the struggles continue and the victories keep coming.
In 2010, the national minimum wage for garment workers was US $50 per month. Some 60,000 struck for an increase to $93 that year. Their ranks soon swelled to 200,000. The minimum wage was raised to $80. After further struggles, including large strikes that spread across factories, in 2013 and 2014 the minimum wage was raised again, and again. It grew to $100 in 2014 and $128 in 2015. In early 2016 it was raised yet again to $140. Workers continued to fight and demanded a garment industry minimum wage of $171. On September 29, the government agreed to raise it nearly 10 percent to $153.
This increase of more than 300 percent in six years has vastly outpaced the rate of inflation that hovered between nearly nothing and eight percent over the same period.
From the garment sector the spirit and style of strikes have spread to many other sectors. Workers in tourism, transportation, refuse collection and even refueling stations have gone on strike with some frequency. The under-equipped “garbage men” employed by a Canadian outfit with an exclusive and secretive 50-year contract for trash pickups in the capital city of Phnom Penh have developed a particular reputation. They strike often and completely, leaving huge piles of stinking waste in the red hot streets. This normally leads to complaints by the Canadian company that it would be unable to make a profit with the wage requests. That is usually followed by a collapse of the bosses and an agreement to raise wages. Drivers for the company struck twice in 2014 alone. One of the walkouts lasted only two days before the workers were promised a pay raise and went back to work.
The labor movement is largely splintered in Cambodia. Single workplaces are often home to several unions. Some strike the same place simultaneously. Some strike only to have other unions at the same workplace cross their lines. Wildcat action also occurs with regularity, especially when some of the more conservative or reactionary unions get in the way. Things are fractured—and union bureaucrats, opposition politicians and NGOs often interfere—but raw class battles are still won by the sheer force of the workers.
This past July a manager and a union leader of a company union were forced out of a garment factory by 700 workers who demanded their departure. The union leader was ratting out workers to the manager who then showed them the door.
Hundreds of workers walked off the job at the country’s largest brewery this past August. This was enough to shut down production in a factory that employs more than a thousand. With part of the process closed the rest could not function. Yet workers in other parts of the factory were not involved in the walk off. They stayed away after the bosses shut the place down for inability to function.
Workers at the same factory struck in 2014 and won a raise in wages. Union spokespeople pointed to this and the factory shutdown as reason to believe that the 2016 strike would win. This is reminiscent of unions in the United States in years past. Before “working with management to make the company profitable and save jobs” became the motto of the American labor tops, workers looked to previous struggles as a guide to victory.
The result of this collaboration with the bosses to “save American jobs” was that US-based companies and other multinationals sent production work overseas to be done by workers forced by conditions to work for lower wages, benefits, and protections. The corporations happily used the union-supported divide created between American and Asian workers as a wedge to drive down solidarity and wages in both regions.
Now production work is largely concentrated in countries like Cambodia where workers have not yet been “educated” in the ways of proper, civilized labor relations. Attempts have been made. Cambodian garment workers are constantly warned that production will be moved to Bangladesh or Vietnam if they ask for “too much.” So far they haven’t been fooled. Like US workers in the period when industrial production was on the rise in that country, they take to the picket lines when they have taken all they can take on the factory floor.
We must look to these workers and work with them to avoid the same pitfalls that sunk the American and British labor movements. This, combined with international solidarity based on shared interests and enemies, has the power to rejuvenate the international working class and strike at the heart of capital.