China's emerging labour movement

Bureaucracy - China's state-run union
Bureaucracy - China's state-run union

A look at the burgeoning workers' movement in China and how it is attempting to organise in a country where the only union is run by the state.

Submitted by Steven. on October 10, 2006

Trade unionists in the US and elsewhere have long argued that there is no labor movement in China. They rightly point out that Chinese workers lack even the most basic human rights protections, including the rights to strike and join an independent union.

But there's more to the story: Ten years ago, according to the China's Minister of Public Security, there were on average 10,000 large-scale collective protests each year. By 2004, the government recorded 74,000 large-scale protests. Late last year, the Minister of Police announced protests had increased to 87,000 last year, involving well over four million workers.

Four million workers! In the US we celebrated the birth of a new global social movement when 60,000 people showed up for the 'Battle of Seattle' in 1999. In China there is now more than enough evidence of continual worker self-organization outside of official trade union channels to put to rest notions that 'there is no labor movement in China'.

According to Robin Munro, research director of China Labour Bulletin, '[W]hereas 10 years ago I think you could have said China did not have a labor movement, that is no longer really the case- there is no freedom of association for workers, but hitherto, people have tended to think that, therefore, there is no Chinese labor movement. I think the scale of worker unrest nowadays is so great, you can go to almost any city in the country now and there will be several major collective worker protests going on at the same time.

So China now has a labor movement.This is an important point to just put there on the table and recognize. It is not organized. It is spontaneous, it is relatively inchoate. But then so were labor movements in most Western countries before trade unions were permitted. We have basically a pre-union phase of labor movement development in China today. It also has great potential, I think, for becoming a proper labor movement.'

In the years before the passage of the National Labor Relations Act - known as the Wagner Actor 'Labor's Magna Carta' - there was no legally enforced right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike in the United States. But US workers who were denied these rights responded with their own "pre-union" phase of struggle. Thousands of workers were arrested or beaten and scores shot dead for trying to exercise these rights. For example, in 1934 alone there were three general strikes and a huge national textile strike - all marked by substantial violence.

Largely in response to this upsurge, in 1935 the Federal government passed the Wagner Act hoping to legalize the labor movement and divert it into more moderate channels. According to a recent study by labor law historian James Gray Pope, the massive sit-down strikes and factory occupations of the following year cajoled the Supreme Court into reversing its own precedents and accepting the Wagner Act as constitutional.

American workers did not get their rights by waiting for the government to provide them; rather, they began asserting rights they believe they were entitled to, and thereby forced the Congress and the courts to acquiesce.

One innovative labor strategy that is being encouraged by CLB as a way to relate to the new emerging Chinese labor movement is the CC-2005 Campaign or Collective Contract 2005. (According to CLB staff, the Campaign's name is "a slightly cheeky designation, thinking in terms of SA-8000" and other Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) standards.)

Under existing Chinese labor law, where there is no union presence in a factory, workers are allowed to elect their own representatives to negotiate and sign a collective contract.

With the ACFTU holding only 30% representation outside the government sector, CLB is trying to take advantage of this legal 'loop-hole' by urging multi-national corporations that operate in China 'to pressure their supplier factories into allowing the workers to negotiate a proper collective contract in the workplace.' The innovation of this approach is the use of existing Corporate Codes of Conducts to negotiate binding collective agreements with enforceable rights. CLB views the CC-2005 campaign an opportunity to create a basic organizing space that is legally protected in the private sector.

As Han Dongfang, Director of CLB, explains, 'What we want to do is get this collective contract regulation connected, with a code of conduct, a corporate social responsibility kind of thing, which they have been trying to work out for more than 10 years but have never worked out. Now we try to put it together as a new program. We make the corporate social responsibility, the Code of Conduct document, which has no teeth, and make them, together with Chinese law, have teeth, in particular with the workers' participation, workers' representation.'

CC-2005 has three major strategic objectives:

To mobilize workers to participate in collective bargaining, so that they can play an active role in protecting their own rights; To achieve real implementation of China's labor laws, trade union legislation and the relevant standards of the International Labour Organization; To provide a new and effective means by which multinational buyers can realize their commitment to the principle of social accountability.

The massive number of wildcat strikes occurring in China shows that Chinese workers are not waiting for official unions to reform themselves. Instead, they are fashioning new ways to improve their lot. So the challenge is for the US and the other labor movements to find ways to reach out and encourage new independent workers organizations in China. We might want to start by supporting CC-2005 campaign.

By Brendan Smith, Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello, who are co-founders of GlobalLabor Strategies, a new resource center working to assist labor and other social movements make the connections and develop the strategies needed to function effectively in the global economy. Read their blog at

This article was taken from Znet/