China supply chain inquiry report-back

Yue Yuen strike Dongguan, China 2014

In mid-November 2015 we facilitated two Supply Chain Inquiry Workshops in major cities in China. What follows are the presentation materials and report-backs from breakout discussions after the workshop.


The first one was with a relatively intimate group of 15, that included workers and activists. The three hour presentation was made in English, with translation to Chinese, with the same format for the discussion afterwards -- although almost everyone there could understand basic English.

To begin the session, there was an open discussion of these questions:

1. What is a global supply chain? Please define


    "the process of shipping and circulation of products of one country to another"

2. Where are you in the global supply chain? How has global production affected your life?

    Answers: "When I was young [living] at home we would go to the market town in the countryside to get our goods and that's where most of the things we bought came from, but now production is global. When I bought a Kindle I had to get it from someone who brought it from Hong Kong. The Kindle was made for export to the U.S., and my friend brought it through Hong Kong and I saw on the label that is was 'made in China.'"
    "A teacher from a Chinese university who was in the U.S. bought an iPhone 6 there, thinking he was going to get an American version of it, but saw that the [online] retailer who sold it to him was based in China and mailed it from China [and he ended up getting a Chinese version to use in the U.S.]."
    "Where are we in the global supply chain, are we in the center or are we at the end of of the supply chain, I don't know? I think we're in the center as consumers."
    Response by presenter: "Sometimes we're at the end, but sometimes we're in the middle or beginning, depending on what the product is or what we do. Supply chains also move people, money, data [digitally and physically], and ideas. It's all interrelated, and it's also humans crossing borders for work, or moving within a country for work. But we're in multiple positions within it as both consumers of our own subsistence and producers when we're working."

3. How are supply chain vulnerable?


    "The supply chain is so strong, where is it weak?"
    [European comrade studying Chinese in the area]"The supply chain has a high concentration of goods, like on one of these container ships, and there's so much value on one boat, it seems to be vulnerable in another way than how one factory is vulnerable. There are only three dozen people working on the ship, so when they refuse their service 10,000 containers wouldn't arrive at their destination."

There was a somewhat digressive discussion of nationalist refusals to work for foreign employers during the Republican Period and consumer boycotts in the present, especially against Apple products after the spate of suicides at Foxconn in 2010.

We presented our list of vulnerabilities, borrowing heavily from the writings of Edna Bonacich:


    "Other vulnerabilities are: 1. energy, 2. infrastructure, and 3. IT services."
    "Have there been studies about the effect on supply chains by the explosion in Tianjin?" [we mentioned that we only knew of a few critiques, one of which is posted on libcom]

Examples of natural disasters and strikes that have the unintended consequence of blocking supply chains:
Factories in Thailand were "under water" due to severe monsoon flooding

And examples of effective strikes on supply chain chokepoints:The Port of Shanghai, the worlds busiest, moved 35.285 million TEUs in 2014
Examples of strikes on the supply chains we will be discussing further:

Another example of a successful strike was by Chilean dockers that shut 18 ports in 2014:



Inputs (raw materials & tools) for footwear production are numerous, mostly sourced from subcontractors in the Pearl River DeltaShoes are transported from the 7 Yue Yuen factories in Dongguan to Yantian International Container Terminal by truck
CMA CGM's Pearl River Express leaves weekly, in a 49-day cycle, crossing the Pacific from Yantian in Shenzhen to Long Beach in 15 days
The Port of Long Beach is the 2nd busiest in the Western Hemisphere; the port is side-by-side behind the breakwater in San Pedro Bay with the busiest, the Port of Los AngelesThe entire LA/Long Beach port complex is served by an extensive rail network, as depicted in this map
The Alameda Corridor is a 20-mile subterranean triple-tracked freight "expressway," that replaced 198 street-level "at-grade" crossing; it cost $2.4 billion and allows BNSF and UP trains to move continuously through central and downtown LA unimpeded
"SCO" (Southern California Ondock) trains leave Pier J, move on the main line through LA's massive Hobart Yard, then make their way to Chicago in around 96 hours
Double-stacked unit trains are unloaded at Logistics Park ChicagoWalmart's warehouse in Elwood, Illinois, operated by 3PL (third part logistics subcontractor) Schneider, is a block away and it where the containers are first opened after having been closed at the factory in China
Walmart Import Center is a campus of two buildings, of 1.4 & 1.8 million square feetIn the last leg, shoes manufactured at Yue Yuen in China make their way by truck to a Walmart Super Store in Cicero, a suburb of ChicagoThe final destination of the shoes: Walmart, 3320 South Cicero Avenue
Three layers of subcontracting separates warehouse workers from Walmart, the 3PL Schneider contracts with multiple staffing agencies; the wealth flows up (Walmarts revenue for 2015 is estimated to top $500 billion; Walmart, not including subcontractors, is the world's largest private employer with 2.2 million workers)

The U.S. end of employment on the Supply Chain (a research task would be to compile the class composition on the Chinese end)

This video of the was shown before the breakout activity began: Choke Points in the Supply Chain


    Someone asked how strikes of only 30 people could be successful. Another astute observer, referring to Beverly Silver's critique, pointed out how crucial chokepoints offered "structural power" [further, it's "workplace bargaining power]
    The presenter mentioned having met one of the striking workers in the video, who was in Warehouse Workers for Justice, in Chicago and suggested inviting him to China to meet the workers who made the products he handled. One of the Chinese comrades responded affirmatively, giving an enthusiastic "welcome!" Another suggested sending Chinese factory workers to the warehouse in Chicago.


Workshop participants were broken into 5 groups (one had to take on two taskes)

These conditions were given:

The strike is over these issues (same as in the 2014 strike):

    ● Proper social security payments & salaries
    ● Backpay of unpaid social insurance
    ● Election of worker representatives for negotiation with management

These instructions for the activity were given:

    1. This is a hypothetical "thought experiment," based on an imaginary continuation of the Yue Yuen strike of 2014
    2. A strike support committee has already been created
    3. The task is to find ways to use “direct action” to spread solidarity up & down the supply chain (we define direct action as any effort that interferes with the movement of goods, stops production, or economically costs the boss)


Answer these questions:

    1. What actions will your group take?
    2. What obstacles exist to reaching your goals?
    3. Feedback: what will you take away from this exercise?


Group #1: Yue Yuen shoe factory workers

    Due to such a small group of participants, we omitted the sector for Yue Yuen factory workers. Which was a shame, since some in attendance had visited Dongguan to support the strike and had great knowledge about the struggles of the shoe workers. Also, others pointed out a glaring oversight: we didn't include the truckers -- who have a tradition of militancy -- and who haul the containers to Yantian port in Shenzhen

Group #2: China port & maritime workers

    "Get information about where the products are coming from and give it [to workers] further down the supply line. In addition to supporting the demands of the Yue Yuen workers, they also [port & maritime worker China] use this opportunity to make their own demands. Some demands might be the same, and some of them might be different, since they're on the same production line so this increases their chances of success [...] Even if they have different demands, they have this commonality of seizing the flow of goods."
    "One difficulty is at Yue Yuen, when a strike starts it is because they are forced into that position and are driven to start it, whereas the starting point of the solidarity strikes is sympathy; they may have their own demands, but if it's basically a matter of sympathizing with other workers. The pressure, or impetus, to strike is not so strong. That's the first thing, how to convince other people to join you? The second thing is, if it is out of sympathy and a small amount of people it's easy for the boss to convince other people to not go through with it."

Group #3: U.S. maritime & port workers

    "First thing, as she [above] said is to transmit information and to explain the situation to other American workers, because they won't know anything about it. So the first thing is to tell them about it, to tell them of the demands of the Yue Yuen workers. So they have to come up with their own demands, but there are different work categories within the port so to find some demands that are in common with the different categories."
    "So kind of like making a deal with the union workers, telling them that we will help you as an 'exchange,' we will help you this time but next time we will expect you to help us." Another: "The other argument is with a strike, when they [U.S. port workers] go on solidarity strike and possibly bring up their own demands in connection with the strike on the other side of the ocean, this will increase the visibility of their own strike. So this is a good argument for them [U.S. workers] to do it at this time" There were questions why American port workers would support the strike, while it is easier to make the connection with the Walmart workers since [...] to make solidarity less abstract, they handle the same goods [shoes]."

Group #4: railroad workers

    "Destroy the rails!" [to much laughter]Presenter: "In the U.S., most workers are under a set of laws making strikes illegal, but railroad workers have an older set of laws that try to stop strikes, but it was 10 years before [the NLRA] and they didn't prevent some kinds of solidarity strikes. Railroad workers can do solidarity strikes because of the law. But if they do, management often gets in the train and drives the train. So, the way to be successful is, trains have long distances outside the cities where if they stop in solidarity, management couldn't get to the train. So if the railroad workers were sympathetic, they could move the train and stop it in solidarity away from managers [like] in the countryside."
    As per above, management could overcome railroad workers legal right to honor another sector's picket line, in a solidarity strike, by operating the trains. There would have to be a strategy for railroad workers to do the action outside the reach of the bosses. But these kinds of actions, like anything militant, involves risks.

Group #5: distribution center workers & truckers

    "We can set a picket line at the distribution center by the workers, they can to stop people from working there. We can take out the stocks of shoes, the store in the warehouse to [prevent them] being delivered to the retail stores. We were also thinking about connecting with the railroad workers and find ones who are sympathetic to the Yue Yuen workers, to change the label on the stockage of [containers] of shoes so the shoes will be delivered to a different site, so we can delay the delivery of the shoes to the rail shops. We can also take out the shoes out of the containers and keep them in the warehouse so they don't let them be delivered. To support the retail workers, we keep the shoes in the warehouse and we can tell the rail workers that the shoes won't be delivered to the shops, and they can take some collective actions in the shops to support the Yue Yuen workers."
    "The first obstacle is that it's difficult to find out which container has the shoes. The difficulty in getting others to support this action and the difficulty in finding reasons for other people to support the action.

Group #6: Walmart retail workers

    "Get help from the Teamsters [...] Chicago has a big black population, so to get support of the Black Panther Party that would be a big help [to much laughter]. To challenge Walmart there are two forces, the Teamsters and truck drivers in general, and [the other is] the Black Panthers or other black organizations. In the 1990s Michael Jordan's annual salary was higher than all the workers in Southeast Asia together, so they should make a campaign for Michael Jordan to 'pay us back.' President Obama is from Chicago and he's from Chicago ... Mao wrote an article in the 1960s about support for the [American] Civil Rights Movement and they should distribute that article to create Sino-Afro support, to show black American workers that they should support Chinese workers." [at this point the discussion had been going on for several hours as the workshop activity wound down, it became more absurd and full of jokes]


    There were no obstacles discussed


    [There are] "big differences in how to organize the workers, in China and in the [United] States, how to spread the message, and how to take action collectively, in a more coordinated way; that's a big challenge. Now that the technical means of communicating about if there's a strike here [in China] and how can you tell workers in others nodes in the supply chain ... but even if they know, how can you get them to understand that our fates are connected? To motivate them to take action on that information ... you need more than the leaders to understand this, to get information, you need all of the workers to support this movement and [find ways] how you can deliver those messages to everybody on the ground." Presenter: "The video with the Chicago distribution center workers [from the 2012 strike] they said when they came outside, and things change when people struggle, and they said 'now we see that it comes from China and we were the ones to open the [container] box for the first time and we're connected to them and they're connected to us.' And it takes cultural exchanges between people on the supply chain to meet and talk, to try to understand, and share it with their co-workers. It's a challenge."
    [Comment by one of two lefty think tank staffers]"Maybe we should get the idea from Leninism that there needs to be a vanguard of people who can help raise the consciousness of workers, so they become aware of their mutual connectedness.
    Question about unions and how China lacks independent unions: "Why don't they [unions] play a big role in this, with their solidarity?" Presenter "Because they're so divided. So, for example the railroads they have different job categories, but in Canada and the U.S. there are 13 different [craft] unions for just the railroads, so they're very divided. Another important thing is [that ] longshore is a very strong union, but the port truckers are non-union and some of the lowest paid, along with some of the highest paid [dockers] and it's a divided workforce."
    Comments by a comrade: "We need to exchange information and be sure that the information is reliable. I would completely disagree with the idea of the vanguard, and with the unions you lots of different unions ... the ones [in Europe] that organizes a strike are in cooperate with ones unions in other countries that don't strike ... one union strikes, but they don't cooperate [with a union in another country] and they actually fight ... We cannot rely on them, the conditions in each step of the supply chain are very different, but the interests of the organizations [unions and other workers' groups] are even more different. When we want to use the occasion of one strike, and action on the supply chain, we have limited time and to get a union to make a decision to step in will take too much time. If they have their own agenda, then they won't. We will have to depend much more on spontaneous actions, that might not be strikes, but like the train getting 'lost' or the containers are mistakenly read or are relabeled so they get lost, like in the port, for a couple of days. Things like this might be useful."
    [Another comrade]"During the Yue Yuen strike we had to organize some solidarity actions and they had a lot of difficulties ... Timing is a very important point, for the Yue Yuen we organized some solidarity actions at nearly the end of the strike and then when you organize the action and the influence is very small on the profit. The production of the whole supply chain in China, [where] many of the strikes are wildcats it's really difficult to connect organizers from different parts of the world to really directly support the strike or the workers that are in struggle."
    Another part of the discussion was about symbolic demonstrations in other countries, where activists went to Niketowns and other retail stores: "In the U.S., they had protests outside the stores but the influence was small because the customers went by them and into the stores and went shopping and didn't care about really supporting the workers." Presenter: a proposal would be to contact the workers inside the Nike store, and make the connection worker-to-worker and to compare conditions and find "common cause" between retail and factory workers, comparing their issues -- and struggles -- and trying to unify them as one.
    Question about "general theory" about workers' strikes on supply chains: Presenter: "Supply chain strikes haven't really been done across the world. In the Fordist period everything was produced and consumed in a region: raw materials often came from nearby, the factory and its subcontractors were located in the region, and the products were sold at retailers nearby. So cross-sector strikes stayed within the region ... sector-to-sector solidarity wasn't unusual, but it was all local. Now that production is worldwide, since the 1960s the intermodal system was new, so since them production, circulation and consumption is global. So we have to reinvent new forms of struggle that are global too."
    The discussion ended with several examples of successful cross-border solidarity actions, some among warehouse workers in Europe over the last few years and another regarding dockers refusing to work a South African ship at a U.S. port in 1984 in solidarity with the strikes, riots and nationwide resistance to the Apartheid regime on the ground in South Africa. It was an extremely fruitful discussion, following lively report-backs from the workshop activity. There followed another supply chain inquiry workshop a half week later, with similar results (for a much larger group, with very little documentation of the results -- hence no report-back has been written).

Posted By

Supply Chain Re...
Dec 5 2015 15:40


  • They are not all organized, but then they would not all have to say ‘No’: just enough of them, acting in concert, at vital points in the chain.”

    JoAnn Wypijewski

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Dec 2 2015 16:27

Thanks for posting this. Very interesting. One question:the slide on supply chain class composition, what "population" does it refer to? I think, China/US but not sure.