What the recession means for Chinese unions
The Financial Times has devoted a whole page today to the way that the recession is affecting Chinese workers, including a large chunk on the likely response of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), and the impact on collective bargaining. Many of the issues will be familiar to organisers in the UK. Bluntly, the Chinese trade union movement may be at a crossroads. Developments such as collective bargaining, lobbying for stronger workers’ rights, and abandoning (or suspending?) its past role as the state’s most effective weapon against worker militancy may now accelerate or be thrown into reverse.
I was in China recently as part of a TUC team (with negotiators from the GMB and Unite) discussing collective bargaining with Chinese trade unionists a couple of hours inland from Shanghai. Their conception of trade union organisation and collective bargaining is very different from ours (far more top down and paternalist to put it mildly) but things were changing. Rampant growth and inflation meant that past collective bargaining models such as simply writing down the legal minima couldn’t work for wage settlements. And as foreign owned companies dig deeper into China’s labour market, and domestic entrepreneurs look more like those multinationals than post-state owned enterprises, externally imposed trade union officials are less and less able to cope.
Now the global recession is beginning to bite, and the number of autonomous protests is increasing. Unions are beginning to grasp that the law will be better for them if they have had a hand in writing it and fighting off employer attempts to water it down (the law helped the ACFTU unionise Wal-Mart, and the US Chamber of Commerce lobbied actively but unsuccessfully to reduce workers’ rights in the latest round of legislative reform). And workers recognise that, as Jerome Cohen of New York University says in the FT, “Chinese workers have learnt that collective action is effective” when factories close. Meanwhile the state has held back from cracking down on such protests, as it did when China last faced mass unemployment due to privatising or closing down state owned enterprises in the 1990s.
For the ACFTU, the fork in the road is getting closer. They will soon need to choose whether to be on the workers’ side or the state’s. If they choose the workers, they will need to decide whether they can survive by being more effective organisations for workers (basically, like an NGO or Citizens Advice) or whether to follow the free trade union movement’s organising model, becoming organisations of workers? If they do the latter, then the option of reverting to being part of the repressive state apparatus is closed off, and the Chinese Communist Party will need to decide whether to rein the trade unions in again (as Mao did) or let them find their own destiny.
Our role must surely be to continue to engage, especially where we share multinational employers, and demonstrate the efficacy of the free, organising model of trade unions.