Preface by Chuang

 

Below is our translation of an oral history about the May 2010 strike at Honda’s Nanhai automobile parts plant in Foshan, Guangdong, which gave rise to a nationwide wave of industrial actions across multiple sectors—probably the only time such a thing has occurred since the SOE restructuring struggles at the turn of the millennium. This account is based on interviews with a young woman from a remote mountain village who underwent a political “awakening” (启蒙) through her participation in the strike. In order to protect the protagonist and the group that produced this write-up, it has not been published online but only as part of an anonymous pamphlet circulated among labor activists since about 2014. We are publishing this translation here in the hope that it may provide some insights for people dealing with similar conditions elsewhere, and to poke another hole in the “bamboo curtain” that still separates many of our readers from Chinese proletarians and their experiences.

The way the author frames the narrative of “Lin Xiaocao” (a pseudonym) also illustrates a fairly representative political perspective among left-leaning activists engaging with such militant young workers. These activists come from a variety of backgrounds. Many start out as industrial workers from the countryside who become politicized through struggles such as this and interaction with labor NGOs. Others begin as university students, mostly those from rural families who are motivated by a sense of class obligation. And a significant minority come from more privileged backgrounds, including some from Hong Kong and Taiwan, although the latter tend to be also from proletarian families in those relatively wealthy territories.

Although the regime’s restriction of access to information remains a serious obstacle, its criminalization of independent political organizations paradoxically generates considerable diversity and fluidity among left perspectives in China, even among members of the same NGO, student group or activist circle. The overwhelming majority identify as Marxist-Leninists (with those from Hong Kong more likely to identify as “democratic socialists”), but exactly what that means can vary drastically, from extreme authoritarianism to an interest in anarchism, from blatant nationalism to principled internationalism, and from cultural conservatism to queer (酷儿) perspectives. What almost all seem to share, however, is a set of ideas derived from China’s socialist era and the international workers’ movement from the early 20th century through the 1980s (with the Korean experience being a prominent model). These ideas are centered on the affirmation of labor-power, specifically that of factory workers, as both the main potential subject in the fight against capital and the foundation upon which a post-capitalist society should be built. This orientation—epitomized in the widely heard slogan echoed in the narrative below, “labor is the most glorious thing” (劳动最光荣)—now predominates even among many Maoists and others who had, in the 2000s, focused their activism on attempting to revive peasant communities. Many of these activists gradually began shifting their attention to the coastal industrial districts, where most young ruralites had come to work, and the 2010 strike wave catalyzed this shift by showing that such migrants were becoming a “new working class” with its own potential agency.

A main task of activists thus became to help “new workers” develop class consciousness and forms of organization (almost universally conceived as labor unions) adequate to the historical mission imagined for them. This ideology is exemplified in the narrative translated below only in subtle ways, but understanding this background may help readers to grasp both the pamphlet’s significance as well as the author’s choice to focus on the “awakening” (to industrial working-class consciousness) of this young woman from the remote countryside, on the details of how she and her workmates came to understand what a union is and then attempt to assert control over it, and finally on Lin’s later experience of state repression as a student labor activist.

This initial strike at the Honda factory and the ensuing wave of industrial actions more generally have acquired an iconic status in recent labor history.[1] The strikes challenged the way people in China and internationally had thought about the potential of worker struggles. Many academics, NGO activists and others on the left and beyond began labeling the strike wave as a turning point, where the new working class had finally moved from “defensive” to “offensive” actions, demanding more than what Chinese labor law provided rather than merely asking bosses to comply with established standards. For some, the strike represented the birth of a long-awaited Chinese labor movement, emerging from the world’s largest industrial workforce after years of incubation. The Nanhai workers’ iconic conflict with the union, in particular, seemed to signify the emergence of an “authentic” and “independent” trade unionism, either through workers’ own networks or through some set of reforms shaken from local governments and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

Now, nearly a decade later, these visions seem to have been foreclosed. Perhaps they were founded on unrealistic expectations from the start. Initiatives pushing for reform, such as the draft Regulations on the Democratic Management of Enterprises that came to the policy table of the Guangdong government in late 2010 (discussed in the narrative below), were roundly rejected by capital, fearing they would endanger the region’s already razor-thin profit margins.[2] Foreign capital, in particular Taiwanese and Hong Kong enterprises with large investments in PRD manufacturing, lobbied against the laws, and the measures were scrapped.[3]

A few years later, many of these same business interests had relocated or greatly reduced their workforces. The number of manufacturing enterprises in Guangdong peaked in 2010, then fell sharply over the following years, as did the average number of workers per enterprise, according to official statistics.[4] By 2015 (latest available data), the number of industrial enterprises in Foshan had dropped by a quarter, while those in Zhongshan had fallen by 40 percent, those in Guangzhou by 33 percent, and those in Shenzhen by 20. Workers were striking primarily against non-payment of wages or social insurance contributions, or for compensation in the face of factory relocation or closure, but hardly ever for wage increases.[5]

At the Nanhai factory, the minor union reforms won in 2010 soon ossified, and workers became frustrated with the bureaucratic elections and annual bargaining.[6] While the agreement had formalized regular wage increases for workers, those were quickly eaten up by the rising cost of living in the PRD. Another small-scale strike occurred in 2013 where a handful of workers demanded a better deal than what the union-led bargaining was offering them, but the action failed to spread across the factory.[7]

What appeared to many as the beginning of a labor movement based in China’s industrial sunbelt seems to have actually been the peak of a cycle of struggles that began in the early 2000s and ended around 2015.[8] Young activists hoping for such a movement are scrambling to piece together new horizons, as conditions rapidly change and hopes for the future fail to materialize, amidst an increasingly draconian political climate and declining economic prospects for China’s proletarians, both within the factories and elsewhere.

For those of us wanting to understand these new horizons as they take shape, we need to understand the ground that lies before them. One view to this lies in tracing the broader arcs of conflict across recent years. But another, perhaps more important understanding emerges from the stories and experiences of those who lived through them. The following translation thus provides both a first-hand account of the previous cycle of struggles at its peak and a window into the activist political terrain in reference to which future anti-capitalist trajectories will have to orient themselves during the emerging new period. 

 

 

The Awakening of Lin Xiaocao

A Personal Account of the 2010 Strike at Nanhai Honda

 

One afternoon in the summer of 2012, the flow of people on the metro began to swell. They were flocking to the platform in twos and threes, everyone chatting as they waited for the train. Girls giggled without a care in the world. When the train arrived, everyone squeezed their way into the dimly lit carriages. The doors slid shut and a few moments later the platform was calm again, waiting for the next batch of passengers to push onward towards their destinations. Each time the train arrived at a station, everyone seemed to know exactly where they were going. They kept looking at the maps on the walls of the carriage, afraid of missing their station.

 But was everyone really sure about where they were going? There was at least one girl with long straight hair who didn’t feel that way.

 When she left home she still knew her destination: a presentation about a new book dealing with migrant workers. When she received the invitation she wasn’t sure whether to go. Ever since she had started college she never really talked about what had happened in the factory where she used to work. Even when the professor in the library asked her, “Aren’t you that… Lin Xiaocao?” She just looked down and said, “No, you must have mistaken me for someone else.” Then she silently grabbed her books and left. Her teacher thought it was quite an honor for Xiaocao to receive an invitation to the event and that there shouldn’t be any problem, so she decided to go. But when she arrived at the venue, before she even had a chance to enter she received a nervous phone call from the teacher: “Where are you? Go home! Go home immediately!” She froze in her tracks. “Why? What happened?” She asked three times, but the teacher wouldn’t tell her anything, except to keep repeating that she had to leave, that she shouldn’t stay there.  

 On her way back to the metro, she felt so scared that she began crying, unable to hold back the tears. “What did I do?” she thought. She was just a student, a twenty-year-old girl, yet there were always eyes monitoring her from dark places. Usually she wouldn’t notice, but sometimes the hands connected to these eyes would start clutching after her like this. Joy turned to sorrow as she relinquished the expectation of receiving an award at the event. She walked into the station without knowing where to go, barely managing to hold back her tears. She was wandering back and forth until she got off at some random station, where she stood on the platform for a while and then boarded another train. After some time, without realizing it, she found herself outside the home of an older friend. She told him what had happened and then finally began to calm down.

 Most likely, what she seems to have “done” was to have participated in the 2010 strike at a Honda auto parts factory in Guangdong. But how did that come about? 

 

 

First Impressions of the Factory: Honda’s Philosophy of “Arousing the Will to Fight”

 

In the spring of 2008, Honda Motor Company’s headquarters in Japan sent an employee named Yamada Kazuya to a certain city in Guangdong in order to serve as general manager at one of the company’s several parts plants in the region. One year later, according to local media, Yamada proclaimed: “Because Guangdong’s environment is similar to that of my home in Japan, I quickly adapted to the life here. It feels as nice as my hometown.” When he was asked about the plant’s performance, he explained that it was producing transmissions, drive axles, crankshafts, connecting rods and other related parts. After less than two years in operation, its annual output had already surpassed that of Honda’s transmission plant in Indonesia. If this were not already outstanding enough, the Guangdong plant expected to double its transmission output by the end of the year.

Not long after Yamada had assumed this post, seventeen-year-old Lin Xiaocao also left home for this city that was the complete opposite of her native mountain village. She started working for the plant’s division renowned for its rapid assembly of transmissions. At the time, she regarded this not as something glorious, but as merely her best opportunity considering her family’s limited finances. 

My dad always had a hard life. His family owned little more than a few bowls and lived in a hovel made of bamboo. It was hard for him to raise us. Although he was poor, he did everything he could to let us finish junior high. Later, when I started thinking about our family, I realized there was no way I could go to university, so my highest aspiration was to attend vocational school. That meant I was destined for a factory upon graduation.

Just before graduation, someone from the Honda parts factory came to the school to recruit workers. After four screenings (筛选), Xiaocao became an employee.  

Her first month at the factory consisted of training. Besides the training about production processes, what left the deepest impression on Xiaocao was the instruction in “Honda’s philosophy.” They showed a documentary about Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, and Xiaocao was impressed by how this man slowly fought his way out from poverty, established Honda Motors, and led it to become one of the Fortune 500. Truly an achievement! She thought her situation was similar to that of Soichiro Honda: although from a poor family, she just had to work hard without complaining, give her best all the time, and surely she would succeed one day. Although she didn’t really understand yet what kind of work she would have to do in the factory, at that moment, she was determined to be a good worker.  

“Respecting people: mutual trust through equal relationships, mutual respect among all individuals, development of each person’s abilities, and spreading joy through all of this.”

— The Philosophy of Honda

After actually working on the assembly line for a month, Xiaocao started to recognize that, for regular line workers, Soichiro Honda was nothing but a beautiful myth.

After training I was assigned to the transmission assembly division, delivering components to the assembly line. The work consisted mainly of putting the smaller parts on a tray and getting them to the assembly line so that people on posts further down the line could install them. This was considered quite tiring for girls. When I started it felt new and exciting, but it didn’t take long for me to lose the initial sense of satisfaction and grow bored with constantly repeating the same tasks over and over again.

Not only her but also other students who came at the same time were getting fed up: “Everybody started to complain that working like this felt like being a robot. On top of that, the wages were not really high. It all seemed more and more senseless with each day.”

The assembly line was designed in a way to make workers from each team take fixed positions and perform regular work. Because the hand motions were always repeating and there was no rotation of tasks, it didn’t take long for them to stop thinking what had to be done in the next step, so their speed was constantly increasing—exactly what the company wanted. They were not yet capable of fully replacing manual labor with machines, so they had to make do with turning people into machines. As for who would take a certain post, how long they would work, when they would start and when they would finish, all this was, of course, decided according to the amount of output required by the factory at the time, and people were sent where they were needed. You think the work is boring? Then, “you’re not taking this job seriously enough.” You think the work is tiring? Well, “you’re not persistent enough.” Not to mention the rules that the head managers came up with to strictly control everyone’s conduct. What “respecting each other’s independent personality” in fact meant was trying to force everyone to behave in accordance with the boss’s idea of a good personality.  

As for “sharing joy together” (共同分享喜悦), that was even more amazing. The general manager claimed that although the 2008 financial crisis initially did have a negative impact on profits, the company quickly managed to overcome them and increase production thanks to the government’s favorable policies, such as tax reductions. The company’s outstanding performance was the fruit of workers’ labor. When the manager was telling media and Honda’s head office about these achievements, it was clear that he was genuinely happy, but the ones actually making the products on the assembly line were workers wasting their youth on dull, repetitive procedures. Could they feel the same joy? Where would it come from?

 

 

What is Workers’ “Joy”?

 

Because bosses own the means of production, the workers can only sell their labor power. The supply of labor power is not unlimited or inexhaustible. Workers will, after working for a certain amount of time, become hungry and tired, get bored, sick or pregnant, have children, and finally grow old and retire to enjoy their old age in peace. Therefore, the wage that is paid in compensation for their work must, besides covering their daily needs for food and clothing, be sufficient to cover the costs of a decent life with an appropriate amount of leisure time, provide for a family, and guarantee a livelihood in old age. Only when the labor expended is appropriately remunerated can one feel “joy” as a dignified (光荣) worker. 

Do auto parts factory workers experience this kind of joy? Let’s have a look at the conditions at the time. According to Xiaocao, “The wages would go up a few dozen yuan each year, but prices would rise even faster. It was just enough for one person to live on if you were careful about how you spent your money.” Looking at a payslip in 2010, the basic monthly wage was just 675 yuan. After various allowances were added and fees were deducted for social insurance, etc., what you took home was a bit more than one thousand yuan. This was relatively low in comparison with nearby factories, so it was not hard to figure out that you were not better off than anyone else. This was the situation of some 1800 workers, who made up one fifth of the factory’s workforce. Among the rest, eighty percent were “student workers”: current vocational high-school students who were being paid only 800 yuan, with no social insurance. That year the minimum wage in the city where the factory stood was raised from 770 yuan a month to 920, yet the factory had the nerve to pay the student workers just 800.

The workers in the factory were mostly in their early twenties, so one thousand-some yuan was just barely enough to cover their living expenses. As they grew older, Xiaocao thought, this wouldn’t be enough. “With age, everyone goes from thinking whether they have enough to fill their stomachs to whether they’ll be able to raise a family with this kind of wage, and whether they’ll be able to take care of their parents and children.”

Stand on your own two feet: think freely, unbound by established notions; act according to your own convictions; and take responsibility for the results of your actions.”

— The Philosophy of Honda        

In the beginning of 2010, Xiaocao had a dream: “I dreamt that one of my workmates was selling things at a street market, and there were a bunch of people from work standing in front of the stall.” That street really exists—Xiaocao and her workmates often went there, and it was always full of people. So she started thinking that she could actually set up a stall to make a little extra money.

I sold matching T-shirts for couples. The first day, I felt nervous and awkward, but then a girl came and bought a pair. She even said nobody was selling such shirts around there, so she was really happy to see me selling them. I was thinking, “If I don’t sell a single pair this evening, I’ll lose the will to continue.” By selling one pair I earned about 5 yuan. I remember this because my boyfriend used the money to buy a bottle of water, so I ended up not earning anything that day.

Not only was the return low to begin with, she was soon assigned to work swing shifts, meaning that she couldn’t run her stall in the evenings when the market was busiest. She eventually gave up altogether.

Other workers were in a similar situation. When they got together, besides relaxing and having fun, they could hardly avoid talking about the issue of their low wages. Some felt that continuing to work there made no sense and that there might be better options elsewhere, so they considered resigning and moving on. But others would say, “I’m not giving up!” Among them was a workmate named Tan, who, like Xiaocao, worked in the transmission assembly division and, despite deciding to quit, wanted to put up one last fight before leaving. 

  

A First Taste of the Strike

 

According to what Tan later told the media, the idea to strike was already brewing inside him for two months. Some of the workers had already written a petition letter to the company during an earlier audit, but no one responded. So during breaks and rides to work and back, he started discussing the idea of a strike with some of the senior employees. Five or six of them reacted positively but lacked the courage to act. Only after Tan said he would lead the strike did they agree to follow and encourage other workmates to join. As a result, early in the morning of May 17th 2010, he and another workmate pressed the emergency stop button on the assembly line, entirely halting production. Immediately, everyone started leaving the line.  

Xiaocao was working the swing shift, which usually started after 3 p.m., but as soon as she woke up sometime after 8 a.m., she received a call about the strike. “At the time I was thinking, ‘Wow! Awesome!’” Because workers from the same department had a habit of hanging out together, everyone was quite close, and since Xiaocao was always one of the more active in the group, she was immediately given a task. “They asked me to call journalists, but I didn’t know a single one, so I figured I should call Guangdong TV or something. I just went online to find a phone number.”

What did striking mean to Xiaocao at the time?

Actually, I had never heard of strikes before…. But among the workers in the factory, any time the assembly line stopped for whatever reason, it was a cause for celebration, because then they could get some rest…. Basically, you can just not work during the time when you’re actually supposed to be working, and wait for someone to give you some kind of a proper response (真确的答复).

But if they didn’t have to stay on the assembly line, then where would they go? What would a proper response be anyway? At the time, Xiaocao didn’t have any clear idea about that, but in any case she wanted to participate in the strike. She could not stay home because her friends were at the factory and she didn’t know what would happen next. […] Each work team had its own group on QQ [a social media platform] to make it easy for them to keep in touch. Everyone in the transmission assembly division’s QQ group was sending out messages, saying the early shift people spent the whole morning sitting in the basketball court and then stayed in the canteen after lunch. This is why Xiaocao and her other workmates decided to go to the canteen to meet up with the people from the morning shift.

 

Not Seeing Each Other Breaks Mutual Trust

That evening, Xiaocao and her workmates from the transmission assembly division returned to meet with the people in the canteen, but when they arrived at the gate, the managers were blocking the way and wouldn’t let them in. They were all dispersed and redirected to the factory’s recreational area. Then the general manager came and made an empty gesture of accepting a few complaint slips filled out by workers, 117 in all, and said he would reply within a week. While everyone was still debating how to respond to this situation, the managers were already taking their first steps toward dividing the workers.

Workmates from the same shift sat down together as usual, and among them was a team leader who didn’t really support the strike. At some point he silently stood up and tried to lead everyone towards the assembly line. Less determined people didn’t know what to do so they just followed, and eventually everyone from the second line left. Xiaocao thought this might have happened because during the strike everybody was following the leaders. No overall plan was ever made, so the shopfloor managers’ actions could influence people to break formation.   

“Then our manager said, ‘Look, people from Line Two are all back in production, and the general manager promised to give an answer on Monday, so why don’t you just go back to work?’” This was really something, and people around Xiaocao started grumbling that they had clearly made an agreement with Line Two not to resume work, that it was was really irresponsible of them to do that. Feeling they had no choice, Line One gave up and went back to work.

Although everyone resumed work, this went against their gut feelings. And when they sat down together during break, they couldn’t stop complaining to each other. But it was only then that everyone figured out the managers’ trick:

Everyone on Line Two was waiting to see if Line One would participate in the strike, and then the manager said, “Look, Line One has already gone back to work.” Only then did Line Two resume work. As for us [on Line One], we knew only that Line Two went back into the workshop, not whether they were actually working or if the machines were running. Later people from both lines were accusing the others of going back to work first. It was then that I realized the management was using this trick to sow mistrust.

 

Refusing to Stop, Combining Our Strength

 

That day it wasn’t the whole factory that joined the strike but only two or three hundred workers from the transmission assembly division. The biggest department in the factory was called the “shaft machining division” (轴物加工科). There were some workers there who supported the strike and held a small-scale strike of their own on the same day, but once they heard the general manager’s promise to respond by the next week, they returned to work. Although everyone was waiting for the manager’s response, they didn’t become complacent.

It was natural for us to think we needed a place where everyone could be connected, so we created a new QQ group. The people who created the group weren’t thinking too much. First the key people joined and later more and more people followed. A lot of people set up new QQ accounts for this purpose, but I just used my regular account.

Although most of the members were using pseudonyms, it was always roughly known who was who because everyone was familiar with each other.  

Three days after going back to work, new information started circulating among the workers. There were rumors that the factory was bringing over a bunch of new student interns from Zhanjiang to replace everyone who had participated in the strike. This caused a big alarm. On top of that, everybody felt that the meeting between the general manager and the worker representatives on May 20th didn’t go well at all.

We chose some of the representatives simply because they were team leaders, while others were chosen through internal deliberation among the workers. But the company representatives weren’t negotiating in good faith. They just kept saying that they had received 117 suggestions and would read them out one at a time: “The first suggestion is…,” “The second suggestion is…,” —and that was it. Some of the workers asked, “Why don’t you give us printouts so we don’t have to copy all these down ourselves?” But the company reps didn’t agree to that, so the representatives from our department just got up and left. They felt the company wasn’t negotiating in good faith. The chair of the labor union, whom everyone already knew from before, was just sitting next to the general manager like a yes-man. He didn’t utter a word of support for the workers.

Unhappy with the situation, Xiaocao and her workmates got together with some workers from the shaft machining division. They decided it was time to unite and stop the company from continuing to mess with everyone like that. Workers from both departments met on the evening of May 21st and, after exchanging news, discussed what to do next.

We decided unanimously that after dinner they’d lead our workmates in the shaft machining division away from the shopfloor and down to the basketball court, “to observe the stars and the moon.” Our department would do the same. This was the beginning of the second strike!

 

 

Convincing More People to Join the Strike                  

 

People were more mentally prepared for the second strike, and there were more people who took part as well.

We started thinking about how to bring more people from other divisions into our ranks. We heard about some people from another division who found out that  we didn’t go back to work after dinner, so their department chief quickly took them out to the recreational area.

The recreational area was the place where striking workers gathered during the first strike, but this time the chief took the workers there in order to keep them away from those who had already joined the action.

The recreational area was between two workshops, separated by transparent glass. The department chief stood while the workers were sitting. People from our two [striking] departments were circling around outside the recreational area, excitedly calling them to come out and join the strike. But they were afraid to look at us and seemed rather helpless, just sitting there with their heads bent.

After more than an hour of this, the workers in the recreational area remained passive. The strikers eventually gave up on them and left to chat outside on the grass.

When we left, the department chief stopped paying attention and then suddenly the workers came out. When we asked why they were behaving like that just a while ago, they said, “Let’s not talk about that, it’s too humiliating. Next time we have to do something, we’ll do it for sure.”

That evening, the striking workers didn’t make any further moves, but just sat in groups on the grass and talked. “We didn’t really talk about anything special, like how long we should do this or what concrete results we wanted to achieve. Instead we just chatted about this and that.” But, after they came together, seeing each other face to face, Xiaocao became more certain that they were destined to become a community (命运的共同体) that would be ready to use its collective power to fight for something—even though it wasn’t yet clear what exactly they would fight for. 

 

 

Everyone Joins the Strike

What happened over the following ten days went beyond anything Xiaocao previously imagined, attracting widespread attention.

On the evening of [May] 21st, some managers came and grabbed the work-cards of the more militant workers in order to find out who they were, and to take photos of them. There were a few hundred of us, and yet the managers just swooped in and did as they pleased. That put us in a bad mood.

After the managers left, people started marching around the factory building in protest. This was not the only time they marched. Later many demonstrations occurred for various reasons, such as when the company announced their plan to raise wages by only a fraction of what had been demanded, or when they fired Tan Guocheng, the worker who had initiated the strike.

The usual places to gather for a protest were in the canteen or under the footbridge outside the compound. We never brought any signs or anything. At the time we didn’t even think about what route to march. It was all confined within the factory premises. We would walk around once or twice and sing a song, something like that. In any case it was too boring to just sit and chat all day.

All this was happening in early summer, so it was rather hot. When there was nothing to do, the men and women would each retreat to their respective locker rooms to rest. Because the decision to protest was usually made at the last moment, Xiaocao would often check to see what was happening on the QQ groups, and when someone was calling for a demonstration, she would ask all the girls to come out together. She would often stand in the first row of the demonstration and pay attention to what was happening around her. Some of her workmates would be shy, and this was when Xiaocao would tell them, “I am a girl and yet I can step up, so what are you people afraid of?”

The QQ group got a lot of traffic. The workers were not very happy with the company’s stammering proposals regarding the wage increase, not to mention that some of the demands weren’t even mentioned. So everybody started seriously considering what they actually wanted. QQ limits the membership of its groups to two hundred members each, so later when more and more people wanted to join, they couldn’t. “When we were talking face to face, we always talked about the latest news or something else, but the QQ group was the only place where we could coordinate our ideas.” Sometimes people were too emotional and couldn’t control themselves, and that was when trouble started.   

Too many people were using bad language and flaming was common, so QQ groups were often shut down. This is why we decided to forbid bad language in our group. The idea of “striking in a civilized manner” was something that a few people had emphasized from the beginning.

Within these new groups everyone was a bit more relaxed about what they were saying, and, anyways, they were supposed to be anonymous.

In these conversations, a lot of ideas were forming and we could discuss what sort of goals we wanted to achieve. There was a low-level manager who would gather all the suggestions, and then others would print out the demands on flyers and throw them down from the footbridge for everyone to read and pass on. At the time it seemed like a lot of fun.

 

 

Where Was the Company’s Good Faith?

 

Xiaocao’s assessment of the situation was as follows. When the strike spread to the entire factory, this caused a lot of problems for the company. Management now felt compelled to resolve things because there had previously been no way for workers to express their grievances.

The boss was thinking, “If something bothers you, just say it.” He behaved as if he didn’t understand the point of sitting down [to negotiate]. When we went on strike, the boss was even more confused as to why [we were doing that], so we just waited for him.

But once the boss knew why they were striking, would he want to resolve the issue together with everyone, or would he try to use the fastest means of suppressing the demands? The latter, obviously. The boss’s response only increased the workers’ discontent, leading to an even more energetic backlash.

Xiaocao’s feeling was that, since everyone lacked experience, many actions were taken without thinking, and certain practices from the company’s side made everyone think it was clearly being disrespectful. For example, the workers from the transmission assembly division were always on the front lines of the strike and very active. The reason they never returned to the workshop after they started striking was that the transmission workshop was dust-free, and the sealed environment made everyone feel stressed out, and also that they could be easily controlled. This is why they would only gather in the shade of the footbridge, where they felt more relaxed.

When people from other departments came out to demonstrate, they would occasionally return to their respective production lines for the air conditioning, but nobody ever went back to transmission assembly (except for a few people who didn’t join the strike). The locker rooms had air conditioning, but people from the company came and turned it off, so everyone had to sit under the bridge.

During the strike, the company’s actions made us feel like it didn’t want to negotiate in good faith, but rather it felt like they were trying to break the workers’ will to strike in every way imaginable.

What they were doing all the time was trying either to sweep something under the rug or to beat down on you, devising ways to give you a [disciplinary] warning, and to implement a series of other measures like firing people, trying to split them apart, making everybody sign commitment letters, and so on. 

 

 

Union Unmasked as Yellow When it Assaulted Workers

 

What truly pissed the workers off was the incident of union officials assaulting workers on May 30th. That day, a group of more than one hundred people wearing yellow hats came onto the factory grounds and blocked the workshop doors, and managers started forcing people to go back to work. After spending the whole morning in a stalemate, many workers felt they couldn’t hold on anymore, so a dozen or so went out through a refuse disposal emergency passage. When they were going out of the transmission workshop, managers shouted after them that they were no longer considered employees.

When they got out of the workshop, the people with yellow hats tried to push these workers off the factory grounds. As they shuffled, there were instances of workers’ faces being cut and women being kicked in the stomach. “Among those who were beating people were union officials, as well as police with handcuffs and even residents of the village [where the factory was located].” Other police at the scene were just observing the whole incident without lifting a finger, feeling like they were being left out of the fun. Shortly thereafter, vans parked nearby drove in at high speed, picked up the union officials and drove off. Some workers tried to stop them but were too late. These officials from the township federation of trade unions, who in the past ten days had never stood up for the workers, finally stooped so low as to violently repress them.

In theory, unions are supposed to be organizations of the workers, a platform they could use to raise issues with the boss and discuss working conditions. The factory already had a union, but in Xiaocao’s view it was only used for recreational activities, and union officials would never utter a word when it came to dealing with issues that really mattered. The conditions in China are such that an enterprise union is directed from above, from the subdistrict, township, and prefectural federations all the way up to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).  Since the ACFTU is in no way independent but something controlled by the party and the government, the enterprise union does not stand up for the workers most of the time, but instead does the bidding of the company and the local government in order to prevent workers from fighting back.

After ten days, the strike was finally getting some attention from both domestic and foreign media. We use the term “yellow” to describe those unions that collude with management and wipe the boss’s arse rather than speaking up for the workers, and this union’s officials fit that description in both their behavior and, literally, their attire. One can’t really say whether their actions were stupid or smart. They presumed that the workers would, like most ordinary people, back down after being threatened. They didn’t anticipate that their ridiculous appearance, wearing yellow hats and union emblems while assaulting workers who called for a “harmonious strike,” would be broadcast around the world via the cameras of onsite journalists. Xiaocao said that upon hearing that the union was beating people up, even the workers who were not present became indignant: “We were angry and demanded an explanation.” When workmates from workshops that had already returned to work heard the news about union people hitting workers, they stopped production once again.

 

 

Alliance with the Media

 

This was the first factory where Xiaocao had worked. Normally she would hang out with her workmates after work. She had less contact with her classmates from the vocational school because they all worked in different factories. But because of media reports about the strike, her old classmates living in different cities contacted her with encouraging words. “Some classmates even came down from Guangzhou to visit me just because of this. They said, ‘You guys are really awesome!’” After the strike started, the workers managed to stay united, but since they were doing a thing they had never done before, they were always feeling the terrain one step at a time while bearing all the weight of the strike.

Besides the mutual support among themselves and encouragement from classmates and friends, the workers had another ally: journalists. They believed that reporters would spread the news about what was going on in the factory, so that other people would know and the company and government would think twice before doing something. As far as the workers were concerned, the fact that others took notice was already a form of support. This is why they added journalists into the QQ group for circulating new information. On top of that, some workers established connections with journalists and helped them with reporting. One journalist later recounted:

First we got in touch with workers to get more details about what it was like working there. Some workers drew detailed maps of the whole factory for journalists and even helped them to reenact [the course of the strike]. In contrast with the previous generation, these young workers born in the 1990s displayed a cool-headed, rational and tireless determination to achieve their reasonable goals.

In recent years, workers have become active users of social media. Besides QQ, there are now Weibo and WeChat, where they can send out information and their friends and supporters can in turn spread the news until it gets some attention. Once people start talking about something online, the media will get a hold of it sooner or later. You can’t really depend on your relationship with the media alone, because journalists can’t freely choose what they report about. This is not just because the media are profit-oriented but also because they are restricted by the party-state’s censorship. Whether the media will cover a labor action depends, first of all, on whether they consider it special and serious enough. If they think that something is too commonplace, they will come by,  ask a few questions, write a hundred words, and wrap it up. There are some media that come to report about workers with good intentions, but this still depends on whether the state and party agencies approve of their reporting, because the latter often consider this kind of news as something that could “disturb social harmony.” 

After the incident with the union assaulting workers took place, Xiaocao heard that on May 31st domestic media received instructions to cease reporting on the matter. This meant the workers would have to rely, for the most part, on themselves. On the morning of June 1st, the workers, both those going into work and those leaving, marched into the factory and demanded an explanation. “We went to find the Japanese managers and ask them why we had been assaulted, and they said it was something that the union did on their own, that they had nothing to do with it, so we should go talk to the union.”

 

 

A Mysterious Appearance 

 

At that point, multiple foreign news agencies gathered outside the factory. Some of their names sounded familiar and some didn’t. As the angry workers were coming out to be interviewed, a man wearing a suit accompanied by a secretary emerged from the crowd. 

Who was this man? He was someone with two identities, one being that of a high-ranking manager of the business group with which the factory was affiliated—a half-boss, basically. His other identity was more interesting: a member of the National People’s Congress, so, theoretically at least, he was representing the people, even though nobody knew how he had come to be their representative.

He’d just arrived, but we were angry and didn’t want to talk to him. If he wanted to talk to someone he could see the general manager. He gave us a business card, but we threw it away.

At that moment a furious worker who was ready to give an interview to the press came out of the workshop, but the senior manager was there telling everyone not to speak. His secretary came to Xiaocao and tried to reason with her.

He asked whether I had considered the fact that everyone just wants this matter to be resolved, that we should not make things worse. We should not talk to the foreign media, he said, because we can’t be sure how foreigners would present the whole matter. They might distort our country’s image, so what was the point of talking to them? Besides, we had our National People’s Congress representative here, who was willing to mediate.

 

 

Was the People’s Representative a Friend or a Foe?

 

After ten days of striking, though morale among workers was still high, there were some bottlenecks with regards to action. Although the workers’ determination surprised people both inside and outside of China, and multiple news agencies still had people there watching, this was not enough to pressure the company into making concessions, or to get any justice for the assaulted workers. The union that claimed to represent the workers was beating them up, and the authorities were just telling everyone to go back to work. The workers had no one they could count on, so they felt isolated and were waiting for some kind of a breakthrough.  

We don’t know what kind of an agreement the government came to with the boss. When governments are trying to attract investment, they have to make guaranties to the foreign-owned firms that the wages will be acceptable to both the firms and the workers, because that is the role of a government which serves the people. But when companies come crying to the government that the costs are going up and business is tough, the government will, in order to appease the big fish, forget about its responsibilities towards workers and the people, offer all kinds of favorable policies to the companies, and help them to continue exploiting workers at low wages. And when workers come together in resistance, the local government will step in to suppress their actions and then clean up the mess for the company.

But with this strike it was a bit different. The workers’ willingness to hold out for many days actually achieved some results. With both Chinese and foreign media reporting onsite, the local government suddenly became more concerned about making a bad impression. A sympathetic explanation would be that the government did not really know how to deal with the situation, and since workers did not trust the government or the union, who else was there to mediate? For the local government, the arrival of that senior manager was a godsend. He had both a professional relationship with the company and the rank of a People’s Representative in government, so during the mediation he would be held in esteem by both workers and the company. He would make things run smoothly, and his willingness to cooperate with the local government would bring this dispute to a “harmonious” end.

At the time, Xiaocao thought that since everybody was hoping to hear something from the union, even though the senior manager’s arrival was not ideal, it was nonetheless seen as timely rain amidst the drought.

We made him go in front of the cameras and promise that he would take a stand for us and find a solution that would be to our satisfaction. After that, all of us who were going to be interviewed dispersed, walking off or going back to the factory.

She wasn’t sure how he managed to find the people who were beaten up and lobby with them. They would then tell other workers that the senior manager was hoping to meet workers’ representatives who would let him know what the issues were. Since everybody thought that Xiaocao had guts and was good at expressing herself, they chose her and another twelve people from the transmission assembly division to go together.  

The sudden appearance of someone claiming he could resolve everyone’s issues made Xiaocao a bit suspicious. No one was really clear about the specific rank of this man, they just knew he was half government and half boss, but with the scenes of union officials beating workers fresh in everybody’s mind, how could they not call for justice? Perhaps it was because they were caught off guard, in a state of mind where they were just trying to get anyone to listen to them, that it wasn’t hard to get everyone to go along with it.

What happened next in the conference room additionally strengthened everyone’s trust in the senior manager:

We went to the conference room demanding an apology from the township federation of trade unions, and he immediately supported this demand, calling for an apology. By that time the general manager was already worn down and also apologized. We wanted to put pressure on the union federation and make them explain why they hit people. They started speaking, but since we weren’t the ones that got beaten up, we demanded a written explanation for the people who weren’t present. The senior manager agreed, giving orders to the union people: “Yes! Start writing it for me right away and post it tomorrow morning!” At the time we thought he was really standing up for us.

“Trust: Everyone acknowledges one another, compliments one another and earnestly plays their part.”

 – The Philosophy of Honda  

On the surface, Xiaocao didn’t seem like anyone special. She looked no different from any girl you might come across in an industrial district. She was just under twenty years old, growing her hair long, paying a little attention to her looks, with curvy eyes when she smiled and a tender voice when she spoke. She liked to chat and wasn’t afraid of intimacy. When she started talking, people felt as if a spring breeze had just blown over them. You found yourself pulled into conversation without realizing it, no matter if the topic was serious or just insignificant wisecracking. […]

The other workers all liked and trusted her, not only because she was friendly and had this girlish air about her. Everyone knows that a trustworthy person will be there when things get difficult. She would try to figure out what to do, find support, and do her best when she was helping others. Within the group she was part of, she could very calmly start from everyone’s point of view, analyze it, and determine what circumstances were most beneficial and what kind of difficulties everyone was facing, what was the source of the predicament, and how it could be resolved. When everyone went out to march together, even though she was walking in the front, she wouldn’t forget about the people in the rear. […] Because it was everybody’s action, it shouldn’t always be led by the same one or two people—everyone should equally participate in the strategic decisions. During collective actions, workers need this kind of leading personality rather than the sort of leaders who only take the role of field commanders.

Of course, she was not the sort of model worker promoted in former times, who never stopped marching forward. She was just a nineteen-year-old with limited life experiences, not sure what to do under pressure, and who could freeze up when nervous. Other workers of the same age were the same, but that didn’t mean they would allow people to step on them. What they needed was mutual support, help and concern for other people’s moods and conditions, which could make them feel they were not lone individuals doing things that the whole world disapproved of.   

 

 

Misplacing Trust and Getting Conned

 

Xiaocao was very conscious of the fact that she was not super capable. She knew that precisely because she was just an individual among many she could not make decisions on behalf of all the others. Most of her workmates thought the same. Then the senior manager told the worker representatives that since he had already made the general manager apologize, and that the union would write a statement regarding its assault on the workers, everyone should go back to work. At the time, they were just talking things over and no agreements were made. Everyone was still expecting that the senior manager would help them but that he could not promise anything for the time being out of principle.  

But after they left the meeting room to face the other workers from the whole factory, everyone immediately realized that their relationship with the senior manager was very weak. Everyone was mentally and physically exhausted.

Although we were not working at the time, we were still very tired. We had to deal with the company, the government and the union all the time. Otherwise, the managers would again find a way to do something behind our backs to divide us. Suddenly they went and hired a batch of student interns, so we had to find these interns and talk to them to figure out what kind of conditions the company had promised them.

 At that point, the senior manager turned everything upside down with one sentence.

In the conference room we had talked about first discussing the matter with the other workers and then deciding whether to go back to work. The few of us could not make the decision on behalf of everyone else. But as we were preparing to hold a general assembly on the recreational grounds, he [the senior manager] declared in front of everyone that the twenty of us [representatives] had already agreed to go back to work.

They stood there dumbfounded. What they had never promised had now been turned into a fact, and no amount of talk would change that.

The senior manager asked us to come out again. We were so nervous! People from other departments were objecting, repeatedly asking why we were going back to work. But the people outside were usually from the transmission assembly division, since all the rest would only came out during demonstrations. We just hoped the issue would be resolved, otherwise we couldn’t get anything out of it, so we decided that the transmission department would go back to work first and if other departments wanted to take the initiative, then we would fully support them. This is how we all returned to work that day. We weren’t sure what would come next. We no longer had unity amongst ourselves.

 

 

Issuing Statements is Not Something Only the Union Can Do

 

On June 2nd, Xiaocao and some of the more militant workers from her workshop got together to discuss what to do next. One of them brought a newspaper. This was how they learned that journalists were already reporting on the apology that the senior manager had made the union write the previous day. Although the apology addressed the “esteemed employees of the company,” they described the events in a completely twisted way, claiming that because of misunderstanding and excitement on the part of the workers, a physical altercation occurred with union staff—implying that those who had insisted on continuing the strike were the ones to be blamed. Nothing was mentioned about how the company had disrespected its employees from the start or how the union had used violence against the workers. 

Everyone was pissed off and felt that the union was shameless to make this kind of statement. But then they read another report where Guangdong’s Party Secretary Wang Yang described the strike as a “dispute between labor and capital.” This, by contrast, implied that the reason for such a long and eventful work stoppage was the contradiction between labor and capital regarding the distribution of profits, rather than an attack on social order or an upheaval with ulterior motives.

Although this wasn’t ideal news, the comment by Secretary Wang pointed toward a possible direction of further labor actions. Some proposed that if the union could issue a statement, so could the workers. Among the twenty employees who went to see the senior manager, most were from the transmission assembly division, so they could not speak for the whole factory. Writing a statement at that time thus had two goals: first, to make it clear that, although they were returning to work for the time being, their demands had not yet been met; and second, by circulating an open letter, they could find people from the other workshops who could become new representatives. The letter, composed through discussion among the transmission workers, was titled “Open Letter to All Workers and All Sectors of Society by the Striking Workers’ Bargaining Delegation at Foshan Honda.”[9] It included the name and contact details of one worker.  

The letter reiterated the workers’ principal positions, including the demand for a wage rise, implementation of collective bargaining mechanisms, employees’ right to organize, etc. It also responded to the union’s apology statement, condemning its attempt to divide the workers and calling on people from all walks of life to offer support. In Xiaocao’s words: “The appeal was basically the same as the one we discussed on QQ prior to that, just more worked out, with a few quotations from newspaper articles.” Since a meeting with the senior manager had already been scheduled for the following afternoon, they were in a rush to find representatives from other departments before that time. This is why the end of the letter was signed by an indistinct “Bargaining Delegation,” and contact information was included to make it easier for everyone to find them.  

An Accusation of Illegality

That evening, workers talked long into the night, until three or four in the morning. The next day, when they woke up sometime after ten, Xiaocao and her workmates from the transmission division printed out leaflets of the open letter and rode a motorbike back to the plant to distribute them. […]

Originally, we hadn’t planned on sending this open letter to the media. It was only when we were already handing them out that this occurred to me. I guess I felt that speaking only to the workers inside the factory seemed too isolated and that we also needed to be concerned with the outside world. So I gave one to the journalist we were always in contact with, but I didn’t mention this to the other workers at the time.

Distributing the leaflets succeeded in putting them in touch with other workers. Xiaocao received numerous phone calls and text messages from workers in other departments. At the time of the meeting, when the senior manager saw the open letter for the first time, he didn’t react to it, but later one of the Japanese managers took a copy to the meeting room and said these leaflets had been spread all over the factory. It was only then that the senior manager found out he wasn’t the only one who had read it, and he immediately went berserk.

He started scolding people, saying, “Do you really think you are representatives chosen by the workers of the whole factory? You dared to use the word ‘strike’ in an open letter! Do you believe me when I say that the moment you leave this room you’ll be arrested?” He said we were uncontrollable. The letter demanded a satisfactory response within three days, to which he replied, “Did I make this sort of promise to you? What would a satisfactory response mean anyway?” He wouldn’t stop shouting at us.

Afterwards Xiaocao thought that maybe everybody was already prepared to go to jail, and this was why, when the senior manager said he would have all the leaflets in the factory destroyed, everyone remained calm. His secretary told him that the open letter was already online, and Xiaocao even told him that she was the one who had posted it before it was picked up by the media. “When he said a lot of its contents were illegal, I told him that I was the author as well.” The senior manager grew even angrier, pointing his finger at her and yelling:

You think you’re the only one who’s going to take all the blame for this? Everyone in this room is implicated! None of you are genuinely elected representatives! 

 “My mind went blank, because I didn’t know if we were really breaking the law.” Nothing came of the meeting, so everyone just went to sit in the grass outside the factory. They were feeling pretty useless. Xiaocao couldn’t think of anything to say. She had wanted to shoulder all the responsibility, but in the end it seemed that all her companions (伙伴) would be implicated. To her surprise, “The other representatives actually came to comfort me, saying it was OK, we would all just go and retrieve the leaflets.” But the letter actually had the intended effect—it was quickly spreading online, so the media kept reporting about it. That evening, each workshop carried out a more formal selection of representatives.

One of the demands we issued in the letter was the election of new [plant-level] union [officials] (改选工会), and this put pressure on the senior manager. Maybe he thought that if factory-wide elections were held right away, we might not be elected, since we hadn’t been chosen by a proper casting of ballots in the first place. So he asked the union to hold an election for “consultation representatives.”[10]

 

 

Contacting a Legal Advisor

Meanwhile, the accusation of illegality settled over Xiaocao like a haze. The letter had already been written, so there was no going back at this point. “I sent a message to that journalist asking if he could take the letter offline, without saying why.” There wasn’t much use in doing that: even if he took it off the agency’s website, there was no way of stopping the letter from spreading through other channels. But what she heard next gave Xiaocao some hope. “[The journalist] gave me the phone number of someone named Professor Chen who, he said, might be able to give us free legal advice.” Professor Chen taught industrial relations at a university and had been following news about the strike all along.    

That evening some of the workers called him. The question they were most worried about was whether there was something illegal about the open letter. Through the receiver came the voice of this professor they had never met before: “There’s nothing illegal about it! You wrote it very well!” Xiaocao could finally let out a sigh of relief.

Then we asked if he would be willing to be our legal advisor and he immediately accepted. He just wanted us to write something to give him power of attorney. But at the time we had no idea what power of attorney was, so we asked a workmate from the office to help us draft it. At the time we were asking him to serve as both our bargaining representative and our legal advisor, but when he came he explained that he couldn’t act as a bargaining representative, just as a legal advisor.

 

 

Election of Real Worker Representatives

The election of “consultation representatives” spread like wildfire to every workshop in the factory. The union-organized election had basically no candidates, so each worker just wrote the name of the person they wanted to elect on a piece of paper and threw it into a box the union had prepared, and that was it. There were no regulations and no campaigning. On the shopfloor people just said that if no one received more than one third of the votes, the election would have to be repeated.

Although no one really wanted to be a representative, the mood was still solemn. Everybody had already taken into consideration that the person elected would be representing everyone else during negotiations with the company, so they were concerned about who would shoulder this responsibility.

As one of the people actively engaged on the front lines ever since the beginning of the strike, Xiaocao didn’t really have much ambition to be a representative. She didn’t even know what it would be like to win or lose the election. What she really wanted to know was who would be elected in the other workshops and whether they would agree to let Professor Chen serve as legal advisor for this hurriedly assembled bargaining delegation. The election started at 10 p.m. on June 3rd, voting continued through the next morning, and the results were out at noon. In the end, Xiaocao was elected as one of the representatives of her department.

[…] Although I had participated all along, I wasn’t sure whether anyone would notice all the things I had done. After so many people voted for me, I felt that the masses truly have sharp eyes! 

 

 

Chaotic Negotiations

June 4th was the day for resuming negotiations that the workers finally won after more than ten days on strike. Under the senior manager’s plan, the company reps and the workers’ consultation representatives, who had been directly elected in each workshop the previous day, would, before starting the talks, go through all the points in the open letter. They began the negotiations at 4 p.m. Before that, at 2 p.m., all the worker representatives had a meeting in which they came to a consensus about their positions.

They were awesome! Everybody came. Some were people I hadn’t seen before, from other departments. Most were ordinary frontline workers, some were line leaders. They totally supported the demands listed in the open letter and also agreed to have Professor Chen as our legal advisor.

Chen received their authorization that day and immediately bought a plane ticket to get down to Guangdong as quickly as possible. 

Things were pretty chaotic. As they sat down for negotiations, the worker representatives discovered they weren’t prepared at all. “We hadn’t imagined what it would be like because there wasn’t any time to think it over.” The chief of the municipal labor bureau was presiding over the meeting. The company had sent the general manager, a few division chiefs and a legal advisor who came from Honda’s Guangzhou headquarters just for the occasion. Although the union chairperson looked soft, he was the one who, according to the Union Law, had to be the workers’ chief representative in collective consultation, and all the elected representatives had to wait for his permission to speak. “I only spoke on rare occasions. I always wrote what I wanted to say and passed it on to the chief representative, and then he would say it.”

The workers’ consultation representatives went through all the demands from the open letter point by point, and, although everyone’s position was identical, Xiaocao still felt they didn’t really discuss it much.

We wanted to deal with all the demands in detail—how much the wage rise should be now and each year into the future, how the union should be reorganized, etc. But during the negotiation we couldn’t discuss much. We didn’t make any special emphasis, we only managed to talk about the wage rise, leaving the rest as mere promises. The company told us they would increase the wage according to levels in similar factories nearby based on their investigation. We disagreed. We didn’t explain why, but the point was that we couldn’t account for the other workers.

There was nobody making statements. They used text messaging and QQ to keep in touch with the workers outside and report on the course of the meeting. Professor Chen arrived at the factory around five or six and then finally joined the meeting.

Regarding the wage, the open letter reaffirmed the demand that the basic wage must be increased by 800 yuan [per month] for all employees including student interns. Three days before the negotiations, the company came up with a wage rise proposal to increase the minimum monthly wage to 1,910 yuan. This seemed high but wasn’t in accordance with the workers’ demands, since the basic wage is just one part of the “minimum monthly wage,” which also includes overtime and various allowances. If the company kept the basic wage low and only let it increase via other allowances, this could have two consequences: first, employees would have to continue relying on overtime for most of their wage, and second, the amount of Social Insurance contribution the company pays on the basis of workers’ basic wage would be very little.

 

 

Arbitration as the Worst Case Scenario

In the meeting room, the managers who joined the negotiations would of course not agree to a plan for an 800 yuan rise across the factory. They kept repeating that the most they could offer was 500.

At the time, we were thinking about the question of how the 500 yuan would be split—how much would go for the basic wage, how much for allowances, so we held out. But the company wouldn’t back down and said that if we didn’t accept it, there would have to be an arbitration.

The workers couldn’t hide their mistrust of state agencies. Even without the incident of the union beating workers, this would have been understandable. It was easy to hear about factories with ample profits that planned to raise wages in order to retain employees, only to be dissuaded by the local government or village committee, who claimed that if one factory raised its wage this would result in a wage disparity causing problems for other factories in the area. Factory workers generally earn little, the gap between the rich and the poor is already as big as can be, yet the issue is not being resolved by raising wages, but by keeping wages low and everyone’s expectations down with them. Does this seem fair? To the workers it seems absurd, but to local governments, who want to keep firms where they are, this kind of reasoning comes naturally.

When examining strikes in recent years, something easily noticed is that, after a strike has begun, many workers go to the Labor Bureau to lodge a formal petition. They do this because there is no other channel for appealing and this is the only way to force the government to put some pressure on bosses to come out and talk to the workers. Sometimes the government really does that, but more commonly it suppresses or deliberately refrains from protecting workers’ interests. When angry workers go to the government, the latter has two instruments at its disposal: one is sending the police to disperse or detain the people in front of the building; the other is to play around with the workers by saying the demands are not according to law or exceed legal frameworks—in other words, washing their hands of the whole thing.

This is why Xiaocao and her workmates were so clearheaded in this respect: they quickly realized that if the government wasn’t with them, it was against them. When the company said “if we can’t come to an agreement there will have to be an arbitration,” it was clear that the local government would use arbitration to stall for time until it came up with a decision that would not cause much damage to the company. In theory, when two parties can’t come to an agreement they have to find a third party to mediate, but in fact this was nothing but an undisguised threat. For the workers, the ideal thing would be to settle everything at the negotiating table, but in this case they seemed to have encountered another bottleneck.

 

 

Outside the Meeting Room, the Crowd is Restless

The mood inside the meeting room depended on how the talks were going, but the people outside could only imagine or guess from hearsay what concrete progress was being made. They had to stay outside waiting for information and spent their dinner break all keyed up. Sometime after 7 p.m. they could no longer remain subdued, and Xiaocao received information that the transmission assembly division was on strike again.

Actually, when I was in the meeting room, they kept sending me text messages asking what the situation was. But we were inside so long that they decided if no progress had been made by dinner time, they would go on strike again. I knew that would happen. I didn’t feel too comfortable talking about it, but I didn’t tell them they shouldn’t do it. When they actually did go back on strike, managers who had been behaving alright until now became hostile. They claimed that we couldn’t strike during negotiations.

For Xiaocao striking seemed appropriate, but then Professor Chen agreed that they shouldn’t strike at this time because it could affect the negotiations. This is why Xiaocao and other representatives hurried back to their respective workshops and explained this to everyone, asking them to go back to work a little longer and see what happens before taking further action.   

Unfortunately, managers who had previously seemed friendly were no longer behaving that way. “This one Japanese guy was looking at me as if he wanted to strangle me, but we were in a hurry so I didn’t have time to think about it much.” The workers’ consultation representatives went to another room with Professor Chen, who told them that certain subjects shouldn’t be addressed for the time being—especially the issue of union reorganization. Unions were workers’ organizations, so their reorganization was not something they should be discussing with the company, otherwise they would never get anywhere.    

 

 

Who Can Consultation Representatives Actually “Represent”?

Under these intense circumstances, Xiaocao and the other representatives had lost track of time and missed dinner. […] “We were under immense pressure, so it was hard to make decisions appropriate to the circumstances.”

Xiaocao thought that under ideal circumstances, even if she and other representatives already had enough grasp of the situation to make a decision, they should not be making decisions themselves, but should first explain things to the people who elected them and then decide after hearing what they had to say. In the meeting room, roughly one third of the representatives had the same idea, but unfortunately the force of circumstances was such that they had to compromise.

This kind of temperature checking would really drag things out. There were a lot of government officials present. We didn’t really know who they were, but they kept whispering that the wage rise we were getting was already good and that we should keep in mind the wage level in the industrial park where we were located.

Although each bargaining representative was directly elected by their workshop, did this really mean that Xiaocao could replace everyone and agree to things the others knew nothing about and could not discuss first?

This question is not something that just became evident in this negotiation, but has been an issue in many countries that already have democratic union elections.  If a person can vote for someone to participate in decision-making instead of themselves, then what is their relationship? Do I have any more responsibility after voting? Do I have the right to interfere with the decisions my representative is making in my name? And what kind of responsibilities does my representative have towards me? Under what circumstances is my representative faithfully representing my opinion, replacing my participation in a strategic process closely related to me?   

 

 

The End of the Negotiations, A Victory for Everyone

The company was no longer willing to talk to the worker representatives. In order to break the deadlock, Professor Chen and the senior manager went to negotiate with the company.

The result was beyond everyone’s expectations. The wage rise was still to be 500 yuan, but of this 300 would go to the basic wage. Everyone accepted this and they immediately began preparations to sign an agreement. 

Strictly speaking this result was not achieved by the representatives themselves, and everyone’s negotiating skills still needed improvement, but if the strike over the previous two weeks had lacked the organizational strength to show the bosses how determined they were, then no matter who they sent to the bargaining table, they would have failed. In this sense, the next day’s media reports about “the workers’ victory” were not exaggerating.

After the agreement was signed, the dust finally settled. Xiaocao gathered the courage to ask Professor Chen, whom she didn’t really know before, if he’d like to go to the transmission assembly workshop to meet her workmates. People were saying that Chen, who had flown in from far away, was surely tired and wanted to rest, but he interjected, “No problem! Lead the way, Xiaocao.”

The most important part of a car, besides the engine, is a transmission. A transmission takes all the mechanical power produced by the engine and transforms it into more effective power that feeds into the drive shaft, wheels and other equipment, making the car run. This strike started in the transmission assembly division, and it was workers from this department who became the most active force during the strike. Their spirit and actions influenced everyone’s morale. One can well imagine that the pressure they bore was immense.

When Xiaocao brought Professor Chen to the workshop, she first introduced him as their volunteer legal advisor. “But as we were chatting, people kept asking how things were going and whether no more strikes were allowed while the agreement was in effect…. They wanted me to read it out loud, so I didn’t hear Professor Chen’s conversation with the others.” Later a workmate told her that Chen’s words had moved him to tears. “In the past we had all been constantly beaten down and there was never anyone who would praise us in such a positive manner.”

Throughout the entire process, no matter how high the pressure grew, Xiaocao would grit her teeth and pull through. One day she received a text message from her dad. “He said he admired my courage but was afraid that I was too young to bear all this. Then he said that I compared favorably with any boy.” She couldn’t hold back the tears. She kept that text message for a long time. “It’s because he always wanted to have a son.”

If you are doing the right thing, there will always be people who appreciate it, and all the blood and sweat won’t be in vain.

 

 

Looking Forward to Greater Changes: the Union Election

Even though an agreement was signed, Xiaocao still had other things on her mind.

Professor Chen said we should not discuss union reorganization during negotiations, that we should deal with that issue on our own. But we weren’t sure when to prepare for the union election…. I was neither happy nor unhappy, but since I was a representative, what worried me most was whether the others had any issues with the outcome.

After the negotiations concluded, work returned to normal and Xiaocao went back to the assembly line, but at the same time she tried to follow what was happening with the union. She was sure that if there were no real union to represent the workers, then the implementation of the deal they had signed would be in the hands of the company, without any way for the workers to supervise it.

I was brave at the time. When I saw the general manager come into the workshop I took off my gloves, ran up to him and said, “We were striking in good faith! Hopefully in the future there will be a channel for peaceful communication!” He said they would immediately start building this channel and so forth. I was hoping all this would bring about some great changes, push some things in a positive direction. I didn’t have any ill intent. 

The “great change” she was hoping for hasn’t happened yet, but from the way the authorities were behaving one can see that this strike really contributed to a rising feeling of crisis within the government, along with attempts to resolve it. Everyone thinks that the draft Regulations on the Democratic Management of Enterprises that the Guangdong provincial government issued at the end of 2010 was a response to the wage rise demands issued during this strike. In order to prevent workers from resorting to strikes when raising demands, the government wanted to promote “orderly collective consultation,” allowing labor and capital to have regulated and established channels for exchange of views and consultation on working conditions. During the following year’s National People’s Congress, the ACFTU was questioned regarding this strike. The incumbent vice-chair of the time, Zhang Mingqi, also acknowledged that all the reported contradictions between workers and capital resulted from companies not sharing profits with workers, stating that these issues could be resolved through the method of collective bargaining but that relevant regulations had not yet been perfected.

Although the draft Regulations stirred up a lively debate throughout society, they still haven’t been implemented as law because of strong opposition from companies. Under the eyes of the whole world, however, a reorganization of the union at this factory actually took place. The effects of this reorganization have yet to be discussed. About ten days after negotiations ended, Xiaocao ran across some information in a newspaper.

The Guangdong Provincial Federation of Trade Unions [GFTU] told the media that they would carry out a pilot scheme for union reorganization in our factory. Previously we had never known when we could elect [new plant-level union officials], but now we had a chance, the federation was claiming.

This is why Xiaocao gathered all the people who were active during the strike and told them the good news.

At the time I was really charismatic and could get all kinds of people together. I don’t know why they listened to me. It seems funny when I talk about it now, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.

The union leader was also saying that the workers’ demand for elections was reasonable, so he would help us push for this. Xiaocao pinned a lot of hope on him. But the workers did not feel the same.

I was the only one to run for elections. Everybody thought it was just a formality and nothing more. They thought having this election made no sense and there wouldn’t be much difference if we had them or not.

 

 

The Devil Is in the Details of the Election System

Although we already had experience with elections, this time everything seemed a bit more official. We started with the shop stewards (工会小组长), one elected by each shift (班组). There were no candidates. The voting was anonymous, and again it was done by writing the name of the person you wanted on a slip of paper. After the shop stewards were elected, the stewards themselves had to nominate four branch (分会) candidates, posting information about them so everyone could read it first, then the whole workshop had to vote and choose three people. So this was a form of indirect election.

The [three people] elected in the branch election were one chairperson and two [other] committee members, but they were not yet considered union committee members.

In the end the union committee was elected. Each branch nominated people, and the twelve people that made up the election committee elected the candidates for union committee members.

It sounded like twofold indirectness, all unfavorable for frontline workers. A lot of people in the workshop knew Xiaocao from the strike, so it seemed OK in this case.

In the shift-level elections, everyone wanted to vote for me, but there was a manager who went to the assembly line telling everyone not to, so I wouldn’t be elected on the shift level. But on the workshop level there were other people as well, so if the whole workshop voted together I’d become a branch committee member.

But in the next step this became impossible.

The seven people on the election committee were previous union committee members, all “deputy section heads” (副科级) [in the state’s civil service ranking system]. I was one of five new committee members and the only one from the front line. There were two others who were low-level managers, and in the end they were the only two who voted for me. I had no chance of being elected. I just didn’t have enough strength to fight them. If the election had been done all across the factory together, I would have stood a chance.

Failing to become a union committee member, there was not much hope of achieving anything as a mere branch committee member. Shop stewards and branches were a new arrangement and could make networks more robust. Everybody was hoping that they would have some rights and responsibilities, but what they experienced was layers and layers of institutional red tape. There was very little one could do.

The GFTU never agreed to dismiss the union chairperson, who we considered someone who never pushed for anything. He was annoying, so why shouldn’t we get rid of him? But in the end we didn’t manage to make him go, merely appointing a new vice-chair. […]

Leaving the Factory and Attending College: Struggle and Resistance Continue

That year Xiaocao was only 19 years old. Although the strikes, negotiations and union elections that followed brought some changes into her work and life, she still felt she was going around in circles. Xiaocao became aware that she was still on the assembly line, doing the same repetitive work day after day. “I didn’t see a future, I wanted to escape that environment.”

After some encouragement from older workmates, Xiaocao, who had graduated from a vocational secondary school (中专), decided to take the college entrance exams.

Because I never went to an academic high school (高中), I never got a chance to take certain courses. I could only review my textbooks during occasional breaks, and after work I’d go home and force myself to go through the stuff I had to learn. Once during a holiday, I rented a single room for 50 yuan next to the university where two of my classmates from middle school were enrolled, and they took turns teaching me subjects such as mathematics.

During the summer of 2011, she scored well enough on the exam to get into vocational college (大专) with an eighty percent discount on tuition. Besides attending classes, she worked in a restaurant to pay the bills. Xiaocao seemed to break away from her status as a factory worker she had held for three years, but there was still some intangible haze shrouding her life.

During the strike she had already become aware that sometimes people somehow knew things she had never told to anyone. The first time was after the open letter was published, her dad wanted to see her and said he was coming with the village party secretary. Who would have thought that a village official would arrange for a police car to take them all the way without stopping. And next to the guesthouse where they stayed there were a lot of men working for the Ministry of Public Security.

A few months after the strike ended, Xiaocao got invited to a conference about workers.

It was an academic event, and it seemed as if I, as the one grassroots voice, would be the highlight of the whole thing. It didn’t seem like a big deal and I didn’t think much of it.

She never told anyone about it, but before even asking for a day off, the union leader already knew about it and came straight to the workshop to tell her not to go. “I didn’t listen to him and went anyway, but it made me hesitate.”

A third incident occurred after she had started college, at an awards ceremony.

I felt then that I was being monitored, but I didn’t know why. I had trouble explaining this to others. They would say, “You think you’re in a James Bond film?”

Xiaocao never knew who was monitoring her.

They were contacting people around me, and [trying to] influence me through them. They’d say you can’t do this, you can’t do that. At the beginning I felt dismayed even though I wasn’t actually doing anything! After a while I finally relaxed.

 

 

After Thinking It Over, I Realized that I Belong to the Working Class

After starting to attend college, Xiaocao became intrigued by other questions. In order to escape the confines of school life, Xiaocao hoped to forge a completely new path. As she came in touch with more and more people, she gradually discovered that there are already many who were concerned about workers. Why didn’t she learn this earlier?

I was very young at the time, so I was hoping that teachers, scholars and experts would tell me what to do. I hoped to have others show me the right way.

Xiaocao received a lot of invitations from students and professors who wanted to interview her and her former workmates. But she discovered that workers don’t like to talk about their situation with others. What kind of feedback could they expect?

I discovered that a lot of people collect data from workers, but afterwards they don’t concern themselves with them anymore. I think that’s unfair.

What kind of questions is everybody faced with? How can we contribute to workers’ solidarity? This is what Xiaocao wanted to know.  

She did not believe that because she became a student, she somehow turned into someone who had nothing to do with workers. Besides, her problems had in no way vanished. “At first I was thinking of going to work in HR or something, but then I saw my classmates running into all sort of problems, such as going through temp agencies to work for the government and receiving only one tenth of the pay received by civil servants.” Leaving the factory and going to college in no way changes the reality that workers are exploited, but merely the shape and setting of exploitation. […]

Xiaocao will graduate soon. She isn’t sure if she’ll go back to the factory, but she’s sure she’ll do something related to workers.

I often interview people, I get in touch with frontline workers. I talk to them and I don’t feel so lost any more. Their situation is rough.…  Although I can’t really explain how to solve their problems, as long as I return to be by the side of workers, we can think about these questions together.

 

A Collectivity is Gradually Forming and a Real Movement is Just Beginning

Xiaocao is quietly doing her own thing. Did the strike end here, with no further impact on society? From actions that happened after this strike we can see that it affected not only workers from that one factory but an entire mass of people.

After the strike ended, workers from nearby Japanese auto plants started striking one after another. Their demands were obviously formed with reference to the experience of Xiaocao and her workmates, and they also demanded a rise of 800 yuan. In the past, striking workers usually demanded that factories implement labor standards according to the law, but now the implementation of legal norms had become the bare minimum of workers’ expectations. People became confident enough to question the current norms as insufficient and fight for conditions more in accordance with their actual needs.   

More importantly, labor issues began to receive more attention, and workers themselves became aware of this. Before the strike, Xiaocao had never imagined there were so many experts, scholars and students interested in workers, that there were all kinds of foreign and domestic media and NGOs, big and small, that were being pulled forward by workers’ actions and were trying to exchange information and build mutual support networks. Can such networks persist and gather their forces to push, in the short run, for an improvement of the lives workers’ currently have, and, in the long run, to change the system of economic development based on the exploitation of cheap labor power? As a part of the community of workers (工人群体), let’s explore this together and strive for it in the days to come.

 

 

Notes

[1]            For English accounts of the 2010 strike wave, see “Trade Unions and Worker Struggles in Guangdong, Chen Weiguang Interviewed by Boy Lüthje,” Global Labour Column, April 2011; “Workers’ Autonomy: Strikes in China” by Mouvement Communiste and Kolektivně proti kapitálu, 2011; and “Auto Industry Strikes in China” by Lance Carter, Insurgent Notes #2, 2010.

[2]            For data on shrinking profit margins in the PRD and the real threat posed by implementing even existing labor-related laws (such as paying legally required company contributions to workers’ Social Insurance funds), to say nothing of progressive reforms, see “Picking Quarrels: Lu Yuyu, Li Tingyu and the Changing Cadence of Class Conflict” in this issue of Chuang.

[3]              Elaine Sio-ieng Hui and Chris King-chi Chan, “The Influence of Overseas Business Associations on Law-making in China: A Case Study,” The China Quarterly, January 2016.

[4]            2016年广东统计年鉴 <https://gdidd.jnu.edu.cn/doc/gdtjnj/gdtjnj/2016/index.htm>

[5]            See “Picking Quarrels,” in this same issue

[6]            On this, see “Turning Out Engines,” Chuang Blog, 6 June 2018. < http://chuangcn.org/2018/06/turning-out-engines/>

[7]              “Five years on, Nanhai Honda workers want more from their trade union,” China Labour Bulletin, 15 May 2015. <https://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/five-years-nanhai-honda-workers-want-more-their-trade-union>

[8]            See: Striking to Survive: Factory Relocations and Workers’ Resistance in China’s Pearl River Delta by Fan Shigang, Haymarket Books, 2018. This book divides the sequence of struggles into three “waves” (early 2000s, 2010, and 2012-2015), each with distinct characteristics, the last (the focus of the book) centered on last-ditch efforts by older workers to obtain severance pay and social insurance contributions from factories preparing to close or relocate. Whereas the authors believe it is just a matter of time before the deepening economic crisis gives rise to a new and more explosive wave of industrial struggles somehow building on the previous ones, however, we highlight the growing importance of struggles outside of factories, of the wage relation, and of the PRD. 

[9]            The letter can be found here: 佛山本田罢工工人谈判代表团致全体工人和社会各界的公开信, 3 June 2010, <http://www.ideobook.com/29/open-letter-by-foshan-honda-workers/>

[10]          “Consultation” is the standard translation of xieshang (协商), the state’s preferred term for collective bargaining in industrial relations, which is used here. This is considered less antagonistic than the more commonsensical term tanpan (谈判), which we’ve translated as “bargaining,” as in the “Bargaining Delegation” named as the author of the open letter above.