Part Seven in a series of translations from the independent workers’ newsletter Railroad Workers Bulletin (铁路工人通讯). For background see the “Prologue” to issue #1, “Tales of Rights Defense“, “Farewell, Director!“, “Guiyang’s Casualized Train Attendants Fight Back” and “Why Workers Are Dissatisfied” and “Song of the Locomotive Engineer.”  Below is a partial translation of “Railroad Brats Talk about the Railroad” (铁路子弟说铁路) by Longlong (龙龙) from issue #3 (February 2016), available here: 铁路工人通讯第3.

Serving in the Military and Getting a Job on the Railroad

I’m a “railroad brat.”1 I joined the Communist Party, served in the army and, after being discharged, got a job on the railroad, where I’ve worked earnestly for two years. I work in the Power Supply Division. Every station and depot has someone from our division. I love the railroad. Our family has been working there for generations. I’ve been watching the trains and walking the tracks since childhood. I used to be naïve – although I wouldn’t jump off a cliff if I were told to, I generally did what I was told and didn’t ask questions. That’s just my temperament. In the beginning I didn’t understand anything, but gradually I started understanding the present reality of this industry and realized that, for its employees, the railroad is a living hell. Working there is like throwing your life away. It’s disgusting. There’s a world of difference between the railroad today and the one my father worked for! I just think that if you don’t live well, if you spend all day just trying to survive like a slave, then you’re finished. I often say that if we’re all working so hard and so far from home, without any joy and feeling afraid all the time, then what’s the point? What kind of life is that?

Locomotive engineer Li Weijie sued the railroad because of overwork. This is just one individual case, and the locomotive division is just one department. Construction, power supply, passenger transport – where will you not find overwork? On top of using cheap labor, they’re deducting wages. If the workers don’t resist, who will?

A lot of foremen and section heads are getting gray hair. It’s not the amount of work but the stress. They’re so afraid of accidents happening that they can’t sleep at night. Working there for two years changes you a lot. You’re always afraid of something or another. You have to accept whatever the leaders say as if it were the truth.

Recently a lot of high-speed rail workers have died of exhaustion. Here in Shanxi there were two cases. One was a 27-year-old who worked on the high-speed rail contact system (接触网). He suffered a severe stroke during a night shift and had to be admitted to the Xijing intensive care unit. The doctors don’t expect him to live long, and if he pulls through he’ll be paralyzed. Several hundred thousand yuan were spent on the treatment, and the Railway refuses to acknowledge it as a work injury. The leaders all say the stroke wasn’t work-related, nothing for them to be concerned about. And few years ago there was a 24-year-old who [committed suicide by] jumping from a building. None of these incidents are ever reported in the media. People can talk about them but the stories stay in the railroad cars.

Work-related injuries on the railroad are handled as such, but they are never reported as such. The Railway doesn’t recognize over-exhaustion as constituting a work injury. They say it’s just a personal issue.

I honestly regret leaving the army and coming to work for the railway. The main issue is the Railway leadership’s oppression of the employees. Otherwise the Railway would be a good work unit. The leadership behaves like the kings of lore, always cheating the workers. It’s hard for the workers to get a chance to even see a division chief (段长) – even if they enter his office, someone convinces them to leave. I took this job only because I didn’t want to let my family down. Otherwise I would have stayed in the army or found something else a long time ago. Haven’t a lot of university graduates already left? At least they were university graduates, so it’s easier for them to find jobs somewhere else. For us who come from the army it’s much more difficult.

But since the railroad is as it is, we shouldn’t always ignore the problems or cover them up. Complaining is the natural thing to do. Since all the knowledge we’ve acquired is related to the railroad, it’s not easy for us to leave. At least a job on the railroad is an “iron rice bowl” [i.e. a secure job]. I might try and do business on the side in the future. If I’m successful then I’ll surely leave the railroad. But I definitely don’t want to lose my position here, so I’ll try to get something like unpaid leave.

Do you now about the time the Railway Academy was vandalized? That was during our previous two terms (前2届).

After being discharged from the army, all the “railroad brats” would first go study at the Railway Academy. At that time the Railway gave each student a monthly stipend of a few hundred yuan. But at the school you had to pay for [everything, even] boiled water, and the food was expensive. The students couldn’t afford it. With time, everyone became more and more aggravated. If you asked ex-army buddies studying at schools in other cities they’d tell you it was the same everywhere: Wuhan, Xi’an – many Railway Academies started getting smashed up at the same time. The State Council came to inspect the situation. After that our stipend was raised from 600 to over 1200 yuan a month.

Different Types of Employees

There are two types of people working on the railroad. One consists of the industrious workers, who work [hard] even if they’re not happy. The more they work the more money they loose in deductions, and on top of that they have to kiss up to the bosses. This kind of people are in the majority. The other kind consists of the employees who aren’t afraid ([不]怂).2 They think, “Why should I care? Nobody can fire me, what can they do to me, the money comes every month just the same,” so they just spend most of their time hanging out or surfing the internet. These people are in the minority. The bosses always pick on the “soft persimmons” since they’re afraid of the tough ones. The ones who do drugs (抽大烟)3 are the most arrogant: they don’t do anything, yet nobody can fire them. Another thing is, if you don’t do anything at all, how can you be penalized for doing something wrong? I went from being an outstanding worker to turning into this kind of a person.

As a Party member you get a lot of praise for good work. But everyone knows that the more you do, the more money they deduct in penalties. Although the leaders praise you, they still deduct your pay and cause unhappiness in other ways. There are those who keep quiet, stay in the house all day, get paid just the same and live an easy life. My experience has led me to be utterly disappointed by the Railway, so I changed, and now I’m much more relaxed and comfortable. I don’t show any respect to the bosses. They’d fire me if they had the ability. Of course you have to do your duties, you can’t just mess around all day, but you don’t do anything more than the bare minimum. People might say I’m taking the Railway’s money and even disrespecting the Railway, that this shows a lack of professional ethics. But let me ask you something: if your bosses behave in this way, where is there room to moralize? Why do the workers complain so much? Can you tell me how to do a good job? No matter how good a job I do, I would be drowned in penalties.

What is this [employee] “assessment system,” installing cameras and spying on workers? Why don’t they install the cameras in the boss’s offices and let the workers supervise them?

In the cities there are some employees whose names are on the roster (挂职), but who rarely ever go to work. How could this be? Some have connections in the Railway. Others do drugs (抽大烟) or run small businesses. Finally there are those employees who aren’t afraid of anyone.

Regardless of what they do, urban railway employees at least have a normal life, so they usually don’t resist. But those who work along the railroad lines – that is, in county-level cities, towns and villages – have no way to link up with the outside world. There the bosses’ word is the law and workers never resist.

The leadership’s policies are always pushing workers toward individual self-preservation, as well as making the employees supervise each other: whoever caused 100 yuan to be deducted from my salary will have 100 yuan deducted from his salary, and so on. A lot of the leaders along the rail lines behave like local despots. Here we had a leader here who behaved like a tyrant, scolding workers all the time, and there were only a few workers that were too tough for him to mess with.

Now most workers on the railroad are between 30 to 50 years old, and most of them are afraid to speak up when they’re bullied. A lot of young people come, but once they understand what’s going on here, they resign if they can. Five graduates from vocational college recently quit their jobs.

The most unfortunate are the contract workers from the [Railway] Academy. After signing a three to six year contract they don’t receive the salary of a formal employee, and on top of that their pay gets deducted all the time.

Why are there fewer and fewer formal employees and increasing numbers of contract workers in the Passenger Transport Division?

During apprenticeship for the first two or three years, contract workers receive less than 1,000 yuan per month, and only 1,600 after apprenticeship is completed – half the salary of formal employees. Their money is being split by the Academy and the Railway.

The airports are the same, including Capital Airport [in Beijing]. With the exception of pilots, flight attendants and a few other posts, all the other workers make less then 2,000 yuan per month, and these are people sent from academies to do apprenticeships. Every year new people come, getting paid only 1,600 a month. [….]

Leaders These Days

 How many employees don’t have housing? There are so many flats for the leaders, and they’re all the best flats available. Every time housing is distributed, flats are reserved internally, and the leaders snatch up the best ones. Which leader above the rank of deputy doesn’t have over 130 square meters of housing? Basic renovation would cost 300,000 to 500,000 yuan.

Railway leaders should be investigated. They travel and have fun using public funds, while employees can do nothing but work and go home. Do you ever see workers eating out every day or going sight-seeing?

First, there’s the top leadership, such as directors, section chiefs (科长), division chiefs (段长) and bureau chiefs (局长). One you reach these positions, you become very powerful. At each meeting, after all the reports and policy announcements and general discussion, all the decisions are made by these people.

There is also intrigue among leaders who hope others will step down or leave. They only care about themselves, never the workers. On the railroad, there is no one who dares to speak up for employees.

Some leaders are in difficult positons themselves. We have a director who, after moving to a better rail line, immediately sent a deputy director to work as a cadre at the lowest level. Otherwise, he would have had trouble serving as director there.

If you have connections, even if you’re [just a common] worker, you can easily be promoted to the leadership. I’ve seen several cases of this myself. One person widely considered to be incompetent was promoted to the leadership as soon as a recommendation came down from the Railway Bureau, where his older brother was a senior official.

Of course ordinary workers can’t be promoted. Nowadays on the railroad, young people who do their job well are groomed to become foremen or skilled workers, but never to enter the leadership. Leaders promoted from lower levels of course know how to deal with employees, but they also understand their hardships, [such as] what [kind of work] is dangerous and what [kind of work] is tiring. Leaders always say “safety first!” but still many employees work under dangerous conditions.

While some leaders don’t take days off, they make much more money. Leaders who secure more projects make a lot of money, so of course they don’t want to take days off. Workers [also] work all day [but] they don’t make much money, and they also have to study and take exams – which are mostly irrelevant to their work – so [often] they can’t go home. Families need to be taken care of, and children need parents. We have so few days off each month that we have no time for our wives, children and parents. At the very least we should have higher salaries to give our families, but after working our asses off the entire month we still make only three or four thousand yuan – except for locomotive engineers, who are severely overworked. We keep one or two thousand yuan for ourselves and send the rest home. It’s pitiful.

I don’t care about leaders. I still come to work – if I don’t, it’s for health reasons, so they can’t penalize or punish me. Everyone should education themselves about Railway policies. We’re supposed to be notified at least one day in advance of scheduling. When you don’t feel well physically or mentally, you can refuse to work. Let them do the work themselves! There’s so little money each month, and no one will die from having a few yuan less. It’s better than working and still having salary deducted.

When I act respectfully toward them, they stab me in the back, so I have no choice but to confront them directly. Even if I swear at them, they can’t do anything but complain about my “quality” (素质), and swearing at them makes me feel better about myself. What the Railway [authorities] fear most are “troublemakers” (无赖). Look what Party members [like me] have been forced to become….

The last time I met a leader, he asked, “Do you have any water?” I said, “No.” He asked why not, and I said there was no boiler because the old one broke long ago. The leader called someone to buy a new boiler and then asked, “Do you have other problems?” I said, there’s no air-conditioning, so it’s freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. He made another call and bought an air-conditioner. What is there to fear about leaders? Everything is fixed now.

When most employees see a leader they act like he’s an emperor, all but kowtowing before him. But look at me: I simply asked for these things and got them, with no negative consequences.

Gossip is a powerful force among employees. Some will say that this person has been disrespecting the leader by asking him to do this and that, that when a leader comes we should treat him well and not bring up such requests, etc. With all due respect, most of these people have the mentality of a petty bourgeois or a peasant. I just want to tell everyone that what we should fear is not the Railway leadership but the employees’ own servility. We work so hard while [the leaders just] sit in the office. What’s wrong with asking for a few things?

I’ve asked a lot of senior employees if anyone has ever been fired, and they’ve all said “no,” except for cases of criminal activity or serious railroad accidents. Otherwise, even if you don’t come in to work for years, you won’t be fired. This means that even if you physically assault a leader, the worst that will happen is to be re-assigned to a more remote location. And my location is already remote – ha!

Today’s Railway leaders aren’t like those in the past who could touch your money [i.e. influence your salary]. It’s no longer possible – if they do, you can report them directly [to disciplinary authorities]. Any sign of that is reported. They’re actually afraid of that. So, dear leaders, you’d better behave – don’t let us employees catch you [abusing power]!

Leaders use their connections to advance the careers of relatives, leaving the low-level work to us. Leaders protect each other. Regardless of employees’ petitioning and whistle-blowing, or even reporting to the local television station, leaders always find ways to quash it. Too many railroad workers don’t know enough about the legal system, including myself. At the very least we need to get a good grasp of relevant laws in order to protect ourselves and fight against the leaders.

But by learning about the legal system, we’ve also learned that laws can’t solve all our problems. When the time calls for radical actions, we need to take them. It’s actually the existence of laws that allows these damn officials to oppress employees without consequence.

If a leader bullied employees in the 1980s or 1990s, they would beat him unconscious. Only a minority of leaders were assaulted then – most of them were fine. This happens more rarely nowadays only because there’s [rule of] law.

Translators’ note

  1. “Railroad brat” (铁路子弟) refers to someone whose parents and perhaps grandparents and great-grandparents worked on the railroad. We follow the bulletin’s editors in using American terms such as “railroad” and “locomotive engineer,” but use the official translation “Railway” when referring to China Railway Corporation (before 2013, the Ministry of Railways) and its various “railway bureaus.” A translation of a more comprehensive article on the recent market-oriented restructuring of China’s railway system and workers’ resistance is forthcoming.
  2. The original just says 怂, which means “to flinch,” but the author seems to have meant the opposite, “[people who] don’t flinch” (不怂) – a term for people who aren’t afraid and, by extension, something like “troublemakers” (刺头) – but accidentally omitted the negative (不).
  3. This term (抽大烟) – literally “inhale big smoke” – is an old term for smoking opium. Almost no one smokes opium in China today. This may be a local dialect or railroader term for chain-smoking cigarettes, or, more likely (since most male railroad workers smoke cigarettes), it refers to smoking heroin or meth. (Marijuana is much less common than these other drugs among Chinese proletarians.) In response to a question about this on an online railroader forum, one worker said that every Railway workplace has a minority of workers who “do drugs,” so he thinks this term refers to that, but he didn’t specify which type of drug.
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