Review: What Chinese Workers Are Learning from Their Strikes

China on Strike, edited by Hao Ren, English edition edited by Zhongjin Li and Eli Friedman. Haymarket Books, 2016, 224 pages, $19.95 paper.

The editors of China on Strike must be encouraged by July’s news from Walmart. Not only did workers in at least five Chinese stores strike against flexible scheduling, they did so with the aid of the Walmart Chinese Workers’ Association, a loose cross-workplace group established in 2014 by two former Walmart workers.

Cross-workplace organization of any kind is exceedingly rare in China, because the government normally cracks down hard on the whisper of any such organizing, even the work of “labor NGOs” that give legal or health and safety advice. Increasingly since 2014, such fledgling groups have found their leases canceled or, in worse cases, organizers have been threatened or beaten by police.

Labor lawyers have been jailed, and academic supporters of worker organizing are not immune. In 2014 a pro-labor university research center in Guangdong province was shut down, and one of its founders, who was teaching abroad, was warned not to return to China.

The repression makes the task that the China on Strike editors have set themselves even more daunting: to teach the world’s most restive working class how to win a strike.

STRIKE-HAPPY

Despite the suppression of almost any ongoing worker organization, the Chinese working class is the most strike-prone in the world. According to China Labour Bulletin, workers protested publicly 4,153 times in 2014-2015, and 949 of those incidents were strikes, with 116 involving more than 1,000 workers apiece.

The Hong Kong-based Bulletin gets its information from media and social media reports. (Click here to check out its Strike Map.) But occasional statistics issued by the Chinese government make the group think that its figures account for only 10-15 percent of all incidents of worker collective action. For comparison, in 2014-15 the U.S. saw a total of 23 strikes involving more than 1,000 workers each.

The editors note that strikes have spread from factory workers to teachers, transport workers, street cleaners, and retail and white-collar workers, and from “traditional hotbeds” like the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong to interior provinces. As factories have moved west seeking cheaper labor, they write, “worker resistance has followed.”

All of China’s 770 million workers, urban and rural, are effectively without a workplace union, much less sectoral or national unions. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions and its factory branches are arms of the government. In the stories told in China on Strike, workers were far more likely to seek the aid of the local government labor bureau than of the ACFTU.

So, as the preface to the English edition makes clear, the 15 stories gathered here are meant as an “instruction manual for other workers considering direct action.” Workers can learn, sometimes by negative example—because defeats and partial victories are common—“how to formulate demands and select representatives, the various strategies bosses use to coopt representatives, what to look for as signs that the boss might flee with unpaid debts, and even how to distinguish different categories of police.”

SHOP FLOOR STORIES

To produce the book, a network of activists led by Hao Ren, a university graduate now a factory worker, interviewed workers who’d struck a range of factories in the Pearl River Delta—“the factory of the world”—in the 2000s or early 2010s. Some interviewees were minor participants; others were organizers and leaders. The activists first disseminated their stories in industrial zones as a series of magazines.

China on Strike brings together these workers’ voices with a wealth of recent history and analysis. The history puts their stories in the context of the cataclysmic changes that rocked China, and thus the world, as it industrialized, but it is the close-grained accumulation of information from smack on the shop floor that makes these stories come alive. We learn about actions that are part of world historic events, and we get the homely details.

For example, in a Hong Kong-owned pocket-calculator factory in Dongguan:

The food in the canteen was gross. Once the steamed rice was found to be too raw to eat, so three or four workmates from Shanxi Province carried the rice barrel into the manager’s office. We all followed them. They dumped the rice on the desk of the manager. They cursed the manager, complaining that while they could bear poorly cooked food, they couldn’t handle a raw meal. The manager later bought each of them a bag of instant noodles. We felt so happy about this.

For the next few days, a little bit more meat appeared in the dishes. The rice had been really foul, since they used diesel as fuel to steam the rice. On the spring festival menu, there was a dish of “stir-fried pork with ginseng” (actually it was stir-fried pork with radish), which everybody was really happy about. The food in the special canteen for management was rather good, with abundant fish and meat all day. We sometimes ate the leftovers brought by a fellow villager who was a manager.

What can we learn from this tale? We see the importance of hometown connections, which are key to getting a job in the first place and enabled the instigators from Shanxi Province to take the lead in the protest. Such connections also make a material difference if you have a manager-fellow villager who will bring you meaty leftovers.

We see the prominence of food, which is always at the front of the brain in a country where starvation is not a distant memory. It is remarkable how often canteen food is an issue in the stories in this volume. When this same worker struck at another factory, over unpaid wages, management offered a monthly gathering where cake would be served.

We see a lack of respect for authority that is common in the China on Strike case studies. Once on strike, cursing managers is standard. And we get a glimpse of the pitiful living conditions management expects workers to bear.

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After this mini-action, a larger strike broke out over unpaid wages. Far from a tale of heroic workers, fists high, this worker’s story shows the muddle that is often part of any collective action:

Workers were prevented from going to work by some senior workers at the gate that day...the personnel manager asked them to resume work and promised there would be something delicious for them to eat later (noodles with pork). Those senior workers were quite familiar with each other for they had been working in the factory for a long time. Other workers saw them blocking the gate and stood there watching. It seemed really fun and I thought, “If they don’t go to work, I won’t go to work. After all, I hadn’t had a break for such a long time.”

The managers called the team leaders to get their workers back on the line. I thought it was kind of awkward to go against the manager who was a fellow villager of mine, and began to think about resuming work. My team leader made token moves to call us back to work without really pushing. The factory threatened us, saying that it’s our business to decide to stay or leave since it would be easy for them to get new workers...

Instead of going to work, I went to watch TV with some other workers that morning. Strikers from the same assembly line got together and complained about the hard work.

The strike ended when workers were paid, and “since our factory wasn’t the worst, everybody was relatively satisfied.”

DRAWING OUT THE LESSONS

The editors draw lessons for their Chinese readers. Some would seem a bit obvious to a seasoned U.S unionist—“choose representatives among the workers from each department, section, work team.” But the intended reader here is the potential leader of green Chinese workers who might say things like, “With no previous experience, I didn’t know it was a ‘strike,’ and just thought we would stop work.”

Other lessons are those that many American unions have yet to learn. How many unions here have acceded to management’s insistence on negotiating only when the union stops exerting pressure—“go back to work and we’ll talk”?

A young woman named Xiao Lan, who worked in a Shenzhen phone factory, learned the hard way that strikers “shouldn’t disperse but should instead gather together and continue to exert collective pressure during negotiations.” At her plant, two to three thousand workers marched away from the factory toward the labor bureau over low overtime pay, too much overtime, poor food, and no hot water in the dorms. But after they chose bargaining representatives, the strikers scattered, and management came back with a pay increase that was eaten up by newly imposed deductions.

Another lesson is not to rely on the low-level managers who, apparently, often lead Chinese strikes. The editors give a sophisticated analysis of such managers’ position in production and in the factory hierarchy, and of why they might start strikes. It’s a mistake, they say, to think that department leaders have the company’s respect.

In fact, they argue from experience, that layer is “more prone to compromise and betrayal...they usually lack the stamina to withstand open confrontations. When leading a strike, [they] are clever in dealing with small problems, but they don’t follow things through to the end.”

HIT ’EM IN THE WALLETS

The simplest yet most profound lesson is offered by a worker who led a two-day strike in a factory that had not paid wages for two months. He arranged with colleagues that when he made a move, they would pull the factory’s main switch, cutting off power to the production lines. “Some workers had taken long sticks with them,” he said. “Nobody then dared to turn it back on again for fear of being beaten.”

He sums up what he learned:

Given China’s current system it is better to cut off the boss’s production. Going to the relevant government departments, they would say there is little they can do.... If you halt production, you’ll cut off the factory’s earnings. That will cause panic among management, and that way the problem will be solved quicker.

The editors agree. They note that Chinese workers’ resistance has grown as fast as production has grown, because “try as it might, capital cannot expand without constantly reproducing its historical antagonist, the working class.” They go further, in particular dismissing “ethical consumerism,” to say that “collective action is politically and socially the only sound basis for the development of a labor movement in China.”

Although China on Strike was written as a handbook for Chinese workers, there was good reason to bring out an English edition. For one thing, it’s simply fun to read about workers refusing, collectively, to suffer one more humiliation, from wage arrears to diesel-steamed rice.

And it is good to be reminded once again that certain truths of labor-capital relations remain true across decades and national boundaries. It is good to read about Chinese workers as they learn: Hold leaders accountable, keep the strike democratic. Don’t let up, don’t be bought off. Hit the boss where it hurts, in the pocketbook.

This article first appeared in the September-October 2016 issue of Against the Current.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.