Labor Notes Goes to Asia

Workshop participants at the Labor Notes Asia Regional Conference discussing and writing about strikes.

Union activists from across the continent gathered at the Labor Notes Asia Regional Conference in August. Photo: Saurav Sarkar.

At times it can seem like international solidarity is just a rallying cry, devoid of the oomph that would make it a force to build power among workers across borders. But this past August, we had the chance to witness international solidarity in action.

Chanting in English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Tagalog, a multinational crowd of union activists rallied in the swampy heat of Taiwan’s capital in front of the headquarters of Foxconn, the notorious manufacturer of iPhones.

The activists were there to support Filipino immigrant workers in Japan, who spoke at the rally and who’d been summarily dismissed from their jobs at Foxconn subsidiary Sharp.

These workers, part of an immigrant contract workforce of 3,000, lost their jobs after production relocated to a Foxconn facility in mainland China.

This action was just one example of the international solidarity and organizing on display at the first-of-its-kind Labor Notes Asia Regional Conference August 16-18, a gathering of 250 workers, interpreted simultaneously in eight languages.

Representatives came from garment, seafood, electronics, food franchise, and other industries in Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States. The International Labor Rights Forum co-sponsored the event with us, and Taoyuan Serve the People Association was the local co-host.

We heard union officials from Hong Kong talk about their general strike in defense of democracy and against Chinese control. We met Taiwanese flight attendants, hot off a strike at EVA Air, who brought questions about how to keep organizing post-strike.

GENERAL STRIKE IN HK

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Burmese factory workers, based in a hotbed of militant strike activity, told us about a tactic they call the “electricity strike”—shutting off power to a factory. Delegates from South Korea told how their membership had dramatically grown in the wake of the Candlelight Revolution, which toppled corrupt President Park Geun-hye in 2017.

Workers across parts of Asia have some common challenges. One is company unions designed to undercut independent unions. We learned that this was particularly a problem in South Korea and Japan.

Another is rising authoritarianism: workers in the Philippines, Cambodia, and mainland China, among others, are grappling with hostile employers buttressed by state repression.

SOME SKILLS ARE UNIVERSAL

An important lesson we took away was that in addressing common challenges, we can use solutions that are universal, like those in the Labor Notes book Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Through workshops on identifying and assembling a leadership team, facilitating a meeting, and turning an issue into a campaign, workers were able to take home skills that they can employ in their own countries.

The Labor Notes Asia Conference didn’t suddenly create a shared international sensibility among workers there; it was already present. But it helped foster the idea and the possibilities for action. We hope to continue developing networks in Asia.

You can meet some of the amazing activists from this gathering at the upcoming international Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, April 17-19, 2020, and bring some international solidarity into your struggle for workers’ rights: here, there, and everywhere.