Chinese activists struggle to establish independent trade unions

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-2 18:58:01

A butcher who wants to run for union leader at a Walmart store in Shenzhen finds himself at a disadvantage as he challenges his employer and China's unsupportive union system. While national reform of China's only officially-recognized union will happen soon, currently workers who want to engage in collective bargaining can only count on NGOs and self-support groups to defend their labor rights.

A Walmart store in Chongqing. Photo: IC

When Zhang Liya, a 40-year-old butcher at Walmart's Xiangmihu store in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, printed out his statement for the store's union leader election and pasted it on its bulletin board, he was ready for a battle.

He was ready to fight against his employer, a notoriously anti-union American retail giant, and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China's official and only legal trade union.

Having worked at Walmart for 10 years, the stocky man with an angular face says he wants to establish a trade union that can truly represent workers' interests. He set up his own election team, publicized his statement through online chat groups and blogs, and organized campaigns protesting the current union leadership.

"What has the [existing] trade union done for us, anything, since it was established? When a colleague has trouble and seeks assistance from the union president, he said he has more people to serve and can't work for one employee alone; but when Walmart fires good employees like Wang Shishu and Wang Yafang, what did it do?" he said in his statement, referring to two former employees who were sacked by Walmart, an act which was later ruled as illegal by court.

Earning a little more than 2,000 yuan ($312) each month, he is also dissatisfied with Walmart's stagnant wages. "The growth of salaries at Walmart has been below the growth of Shenzhen's minimum wage. Walmart's existing union is not doing anything to change that," he told the Global Times.

Zhang's campaign is the latest in a series of labor protests in recent years against Walmart, which has been at the heart of China's labor struggles since it was pushed into unionization in 2006, when the Chinese government demanded that the employees of many foreign companies unionize.

Although Walmart gave in to government pressure, trade unions at Walmart's stores, much like those in most companies in China, are more of a bureaucratic facade than true unions that negotiate workers' contracts or bargain with employers on behalf of union members.

Just as Zhang is campaigning for a better union, the ACFTU, which oversees all trade unions in China, is planning reform to enhance its role. "If the ACFTU really intends to reform, Zhang Liya's demands that union members' democratic rights are implemented, a demand from below, can be critical," Wang Jiangsong, a Beijing-based labor rights researcher, told the Global Times.

Zhang Liya (second from left) stands with fellow activists in a campaign against Walmart's existing trade union. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Liya

Losing the battle

Just hours after Zhang posted his election statement, company management removed it from the bulletin board, claiming it was against company rules, Zhang said.

Zhang said his activism was thwarted at every step - the store's management privately warned employees away from supporting him, and demanded they quit the online chat groups he set up. It also required some workers to sign their names on their ballots, which Zhang says is against union law.

When the store organized a preliminary election of union representatives in late November, Zhang didn't garner enough votes. That meant he didn't have the right to vote in the final election, to say nothing of being eligible for candidacy. He is now calling for an election through universal suffrage.

In a written response to the Global Times, Walmart said its union representative elections have been held according to China's trade union laws and were carried out under the supervision of Shenzhen's city- and district-level ACFTU officials.

Zhang's attempts to seek assistance from the local ACFTUs has also failed.

"You should represent us. We pay your salary through union fees, not Walmart," Zhang said to an official from Futian's district ACFTU on the phone, after the official repeatedly dismissed his complaint about Walmart's elections.

The voice on the other side of the line sneered "What does my salary have to do with you?" and hung up the phone.

Shenzhen's ACFTU told the Global Times that they will not take media inquiries until the election is over, but Huang Ying, from the publicity department of Shenzhen's ACFTU, claimed that "Walmart's election fully respects the employees and has received a passionate response and support from them."

Rumbles of reform

The case of Zhang Liya is just one of the thousands of labor rights incidents that have grown increasingly common in China in recent years. China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based NGO that promotes workers' rights, recorded 2,016 strikes and labor protests across China in the first 10 months of 2015, compared to 1,003 incidents in the same period in 2014 and 550 incidents in the first 10 months of 2013, Geoffrey Crothall, the organization's communications officer, told the Global Times.

If there is a common thread running through in these cases, it is the lack of action from official trade unions, or grass-roots ACFTUs, which often stay on the sidelines when clashes occur.

Established in 1925, the ACFTU initially represented the interest of workers against their capitalist employers. This changed after the founding of the People's Republic of China, when private and capitalist industries were nationalized and came under government rule. For a while, the ACFTU struggled to secure independence from the government, and Li Lisan, the ACFTU's vice president in the early 1950s, insisted that even within State-owned enterprises, conflicts between workers and employers remain. He proposed that the labor union work independently from the Party, but was attacked for syndicalism and economism and removed from office in 1953.

The ACFTU remained a weak organization during the era of the planned economy, with its main purpose being to assist employers in achieving their production goals. This improved marginally after China's reform and opening-up, when foreign and private industries returned to the Chinese market.

The semi-official status of ACFTU makes it awkward when the local governments choose to side with the factories. "Local governments usually share more interests with the factory bosses than with the workers. In the past 30 years, since GDP growth has been the main criteria by which local governments are assessed, they often side with companies when workers try to defend themselves," Wang said.

According to the Voice of the Hammer, a now defunct social media account that published labor-related news and researches, from January to September, of the 89 strikes and labor protests that occurred in the Pearl River Delta area, local governments interfered in over 70 percent by sending the police to either observe them or crack down on them.

Reform is now on the ACFTU's timetable, but experts are pessimistic about the possibility of reform that truly pushes the envelope happening anytime soon.

"The reason why it's been so difficult for the ACFTU to reform is that all its reform attempts are from the top down, not from the bottom up. When it's top down, it's unlikely company unions will make real changes," Wang said.

At a recent ACFTU press conference on its reform plan last month, ideological correctness and the "socialist path" was shown to still be at the top of its agenda. While the reform plan stresses increasing staff in the ACFTU's grass-roots offices, it doesn't give a detailed plan on how these offices can work to improve labor-management relations through means such as collective bargaining.

While nationwide reform is difficult, experts say there is more the ACFTU can do. Zhong Ninghua, associate professor at Tongji University's School of Economics and Management, said on the national level, the ACFTU could work with the Ministry of Finance and offer tax cuts to companies with good labor records.

"China's manufacturing industry is going through a critical change. It is a time like this that a weak organization like the ACFTU should find its new role," Zhong said.

Network of support

Luckily for Zhang Liya, he is not alone. Although his trade union doesn't support him, he is backed by the Walmart Employees Communications Association, an unofficial network of Walmart workers, including electricians, cashiers and warehouse workers from the chain's stores around the country, who offer him support over the Internet and online chat groups.

One of its founders is Zhang Jun, a 44-year-old electrician at a Walmart store in Yantai, Shandong Province. A veteran activist, he was educated in labor law, and helped establish the Ole Wolff Trade Union, China's first independent trade union that was supported by the ACFTU in 2006 in Yantai.

These unofficial support groups, along with NGOs working in this field, have more or less taken on the role of trade unions by supporting workers when they're in trouble.

The Ole Wolff Trade Union didn't survive long. The company didn't recognize the union and punished unionists with fault-finding and fines. The vice president of the union was sacked the following year.

A similar fate befell Gao Haitao, a labor hero who became Walmart's first independent union leader in its Nanchang store in 2006. He resigned his job two years later, after Walmart refused to enter into genuine collective bargaining with his union.

These examples show that even if Zhang was to succeed in an election, he would still have a long way to go. An independent trade union might be able to represent workers' interests, but they often prove to be extremely vulnerable since management can always find ways to sack employees they find too progressive.

But being sacked isn't necessarily bad news for China's labor activists as a whole. According to China Labor Bulletin, many sacked employees later became NGO advisors that help other workers defend their rights when disputes occur. They include Zhu Xiaomei, who was fired from her job at Guangzhou's Hitachi metal factory in 2014, but was later hired by the nearby Panyu Workers' Service Centre, which is dedicated to promoting collective bargaining and worker participation in trade union elections.

Newspaper headline: United we stand

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