Sunday, May 4, 2014

Chinese workers pushing back

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

We hear with some frequency how the Stalinists in China restrict free speech and go to extraordinary measures to block news from outside of the country from seeping in. Internet sites are blocked as well as other sources of social media.

The other side of this story is that the struggles of the Chinese workers, along with news of workers struggles throughout the world are not given much attention in the highly controlled and manipulative US media.

There are hundreds of thousands of different protests over land acquisition, the environment and wages and benefits in China annually.  Despite having no independent unions, Chinese workers struck the auto bosses in the past and have increased wages by 20% in some instances.  In March, workers responded to WalMart’s attempt to close what it considered an “underperforming store” which means that sufficient surplus value wasn’t being extracted from the workers not that they didn’t work hard, by blockading the store and hanging out banners in protest. The leader was a cashier who was elected chairman of the government/company union.

The heads of the government union and WalMart were shocked as the workers under the chairman’s lead demanded severance pay.  The union never backed the workers of course and they eventually returned to work after 20 were fired but workers are clearly pushing back against the government union and the bosses.

The China Labor Bulletin reports that
between June 2011 and the end of 2013 there were more than 1100 * protests and more than  200 strikes, including 85 in the manufacturing sector in the past two months alone. The reader can check out a “strike map” of China here: Strike map

The largest strike in the post revolution era occurred in April as thousands of workers producing sneakers for Nike and Adidas at a Taiwanese owned factory walked off the job.  Their employer, Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings which, according to the China Labor Bulletin is the largest manufacturer of branded athletic shoes, had been underpaying its social security contributions that workers depend on for their retirement.  The strike involved 40,000 workers and cost the employer $27 million in losses according to the New York Times

That these struggles take place under a Stalinist regime where the “state” unions cooperate with the bosses is all the more impressive. “Independent trade unions are illegal in China, and government-backed unions are more interested in quickly defusing labor disputes than delivering on worker grievances.”, says the New York Times.  This is a somewhat similar situation to the trade union leadership in the US, independent in name but ideologically wed to the bosses and the so-called free market. They fight for labor peace at the expense of their own members' well-being.

As in the Arab spring, various forms of social networking played a role in helping organize the walkout at Yue Yuen.

As Yuen Yuen refused to pay what was owed and thousands of workers left work or went on inside strikes, standing by their machines but not working. The strike has ended but without much material success as the employer has agreed to pay back what was owed but workers have to contribute matching funds which is money they don’t have.

As for the state bureaucracy, a crowd of parasites that reside within a shell they refer to as the Communist Party, their role is what allows the bosses to treat workers as they do.  The police are used repeatedly to detain and prosecute labor leaders.

But victory is about growing consciousness and strengthening class power as well as a paycheck. “Before, we were na├»ve and always getting tricked,” said Xiao Zhixiong, a worker making sneaker molds and quoted in the times. “Now, we’re learning to be smart.”

The Chinese working class is hundreds of millions strong and a force to be recognized as we have pointed out many times on this blog.   The daily protests and clashes with authorities, the increasing level of strikes and battles over such basic things as wages and, health care and retirement will continue to weaken the bureaucracy’s hold on the reins. There will be massive explosions in China in the years ahead.

We should not forget that the Chinese working class also has an impressive revolutionary history.  In the last analysis, ideas have a material base and workers will be workers, the class struggle is a great teacher. As one worker heading back to work explained:

“Capitalists will always be capitalists,”

* In an earlier version of this commentary an incorrect figure of 100 was given.

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