Via Jacobin, Eli Friedman on low-wage Chinese workers fighting the machine:
Chinese workers are facing the same brutal competitive pressures as workers in the West, often at the hands of the same capitalists. Today, the Chinese working class is fighting.
China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.
More importantly, workers are winning, with many strikers capturing large wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements. Worker resistance has been a serious problem for the Chinese state and capital and, as in the United States in the 1930s, the central government has found itself forced to pass a raft of labor legislation. Minimum wages are going up by double digits in cities around the country and many workers are receiving social insurance payments for the first time. Labor unrest has been growing for two decades, and the past two years a-lone have brought a qualitative advance in the character of worker struggles.
Strikes…are never organized by the official Chinese unions, which are formally subordinate to the Communist Party and generally controlled by management at the enterprise level. Every strike in China is organized autonomously, and frequently in direct opposition to the official union, which encourages workers to pursue their grievances through legal channels instead.
The legal system, comprising workplace mediation, arbitration, and court cases, attempts to individualize conflict. This, combined with collusion between state
and capital, means that this system generally cannot resolve worker grievances. It is designed in large part to prevent strikes.
A turning point came in the summer of 2010, marked by a momentous strike wave that began at a Honda transmission plant in Nanhai.For weeks workers had been grumbling about low wages and discussing the idea of a stoppage. On 17 May 2010, hardly any of them knew that a single employee – whom many reports have since identified by the pseudonym Tan Zhiqing – would call the strike on his own initiative by simply hitting the emergency stop button, shutting down both of the plant’s production lines.
Workers walked out of the factory. By that afternoon, management was pleading with them to return to work and open negotiations. Production was in fact resumed that day. But the workers had formulated their initial demand: a wage increase of 800 rmb per month, amounting to a 50 percent hike for regular workers.
News of the Nanhai strike began to spark widespread unrest among industrial workers around the country. Chinese newspaper headlines told the story: “One Wave Is Higher Than the Next, Strike Also Erupts At Honda Lock Factory”; “70 Thousand Participate in Dalian Strike Wave Affecting 73 Enterprises, Ends With 34.5% Wage Increases”; “Honda Wage Strikes Are a Shock to the Low-Cost Manufacturing Model.” In each strike, the main demand was for major wage increases, although in many of them demands for union reorganization were also heard – a political development of great importance.
All of this presents a severe challenge to the model of export-led development and wage repression that has characterized the political economy of China’s southeastern coastal regions for more than two decades. By the end of the 2010 strike wave, Chinese media commentators were declaring that the era of low-wage labor had come to an end.
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