New Internationalist

Taming The Tigers

Issue 341

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Trade Unions / THE NEW UNIONS

Taming the Tigers
A new kind of trade union is emerging from years of political repression in
the 'Tiger' economies of East Asia. Trini Leung believes that the same lessons
will eventually have to be learned by the biggest tiger of them all - China.

No banquets in Taiwan: women take to the streets of Taipei to resist privatization.
Chris Stowers / Panos

Few people in the outside world are aware of the explosive situation of labour unrest in China. While global businesses ogle the massive potential for mega-profits in the region, social movements are looking to the gravity of the sweatshop conditions suffered by millions of young Chinese workers.

The overturn of Maoist economic policy since the 1980s has transformed the country. Workers have experienced rising income disparity and social insecurity. They feel economically disadvantaged, socially disenfranchized and politically excluded, lacking a workplace representative body or any other way to express their strongly felt concerns. Hardest of all, they are expected to herald the arrival of a new class of voracious ‘entrepreneurs’ (capitalists) under the slogan: ‘Getting Rich is Glorious.’

A deepening sense of discontent and working-class bitterness has led to a surge of defiant organizing. In the absence of collective bargaining, workers have increasingly taken their frustrations out in protest actions. There have been wildcat strikes and sit-ins. More militant actions, such as street demonstrations, road blockades, sit-in pickets and petitions to government offices have also become more frequent, especially since the late 1990s.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is ‘yellow’ – in other words, it serves other interests than that of the workers, in this case those of the Communist Party. The objective of the labour rebels is to establish an autonomous workers’ organization, and they have faced the most absolute and harsh repression as a result. In the past 10 years, scores of labour organizers and unionists have been imprisoned, many receiving jail terms as long as 15 years. Similar to the experience in all other communist states (including pre-1989 Poland), the movement was forced into a role of clandestine political dissidence and has found it impossible to gain any political space to organize at factory level.

There have also been moves from outside China to tackle violations of basic labour standards in the country that has become the world’s largest export-processing production line. Many of these moves have been driven by anti-sweatshop campaigns in North America and Europe.

To deflect the criticism, transnational corporations accused of violating basic labour standards in China have resorted to ‘codes of conduct’. Such initiatives have received support from some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international labour unions. However, when state repression means that workers have no means of implementing them, codes become a philanthropic act towards the ‘poor and wretched’ – who presumably don’t know what they want and are not allowed to decide for themselves. The critical question remains just as it was a century ago. The struggle for freedom of association and collective bargaining in China has still to be won.

In this respect a more significant influence may come from the former British colony of Hong Kong, which was handed back to China in 1997. People here were also denied democratic rights during the 100 years of British rule – the only unions were controlled from China and Taiwan, and both were regarded locally as ‘yellow’. A gradual liberalization occurred in the two decades prior to the handover and an independent labour movement began to take off. At first it was led by teachers, social workers and civil servants in the more secure jobs. They were subsequently joined by blue-collar workers. Christian NGOs played an important role: the Christian Industrial Committee helped to set up the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) in 1990. It became the first independent union centre successfully organized by Chinese workers.

The new unions in Hong Kong adopted a very different culture. Under the leadership of a new breed of labour organizers, education became a key tool. Participatory study-circles rather than dreary lectures were used as the main method of union education. Many organizers were young women. Sexism and discrimination against women, alongside workplace democracy and labour rights, were tackled extensively. Street publicity and popular actions were the main way of organizing – nights out in hostess bars did not feature on the social agenda. While the ‘yellow’ unions talked constantly of ensuring ‘stability and prosperity’, the new unions pushed for progressive changes in an unjust political economy.

These developments in Hong Kong had their parallel in newly industrialized countries elsewhere in East Asia. Following half a century of Japanese colonial rule, the 20 million people of Taiwan were subjected to another 40 years of military dictatorship under Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek. His Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuo Min Tang (KMT), ruthlessly repressed civil society and labour organizing. The Chinese Federation of Labour (CFL) in Taiwan was an instrument of the state, a prototype of ‘yellow’ unionism.

The main engine of change in Taiwan was the broader civil-rights and social movement that began after the death of Chiang Kai Shek in 1986. The Information Centre for Labour Education was formed in 1988 by a small core of activists. It introduced participatory methods and developed a team of well-organized cadres who helped to build from the grassroots, at plant level. Christian Churches played a small but influential role here too. An Irish priest, Father McCally, was deported in 1990 because of his support for the new labour movement. There were also quite a few women activists. Sexism was tackled from time to time, although not as systematically as in Hong Kong. Asked what the most difficult obstacle was in Taiwan, a key leader said – only half-jokingly –that it was the labour movement’s traditional recourse to drink, gambling or philandering.

On May Day 2000 the new Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions (TCTU) was inaugurated. The event was not marked by some lavish banquet in a grand hall but by a 20,000-strong mass rally on the streets of Taipei. The TCTU was formed by an alliance of unions in primarily state-owned enterprises catalysed by the economic changes of globalization – and by pressure for privatization. Although the TCTU has a history of close alliance with the Democratic and Progressive Party (DPP), which took power in 2000, the struggle for a full realization of freedom of association in Taiwan is still an uphill one.

South Korea too has a history of anti-communist dictatorship and repression. Familiar images from the 1990s showed scenes of street battles between young students throwing petrol bombs at an army of samurai-armoured riot police; a sea of steel workers in blue overalls waging spectacular demonstrations with fists, headbands, gongs, drums, protest songs and dramas.

The first attempt to set up an independent union centre was the Korean Trade Unions Council in 1990. Students formed the core of its leadership. This prototype became the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in 1995, now led by the major heavy-industrial unions. When the 1997 financial crisis hit, the KCTU staged a spectacular protest against the International Monetary Fund, finally forcing the Government to negotiate a tripartite agreement.

Even under the democratic rule of Kim Dae Jung since 1998, the new labour movement still has to fight a hard battle for its basic labour rights. On 5 July 2001 the KCTU staged a general strike to protest against the continued crackdown and incarceration of hundreds of trade unionists.

An immense challenge to international trade-union solidarity has come from transnational corporations moving their manufacturing bases from Europe and North America to poorer countries in the South. The gulf in labour standards means that workers and their unions in the North often find themselves competing with workers in the South, trying to defend labour rights they won in life-or-death struggles at the start of the 20th century. In these circumstances, solidarity between union movements around the world is a more pressing need than ever.

While the national centre of the AFL-CIO in the US has been consistently supportive of the independent union struggle in Hong Kong and China since the early 1990s, it is disturbing that some individual unions felt the need to resort to a fairly negative, one-dimensional campaign against China’s entry to the World Trade Organization, without any consultation with local Chinese partners.

The rise of independent unions in Hong Kong has presented the first challenge in East Asia to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). There is a strong lobby within the ICFTU that wants to collaborate with the ACFTU in China. Members of this lobby cite ‘realistic intervention’ as a good reason to support the government-controlled body. It is, after all, so convenient for international union bureaucrats to take short-but-sweet trips to China, hosted by the ACFTU with its arranged tours of the Great Wall and a few model factories – not to mention lavish Peking Duck banquets – and return to tell their members that they are doing something to improve labour standards.

A real Chinese labour movement, when it takes off, will be among the most important members of the world’s labour movement. If it follows the lessons of history, it will not be ‘yellow’, but recognize the basic right to freedom of association and collective bargaining at the workplace. More members of the international labour community need to grasp this lesson.

Trini Leung (trinihk@btinternet.com) has worked as part of the
Hong Kong, Chinese independent and international union movements
for over two decades, and as a researcher and writer on the subject.
She is now an independent analyst.


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