Behind China’s Wildcat Strike Wave

1. Review: Behind China’s Wildcat Strike Wave
Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China, by Eli Friedman. Cornell University Press/ILR Press, 2014. October 15, 2014 / Jane Slaughter

When Honda workers in China went on strike for higher wages, their union sent thugs to convince them to return to work.

(Earlier, read my 2010 report of the Honda strike

Eli Friedman’s new book Insurgency Trap shows why the rising wave of protests sometimes wins concrete gains, but stops short of forming lasting organizations that could alter the balance of power.

China is the world center of wildcat strikes—given that no strike in China is officially allowed under the law. The government doesn’t issue statistics, but one source found 1,171 strikes and worker protests from June 2011 through 2013.

Strikes are on the rise since 2008, but they all take place outside the official channels of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. China labor scholar Eli Friedman, who speaks Mandarin and has spent a great deal of time in the country, shows us throughout Insurgency Trap how the ACFTU takes a “passive repressive” response to worker unrest—and sometimes not so passive. His case studies show how in even the supposed best examples—the ones that ACFTU officials show to visiting foreign unionists—workers find their union worthless and contracts go unenforced.

The upshot is that the rising wave of protests sometimes wins concrete gains for particular groups of workers but does not result in lasting organizations that workers could use to fight to alter the balance of power. The ACFTU is the only union allowed.

This is because China’s government fears independent worker organization more than anything—far more than outbursts of worker unrest. A main role of the ACFTU—not to mention the police, as needed—is to block any budding organization that might arise.

Why is the state of Chinese workers important to us in the U.S.? They are the world’s largest working class, in the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter, in the country whose leaders are intent on making the 21st century the Chinese century. They work for American companies, from GM to McDonald’s.

And these days, they are showing more restiveness than the working class of just about any other country. It’s important to us whether this very new working class, an immense potential source of global worker solidarity, can overcome its fragmentation and get organized.


The nature of the ACFTU is fairly well known; it’s under the control of the government at the national and city levels, while at the company level, it’s controlled by the employer.

Higher-level officials are not elected but appointed. They’re rotated in and out of union jobs and other positions in the state machinery.

Friedman says, “It is not at all unusual for people with no experience in trade unionism whatsoever to be appointed to very high-level positions…leadership is frequently unfamiliar with, and often uninterested in, labor issues…these officials think of themselves as, and behave like, government officials.”

Indeed, the 2001 Trade Union Law says that in the event of a work stoppage, “The trade union shall assist the enterprise or institution in properly dealing with the matter so as to help restore the normal order of production and other work as soon as possible.” (If that sounds like a description of how some U.S. unions react to worker initiatives…well, that’s beyond the scope of this article.)

At the company level, Friedman reports, “it is quite common to have human resource managers or the enterprise owner serve as union chairs.” And if a pro-worker union chair somehow makes it into office, “there are countless examples of activist union chairs being summarily fired for antagonizing management.”

Faced with a union like that, what are workers to do? Over and over again, they organize on their own—at least temporarily.


Friedman details the famous strike wave in the auto sector. It began when about 50 workers from the assembly department of a Honda powertrain factory sat down in front of the plant in May 2010, demanding a big raise of 800 RMB ($50 a month). The strike spread to other departments, and within a week the lack of parts had shut down every Honda facility in China.

At the start of the strike’s second week, the district-level union federation sent vanloads of what appeared to be hired thugs, wearing union insignia, who ordered strikers to return to work. They assaulted some workers. This intervention reinvigorated the strike—but also brought in riot police to cordon off the road to the factory. The local government, Friedman says, wanted neither violent confrontation nor the possibility that the strikers might leave the grounds.

The union chair had been involved in negotiations with management, but essentially took Honda’s side. In order to resolve the strike, local government now actually demanded that the strikers select their own representatives. Bravely, they stated that they would accept nothing less than their original demands without a general meeting of the workers.

In the end, they got wage increases of 500 RMB, and 600 RMB for the second-tier “intern” workers, a hike for the interns of more than 70 percent. Says Friedman, “Such large wage increases in response to strikes were unprecedented.”

That summer, strikes spread throughout the auto industry and spilled into other sectors. At Denso, a major parts supplier for Toyota, 200 workers met in secret to plan their walkout. They blocked trucks from leaving the plant, elected 27 representatives to negotiate, and demanded an 800 RMB raise. They got it. In the northern city of Dalian, 70,000 workers struck at 73 employers in a development zone, winning average increases of 34.5 percent.

Friedman says the dozens of reported strikes are surely a small portion of those that occurred in 2010. The wage increases around the country—sometimes offered by management preemptively—caused media commentators to declare the end of low-wage labor in China. That was premature.


The Honda strikers were perhaps the most daring and “political” of the strikers: one of their demands was for a “reorganized” union, that is, one that represented its members. After the strike, the ACFTU allowed workers to elect their reps—but only at the level of the team, representing about 30 people. At higher levels, management stepped in, and mostly white-collar employees won the elections.

Friedman interviewed Honda workers in July 2010 and found them dismissive of the union, finding no change since the strike: “They just collect the dues each month and that’s it.” “If this company has a union or not, it makes no difference.”

It would seem hopeful that the following winter, the elected representatives participated in wage negotiations at the Honda powertrain plant, and that management granted another 611 RMB raise. Some observers might seize on this as evidence of a real change in power relations. And Friedman notes how much power these workers potentially had, because they were the sole supplier of some parts for Honda in China—and because they’d demonstrated their willingness to act.

But he also points out that their wages are still low, below those of Honda assembly plant workers in China, and that no gains were made on any non-wage issues.

Most important for long-term hopes for worker resistance: workers in the strike wave of 2010 were clearly inspired by each other, but “there was no coordination between strikers from different factories.”


Another case study details two sector-wide agreements in the celebrated province of Zhejiang.

Here in the U.S., we’ve seen pattern agreements go by the wayside in almost every industry where they once “took wages out of competition” and increased workers’ bargaining power through unified negotiations and action.

So in the eyeglass industry and the wool industry, the initiation of cross-company collective agreements—which at least on paper bring together workers across workplaces—would seem promising.

Friedman says the wool sector agreement “represents the highest aspirations of the ACFTU,” held up many times within China as a shining example.

But when Friedman investigated, he found that it was the wool employers’ association and the eyeglass manufacturers’ association that had initiated the sectoral agreements. Their aim was to standardize piece rates so that skilled workers could not abruptly quit to look elsewhere for better pay. The Rui’an Eyeglass Union was formed after the fact, to create a party for the employers to sign a contract with. In other words, the purpose of the sector-wide agreements was to keep wages down.

Friedman found repeatedly that neither employers nor workers even knew about the collective contract. He describes an awkward meeting with a factory manager. He’d been introduced by Ms. Du, a big booster of the collective agreement, who was both human resources manager at nearby Zhilian Eyeglasses and chair of its union branch. At the neighboring factory, it turned out that the manager had no knowledge that a sectoral contract existed—and told Friedman that his factory worked by hourly rates, not piece rates.

At 10 more eyeglass factories Friedman contacted, hardly any managers had heard of the agreement. Many complained about workers jumping ship to seek higher pay at other eyeglass plants.

Workers were equally unaware of their supposed model agreement. Friedman spent “many evenings hanging out with workers at the pool tables,” and found no eyeglass workers who’d had any experience with a union, much less a collective contract. Most companies had not bothered to set up a union branch in their factories. One group of workers told Friedman that their plant did not use contracts but rather operated on “trust.”


I searched for the silver lining to this picture of worker disorganization and found it easily: Chinese factory workers seem unafraid to take bold action and have learned that it often works.

They apparently don’t buy into the government’s official goal of a “harmonious society,” at least in practice.

But they are also well aware of the government’s massive resources and determination to keep them from acting out in a more coordinated way.

As Friedman puts it, “different levels of the state are all concerned about worker unrest and are currently searching for various methods of dealing with the problem. However, the key precondition is that workers themselves do not attain any organized and autonomous power.”

Friedman sees it as next to impossible that workers will win better conditions through the ACFTU or through legislation, which goes unenforced.

He’s also pessimistic about the legalization of new, real unions. More likely, he says, worker unrest will continue in its current fragmented form, not strong enough to force reforms, and inequality and poverty will persist.

It’s not a pretty picture, and not hopeful for workers in the West, who are constantly told by management that they are competing against “the China price.”

How often, though, have we been trapped by believing that because things are, they will remain that way? Most insurrections have gone unpredicted, from our own labor wars of the 1930s to the Arab Spring, and they have taken place under conditions that observers then found far too unfavorable and repressive.

Click here to read about the latest wildcat strike, by women sanitation workers at a massive university complex in Guangzhou.
– See more at:

2. Eli Friedman “China in Revolt”

The Chinese working class plays a Janus-like role in the political imaginary of neoliberalism. On the one hand, it’s imagined as the competitive victor of capitalist globalization, the conquering juggernaut whose rise spells defeat for the working classes of the rich world. What hope is there for the struggles of workers in Detroit or Rennes when the Sichuanese migrant is happy to work for a fraction of the price?

At the same time, Chinese workers are depicted as the pitiable victims of globalization, the guilty conscience of First World consumers. Passive and exploited toilers, they suffer stoically for our iPhones and bathtowels. And only we can save them, by absorbing their torrent of exports, or campaigning benevolently for their humane treatment at the hands of “our” multinationals.

For parts of the rich-world left, the moral of these opposing narratives is that here, in our own societies, labor resistance is consigned to history’s dustbin. Such resistance is, first of all, perverse and decadent. What entitles pampered Northern workers, with their “First World problems,” to make material demands on a system that already offers them such abundance furnished by the wretched of the earth? And in any case, resistance against so formidable a competitive threat must surely be futile.

By depicting Chinese workers as Others – as abject subalterns or competitive antagonists – this tableau wildly miscasts the reality of labor in today’s China. Far from triumphant victors, Chinese workers are facing the same brutal competitive pressures as workers in the West, often at the hands of the same capitalists. More importantly, it is hardly their stoicism that distinguishes them from us.

Today, the Chinese working class is fighting. More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, 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.

But if there are lessons for the Northern left in the experience of Chinese workers, finding them requires an examination of the unique conditions those workers face – conditions which, today, are cause for both great optimism and great pessimism.

Read more here


Teachers on strike
For three days in November, 8,000 schoolteachers in China’s northern Heilongjiang province refused to enter a classroom. They were on strike, demanding that the city government honor a pledge made in January to raise their salaries and benefits.

What’s remarkable about this demonstration is that there is no equivalent of the American Federation of Teachers in China; independent unions in any industry sector remain illegal.

And yet, from factory workers to teachers, Chinese citizens are increasingly using the toolkit of collective action to push for fair labor practices.

Read here

3. From China Labor Bulletin
Shoe factory workers show that collective bargaining is already a reality in Guangdong 2 January, 2015
Guangdong’s new Regulations on Collective Contracts in Enterprises (广东省企业集体合同条例) went into effect yesterday, 1 January. However, just last month, several thousand shoe factory workers in Guangzhou showed they already know how to negotiate a deal with management through collective bargaining.

More than 2,500 workers at Lide Shoes took strategically-timed strike action in December that succeeded in bringing management to the negotiating table and led to an agreement on the payment of social insurance and housing fund contributions, overtime and annual leave payments as well as high-temperature subsidies. Read here

Analysis and Commentary by CLB.

Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13 20 February, 2014
China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force. Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions.

However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals. As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

In China Labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement, published today, we examine this evolving relationship between the workers, the trade union and civil society and look at how the government is struggling to respond to rapid social and economic change.

CLB recorded 1,171 strikes and worker protests from mid-2011 until the end of 2013, about 40 percent of which were in manufacturing industries particularly hard hit by the global economic downturn and the decline in China’s economic growth during this period. Factory workers staged protests when they were cheated out of their wages and overtime payments, when their bonuses and benefits were cut back and when the boss refused to pay the social insurance premiums mandated by law. Workers also went out strike to demand higher pay, equal pay for equal work, and proper employment contracts.

Outside the factory: Transport workers staged strikes over high costs, cumbersome regulations and unfair competition; teachers protested at wage arrears, low pay and attempts by the government to introduce a performance-based salary system in schools, and sanitation workers, some of the poorest-paid in China, staged numerous strikes and protests in Guangzhou and eventually won a long-overdue raise.

Local governments often got dragged into these disputes and responded with a mixture of conciliation and coercion, putting pressure on both sides to reach a consensus speedily. The police intervened in about 20 percent of the protests recorded by CLB and occasionally conflicts erupted, leading to beatings and arrests.

Some local trade union federations did respond positively to workers’ demands for support but despite attempts by the new Communist Party leadership in Beijing to energise the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, it remained inert and stuck in the past. Nevertheless, China’s workers will continue to push for more effective trade union representation and greater workplace democracy. And in so doing, they will lay the groundwork for a more stable and sustainable economy in which ordinary workers can finally share in the benefits of the “economic miracle” they helped to create.

Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13 is published today as a 50-page downloadable file. This is CLB’s fifth sequential report on the workers’ movement dating back to the Year 2000. All reports are available on the Research Reports page of our website.’-movement-china-2011-13-0

right to strike

right to strike

Bosses and local officials jailed for factory fire that killed 121 workers last year

29 December, 2014
Courts in the north-eastern province of Jilin have sentenced seven company bosses and eleven local officials to at most nine years in jail for their part in China’s worst factory fire in recent history, state media reported on 27 December.
Read here

4. Earlier, “Wildcat Strikes Push China to Write New Labor Laws”
November 27, 2013 / Ellen David Friedman

More than 30 years since China opened up to foreign investment, wildcat strikes surge month after month. They are driven by workers with no meaningful access to union representation, to a worker center, to the media, to legal mechanisms, or to government intervention on their behalf. And yet workers in industries from electronics to health care continue to strike, impelled by wages as low as $2 an hour.

This raw resistance has generally gotten employers to give in to strikers’ economic demands. The typical wage is minimum wage, but overtime and the mandatory social insurances are often not properly paid, so workers’ demands are frequently just to get their legal due, which employers can easily meet.

Local governments sometimes pressure employers to settle disputes but may also repress and criminalize worker activists. In recent years, the central government has made a determined effort to contain labor relations within a legal framework. The most recent example is draft “Guangdong Province Collective Negotiations Regulations” released in September.

Guangdong Province is the beating heart of China’s industrial economy, the seat of sweatshop production of exports from electronics to pharmaceuticals. Situated just north of Hong Kong, Guangdong has long been China’s portal to the outside world—and therefore the region where experimentation is somewhat more tolerated.

The draft—currently delayed due to high levels of public interest and critique and concerted resistance by the Hong Kong business community—reflects the push from below for worker voice.

– See more at:

5. New Strike Wave Hits China

6. Labor Disputes a Growing Threat to Social Stability in China, State-Backed Think Tank Says

As China’s leaders grapple with a slowing economy, they must also contend with a looming threat to social stability—the country’s increasingly disgruntled workforce.

Labor protests have swelled this year in frequency and scale, reversing a recent decline in social unrest and underscoring tensions over wages and benefits among China’s migrant workers, a top state-backed think tank said Wednesday.

“Amid slowing growth and intensifying restructuring efforts in the economy… 2014 has seen a swift and sizable increase [in labor protests],” the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in an annual study on social trends. “Labor disputes remain the most prevalent form of social conflict.”

Read the whole article here

7. Marx and Chinese politics

8. I recommend the book China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility by Au Loong Yu, Merlin,2012


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