Striking to Survive

Issue section: 

This is an important and timely book. During the summer over 50 student activists were detained for supporting Shenzhen Jasic workers who had been dismissed for setting up an independent trade union.

Despite the lack of independent trade unions China has more strikes than any other country in the world. Fan Shigang uses oral histories of people involved in a 24 day strike in the Pearl Delta River (PDR) to show the determination of the workers and the tactics the bosses will use to win — from police harassment to mass arrests and hired thugs.

In 2005, the Guangdong government made a decision to upgrade manufacturing in the PDR and factory relocation was a key part of this plan. After the 2008 financial crash, the provincial government speeded up these plans and the city of Shenzhen announced that 10,000 factories would be relocated within five years.

The book makes it clear that grievances against working conditions were building up before the company started relocation plans. Workers were required to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, with money deducted from wages to pay for inedible canteen food.

The company produced furniture for Walmart, and during annual inspections child workers were told not to come in and others were told to answer questions a particular way.

The book contains a lengthy contribution from Mr Wu who is one of the strike leaders who ended up in prison.

There is a spirit of resistance and imagination that can give hope and confidence to others taking strike action for the first time in newly unionised workplaces such as in McDonalds, TGI Fridays and Wetherspoons.

When the strike started warehouse workers used forklift pallets to block a truck that was hired to relocate equipment. Workers switched off electricity so no department could scab. Delegates were elected in secret so they couldn’t be bribed or victimised. A strike fund was established. Each department had two liaison reps to report back negotiations, who together with the delegates acted like a strike committee.

Supervisors and bosses told people to resign or go back to work. Mr Wu says, “Everyone already had a belly full of fire, and hearing that only made it burn hotter”.

And for readers who end up negotiating with management here’s another gem from Mr Wu, who told bosses, “Negotiations need to be done in good faith. You can’t be overbearing. Don’t think just because we’re your employees, we’re like a lower caste in some feudal society or like indentured labourers before the revolution, and therefore we have to obey you. That’s not a negotiation, right?”

Strikes in China are not going to stop despite the repression from the state. The China Labour Bulletin records strikes and protests and it is well worth checking out: