Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Can Direct Elections for Trade Unions Really Represent Workers’ Interest?

When we talk about trade unions in China, specifically the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), we have to say that it is the biggest trade union in the world judged by the number of members, because all Chinese workers are enrolled automatically as members. The ACFTU is perhaps also the richest trade union in the world because of its funding, which comes entirely from the workers’ wages: 2 percent of every worker’s monthly salary is taken as a contribution to the funds of the ACFTU. Ironically, however, this biggest and richest trade union is probably the weakest trade union in the world. Many scholars have studied the impotence of the ACFTU (Walder, 1991; Chan, 1993; Perry, 1995; Gong, 2002; Howell, 2003) or the debate over reform of the ACFTU (Pringle, 2011). This paper therefore doesn’t focus on the ACFTU itself but more on the trade union set-up within enterprises, and their function.

Company trade unions are the local branches of the ACFTU. In July 2006, the ACFTU started to require all enterprises to set up trade unions in order to ‘protect workers’ rights’. Enterprises were obliged to allow trade unions to be established, but they assigned managers to be the chairmen or secretaries of trade unions. In other words, although those trade unions were symbols of labour rights protection, they are organs of the company. Workers in Shenzhen told me that they don’t understand the practical function of trade unions: ‘they just give us some bonus at the end of the year or organise some social activities. However if we have any problems related to our work or some complaints, they would not help us. We wouldn’t go to them either because they are on the bosses’ side.’ I remember clearly that when I was outside the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen this January, a young girl told me how she witnessed a co-worker jump from the dormitory roof to commit suicide. Her co-worker didn’t succeed, but he did seriously injure himself. The girl cried at the end and said: ‘Where is the trade union? They are supposed to protect us (workers) but I never saw them when my friend hurt himself.’

The problem with company trade unions is clear: as all the officers are appointed by the bosses, how could they act on behalf of workers’ rights or interests? However, we seem to see the situation changing. In May 2012, workers at the Ohms factory (a Japanese electronic factory) in Shenzhen started a strike, demanding not a wage increase, but direct election of their company trade union representatives. The Ohms workers’ strike successfully removed the factory-assigned chairman, Mr. Lee; the workers’ demand for direct elections has been granted and the new chairman, Mr. Zhao, was elected by the workers. This strike has been deemed a landmark in Chinese workers’ fight for more workers’ rights, not just for more wages. Shenzhen City Trade Union was also supportive of this direct election; they even initiated a movement to push 163 factories in Shenzhen to implement the system of direct election of trade union representatives, including Foxconn.

However does this mean the workers’ voice has finally been heard and their wishes are being channelled to the management side properly? Another open letter issued by Ohms workers in March 2013, demanding the replacement of Mr. Zhao, simply reflects the fact that even direct elections can’t guarantee workers’ rights. According to their open letter (in Chinese), some of the workers have now accused Zhao and the union of failing to safeguard their interests, including the defence of the labour contracts of 22 employees which Ohms decided not to renew earlier this year. According to the workers Zhao even tried to persuade them to accept the management’s offer. ‘We don’t want our union chairperson to be biased in favour of the management. We want to elect someone who speaks for us,’ said one of the workers.  

Ohms workers’ new demand for the removal of Mr. Zhao has not been approved yet by the management; so far the outside world hasn’t heard any news from them. However, my question is, will a new election meet the workers’ demands? My argument is, if the trade union itself is an empty structure, then it doesn’t matter who will be the chairman – worker or manager; this institution will not have power to speak up for workers. What is the alternative to the trade union? It will be easy to say that workers should organise their own workers’ committee rather than depending on company trade unions, but this step requires much more courage and willingness from workers themselves. As a humble observer, I can only wish that one day workers will find the power within themselves, to either overcome the superficial structure of their trade union or to establish an organisation of their own.

Chan, Anita (1993), ‘Revolution or Corporatism? Workers and Trade Union in Post-Mao China’, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 29 (Jan.), pp. 31–61.
Gong, Wen (2002), ‘Chinese Trade Unions Committed to Protecting Workers’, Chinese Trade Unions, No. 1, pp. 6–15.
Howell, Jude (2003), ‘Trade Unionism in China: Sinking or Swimming?’, Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 102–22.
Pringle, T. (2011), Trade Unions in China: The Challenge of Labour UnrestLondon: Routledge.
Perry, Elizabeth (1995), ‘Labour’s Battle for Political Space: The Role of Worker Associations in Contemporary China’, in D. S. Davis, R. Kraus, B. Naughton and E. Perry, eds., Under Spaces in Contemporary China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 302–25.
Walder, Andrew (1991), ‘Workers, Managers and the State: The Reform Era and the Political Crisis of 1989’, The China Quarterly, No. 127, pp. 467–92. 


  1. Really interesting, as always. I love the mix of close attention to the situation at the grassroots and big, ambitious questions. Two comments:

    Direct elections of union representatives are important. Even when the union is an empty shell, winning direct elections is a big victory over management, the leaders of the empty shell, and the political leaders as well. It also demonstrates the determination of the workers to turn the empty shell to their purposes and their capacity to do so. It is an affirmation of their capacity and desire for control and evidence of their equality.

    But of course direct election of union leaders is no guarantee of democracy. First, because it is just one of a number of basic elements of union democracy such as free speech, the right to organize caucuses, and access to union information (please see my list of "union democracy benchmarks" for other elements

    Second, because as Jacques Ranciere writes, "democracy is... not guaranteed by any institutional form...It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts." (Hatred of Democracy, p97) In that sense my list of benchmarks is better described as a list of symptoms of union democracy.

    But this also points to the question you raise about alternatives to the existing trade union (or to the "mature" models being promoted for China by representatives of European and US unions and IR experts). Following Ranciere's idea, it seems more important to focus on the developing practice of worker solidarity (including the fascinating interaction with the world outside the workplace -- the community support for direct election of union officers) and the specific acts that facilitate and nurture that than to limit oneself to the existing institutional framework.

    Maybe a "horizontalist" conception (like the one depicted in Marina Sitrin's Horizontalism) would be a better conceptual framework for grasping and expressing the developments you describe than the traditional union idea? (I also think we need to link union democracy to "industrial democracy" or worker control, as I tried to say in that paper I presented in Beijing.)

    1. Many thanks Matt for your great reply. Your last point, 'horizontalism', make me think about occupied factories in Argentina (you might know it, I also wrote a small piece of blog paper some time ago). The structure is very equal or horizontal because workers they took over bosses who abandoned factories, and run the factories by themselves. In that sense they don't even need any 'trade union' or 'workers' committee' in any form, because all the workers would attend meetings and made decisions together. However they also faced several problems to go on, i.e. can't compete with 'regular' factories, difficult to recruit young and talented workers because of low payment... Although these problems are not about union democracy, but jeopardize the maintenance of the factories. How to reach the balance, how to represent workers' value/strength, through which form, I'm constantly puzzled by those questions....

    2. The recuperated factories are a great thing. I envy you for your visit to the factory you describe. As Mondragon shows, worker cooperatives can be viable and competitive, even in the most technologically advanced sectors of the global market. Not free of contradictions, but viable. I think the key is to focus on the principles and find the structures that enable us to realize those principles. As a start, I find the Mondragon Corporation's ten principles of cooperation useful: Practice is messy and contradictory, by definition, but a movement of people who share principles like these would be, like the recuperated factories, a great thing.

    3. Many thanks Matt, that was a very good sharing. I will pass this information to my contact in Buenos Aries, who is a University Professor in title but helping/organising recuperated factories in daily life. I went to visit the recuperated factory last August during ISA conference with Pun Ngai and this Argentinean Professor. A real treasury for me was to visit the occupied factory and talked to workers there (certainly the conference also counted, but you know what I meant). When I went back to China and talked to Chinese workers, it was very inspiring for them to know that factories can be run by workers, though it happened in a very far away country called Argentina. Do you have similar experience in Japan?

    4. The open letter in English is here: