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.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Dock workers’ resistance and union reform in China’s global supply chain

We have a first guest post from Dr. Xuebing Cao, Keele University. Dr. Cao is one of presenters at our September workshop Chinese Labour in the Global Economy 

The September 2013 Yantian Dock strike is a prominent event of the recent Chinese labour movement, not only for it being settled with workers’ partial victory, but also due to its exposure of the ACFTU’s failure on workplace union reform. Moreover, the event showed Chinese dock workers’ persistent struggle with transnational capitalism within the global seaport industry.

The strike broke out on 1 September 2013 at Yantian International Containers Port (YICP), the world’s biggest single container handling dock. Such a high profile did attract a lot of attention for its noticeable impact on the regional and global cargo supply chain. As the dock’s operation was actually controlled by Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH), a Hong Kong based TNC and one of the major players in the global port industry, one would speculate whether Yantian dockers were inspired by their counterparts who stroke in HYH’s port in neighbouring Hong Kong few months ago. However, little evidence has been found that the two strikes were inter-linked as workers in these two ports were in two completely different systems, including the labour market, the industrial relations climate and legal environment.  Hong Kong dockers’ 40-day dispute was a classic industrial conflict featured with independent unions that led the strike and collective bargaining from the beginning to the end. In contrast, Yantian strike was a spontaneous dispute as the official union had nothing to do with the initiate or lead of the stoppage.

Hiller (1969) points out that strike workers usually need to have justifications for their behaviours. To this end, YICT workers’ demand for a 2,000 – 3,000 pay rise was linked with their discontent over the company’s changes on housing benefits and education subsidies, something that would see their actual income being reduced. With a few agitators calling and starting the initial action by their own, the strike was not an organized dispute as no any union official was aware of in the beginning, nor did any striking workers asked union to step in. In the beginning it was a group of 200 or so crane operators who stopped working, soon the stoppage was spread to the majority of the workforce who also supported the demand for pay rise. Without the participation of the workplace union, these workers were able to stand together with their collective demand, as many of the workers experienced a previous spontaneous strike in 2007. In Hyman’s (1984: 56) words regarding these uncalculated incidents, ‘unorganized conflict workers typically respond to the oppressive situation in the only way open to them as individuals’. 

Facing the Chinese authority’s strict control over any collective incident, YICT workers’ courage to take action is worth mentioning. But their self-mobilization capacity reflected the strength of dock workers with traditionally strong idea of community and occupational culture (Turnbull 1992): higher degree of emotional involvement in work tasks that are often in dangerous, physical and skilled positions, strong group loyalty and intense solidarity. In a few hours, the strike was quickly spread to the whole port and the entire on-site operation was halted. HPH was hit by this unprecedented stoppage and the pressure from the market loss forced the company to carefully consider workers’ demand, leading to the final settlement that offered workers with about 20% pay rise, all of which were allowances though.

Despite of being an unorganized collective action, the 2013 Yantian strike quickly drew people’s attention because of the role of YICT workplace union. Just within few hours of the stoppage the union was asked by management to quickly jump in, and workers were persuaded to accept union as an official representative body at the negotiation table. As an union official said, in fact Yantian 2013 strike workers ‘didn’t want to stand out by themselves as they might worry about their job security .... So by the end they agreed the union could represent them to negotiate.’ With workers needing a formal leadership so that somebody could help them to manage the discontent, the union mediated between the management and workers while the final deal was sealed after few rounds of intensive talks. The contribution of the YICT union exhibited the fact that union intervention could help to institutionalise conflict (Mills 1948). As a result, the collective bargaining process was eventually materialized when both the management and workers accepted union to take an active role.

Unfortunately this collective bargaining process was not systemized since after the strike the union could only continue its traditional role as a transmission belt. Hence the strike really embarrassed the ACFTU who had regarded YICT union as an exemplary model after the 2007 direct election that established the first union in this port. Much propagandised by the ACFTU and authorities, the YICT union had become a shining star of union reform for having had two direct elections and six consecutive wage collective consultations, as well as ‘comprehensive’ workplace representation. It seemed that YICT workers had benefited from continuous pay rise as a result of the union reform and ‘harmonious’ industrial relations (China Labour Bulletin 2013), and nobody predicted another strike happened just before the 7th collective wage consultation to be held in October 2013.  Apparently the union reform at YICT was not successful because consultation could not replace negotiation. Without an institutionalized collective bargaining system, workers’ views would not be properly represented through collective consultation framework, and their discontents would not necessarily be channelled through negotiations.  Such tension was exemplified by the 2013 strike in this market-leading port within the global supply chain.


China Labour Bulletin (2013) Labour Unrest in China: the Absence of Collective Bargaining., 24 September 2013
Hiller, E. T. (1969) The Strike: A Study in Collective Action. New York: Arno Press.
Hyman, R. (1984) Strikes, 3rd edition. London: Fontana.
Mills, C. W. (1948) The New Men of Power. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Turnbull, P. (1992) Dock Strikes and the Demise of the Dockers’ ‘Occupational Culture’. The Sociological Review, 40, 294-318. 

1 comment:

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