By Deirdre Griswold
Published Jul 5, 2010 11:34 PM
Class-conscious workers and Marxists around the world have looked at the rapid economic growth of People’s China over the past two decades with both admiration and anxiety.
Whether one sees China as capitalist or as still fundamentally socialist, none can deny the astounding material progress made by this vast country, home to one-fifth of the world’s people. Nor can it deny that much of China’s industrial growth has come in tandem with investment by imperialist corporations that scour the globe in their search for low-wage, educated workers.
Recently, intense exploitation of workers in China by these very corporations seems to have sparked a series of suicides among employees of Taiwan-based iPhone maker Foxconn, arousing public indignation and debate over wages and working conditions.
The question for the movement has been, would Chinese workers remain passive in the face of the capitalist bosses’ never-ending pressure to reduce them to nothing but wage slaves? Or would they organize and militantly demand their rights in a country that has inscribed both a central role for the working class and the goal of achieving socialism in its constitution?
Since May a highly significant sector of China’s working class — mostly young migrants from the interior provinces who have traveled to the coast by the tens of millions, seeking work in both state construction and capitalist-owned plants there — has given the answer.
Honda workers touch off strike wave
What has turned into a strike wave with tremendous implications for the class struggle everywhere was touched off when workers at a Honda parts plant walked out May 17.
Eventually, almost the entire plant — 1,900 workers — turned off their machines and joined the strike. The lack of auto transmission parts from this plant in Foshan, Guangdong province, and strikes at other parts plants that soon followed, forced Honda to shut down four assembly plants.
The Foshan strike was settled at the beginning of June, when Honda agreed to raise all employees’ wages by more than 30 percent, as well as give the workers regular cash bonuses based on attendance.
However, no sooner was this strike underway than workers at other companies — most of them owned at least in part by Japanese firms — also hit the bricks. Besides strikes at more Honda plants, workers at Nissan and Toyota also went out seeking higher wages.
Strikes have also been reported “at a Taiwan-funded sporting goods supplier in Jiangxi province and at Japanese sewing machine maker Brother Industries in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province.” (People’s Daily Online, June 23)
Just two days after the Honda settlement, between 300 and 500 workers from a Merry Electronics factory — a Taiwanese audio components manufacturer also in Guangdong — staged a walkout and blocked roads for the better part of a day. The company immediately responded by announcing a 22 percent wage increase, while denying that the increase had any relation to the strike! (China Study Group, “Wildcat Strikes in China”)
From walkout to sit-in
At a Honda lock plant, also in southeastern China’s Guangdong province, the workers went even further, going from a strike to a sit-in. They walked out on June 9 but then were threatened by Honda managers with being fired and replaced by new hires.
Five days later, many of the 1,400 workers “filed through the factory gates in their crisp white uniforms, giving the appearance that the strike they began last Wednesday was over. But workers said they showed up only because they feared they would be fired after the company posted notices saying it was looking for replacement workers — at far higher pay. Once inside, they started a go-slow action to press their demands for an increase in basic pay to 1,600 yuan a month from 900 yuan.” (Wall Street Journal, June 13)
These militant actions appear to reflect two important developments: One, there is a labor shortage in China, giving the workers greater leverage over their bosses; and two, the government has given the workers some encouragement in their wage demands.
Both these conditions are unheard of in capitalist countries in this time of mass unemployment, givebacks and cutbacks.
Within days of the Honda settlement, the Chinese government announced that in four coastal provinces where foreign-owned industry is concentrated — Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong and Shanghai — the minimum wage was raised between 10 percent to 20 percent. (People’s Daily Online, June 8) This brought to 14 the number of provinces that have raised the minimum wage since January.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a point of publicly urging better treatment for migrant workers. He recognized that a new generation moving from villages to work in factories would not be satisfied with the hard conditions their parents faced.
The mass media in the U.S., which are afraid to reveal too openly their anti-worker bias, seemed to take a neutral tone toward these strikes. But those speaking to investors and corporate executives could not conceal their dismay over both the workers’ militancy and the role of the Chinese government.
“Executives say the Chinese central government’s relatively tolerant attitude toward strikes since a series of disputes began surfacing last month may be a factor in encouraging workers to press their issues. In the recent southern China labor disputes, authorities have generally refrained from sending in police to break up strikes, a tactic often used when disputes become high-profile.” (WSJ, “Toyota’s China Assembly Lines Vulnerable to Labor Unrest,” June 18)
This “tolerant attitude” of the government has alarmed the imperialists. And it didn’t start with these strikes in the foreign-owned businesses.
Last July, when officials at the state-owned Tonghua Iron & Steel Group in Jilin province called a mass meeting to announce to thousands of workers that the plant was being privatized and most would lose their jobs, all hell broke loose. The workers actually seized a manager from the group that was to take over the plant and beat him to death. The government’s response was not to come down on the workers; it cancelled the privatization. (WSJ, July 27)
Workers in state-owned industries have job security and much better conditions and benefits than those in the private sector. They’ve made it clear that they won’t give that up.
Threats to go elsewhere
What are the foreign corporate executives saying to the Chinese government about the recent strikes? Aren’t they threatening to pull out their investments if the workers keep up the pressure and the government doesn’t crack down on them? Aren’t they saying: “We can go to India or Indonesia, you know.”
In fact, that’s exactly what they are saying, through the press. The Wall Street Journal, which unapologetically speaks for U.S. finance capital, quoted an executive from the Japanese company Advanced Research:
“Mr. Endo estimates that annual compensation per worker in China could total as much as 400,000 yen to 500,000 yen, given the recent pay increases. This would be roughly double the average amount paid to a factory worker in India or 33 percent higher than that in Thailand, he said.
“Honda’s China labor headache comes as the company is struggling to keep up with growing demand in the country, which became the world’s biggest auto market last year.” (“Honda’s Long-Haul Dilemma in China,” June 24)
Of course, U.S. auto companies may take some consolation from the fact that it is their Japanese rivals who are being affected by the current strike wave. But the billionaire class in the U.S. cannot forget that just a few years ago the All-China Federation of Trade Unions got Wal-Mart to sign a contract with its workers — something the huge retailer still has not agreed to inside the U.S.
Right now the ACFTU is behind an organizing drive at Yum Brands, the U.S. owner of KFC and Pizza Hut fast-food chains. With more than 3,500 KFCs, Pizza Huts and other outlets there, Yum amassed 48 percent of its first-quarter global operating profit from its China operations. (WSJ, “Firms Boost Pay for Chinese,” June 13)
Clearly, not just Japanese but U.S. corporations are worried — not only about the encouragement these strikes are giving to workers in China but about their impact on low-paid workers all over the world, including in the U.S. For the last three decades there has been an unrelenting assault on U.S. workers’ wages and benefits that has greatly escalated with the current capitalist economic crisis.
Workers everywhere have a big stake in this struggle.