Labor unrest in China

NYHTC — July 05, 2010

The New York Times, Associated Press and China Daily recently reported that workers in four Chinese Honda plants walked off the job in May in an organized effort to demand democratic union representation and an immediate increase in wages. Many Chinese workers have become increasingly dissatisfied with their low wages in the wake of rising cost of living expenses, are frustrated by not being able to reap the rewards of China's economic success, which has been fueled by their hard work. To add insult to injury, Honda's managers recently decided to increase production for the next two years, without any plans for a wage increase for workers. At one of the Honda factories, the strike was sparked when a female worker was shoved to the ground for wearing her name-tag incorrectly.

China's official press has called this the "largest industrial action ever reported in China," a contention that goes unchallenged in Western news coverage. Presumably, this does not include labor actions during or prior to the 1946-1950 revolutionary period. If true, this says more about the sad state of labor rights in China than about the scale of these actions. Strikes at a handful of factories employing fewer than 2,000 workers each would not be considered an unusually large labor action in almost any other large industrialized country.

Most news coverage of the strikes has focused on the bravery of the workers involved in leading the actions. Their bravery is indeed commendable, and it is unfortunate that the bravery of workers trying to organize here in the United States is so often ignored in mainstream coverage of labor disputes.

This focus on individual bravery, however, leaves many important questions unanswered. How long were the workers on strike? How many people actually participated in the strikes? Did they picket? Some articles note that Honda did agree to an increase in wages, but give little detail about how large these raises were, or whether the workers had any say in them. At least two of the workers involved in organizing these strikes were fired. How widespread was this retaliation? If workers here in the United States went on strike to demand democratic union representation, what legal rights would they have, and what consequences would they face?

Most importantly, news coverage of these strikes has failed to provide the context needed to understand the real issues involved. The problem is not just bad managers at a handful of factories, or the undemocratic and farcical nature of China's official state unions. Rather, the issue is the systematic deprivation and exploitation of the vast majority of China's population, used to fuel that country's GDP growth, and the complicity of Western and Japanese corporations that reap enormous profits from this system.

We encourage our members to read these stories as they should read all news stories, particularly those about organized labor -- with a critical eye not only towards the subject matter, but to the motivations and intent of the authors.

Barboza, David. In China, Unlikely Labor Leader Just Wanted a Middle-Class Life. The New York Times. June 13, 2010.