Evolving Representations: The Development of Elected Workplace Trade Unions in China

The promotion of workplace trade union elections in Guangzhou in response to strike waves of 2010 was aimed at absorbing workers’ grievances and stabilizing industrial relations. However, it has generated new forms of worker militancy. Autoworkers have increased the representativeness of workplace trade unions by taking advantage of the elections. They have used the elected workplace trade unions to fight for their collective interests. More broadly, this shows that Chinese workers have the capacity to penetrate and exercise partial control over the state-run trade union at the grassroots level.  

In May 2010, a strike at a Honda auto parts factory in Foshan city sparked a series of copycat strikes in China. In Guangzhou alone, there were about 100 cases of strikes from May to July. During these strikes, autoworkers demonstrated their strong workplace bargaining power: a strike in a key auto parts factory can disrupt the entire production chain. The strikes also showed the workers’ distrust of state-run trade unions, as they bypassed the unions to organize strikes and refused representation by them. The workers, in turn, demanded democratic trade union elections in the workplace.

The strike wave revealed that the state-run trade union has failed to address workers’ grievances and defuse labor disputes. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), as the only legal trade union in China, has long been criticized for not operating as a genuinely representative union by international labor organizations. The national and regional organizations of the ACFTU are integrated into the government apparatus and are de facto state organs. And its grassroots organizations (workplace trade unions) are subordinate to management or Communist Party organizations in the workplace.

To protect its legitimacy and curb labor unrest, the state-run trade union stepped up efforts to reform workplace trade unions in Guangzhou. After the strike wave in 2010, it has organized workers to elect their workplace trade union leaders. The elections of members’ representatives were usually democratic and direct. However, elections of committee members and chairs were usually indirect and more likely to be manipulated by the management and the local government.

Obviously, the elected workplace trade unions are not independent trade unions. They are still affiliated with the ACFTU, and depend on it for legal recognition and funding. Nevertheless, in comparison to previous workplace trade unions, the representativeness of elected unions has increased. Before the elections, the workplace trade union leaders were usually appointed by the managers of the enterprises or the embedded Communist Party organizations. In contrast, workers voted for some leaders of the elected workplace trade unions, and these leaders are more likely to represent their interests.

In a recent paper published in China Review, I explored the role of autoworkers in shaping the dynamics of elected workplace trade unions. I found that autoworkers have actively taken advantage of the political opportunity afforded by the state-run trade union when they promote workplace trade union elections as a means of controlling labor unrest.

In practice, autoworkers have developed two main strategies to influence the elected workplace unions. First, they have used the workplace trade union’s status as the workers’ legitimate representative and demanded collective negotiation with management. The elected workplace trade unions thus provide a means for workers to negotiate with their employers over wages and working conditions in an organized way.

Second, autoworkers have empowered elected workplace trade unions by employing their strong workplace bargaining power. Worker activists understand that elected workplace trade unions are generally weak. Rather than simply rely on them, autoworkers occasionally took direct action to disrupt the production process to force their employers to meet their demands during collective negotiations.

Importantly, autoworkers used the organizational resources of the elected trade union to organise their strikes. Unlike trade unions in liberal democratic countries, trade unions in China do not have the right to organise strikes. Nevertheless, autoworkers strategically manipulated the elected workplace trade union for collective actions. For example, they employed the elected trade unions to formulate collective claims, used the platforms of the trade union to disseminate strike news, and exploited networks of union members for mobilization. Thus autoworkers transformed elected workplace trade unions that aim to control worker activism into a mobilizing mechanism.

However, the elected workplace trade unions are under increasing attacks from global capital and the Chinese Party-state. Some managers at enterprises have taken aggressive action against active elected workplace trade union leaders. Union leaders are often denied promotion, demoted, or expelled from factories by managers.

The Xi Jinping administration has also undertaken more repressive actions to silence labor activists in the past few years. A prominent example was the Jasic incident. In 2018, dozens of Jasic factory workers and supporters were detained or arrested by the police when workers attempted to form a representative workplace trade union in Shenzhen. The hostile political environment has made the existence of elected workplace trade unions more precarious.

The autoworkers’ union practices are enterprise-based, small-scale and focused on economic interests. Nevertheless, they showed that there are growing trade union consciousness and unionization efforts among Chinese workers. By employing their workplace bargaining power and the semi-democratic trade union elections, Chinese workers have the capacity to penetrate and exercise partial control over the state-run trade union at the grassroots level.