A Labor Movement Stirs in China

Ariana Lindquist for The New York Times

Workers demonstrated outside the Honda factory in Zhongshan, China, on Friday.

Published: June 10, 2010

ZHONGSHAN, China — Striking workers at a Honda auto parts plant here are demanding the right to form their own labor union, something officially forbidden in China, and held a protest march Friday morning.

Ariana Lindquist for The New York Times

Striking workers outside a Honda factory in Zhongshan, China on Thursday.

Meanwhile, other scattered strikes have begun to ripple into Chinese provinces previously untouched by the labor unrest.

A near doubling of wages is the primary goal of the approximately 1,700 Honda workers on strike here in this southeastern China city, at the third Honda auto parts factory to face a work stoppage in the last two weeks.

A chanting but nonviolent crowd of workers gathered outside the factory gates on Friday morning and held a short protest march before dissolving into a large group of milling young workers who filled the two-lane road for more than a block outside the factory.

They were met by black-clad police with helmets, face masks and small round riot shields. But the workers showed no signs of being intimidated. The police marched off at midmorning, leaving the workers to block the road into the small industrial park next to a eucalyptus-lined muddy canal that runs past the factory.

The workers dispersed about an hour after the police left and remained on strike.

Management helped defuse the march by distributing a flier that essentially offered 50 renminbi, or about $7.30, for each of the eight days that the factory was closed beginning in late May as part of a nationwide shutdown of Honda manufacturing set off by a transmission factory strike. Management previously wanted to treat the shutdown as unpaid leave, workers said.

Only 50 or so striking workers showed up outside the factory after lunch on Friday. Managers distributed a new flier urging them to return to work in the afternoon and saying that all would be forgiven if they did.

But the flier contained no new offer on wages, and there was no sign that any workers were going back into the factory. One worker said that the newly chosen factory council was not holding any negotiations because it could be physically dangerous for all of the representatives to gather in one place with management and the authorities.

The worker, an activist in the labor unrest here, said that the strikers were waiting for a genuinely new offer from management before holding any more talks.

This latest strike, which started Wednesday morning, has taken on political dimensions.

The strikers here have developed a sophisticated, democratic organization, in effect electing shop stewards to represent them in collective bargaining with management. They are also demanding the right to form a trade union separate from the government-controlled national federation of trade unions, which has long focused on maintaining labor peace for foreign investors.

“The trade union is not representing our views; we want our own union that will represent us,” said a striking worker, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation by government authorities or the company.

Geoffrey Crothall, the spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, a labor advocacy group based in Hong Kong that seeks independent labor unions and collective bargaining in mainland China, expressed surprise when told how the Honda workers here in Zhongshan had organized themselves. “It does reflect a new level of organization and sophistication” in Chinese labor relations, he said.

A Honda spokesman declined to comment on the details of the strike. The Chinese government has been relatively lenient in allowing coverage of the labor unrest because Honda is a Japanese company, and some anti-Japanese sentiment lingers in China as a legacy of World War II.

Despite unusual forbearance in allowing the various strikes so far, the Chinese government has shown no interest in tolerating unions with full legal independence from the national union.

Dozens of workers gathered in clumps shortly before sunset on Thursday in front of the sprawling parts factory and outspokenly criticized local authorities for seeming to side with the company.

The workers said that large numbers of police officers had been positioned in the factory on Wednesday and Thursday in an attempt to intimidate them. The two other Honda parts factories shut down by walkouts in recent weeks have reopened after workers were promised large pay increases.

The Chinese government has not allowed unions with full legal independence from the national, state-controlled union. But the government has occasionally finessed the issue by letting workers choose their factories’ representatives of the national union, or by allowing the creation of “employee welfare committees” in parallel with the official local units, said Mary E. Gallagher, a China labor specialist at the University of Michigan.

But these exceptions have tended to be in less prominent industries like shoe and garment manufacturing, and not in bastions of heavy industry like automaking.

Chen Xiaoduan in Shanghai contributed research


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