Friday, June 11, 2010
1) As ever, the militancy of these workers is driven by hyperintensive rates of exploitation. In recent decades, much of the surplus value accumulated by capital in China has been the result of unpaid labour, accumulated wage arrears that are never paid off. Otherwise, wages are so low that workers have to perform dozens of extra hours of overtime per month in order simply to live.
2) Most of the strikes involve smaller groups of workers, in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. The absence of independent union organisation and the surveillance capacities of capital mean that workers find it very difficult to organise on a very large scale, which takes time, coordination and an apparatus of communication that those workers as yet lack. But two or three thousand workers in a single factory can much more feasibly halt production.
We have seen waves of strikes and direct action in China before but, Charlie Hore argues, these were mostly of a defensive character. Recent strikes have been offensive. The FT reports:
In fact, China has witnessed considerable industrial unrest in recent decades, much of it localised and attracting little publicity. The causes have tended to be unpaid wages or Dickensian working conditions. While the organisers of such strikes have often got into trouble, in many cases the authorities have taken a relatively relaxed attitude, provided the disputes remained small and non-violent, seeing them as a way of blowing off steam.
Mr Gilholm and other analysts, however, said the Honda strikes were a new development because they focused on wages rather than perceived abuses, meaning even well-run factories could become vulnerable to labour disputes.
“It is a new form of strike – a very symbolic event,” said Liu Cheng, a professor at Shanghai Normal University and an outside adviser in the drafting of the 2008 labour law. After wages had been held down for long periods, he said, “finally there is this explosion. It is because of workers’ growing awareness of labour rights, and more talk and debate about the subject.”
In the strike at the Honda plant in Foshan, notably, workers formed an organisation separately from the official union, with independently elected delegates to represent them vs management. They have also been using new technologies (which the Chinese working class has, after all, manufactured in bulk) to coordinate their actions. The success of those workers has inspired a series of similar actions within Honda, with workers in other plants demanding parity with Foshan. There is another factor that improves labour's bargaining power, and that is the labour shortages that have occurred in many areas as the Chinese government has battled recession by investing heavily in infrastructural projects. To attract workers, some cities have had to raise their minimum wage,which has led to workers in other cities demanding the same. These advantages are temporary - a sudden economic reversal could put workers on the back foot again. But they could produce a movement that will irreversibly alter the status of the Chinese working class.
The threat to capital, the Chinese state and the stock markets, is that a model of de facto independent trade unionism will start to be taken up and replicated among other Chinese workers, and will result in an increasing share of production going to the working class. More generally, it poses a potential long-term political threat to what has been one of the most advantageous states for capitalist investment and development in the world. The ability to appropriate basically free labour, to super-exploit migrant workers moving from the villages to the coastal slums, to accumulate some of the fattest profits in the world, has always depended on containing the expanding working class. For example, the migrant worker economy in China works much the same way as it does elsewhere. Millions of workers flee impoverished rural lives, where a basic safety net is being taken away, many of them relying on false identification papers to get a job. Once they've got a job, they often end up as part of a live-in work-force, sleeping in dormitories, eating collectively. They are a cheap labour force, producing for an export market. If they acquire political and economic rights - increase their class power in other words - their susceptibility to this kind of exploitation is greatly diminished. Foreign investors in the coastal 'boom' areas may, business papers warn, be frightened away by a period of industrial unrest. Since the CCP is not going to restore some mythical Maoist golden age, it will either have to break the strikes with repression, or find ways to accomodate the workers politically, offer some reforms without substantially threatening profits. Or it may lose control in the long run.