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Workers' autonomy strikes in China

Anarcho-communists go on strike against capitalist-communists.

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A pamphlet by Mouvement Communiste about the wave of strikes that swept the industrialised coast of China in the summer of 2010.

PRESENTATION

This document is simultaneously published in three languages: Czech, English and French. This is not because we are such efficient translators but because it is the result of a common work by speakers of these three languages since its very conception. It is a work jointly performed by comrades from KpK, MC and others. We hope that this first step of a common political work will be confirmed and amplified in a way which tends towards the unification and centralization of communists.

DEDICATION

We would like to pay tribute to our comrade Daniel Bénard (1942-2010) by dedicating this work, to which he contributed, to him. An inflexible fighter for many years against Stalinism and for workers’ autonomy, he was defeated by cancer in late April 2010. You’re always here, “Bill”.

Contacts:
Kolektivně proti kapitálu
http://protikapitalu.org/

Mouvement Communiste
For all correspondence, please write, without adding else to the address, to:
BP 1666, Centre Monnaie 1000, Bruxelles 1, Belgium.
http://www.mouvement-communiste.com

WORKERS’ AUTONOMY STRIKES IN CHINA

Introduction

On strike for two weeks in a modern Honda car equipment factory, 1,900 workers have won a massive wage rise after having stopped four car assembly plants. It is probably the first recent victorious offensive strike against a major international company.

The strike, staged by local workers to protest low pay and harsh working conditions, has cost the automaker thousands of units in lost production in the world’s biggest auto market. The walkout began on May 17 at Nanhai Honda Lock’s transmission factory in Foshan (south-eastern China) near Guangzhou1 and shut down all four of the Japanese car maker’s factories on the mainland. This factory produces automatic and manual transmissions and parts of engines used by the four Honda2 assembly plants.

This strike was followed by a wave of strikes in other car plants, Honda, then Toyota, but also in various industries, electronics, plastics, and breweries…both in manufacturing plants and in suppliers.

One more proof that, once triggered, workers resistance can transform itself into a workers’ offensive…

Our chronology is as detailed as it is so as to give a flavour of the real strike “contagion” that gripped the Chinese coastal industrial belt in the summer of 2010, and how it caught the state and the bosses off guard.

The text therefore includes:

A detailed chronology in two parts,
The extension of strikes to other factories,
The living conditions of Chinese workers,
A presentation of the automotive industry in China,
A glimpse into the history of class struggle in China since 1949,
An analysis of the strike at Honda,
What’s happened since the summer of 2010,
An attempt at a conclusion
Appendixes.
Chronology – First round

Strike at Honda transmission plant in Nanhai

Monday 17 May

Start of the strike.

“Everybody remember to bring your umbrellas tomorrow,” read the posting on the internet chat room. “Don’t get tricked into going to the canteen or the workshop – tomorrow we go sit at Honda’s main entrance and wait for reporters.”

“On May 17, we started the strike by pressing the emergency button in the AT1 workshop,” said Tan Zhiqing, one of the strike leaders at Foshan. He was fired the next week for what he says the company claimed was sabotage and for leading the strike. “The AT2 workshop did the same thing. Then 20 of us went to other production departments to persuade people to join us.”

“We saw over a hundred of them walking over to our division but we thought they were only taking a break to visit us”, one intern from Hunan province said of the action. “It turns out they were coming to inform us about the strike.” The next day, strikers return to work.3

Friday 21 May

The strike resumes at Foshan. With average monthly wages for factory employees at the supplier plant of 1,500 Yuan (indeed, although belonging to Honda, the Nanhai factory is a subcontractor factory with regard to the Honda assembly plants), workers are seeking a raise from 2,000 Yuan to 2,500 Yuan, which is on a par with what employees at Honda’s auto-assembly plants in China receive. “The salary for us Chinese employees is very low. But Japanese staff can each earn 300 U.S. dollars a day, and their job is just to give us training,” said a striking worker surnamed Ma. “We are wearing masks because the company has used cameras to photograph or video us recently,” he said.

Monday 24 May

Honda suspends some vehicle-assembly operations in Guangzhou on Monday. Output has been suspended since Monday’s night shift at both the Zengcheng facility (east of Guangzhou), which produces the mainstay Accord sedan, and the Huangpu facility (south east of Guangzhou).

Wednesday 26 May

At the Wuhan facility, which churns out the Civic and other offerings, production came to a standstill, beginning with the night shift. A Honda spokesman said local-government officials in Foshan, where the transmission factory is located, have stepped in to try to broker a resolution.

Thursday 27 May

Production at all four Honda factories in China, including one in the city of Wuhan, is still suspended.

Tuesday 1 June

About 200 trade union officials scuffled with workers who refused to end the strike on Monday and forced them from the factory, but no one was seriously hurt. “They said they would sack anyone who refused to come back to work and that’s how the others were forced to return… If they fire me, maybe I’ll have to find another job,” said a striker. District government officials sent union officials to the plant to ensure production resumed, the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing unnamed government sources. The workers later continued their confrontation further into the factory before returning to their dormitories.

Zeng Qinghong, a member of the National People’s Congress and vice chairman of a Honda joint venture partner, Guangzhou Automobile Group, visits the factory to negotiate with the workers on behalf of the company. “If you are Chinese you will definitely not sign – one for all and all for one,” a striking Honda employee wrote over a form urging his colleagues to renounce more industrial action.

Reflecting the government’s nervousness about the escalating situation, local media outlets have been ordered to rein in coverage. One Chinese journalist who has spent much of the past week camped outside the factory’s gates said: “The government has banned us from doing any more reporting on this strike”.

Although it is now muted, earlier local media reports about the strike have inspired sympathetic discussions in internet chat rooms and morale-boosting music videos showing protest footage of Honda’s uniformed employees.

Wednesday 2 June

Most of the 1,900 workers return to work on receiving an offer of a 24% rise, Honda said. Those who did not agree said another strike was in the offing if the management failed to meet their demands for a better monthly wage increase – of 800 Yuan – an annual pay rise of up to 15 per cent from next year, a rehiring of all workers fired for taking part in the strike and changes to the salary increase mechanism.

About 200 angry workers walked from inside the compound to the factory gate in the morning to tell reporters about being beaten by union officials the day before. Some workers admitted they returned to work partly because of a fear of losing their jobs. The supervisors were doing roll-call every 30 minutes. Whoever was not present would be treated as absent.

But Honda workers said that some employees who had temporarily returned to work on Monday afternoon had gone back on strike on Tuesday. They also reported that scuffles had broken out on Monday between workers and some people aiding the government, after some workers were pressed to end the strike and return to work.

“I heard 100 or so first-shift workers were forced back to work yesterday afternoon, and they stopped after producing 100 units after realizing the pay increase was too low” said a 19-year-old worker. The parts factory reportedly resumed full production on Wednesday but part of the workforce agreed to return only until Friday, when they expect the company to respond to a list of unmet demands.

The agreement

Thursday 3 June

Workers reach a settlement with the company during the night after more than six hours of negotiation. “We just reached an agreement with which both sides were basically satisfied,” said a worker representative who took part in the negotiations from 3pm to 9.30pm. “That means we won’t go on strike again, at least for a short period.”

Honda Motor Co said it will resume car output at four plants in China on Friday but the outlook for next week remains uncertain as some workers at a parts factory have not yet agreed to a full return to work.

“For sure, we will go on strike again if we don’t get a satisfying answer,” said parts factory worker Li. “The problem for Honda is that the transmission plant is wholly foreign-owned,” said Zhang Xin, an analyst with Guotai Junan Securities, referring to the parts factory. “If it were a JV [joint venture], the Chinese side would have stepped in early on and it wouldn’t have gotten as ugly as it is today.”

Friday 4 June

Workers meet with managers, holding talks aimed at avoiding the renewal of a strike. They have threatened to go back on strike if factory management refuses their demands.

Honda had restarted assembly at its four Chinese car plants, with supply of transmissions flowing for the first time in more than a week. Honda said it will be able to produce cars on Friday and Saturday, but that the outlook for next week remains uncertain because not all workers at the parts plant had agreed to a full return to work. They threatened to resume their strike if demands for better pay and union representation were not met by yesterday.

Honda agreed to offer another 134 Yuan a month to its regular workers – on top of a 366 Yuan pay increase promised earlier this week, according to worker in Foshan. In a telephone interview, one of the strikers even declared victory, saying the group had won a 34 per cent pay raise as well as regular cash bonuses and other concessions. That would bring the base pay to more than 2000 Yuan ($300) a month, well above the minimum wage in the region.

This means regular workers have won a 500 Yuan ($73.5) wage increase after nearly three weeks of strike action. They had been demanding 800 Yuan extra a month. Bonuses would be paid twice a year – one before the annual National Day holiday and the other by the end of the year, the representative told the South China Morning Post. There was no information about the rehiring of workers sacked for taking part in the strike.

At one point in the afternoon, assembly line workers in the installation division stopped work for about 20 minutes. But they resumed work after management threatened to call off negotiations. The workers’ representatives are being advised by prominent academic Chang Kai, the director of the institute of labour relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Chronology – Next round

Strike in Foshan Fengfu

Monday 7 June

“Further labour disputes will explode sooner or later” explained Dr Chang Kai, director of the Institute of Labour Relations at Renmin University. Some of the Honda workers decided it was going to be sooner.

Wednesday 9 June

A couple of days after the settlement of the first strike another walkout broke out at another factory in Foshan, Foshan Fengfu Autoparts in Chancheng4, which is a joint venture between Yutaka Giken , which is 70% owned by Honda, and a Taiwanese company. Some workers started a strike on the first shift on Monday.

The factory makes mufflers and other exhaust parts for Guangqi Honda, a 50-50 joint venture between Honda and Guangzhou Automobile.

This new strike began at 6.50am when about 20 workers tried to rally workmates at the entrance to the 12,000 square metre plant in Chancheng. By noon, more than 215 workers had agreed to go on strike, with the number increasing to more than 250 by night time. The plant has about 460 employees, 300 of them frontline workers. In the end, an agreement is signed between strikers and bosses on the basis of a monthly raise of 366 Yuan for full-time workers. This put monthly wage for new hired workers at 1,910 Yuan.

Strike at Honda Lock

Wednesday 9 June

In the meantime at Honda Lock, a 22-year-old worker from Hunan province said it was not right that they had been forced to take days off during the strike at Honda Autoparts and now had to work unpaid overtime to make up the lost hours.

“Starting from Saturday, we were called to work extra hours without compensation,” he said. “I work on the morning shift, which starts at 7.30 and finishes at 4.30, but now I’m required to work eight hours more after that without the normal double pay.”

He also said the average salary of workers at the plant was about 1,300 Yuan and it should be increased. The workers also demanded that their union president be replaced, because he is part of the company’s management.

“Workers at Foshan Honda Autoparts earned a salary of about 1,500 Yuan before the strike and we are getting even less than that,” the worker said. “If their strike hadn’t been successful, our workers here probably wouldn’t be as united as we are now.”

Thursday 10 June

Managers address hundreds of workers using a megaphone, urging them to accept a 100 Yuan increase in their monthly salaries as dozens of police monitor the tense gathering.

Honda advertised on television for replacement workers and hired employment agencies to help find them, a factory recruiter said. Young men and women showing up at the factory gates looking for work said that they had heard about job opportunities through word of mouth or had met factory managers who walked through the nearby shopping mall seeking workers.

Workers chanted at the fence on the factory’s right wing: “Are we settling for 200? No way. 300? No! How about 400? No way … “A 32-year-old female worker from Hunan said: “We want the same wage level as Nanhai Honda workers. Not a single cent less.”

The combined increase in wages and benefits was considerably less than the near doubling of wages alone that the strikers had sought. Even so, the improved compensation — wages of $152 a month and an allowance of $59 a month — was enough to make the jobs attractive to replacement workers.

Friday 11 June

Most of the workers, who arrive at the factory this morning planning to continue their strike, are shocked by the management’s “take it or leave it” approach.

A large sign at the factory gates said that last Wednesday to Saturday, the days when the factory was closed because of the strike, would be counted as paid work days. Management also offered double pay for hours worked on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, as the factory tried to catch up.

In the meantime, Honda Lock’s recruitment advertisements were everywhere on the streets of Xiaolan town, and workers said they had seen a large recruitment sign in front of the factory offering monthly salaries as high as 2000 Yuan. “Even front-line employees with 10 years of experience who work their [backsides] off on the production line can’t even get 2000,” a 33-year-old worker from Guizhou said. “If they could really offer 2000 Yuan, there would be no reason for us to be striking in the first place.”

Honda affirms the dispute had been resolved, but workers contradict that assertion and the situation is further confused by the onset of a four-day public holiday in China. At least 500 angry workers stomp away from the plant and picket in front of the gates, saying the 100 Yuan offer was “an insult”. A chanting but non-violent crowd of workers gathered outside the factory gates and held a short protest march before dissolving into a large group that filled a two-lane road outside the factory. They are met by black-clad police officers with helmets, face masks and small round riot shields. But the workers show no signs of being intimidated. The police march off at midmorning, leaving the workers to block the road into the small industrial park. The workers disperse about an hour after the police left and remain on strike.

Only 50 or so striking workers show up outside the factory after lunch Friday. Managers distribute 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 contains no new offer on wages, and there is no sign that any employees are going back into the factory. One worker says that the newly chosen factory council is 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.

Production at the two other plants halted on Wednesday and Thursday, due to the strike at Foshan Fengfu Autoparts (supplier of Honda), resumes on the 11th.

Saturday 12 June

On Saturday morning, executives at the factory failed to convince roughly five hundred striking workers to enter the plant to discuss the wage dispute. “If we agree, they will just lock us in,” said Sun Tinghu, one of the hundreds of workers gathered outside Honda Lock. “Managers and supervisors had restarted machines in the empty workshops”, say some workers. “Those couple of managers started machines on their own, pretending production was back on. That’s too funny,” said a worker from Guizhou.

In the afternoon, workers said they had received phone calls from their division leaders at around 2pm, saying management would pay them an extra 100 Yuan bonus per month and asking them to return to work. “We are continuing the strike,” a 22-year-old female worker from Guangxi said. “No way, we won’t go back just for that. We have friends working in other factories in Xiaolan town. As soon as those factories heard about our strike, the workers there immediately received a pay rise of 300 Yuan,”

The standoff in the factory town of Xiaolan appeared calm, but holdout strikers spoke of intimidation by officials, surveillance of phone calls and internet chat rooms, along with a campaign to hire replacements. Police tracked reporters outside the factory and videoed proceedings as workers left the factory at the end of the day. Many seemed nervous and wouldn’t talk, glancing in the direction of police walking alongside and on motorbikes. About 500 workers gathered outside the plant on Saturday morning hoping to hear a new offer from management. “Managers and supervisors had restarted machines in the empty workshops”, say some workers. “Those couple of managers started machines on their own, pretending production was back on. That’s too funny,” said a worker from Guizhou.

Sunday 13 June

The remaining strikers held a small rally outside the factory on Sunday morning but then went home and made no effort to picket the factory as normal operations resumed. “We don’t want to be too extreme, or else the local government will put us in jail”, said one of the strikers in an interview at a nearby budget shopping mall.

Most workers agreed to a temporary truce with management and reported back to work. But rather than accept what was presented as a final management offer at the weekend, consisting of a 20 per cent increase in basic salary and benefits, workers said they would give the company until Friday 18 June to come up with a better offer. Most of the workers stay outside the plant and refuse to go in. About 100 stay outside the plant in the hour before the day shift began at 8am. Others, responding to incessant persuasion by plant officials, enter the factory but refuse to work.

Many workers showed up at the factory gates, but later left after it became apparent the company would not raise their wages above the 100 Yuan per month that the workers had rejected.

Monday 14 June

More than 100 strikers hold a rally outside the factory on Monday morning, watching silently and despondently as replacement workers and former strikers filed through the factory gates. A factory manager with the voice of an auctioneer counted off the minutes until the morning shift started and exhorted the strikers to return to work, using lines like, “We won’t give your job to the new workers if you come in now.”

Some employees who returned to work after being threatened with the sack engaged in work stoppages, slowdowns and even sabotage. “As far as I’ve learned, no more than 100 workers resumed their work on Monday,” said a female employee at the factory, stressing that the plant’s total workforce is 1,400 on three shifts. The workers who made concessions and went back to work yesterday were earning more because of their higher seniority, says a striker.

Dozens of policemen, both in uniform and plain clothes, are deployed on a street roughly 300 metres long in front of the factory’s front gate, with about 10 police cars parked at both ends of the street to seal it off from traffic. Some members of the factory’s council of workers, chosen by the workers to represent them when the strike began, have gone into hiding, fearing retaliation, while others have returned to work in an effort to continue seeking a better deal.

Tuesday 15 June

The strike seems to be over. The workers now demand a base salary of 1350 Yuan, not the 1600 Yuan they originally pushed for. The next day the plant is closed for the Dragon Boat Festival, a public holiday.

Thursday 17 June

Another Honda supplier, Nihon Plast (Zhongshan5) Co, also went on strike in the afternoon. Around 240 welders at Wuhan Auto Parts Alliance walked out around 1 pm demanding an increase in wages and benefits of nearly 800 Yuan per month. They demanded an increase in their basic wage of 300 Yuan a month, an increase in their housing subsidy from 300 Yuan to 500 Yuan a month, and an increase in the nightshift subsidy from seven Yuan to 15 Yuan per shift. They refused to return to work until their demands were met.

The plant of the subsidiary owned 20.6% by Honda Motor Co. supplies auto parts such as steering wheels to vehicle assembly plants of Honda and Nissan Motor Co.

At Honda Lock in Zhongshan, negotiations dragged on between workers and management, with workers vowing to renew their strike if management does not improve on its current offer of a 20 per cent increase in pay and benefits.

Friday 18 June

In Zhongshan (city north of Macao), the management of the Honda Lock factory offered workers a rise of 200 Yuan in pay and 80 Yuan in subsidies late at night, after six hours of negotiations. Management had previously offered a pay rise of 100 Yuan a month in wages and 100 Yuan in bonuses, but most workers rejected the offer as too low.

Saturday 19 June

Workers at Foshan Honda Lock show up for work apparently ready to accept a new pay deal. “We’re tired of all this tension,” says one young woman who was among hundreds streaming to work at the Honda plant. “We just want to go back to work and see what happens”.

Production resumed late on Friday as negotiations continued, and operations returned to normal on Saturday (19 June).

Strike at Atsumitec

Monday 12 July

A strike has shut down another factory in China that supplies Honda Motor Co. The strike, at Atsumitec Auto Parts in the city’s Nanhai district, began in the afternoon, after management announced changes to workers’ shifts that would cut their overtime hours and increase their workload. The factory supplies “select levers” for changing driving modes of cars with automatic transmissions to Honda assembly plants in China.

Attempts to negotiate with the management failed, triggering the strike just before 4 pm. The strikers demanded that Atsumitec increase their monthly wages to 1,540 Yuan from 900 Yuan.

Eight workers had been chosen to represent 205 staff members in the factory in negotiations with the management. Among those participating in the strike are front-line workers and division heads.

Tuesday 13 July

The company refuses to provide lunch to the Atsumitec strikers, making them angrier!

Wednesday 14 July

The factory’s management threatens to fire 90 front-line workers if they don’t return to work. “All of us have reached a consensus that if the company sacks any one of us, we will all walk out and quit immediately. We will also seek legal means to protect our rights.”

Thursday 15 July

The first talks between the two sides are held on Thursday but fail to reach any agreement. Among their demands, the workers are asking for Japanese management to apologise to Chinese workers for its conduct during the standoff, and to promise not to lay off any employees for the next two years.

Friday 16 July

On Friday morning, roughly half of the 200-person workforce is milling about the grounds of the plant.

Three police cars are parked outside the plant at a distance monitoring the workers, but there are no conflicts.

The talk between the management and 16 representatives of the striking workers start at about 2 p.m. but end fruitlessly about 20 minutes later, said a worker who was present at the negotiation. The management publishes a solution package at about 6 p.m. but workers say although it agreed to raise workers’ wages, the increase doesn’t meet their expectations. The strike goes on.

Tuesday 20 July

Strikers post an announcement signed by 150 of the Atsumitec Auto Parts (Foshan)’s 200 workers at 9 am., demanding that management fire some staff members and agree to a wage raise of 500 Yuan.

Shortly afterwards, management also issues a public notice, declaring it will fire some of the strikers.

Striking workers were infuriated when the plant hired nearly 100 replacement workers on Saturday 17th to resume production, labour representatives told Xinhua. More than 50 striking workers came back to their posts in the workshop on Monday afternoon but refused to work. The remaining strikers were also involved in sit-ins in the workshop and strikers prevented replacement employees from working.

Thursday 22 July

The strike ended after ten days with an increase of 45% in monthly salary (from 900 to 1,420 Yuan) as a result.

Contagious strikes

“My employees have shown me news reports about the strikes and have told me, jokingly but time and again, that they also want a pay rise,” said Angel Lee, a Shenzhen sales manager for a Hong Kong-based company. “It may be just kite-flying so far, but I’m worried they will soon hand in an official request.” Tang Jie, a senior public relations manager with the same company, said her babysitter had been asking about a pay rise.

Progressively strikes began in the Pearl River Area, then spread to other regions of China.

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