A strike in China has shown a new level of confidence among workers.
On 21 May, the 1,900 workers at a Honda factory in Foshan, near Hong Kong, walked out demanding higher wages. Within a week, they had shut all four of the company’s operations across China.
They struck for pay rises of up to 40 percent, to bring them into line with other Honda plants. Most returned to work after Honda conceded a 24 percent rise.
The strike’s importance goes far beyond the immediate issues at stake. It highlights a growing anger and determination among China’s new industrial workers, and shows independent organisation developing among the strikers.
Strikes have been effectively legal in China for some time now, in the sense that the police don’t immediately arrest strikers.
But most are defensive—against management attacks or appalling conditions. Honda was an offensive strike. It had specific, targeted demands—parity with other plants, and parity between Chinese and Japanese workers.
It had an organised core which negotiated directly with management, separately from the state-run official “union”, which strikers described as “completely useless”.
Strikers picketed openly, and used online chatrooms and mobile phones to organise, turning the technology that they produce against their bosses.
The economic boom has been largely built on the back of tens of millions of migrant workers from rural China. They work very long hours in bad conditions for poor money, making or assembling consumer goods to export to the West.
For 20 years, poverty and lack of prospects have been forcing young men and women out of the villages to the booming coastal provinces between Shanghai and Hong Kong. Almost all of China’s export industries are based here.
Workers in these factories are regularly beaten, and often paid late or not at all. Many have resisted, sometimes with wildcat strikes, though more often by simply quitting.
But employers assumed that rural poverty would continue to guarantee an endless supply of new villagers.
Every year several million migrants go home for Chinese New Year. But in 2006, several million didn’t come back—and hundreds of factories found themselves short-staffed.
One by one, local governments raised their minimum wages to draw the workers back. But, everyone who was going to migrate had already done so. Three quarters of China’s villages no longer had any “surplus” workers.
This gave workers a temporary advantage, until the economic crisis hit China hard in late 2008. In some areas a third of factories closed. As many as 25 million workers lost their jobs.
The economy has since recovered, partly through a very high level of state spending, which is now more evenly spread across the country.
This means workers have a wider choice of jobs both in the coastal provinces and the areas that most migrants come from. Export factories have raised wages to keep workers, but hours and conditions have not improved.
It is a volatile mixture. Workers can sense that conditions have shifted in their favour, but find it hard to take advantage of this collectively.
Before Honda, attention was focused on the huge Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, which produces hi-tech gadgets for companies such as Apple and Panasonic.
Ten workers there have killed themselves this year. Dozens more have attempted suicide.
One worker told Businessweek magazine, that they are banned from talking to each other on the line, and allowed just ten minutes every two hours for toilet breaks. Constant noise washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing.
In a factory with over 300,000 employees, organising must often seem an impossible task.
That’s why Honda is so important. It shows a positive alternative that can win real victories. Its lessons are clear: organisation is possible; action can win; the managers are not all powerful.
What Honda workers did, thousands of other workplaces can do too.
There is a video of the Honda picket line at » www.56.com/u84/v_NTE4ODI5Mzc.html