Workers are doing things for themselves

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Workers are doing things for themselves

What do workers do when trade unions are working for the state and not for them? Tim Pringle writes about workers’ rights in ‘post-socialist’ China, Russia and Vietnam.


Migrant workers and Hong Kong dockworkers protest for better working conditions. Hong Kong has fairer labour laws than China, but there is still discrimination against trade unionists. And there is no law to give workers the right to talk about and agree working conditions with employers. by Robert SC Kemp/Alamy Stock Photo

In the Chinese city of Guangzhou, on 3 December 2015, police arrested labour NGO staff and worker representatives. Police action is not new but it was surprising that it was so well organised. Some thought that the government in Beijing gave the orders for the arrests. The police questioned 23 people and charged five important labour activists with organising people together in crowds in a public place or stealing money. Two of them, Zeng Feyang and Meng Han, are still in prison and cannot see lawyers regularly.

People think that the police action is a warning to labour activists and NGOs to stop getting help from other parts of the country or accepting money from foreign organizations. The police have also shut other organizations. Feminist activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists are in prison or have disappeared.

Labour NGOs are now more careful but the new arrests are bringing more strikes and protests. For example, Walmart workers are protesting in a difficult situation with the help of social media. Up to 10,000 people want to stop the management from introducing new working-hours. The new working-hours would make it difficult to know your working times in advance and would shut stores and people would lose their jobs. They want Walmart and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to allow free trade union elections. Some activist union members lost their jobs and the workers want Walmart to give them their jobs back. The All China Federation of Trade Unions is the only trade union under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

A different role

And here is the problem. Worker representation is difficult in former ‘state socialist’ countries such as China, Russia, and Vietnam. Trade unions there were very different from unions in capitalist countries. As part of the State, they represented all the working class and not only a group or groups of workers. Their job was not to represent workers’ interests but to help workers to work hard to meet production targets so that they had job security and welfare. This means that helping workers’ rights and interests in a capitalist world is not easy. And so workers are now more and more unhappy with the slow state trade unions and are doing things for themselves.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was partly the result of very big miners’ strikes in the years before. There were good and bad results for the working class. One result of the neoliberal privatizations was workers became very poor as the economy suddenly got worse and state organisations passed into the hands of a few corrupt rich groups. Another result was that workers won the right to organize. The old Communist Party trade union left the party in 1987 and called itself the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). Now there are more radical ‘alternative’ trade unions that have had some success in the transport and car industries. Workers have more power because these industries are more important to the country’s economy.

But the FNPR is still the biggest trade union in Russia and is still more interested in helping workers to work hard to produce more as in Soviet times. Its leaders have said no to all forms of class struggle. They prefer a social partnership between boss and workers, and they work closely with President Putin. The alternative unions are beginning to organise themselves but their activists and representatives are sometimes attacked physically and are working in a very difficult situation.

Collective interests

Vietnam began to change to a market economy in 1986. Within ten years, the workers became militant and they are still militant. There were a record 994 strikes in 2011, and then about 450 every year. The official union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), does not usually support these strikes. Labour law says that the VGCL must lead legal strikes and so all these were unofficial strikes. It is important to know that the workers won most of the strikes. The workers are now asking the VGCL to support worker rights. The Communist Party leaders are also asking for this for economic reasons.

Chinese workers have also shown that they can get better working conditions without the help of a trade union. Labour shortages, better labour laws, and the labour NGOs have resulted in wage increases of up to 35 per cent every year between 2005 and 2014.

Also because of strong actions by the workers the official Chinese union is trying new ways of worker representation, such as direct trade union elections and talks between workers and employers. This is especially in southern Guangdong province, where the new Hong Kong-based labour NGOs and more relaxed labour relations have made it easier for workers to ask for their rights. Even more important is the small but important number of workers’ representatives in the workplace – usually in industries where workers have power such as the car industry and ports. There are also worker representatives usually outside the system, supporting workers in shoes and electronics.

Worker representatives are usually past employees with experience of strikes and talks with employers. They train workers in labour rights and talking with employers. One important labour lawyer says that he thinks that these representatives are the most important people in the labour movement. But the authorities are also watching these people carefully.

The history of China, Russia, and Vietnam is the biggest problem for workers organising trade unions. The real answer to the problem of worker representation in post-socialist countries is action by the workers themselves.

Tim Pringle is a senior lecturer in Labour, Social Movements and Development at SOAS, University of London

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