Tuesday, 10 January 2012.
2012 has started much as 2011 ended – with new wave of strikes and workers’ demonstrations
The first week of 2012 witnessed a fresh wave of strikes across at least six provinces – Sichuan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Guangdong and Guangxi. China’s ‘sweatshop revolt’ – predicted by chinaworker.info – is continuing and deepening as bosses’ try to force through wage cuts or relocate factories to cheaper production centres at home and abroad.
A massive three-day work stoppage by steelworkers in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, broke out on Wednesday 4 January over low wages. The strike involved 5,000 workers, possibly as many as 10,000, at the state-owned Chengdu Steel plant, a subsidiary of stock market-listed Pangang Group Chengdu Steel & Vanadium.
The steelworkers were inspired by the struggle of Wukan villagers, in Guangdong province, in forcing concessions from the government, but also by successful strikes by other workers, including recent action by several thousand workers at the Sichuan Chemical Engineering Group Company (CEGC). According to a local labour rights campaigner, these workers secured a 400-500 yuan increase in monthly pay following a strike in late December.
“The workers of Pangang Steel copied them, and also called for a raise,” this source told Radio Free Asia (5 January, 2012).
“We want to survive, we want meals”
Workers at Chengdu Steel, which also supplies the People’s Liberation Army, typically earn around 1,500 yuan (237 USD) per month, but are demanding 2,000 yuan. “We want to survive, we want meals,” was one slogan on strikers’ banners – saying a great deal about the much-hyped Chinese economic ‘miracle’ as viewed from the ground.
In both strikes, the workers took their protest to the streets – blocking major traffic intersections. This has become an established tactic to publicise strike action, in the hope that higher levels of government within the one-party state will intercede and – fearing the spread of ‘social instability’ – pressurise lower levels of government and also company management to offer concessions.
The Chengdu steelworkers complained of long working hours needed to make up a living wage and the massive benefits being reaped by managers – at around eight times a workers’ wage. They also protested at the lack of job security based on current work contracts. A striking worker told the Epoch Times (8 January) that some women workers at the plant have taken on jobs at night clubs in order to make ends meet.
On the first day of the strike, workers marched from their factory to an intersection of the Chengdu-Mianyang expressway, where they were blocked by around 1,000 riot police. For several hours traffic was paralysed with police moving to disperse the demonstration by force, including the use of pepper spray. Several workers were reportedly injured in the ensuing clashes, and five strikers were arrested. After negotiations, the company management told the police to release the arrested strikers.
Drawing lessons also from the global ‘Occupy’ movement, news of which has to a limited extent been covered by state media in China, the Chengdu workers collected funds for tents and food in order to build an occupation camp at the factory. On the third day of their strike, 6 January, a 3,000-strong contingent of riot police attacked the workers’ camp with gas and batons driving out thousands of workers. There are reports of many workers injured and a number of arrests. On 7 January the workers returned to work. Management offered pay increases of 300 yuan per month as a concession after this massive show of force by the state authorities.
The Wukan effect
The contageous effect of last year’s mass struggles upon workers and poor peasants is becoming clear. 2010 saw an estimated 180,000 ‘mass incidents’ across China and this number surely rose in 2011. Especially Wukan, where an entire rural community rose in struggle and for a period lasting several weeks dislodged the local representatives of the Chinese regime, has sent a powerful message to workers and other oppressed layers across the country. This is despite the regime’s blanket news blackout of the Wukan events.
“A lot of people have been very encouraged by what they saw in Wukan,” said a worker in Chengdu, surnamed Zhang. “They are saying we should learn from Wukan,” he told RFA.
Elsewhere in Sichuan province, also on 4 January, hundreds of migrant workers stormed a courthouse in Shuangliu County, demanding the court rule in their favour in a case of unpaid wages. Fierce clashes were reported between workers and police. Cases of wage arrears are legion in China, especially hitting the 150-180m strong migrant workforce, who make up the vast majority of workers in manufacturing, and whose conditions are set to worsen in the current industrial slowdown. This was shown by another strike last week, at a toy factory in the southern city of Wuzhou. Photos of the strike posted online showed uniformed women workers amassed outside the factory gates, with large numbers of police forming a cordon around the area. The workers, who also complained about the cancellation of year-end bonuses, reportedly won some concessions from management. A strike erupted at a washing machine factory in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, also last week.
In the port city of Dalian, up to 1,000 brewery workers took strike action in protest at low wages and unfair terms under a takeover of their company by Belgian-owned multinational Anheuser-Busch InBev. The workers’ action closed down all five workshops, blocking entrances and preventing the movement of goods. The workers also protested at the huge pay increases awarded to brewery managers under the new ownership arrangement, which sees top level salaries increased in line with global levels.
These workplace struggles follow on the heels of a strike wave in Guangdong province involving workers in electronics, footwear, garments, furniture and other sectors. In these struggles as at Wukan and the even bigger mass protests against a polluting power plant in Haimen (both rural communities in Guangdong), the authorities have responded with a ‘carrot and stick’ approach – or rather ‘pepper spray and negotiations’. Many workers have been arrested and, in a crucial development, a protest leader at Wukan was killed in police detention, while some concessions have also been wrought through workers and youth flexing their muscles and engaging in struggle.
Time and again, however, the organs of the one-party state have shown they cannot be trusted to keep their word and that yesterday’s concessions can quickly be snatched away once a mass protest movement has subsided and is easier to control (this is already happening in the case of Wukan, with new threats and pressure upon the village protesters; likewise in many recent strike struggles, economic concessions have been accompanied by victimisation of strike leaders and much police brutality).
This underlines the need to build workers’ organisations, independent unions, factory committees and democratically controlled mass organs of struggle. These are essential in the fight for a living wage and shorter hours as well as in the wider struggle to end police repression and dictatorship.