Chinese Labor Unions and CyberUnionism
Chinese Labor Unions and CyberUnionism
“The color of the cat shouldn’t matter
as long as the cat catches mice.”
Chairman Deng Xiaopong, 1992
WHERE CHINA IS concerned, certain aspects of its market socialism look bright: By 2010, for example, it is likely to have the world’s largest economy, up from fourth in 2005 (Mantsios, 53) Less clear by far is the near future of its Labor Movement. Busy reinventing capitalism, China is also busy experimenting with trade unionism, much as it has done since the first Guilds were formed over 1,500 years ago in the Song Dynasty (420-478 A.D.).
Conventional unions date back to 1914, and only banded together in an All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in 1925. Created as an umbrella body for unions backed by the government, the ACFTU is now the largest labor organization in the world. It has over 160 million members (out of nearly 800 million workers) organized in 1,170,000 grassroots local unions covering 2,330,000 enterprises. (Fong)
Along with almost every other major institution in China, the ACFTU is presently struggling to re-define itself. Since it’s founding Its “Chinese characteristics” have had it primarily mediate between employer and employee to promote harmonious relations. While it continues to have strong ties with the Communist Party, and while many of its local officers are allegedly subservient to the employer, it is a “mistake to understate its role in advancing workers’ interest.” (Mantsios, 60). The Federation has always had a feisty cadre of staff militants, especially at local levels, and it has long exposed poor working conditions, lobbied for improved labor laws, litigated on behalf of members, and pressured the Government to enforce the country’s Labor Law. (1)
Most recently, the ACFTU has grown beyond its cautious support of workplace mobilization against exploitation in a single workplace (excessive mandatory overtime, illegal piece rates, false deductions, etc.). Following years of pressure it surprised outsiders in 2006 by vigorously organizing workers at 62 Wal-Mart stores in 30 cities. By the year’s end it was well on its way to unionizing 60% of all foreign-funded firms, for a dramatic gain of many millions of members. (Fong) Vexed by the rise of rival independent unions in some of China’s major manufacturing zones (not sanctioned by the government), the ACFTU apparently seeks to rise to this challenge.
For the ACFTU to make new gains it will have to employ the ongoing Information Revolution in fresh and creative ways. “Digital packets and beams of light are invisibly but profoundly transforming China. “ (Sheff, xiv) Some Chinese enthusiasts liken this virtual revolution to Rou hu tian yi (adding wings to a tiger) (Sheff, xvi) China is already the world’s second largest national market for personal computers, with far more Internet users [197 million in 2006] than has the United States (Prestowitz, 74.) As well, set-top boxes are seeking to bring broadband via the Internet to 370 million TV sets (Faris, 209 The country boasts the world’s longest, fastest, and lowest-cost high-bandwidth network.
1) CyberUnionism . Where China’s labor movement is concerned, the significance of computer power takes two forms: It can aid efficiency and effectiveness in getting the union’s work done (some work plants, for example, have as many as 200,000 workers who deserve high-quality representation). (French) And it has made it possible for ACFTU affiliates to adopt a new 21st century model of unionism, one I have come to call – CyberUnionism. (2)
As I have explained it in recent years to trade unionists in Britain, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Norway, and Sweden, this model is arguably the most promising of all the alternatives for Organized Labor in our Information Age. While I am not an expert on China, and only know what I have read in the extensive literature, I would humbly suggest the CyberUnion model just may warrant adaptation here by the ACFTU, its affiliates, the independent unions, and comparable pro-Labor NGOs.
A CyberUnion is a labor organization intent on endlessly making the most creative and empowering uses possible of computer power. It has computer tools at its core, rather than periphery. Less obvious, though no less significant, is a CyberUnion’s attention to futuristics, innovations, services, and traditions (F-I-S-T). Attention to these four aspects of unionism sets the CyberUnion apart from yesteryear’s models (business, social, community, etc.), and helps make a case for the adaptation soon by Chinese Unions of CyberUnionism.
Employ of the CyberUnion model could help make the following differences: Futuristics: A Chinese CyberUnion could hire expert forecasters to help it learn as early as possible where workplace technology and relevant domestic and global industries are heading. (3) This should enable it to promote timely training to help its members stay relevant. The Federation could anticipate massive layoffs, and take measures in court or in militant action to help assure the payment of fair severance pay, pay for work performed, and social insurance, all of which are not always part of the scene. (4)
Innovations: A Chinese CyberUnion could be an early adopter of cutting-edge services, such as awesome cell phone systems, teleconference equipment, and so on, likely to boost efficiency and effectiveness. Likewise, it could experiment with such Western innovations as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Appreciative Inquiry (AI), two relatively new aids to end grueling labor conditions and boost workplace productivity and worker well being.
Services : A Chinese CyberUnion offering free language classes on the Internet could help bridge a gap among members who use between six to twelve different regional language groups. It could offer to sell computers at a great discount, thanks to the volume buying Labor can arrange (as demonstrated already by unions in Sweden, Norway, and elsewhere). Or, it could use the Internet to vigorously petition the State for help if members are left with slashed pension funds and worthless company stocks.
Traditions : A Chinese CyberUnion could honor its own history and culture. Efforts could be made to create an oral history and video record of the reminiscences of older members, complete with archival storage. Many relevant labor songs, anecdotes, and historic speeches might be added to the Web site, along with streaming video celebrations of special days and events in the organization's honorable past.
2) Digerati . If Chinese union members are soon to profit from adoption of this four-part CyberUnion model the ACFTU and its constituent labor organizations will have to make room at the top for a type known in the West as Digerati, Labor's especially knowledgeable computer users. (5) Often fully as capable and creative as their (much better paid) counterparts in business, the digerati could soon prove the critical ingredient in assuring the success of the Chinese CyberUnion model.
Among many other aids, the Digerati can help old-fashioned (pre-computer) union leaders upgrade their union operations. For example, they can show how computers offer unprecedented communication access by everyone in Labor to everyone else ... by officers to members, by members to officers, by members to members, and so. This can significantly aid both in getting a message out, and in hearing from every level of the organization – provided, that is, that sensitive care is taken to keep from allowing this change to undermine protocol and proper procedures.
Similarly, the Digerati often champion rapid Internet polling of the membership where vital matters must be decided. This can facilitate democratic decision-making, provided care is taken to assure the voters first have adequate information on which to base informed decisions. (In 2004 the ACFTU indicated it might soon seek a national law to require the secret ballot election of shop floor union officers, a move the Digerati could be very helpful in implementing). (Compa, 29)
Many Digerati encourage adoption of a web site uncensored chat room. They believe it helps create a virtual "community" of members, and bolsters union solidarity. Regarded with the respect it is owed It can air many workplace problems, and help publicize constructive responses to them (the ACFTU 2005 Annual Report highlights discrimination in employment, sexual harassment, the wage gap between men and women, and serious violations of the Labor Law). (Compa, 79)
Much as Karl Marx envisioned, the Digerati can urge unionists to draw extensively on the Internet (a Fourth International-of-sorts). In this way workers can join arms around the globe for concerted industrial action (massive boycotts, demonstrations, etc.). With over 3,500 Labor Union Web sites on-line world-wide in 2006 alone, and with more being added weekly, the Digerati see remarkable opportunities here for pro-Labor global networking and international labor solidarity. (6)
China’s ACFTU unions, in short, have much to gain from their Digerati members. Forward thinking and visionary, these techno-savvy unionists bend the rules, break the poorest of them, and promote the creation of better ones. They stand out in their ability “to think beyond their own ego, to build their identity on membership in a group instead of individualism, [to build] on electronic tribalism ….” (Bard and Soderqvist, 117) Believing that what they do matters, really matters, and graced by a strong sense of purpose, the Digerati can help China’s unions adapt the CyberUnion model and reinvent themselves for the 21st century.
4) Doubts . Skeptics may scorn CyberUnionism as part of the New China’s urgent drive to create the impression of modernity “without the underlying substance of critical thought or democratic governance.” (Vine, 75) Proponents will remain hopeful. Other critics may argue it cannot catch on because it departs too far from convention and breaks too many rules. What they overlook, however, is that “nearly the whole of China’s twentieth century was spent overturning one set of rules or another … following the rule book of the day before brought tragedy the day after. China is a country where the public has repeatedly learned … that finding ways around rules offers hope and dignity.” (Fishman, 243).
Summary . China’s modern rise, and especially its unique recent blend of capitalism and socialism, is clearly one of the transformative events of our time. When the story is written decades from now, it might take note of the conversion of the country’s unions to CyberUnion status, and credit this change with much of the nation’s continued gains in general wellbeing, productivity, profitability, union gains, and worker satisfaction.
In the years ahead China’s unions may falter badly.(7) Or, they may draw handsomely instead on four CyberUnion attributes (F-I-S-T) and thrive. If the Chinese Labor Movement makes bold and creative use of computer power, its contribution to the wellbeing of members and to China’s greatness will bring honor to all.
1. For a balanced assessment of the ACFTU, though one that comes out hopeful, see Mantsios, Greg. “What Are They Thinking: Ideologies and Realities in the United States and China.” New Labor Forum, Fall 2006. Pp. 52-63.
2. See in this connection, Shostak, Arthur B., CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999). See also “On the State of CyberUnionism: An American Progress Report,” WorkingUSA, June 2005. pp. 403-422. Also Shostak, ed., The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor through Computer Technology. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 2002.
3. A valuable guide is available from an Old China Hand: Naisbitt, John. Mind Set! Reset Your Thinking and Future . New York: Collins, 2006.
4. On the many abuses suffered by workers, especially migrants to the cities, and among them, the women, see Compa, Lance. Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in China . Washington, D.C.: American Center for International Labor Solidarity, 2004.
5. For more on the digerati, see Bard, Alexander and Jan Soderqvist. Netocracy: The New Power Elite and Life After Capitalism. London: Reuters, 2002 ed.; Sheff, David. China Dawn: The Story of a Technology and Business Revolution. New York: HarperBusiness, 2002; Faris, Stephan. “Meet the Next Disney.” FORTUNE, November 28, 2005. Pp.205-6, 208-9, 212, 214.
6. See, in this connection, www.labourstart.org, a non-stop source of fast-breaking news of Labor happenings in over 100 countries, as sent in daily by over 95 volunteers in these countries.
7. On the dangers posed by the reluctance of the Communist Party to share power, see Pei, Minxin. “The Dark Side of China’s Rise.” Foreign Policy , March-April, 2006. pp. 34-40; Kynge, James. China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future – and the Challenge for America . Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006.
Bard, Alexander and Jan Soderqvist. Netocracy: The New Power Elite and Life After Capitalism. London: Reuters, 2002 ed.
Bergsten, C. Fred, et. al. China: The Balance Sheet (What the World Needs to Know Now About the Emerging Superpower). New York: Public Affairs, 2006.
Canton, James. The Extreme Future . New York: Dutton, 2006.
Chan, Anita. “Some Hope for Optimism for China Labor.” New labor Forum, 13 No.3, 2004: P. 69.
Chan, Jenny Wai-ling. “The End of the MFA and the Rising Tide of Labor Disputes in China.” CSR Asia Weekly, 1 (11) 2005: Pp. 6-7. 11.
Chan, Jenny Wai-ling. “Chinese Women Workers Organize in the Export Zone.” New Labor Forum, Spring. Pp. 19-27.
Compa, Lance. Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in China . Washington, D.C.: American Center for International Labor Solidarity, 2004.
Faris, Stephan. “Meet the Next Disney.” FORTUNE, November 28, 2005. Pp.205-6, 208-9, 212, 214.
Fishman, Ted C. China, Inc. How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World . New York: Scribner, 2005.
Fong, Mei. “China to Advocate for More Unions.” Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2006. P. A-4.
French, Howard W. “Chinese Success Story Chokes on Its Own Growth.” New York Times, December 19, 2006. Pp. A-1, 12.
Keyes, David, as quoted in Fishman, Ted C. China, Inc. How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World . New York: Scribner, 2005. p. 281.
Kynge, James. China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future – and the Challenge for America . Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006.
Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China [Zhonghua Renmin Gonghegus Laodong Fa]. Effective as of January 1, 1995.
Landsberg, Mitchell. “Where Marx and Trump Collide.” Financial Times, December 10, 2006. p.M-2.
Lau, Raymond W. K. “The Habitus and ‘Logic of Practice’ of China’s Trade Unionists.” Issues & Studies, 39 (3) 2003: Pp. 75-103.
Lee, Ching-Kwan. “Livelihood Struggles and Market Reform: (Un)making Chinese Labour after State Socialism.” Occasional Paper 2. United Research Institute for Social Development, 2005.
Lee, Ellen and Verne Kopytoff. “Ebay Likely to Team Up for China Site.” San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 2006. p. C-1.
Mantsios, Greg. “What Are They Thinking: Ideologies and Realities in the United States and China.” New Labor Forum, Fall 2006. Pp. 52-63.
Naisbitt, John. Mind Set! Reset Your Thinking and Future . New York: Collins, 2006.
Pei, Minxin. “The Dark Side of China’s Rise.” Foreign Policy, March-April, 2006. pp. 34-40.
Prestowitz, Clyde. Three Billion New capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East . New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Sheff, David. China Dawn: The Story of a Technology and Business Revolution. New York: HarperBusiness, 2002.
Shostak, Arthur B., CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999). See also “On the State of CyberUnionism: An American Progress Report,” WorkingUSA, June 2005. pp. 403-422. Also Shostak, ed., The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor through Computer Technology. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 2002.
Vine, Richard. “Report from Guangzhou: Cities on the Make.” Art in America, September 2006. Pp. 71-73, 75.
CSR Asia Weekly: www.csr-asia.com
International Union Rights: www.ictur.org
Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China: english.mofcom.gov.cn
United Nations Research Institute for Social development: www.unrisd.org
[View the list]