IUF-APRO General Secretary Ma Wei Pin’s observation report of the TCTU Congress

Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions, Thursday, 26 June 2003 @ 11:24:32 CST

The IUF-APRO General Secretary, Brother Ma Wei-Pin participated in TCTU’s Second Congress and provided his execelent observation about current Taiwan trade union movement. Here is the full content of his report, that can also be found on IUF-APRO website:www.asianfoodworker.net/

Second Congress Consolidates Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions as Centre of Independent Union

Addressing the TCTU 2nd Congress in Taipei in June, the Asia & Pacific Regional Secretary, Ma Wei Pin, on behalf of the IUF, greeted and congratulated the 175 delegates assembled to prepare themselves for the next three years, a period that is expected to be challenging.

He reiterated IUF’s solidarity with the independent trade union movement in Taiwan. Workers everywhere do not accept unions that are instruments of government and parties, he said. We are aware that, in Taiwan, the process to take back the trade union movement from the government, from employers and from political parties began in the late 1980s.

I know, it has been a long and hard struggle with many sacrifices paid by thousands of Taiwanese workers to arrive at this point. Your Congress today, is a culmination of this long process. It is an open declaration to the whole world that Taiwanese workers, for the first time in its history, has finally put up an organisation that is truly its own and is ready to take its proud place in the international labour movement.

Inaugurated on May Day 2000 at its first Congress, the TCTU is presently composed of 21 affiliated organisations (unions and federations) with a dues paying membership of 250,000 workers (details of TCTU membership). It is undoubtedly, by far, the largest and most important national trade union centre in the Taiwan.

More importantly, it is a centre of the growing independent labour movement. This testifies to the fact that workers in the Chinese-speaking region of the world value and desire independent trade union organisations, and are prepared to struggle long and hard for them. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), formed more than a decade ago, is but another example.

This Congress was dominated by the issue of who would lead the TCTU for the coming three year period as the incumbent President Huang decided not to offer himself for another term. Two teams, each composed of a presidential candidate and deputy, contested the ballot.

The result was a victory of 88 votes for Lu Tien-Lin and his running mate, Chung Kung-chao, against 85 votes for Simon Chang and Yang Chun-hua. In the interest of unity, Simon Chang was reported to have said, even though I will not be in a leadership position I will continue to work to develop the TCTU and realize the proposals I made to the congress.

Taiwan mass media played up this result as a victory for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), arguing that Lu (who is the president of the state-owned Aviation Industry Development Corporation as well as the Chairman of the Taichung County federation of trade unions) is closely connected to the DPP. It is also known that Simon Chang (who is president of the Telecom Workers’ Union of Chungwa, a state-owned enterprise, the second largest affiliate of TCTU) has ties with DPP (at least the Kaoshiung section) too.

Two important points should be made about this election. Firstly, the TCTU’s election method represents a democratic departure from the system that has dominated Taiwan’s union structures for too long. This system was introduced and cemented over several decades by the yellow union structure of the Chinese Federation of Labour (CFL).

The prevailing practice became one that generally denied trade union democracy and, more specifically, prohibited the election of union, federation or national centre representatives directly by delegates and members. For example, at an old-style congress, delegates only had the right to elect a Board of Directors (or Executive Committee), who subsequently selected a core group of Board members, who in turn decided for themselves who to appoint as president.

This, of course, permitted the ruling political elite to manipulate outcomes behind closed doors, a subversion of trade union democracy. Indonesia workers, under Suharto’s dictatorship, for example, were all too familiar with this repressive practice. That all delegates present at the congress directly elected the TCTU’s president ensured a direct influence by all 21 affiliated organisations.

Secondly, the influence of the DPP among the affiliates of TCTU (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the historical circumstances of each organization) is undeniable and understandable. One must remember that the struggle for autonomous and independent trade unions was often bound up with the struggle for political democracy and pluralism against the monolithic dictatorship of the Kuomintang (KMT) party.

To the extent that the dictatorship was cracked and space opened up by the DPP, along with other groups, both the DPP and independent trade unions were able to emerge and operate freely. This historical experience where both the DPP and the independent labour movement found themselves on the same side at least during that period cannot simply be wished away overnight.

Having said that it is important for the Taiwanese labour movement to understand that many Asian and African labour movements having fought together with political parties, in the post war period, against oppression (e.g. colonialism, at that time), found themselves oppressed and suppressed by their former comrades in the political parties who assumed the mantle of the new ruling elites.

However, the chances of the DPP being able to subvert and suppress the newly emerged independent labour movement of Taiwan are not large for three reasons. Having fought painful battles for trade union independence throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, unions will not submit easily. Chiang Kai Shek, head of the KMT, won submission through a mass slaughter of Taiwanese people in 1947 which instilled fear; a political method which is inconceivable for a party born out of a struggle for democracy.

The DPP needs organised labour as a friend rather than as a kept creature to face the main political challenge of Taiwan’s future. The fact that the TCTU’s second Congress in resolution decided that the leadership (i.e. the newly elected President and the Vice-President) must resigned from the DPP and the leadership’s open declaration at the Congress that they will do so in conformity with the wish of the membership, signifies that the road taken by TCTU is the road towards trade union independence.

One would also wish that the TCTU will be able to pay more attention to gender equality. Of the 175 delegates to the Congress only 5 were women. What is required is therefore an Equality Policy whereby an affirmative action program for women is started.

A corollary challenge is education. Taiwan’s unorganised workers need to understand that one of the important roles of a union is to develop and utilise its independent bargaining power to negotiate collective agreements on wages and working conditions beyond the minimum provided under the labour standard law and to influence government policies. For several decades, the ruling KMT party turned trade unions into administrators of workers’ insurance schemes, organisers of recreational activities and disciplinarians over workers at the workplace. An example of a tragic consequence of this was repeated in May and June 2003.

Two truck drivers in despair, respectively, drove their vehicles into the Ministry of Transport building and into a squad of traffic policemen and subsequently committed suicide. One commentator, from the National Chung Cheng University, observed that their union had continually ignored their common problems as drivers, and because the political environment has been hostile toward unions, many workers never had the slightest understanding of what a union is, so they don’t think of using unions to influence government policies. Those unable to endure tyranny have no choice but to end their lives. (Taipei Times, 14 June 2003, page 8).

There are still too many unions such as these (especially the so-called craft unions). But these are not unions in reality; rather they function as workers’ insurance agencies. What is clear is that they are not part of TCTU.

Rendering International Solidarity

Another observable characteristic of this independent trade union centre is its willingness, indeed its sense of obligation towards international solidarity. Despite its recent emergence, it has already undertaken active solidarity action in support of the struggle of a US union, PACE and is grappling with the question of how to respond to the call of another request from another US union. It has an international unit with a capacity for international communications.

Present ConjuncturesThe Taiwanese economy is facing a deep structural change. Its manufacturing is being hollowed out as factories relocate to mainland China to take advantage of cheap, non-union labour. Unemployment is on the rise, an extent not experienced for several decades.

In this context, the employers’ strategy, especially of those from overseas, is to pressure the government for a paradigm change: from a command economy it inherited from the KMT era where the government paternalistically micromanages to one where the government’s role is to facilitate business development; from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In practice, this means more privatisation, de-regulation and liberalisation—the formula for neo-liberal globalisation.

In this context, the government is under pressure to change the old labour laws (on trade unions and industrial relations), which have not been rewritten since the 1920s and 1930s, to bring them within a framework that will simply amount to fewer rights for workers and more rights for employers. Mobilising and organising to reverse the downward unemployment spiral and to secure basic workers rights against this onslaught of neo-liberal restructuring is the key challenge faced by the TCTU.

This is the same challenge faced by independent unions everywhere else in the world. Solidarity between the international labour movement and the Taiwanese workers as represented by the TCTU is the way forward.