The History of Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions(TCTU)

TCTU, [May 2000]

After years of labor movement struggle, the Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions (TCTU), Taiwan’s first legal and autonomous national trade union, was recognized by the government on May 1, 2000. Although TCTU is young, it is the most active labor organization in Taiwan. TCTU is rooted in the long history of working class struggle on our island. We believe this history is vital to the continuing development of the labor movement and its role in building a democratic society in Taiwan.

Pioneers of the Labor Movement in Taiwan

In the last two decades of the 19th century, the Chinese empire tried to establish modern enterprises on the island. However, the modernization of Taiwan began primarily under Japanese colonial rule. After annexing Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese, with bloody repression of the local population, began to develop agricultural capitalism on the island. The anti-colonial movement started during the 1920s. Some left-wing leaders of the movement organized a few unions and tried to operate a socialist party. In the 1930s, the Japanese colonial state repressed the political and social movements, including those pioneer socialists and union organizers. The colonial governors disbanded most of the unions and imprisoned or exiled the socialist leaders. These exiles were not able to return until after the Japanese colonial government ended in 1945.

Workers Under the KMT Dictatorship

As soon as the KMT government arrived in Taiwan, it focused the island’s resources on fighting the civil war on the mainland. As the Korean War broke out in 1950, Taiwan was drawn into the anti-Communist camp by the KMT. The KMT government declared martial law, and severely limited the rights of free speech and assembly, including the right to freely organize unions. The bloody White Terror killed tens of thousands and repressed the social movements that had been growing over the past decades. More than three thousand people accused of playing a part in socialist organizations were killed or imprisoned.

Worried about spies from Mainland China, the KMT police state clamped down on all independent union organizations. It only legalized one national union organization - the Chinese Federation of Labor (CFL), which was tightly controlled by party cadre. Furthermore, because labor activists had been a strong part of the pro-democracy movement in Taiwan, local industrial and craft unions were infiltrated by police informers. Under the CFL ban on strikes, unions were unable to protect the rights of their members. However, most mployees of small-scale enterprises were allowed to join CFL and receive some protections under the newly established labor insurance system. Through these mechanisms, the KMT was successful in lowering workers’ resistance and distorting the development of unions in Taiwan.

During the post-war period, the economic development of Taiwan became dependent on the US and Japan. Taiwan’s industrial structure diverged into two parts. First, the state-owned enterprises, the party-owned enterprises and other politically connected corporate groups that controlled key industries and finance. These corporations, and the unions serving their employees were completely controlled by the KMT. Second, a large number of small enterprises, dependent on foreign markets, became a powerful engine of economic development. However, the labor conditions of these sweatshop factories were terrible. With low wages, long working hours, high pollution and no union, these sweatshops made their profits at the workers’ expense..

Revival of the Workers’ Movement

The anti-dictatorship movement resurfaced in the late 1970s. Labeled the Tang-wai (outside the Party) democratic movement, it was a mass-based movement including workers, employers of small-scale enterprises, and professionals, and rose rapidly over a few years. Although the KMT accused those leaders of ’tang-wai’ and tried to arrest some of them, the peoples’ power movement continued to grow. In September 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed, and the KMT was later forced to lift Martial Law, including limits on political parties, and restrictions on free speech, publications, etc.

Because of political liberalization, popular movements including labor, student, farmer and environmental movements flourished. Several influential strikes and labor disputes, joined by more than one hundred thousand workers, occurred during this period. Workers’ political class-consciousness was awakened. Workers fought to reclaim their unions from KMT’s party cadre or to constitute new unions. They demanded autonomous unions free from KMT and employer domination. However, the government attempted to repress the growing labor movement and lowered labor standards and protections. In May 1989, when a strike by the union at the Far East Fibers Company - Taiwan’s most militant union at the time - was broken, the movement felled into a downturn.

Taiwan’s economy changed after late 1980s. The KMT began pursuing a neoliberal economic policies and privatizing state-owned enterprises. Capital began to flow out of the country, and unemployment increased in the 1990s. The labor movement began to demand that the state impose restrictions on factory closures, establish unemployment insurance, and ensure job security. In the mid-1990s, the government began to push for a nationalized health insurance plan. The design and payment scheme of the health care system became contested terrain between capitalists and workers. Additionally, unions began to demand gender equality, agitating against gender discrimination and sexual harassmenton the job. They also led campaigns against Taiwan’s high occupational injury rate, demanding that the government draft an occupational injury law, and strengthen workplace inspections.

Struggle to Establish an Independent Trade Union Confederation

As the labor movement pressed forward, workers began to realize that they would only be able to win fights against the state and capitalists if they were united in a strong confederation. Unions all over Taiwan attempted to form links with each other, and established a series of autonomous unions federations. However, due to limits set in Taiwan’s outdated Union Law, the government did not recognize these federations.

Taiwan’s first state-recognized county-level trade union federation was formed in Taipei City in 1994, and was followed by the creation of trade union federations in other counties. Nationally, there are now 12 county-level trade union confederations which have a great influence on local labor affairs. With the establishment of autonomous trade union federations at the local level and the increasing autonomy within unions of state-owned enterprises, workers considered the formation of a national confederation of trade unions. By the end of 1997, county-level trade union federations and unions in the state-owned enterprises began to preparatory work for the creation of the Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions (TCTU).

On May 1 1998, the TCTU Preparatory Committee held a large-scale rally in Taipei and announced the goals to formally establish the TCTU. 30,000 workers took to the streets in Taipei. They protested unemployment, government and private enterprise collusion and corruption , unsafe working conditions, privatization, and restrictions on union organizations. The TCTU Preparatory Committee held a National Labor Conference in Kao-hsiung City later in 1999, inviting delegates from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Later, TCTU delegates visited the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in South Korea, for an experience sharing bilateral.

Throughout this time, the government refused to acknowledge TCTU, claiming that it was an illegal organization. Regardless, officials in the TCTU believed that workers had the freedom to join any labor organizations they choose and remained committed to the establishment of TCTU.

By the first few months of the year 2000, 18 large national unions had decided to join TCTU, bringing the total number of represented workers up to 280,000. Work to formally establish TCTU was almost complete. On February 29, Taiwan presidential candidates including Chen Swi-pein were invited to a forum to hear the announcement of TCTU’s labor platform and to listen to workers’ demands. The historic election on March 18 2000, put an end to 55 years of KMT rule, and signaled the consolidation of democratic regime in Taiwan. The DPP government officially recognized TCTU on May 1, 2000.

The Birth of TCTU and Future Tasks

TCTU currently includes 21 member unions, including telecommunication, petroleum, tobacco, alcohol, railway, bus, and banking industries and 9 local trade union federations. Local unions in un-represented counties are also actively working towards the formation of county federations, and plan to affiliate with TCTU.

To deal with the changing environment in Taiwan, TCTU has established several committees. First, the Organizing Drive Committee promotes the formation of union federations among industries or regions, and raises the union participation rate in Taiwan. Second, the Labor Law Policy Committee fights for reforms of the present system of labor regulations, and prepares for future attacks on workers’ interests by the government national pension plan. TCTU has set up a Committee on Privatization to critique and monitor the government’s privatization schemes. To deal with the crisis of unemployment and plant closures, we have established an Unemployment and Employment Committee.

Under the globalized capitalst economy, we know that the situations, conditions and struggles of Taiwan’s workers are shared by yhe working class around the world. Therefore, TCTU also tries to communicate and cooperate with international labor organizations, participating in conferences, and international campaigns through our International Department.

The Taiwanese labor movement has fought towards the creation of TCTU for more than a decade, but our mission has just begun. There are more and more challenges ahead of us now and we look forward to continuing our struggle and contributions towards a just and equitablesociety for workers in Taiwan and around the world.