Trade union elections in Mainland China

ICFTU, [04] May 2004

We must give China's unions a backbone. We must understand how to organise the working masses in unions within China's socialist market economy, and particular attention should be given to private sector workers and migrant workers. We must learn how to truly represent the working class masses, and staunchly uphold the legal rights of workers...We must transform the Party's leadership of unions, and allow for union workers to reflect their true conditions and engage in legal and proper struggle.

These words, extracted from a speech given by a former vice-chairperson of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) on 1 November 2003, point to the huge challenges facing the state-run trade union organisation in China. The speaker, Liu Shi, is not an advocate of independent trade unions. However, his words are a clear reference to a crisis of legitimacy felt by some within the ACFTU. Following trial elections in designated areas, the 14th Party Congress held in September 2003 apparently decided that the experiment should go nationwide. The direct election of trade union officials at plant level is regarded as an important—though hardly risk-free—method of rendering trade union officials more accountable to their members and thus ameliorating the crisis of legitimacy.

The mainland labour press ran regular reports on the election of trade union officials throughout 2003. On paper the ACFTU constitution has consistently stated that trade union officers at each level must be elected and their election approved by the next level up. However, this process has usually been reduced to either an exercise in political appointments or simply one of convenience. In economically powerful state owned enterprises (SOEs) where the workforce possessed considerable potential bargaining power, the post of trade union chairperson was—and still is—carefully chosen by management and party cadres in order to minimise labour unrest. In smaller enterprises, cadres and managers have often been retired to trade union posts in a practice that is testament to the essentially weak role of the ACFTU itself.

Elections: Why now?

The economic reforms have gradually eaten away at the direct authority of the State in China's economy. As one of the more benevolent arms of the State, the ACFTU's traditional role has not been one of organising and defending workers interests. Instead, the organisation has played a largely administrative role in non-production related enterprise activities such as sports events, the disbursement of holiday bonuses and perks, works outings and model workers' competitions. On occasions, it was—and is—called upon to serve as a transmission belt for the exchanges of government policy and workers' reaction to it. It has never officially defended workers—even if they are union members—imprisoned by more malevolent arms of the State for defending their legitimate rights.

The ascendancy of direct competition via market forces and the increasing autonomy of managers led to a dramatic marginalisation of the ACFTU during the nineties. Mass lay-offs of tens of millions of SOE workers included many union officials, safety officers and of course fee paying members. This had a dramatic impact on the organisation's morale and financial capacity.

Moreover, the overwhelming failure to defend jobs and working conditions ensured that the inbuilt dilemma facing all state-sponsored trade unions did not go away: the question of legitimacy and how to deal with unrest. Elections are seen as a way of building up ACFTU credibility among China's increasingly militant workforce and heading-off organised unrest in the process.

What is happening?

Many provinces have developed regulations—or are in the process of—which guide the obligation to hold trade union elections stipulated in Article 9 of the Trade Union Law:

Trade union committees at various levels shall be democratically elected at members' assemblies or members' congresses. No close relatives of the chief members of an enterprise may be candidates for members of the basic-level trade union committee of the enterprise.

As stated in the law, some of the elections taking place in work places are not confined to the chairperson of a workplace branch but of trade union committees as well. For example the official Zhejiang Daily reported that the No.3 Auto Electronic Parts Factory in the city of Yuyao has elected such a committee. On 10 February 2004, an article in the Hunan Workers Daily complained about the lack of directly-elected trade union officials in the province. It claimed that in the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Hubei, Shandong, Hebei and Inner Mongolia up to 70 percent of medium-sized private enterprises had directly elected trade union chairpersons. The paper complained that in Hunan only 500 union branches out of a total 80,000 shop level unions have directly elected officials.

All these figures should be treated with extreme caution. Random conversations with workers from enterprises in the economic powerhouse of Guangdong province were not encouraging. Shop assistants at a major department store in Guangzhou city confirmed that they were union members but had no idea if their union chairperson was elected. The union chair in turn claimed she was elected, but did not view her simultaneous post as the store's personnel manager as a conflict of interests. Workers at a plastics factory in Dongguan employing over 300 people were unaware of the existence of a trade union at their workplace, even though the factory manager—also the owner's daughter—claimed its existence. Interviews with the employees of various international hotel operations in the Cantonese cities of Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen and Foshan revealed that there were no unions present in the enterprises, let alone elected union officials.

Nevertheless the media are talking up the elections as a way of stopping the spread of paper trade unions. So-called paper unions are the result of local governments over-simplifying the procedures for setting up trade unions in order to make it easier for new companies to meet legal requirements. The result being that the boss, trade union official and the workforce have no idea what a trade union organisation actually is or what it should be doing.(Hunan Workers Daily 10 February 2004).

The question of credibility

Nevertheless, the direct election of trade union officials—real and imagined—is likely to continue as the ACFTU attempts to gain a genuine influence among China's fast-expanding working class. The city of Yuyao where more than 95% of the city's enterprises are privately-owned was recently put forward as an example. While working to establish trade unions in these enterprises, the Yuyao Federation of Trade Unions discovered many officials were simply appointed by management or were even family members of the boss in what was a clear violation of the Trade Union Law. According to the Zhejiang Daily (16 March 2003), this had a negative effect on both the unity and prestige of the union and consequently limited its impact on labour relations. The result was, as the paper put it, widespread and corrupt practices. So much so that [R]especting the wishes and demands of the workforce and the election of trade union chairpersons and committees became an important and difficult focus for the work of trade unions in private enterprises.

While the revised Trade Union Law (2001) certainly strengthened the CCP's leadership of the organisation, it also opened up a little space for workers to explore ways of using the elections as an opportunity to gain at least some influence in the workplace. As stated above family members of bosses are legally barred from holding union office and Article 17 states that employers are not allowed to transfer or dismiss an elected union chairperson unless the latter has seriously violated his or her contract. This is important as at least on paper, it limits the power of employers to get rid of a committed and elected union official. Again, such transferrals and dismissals have been widely reported and criticised in the official media.

However, the limits on the space available to workers should not be underestimated. Article 22 of the Temporary Regulations Shop-floor level Trade Union Elections drawn up in 1992 by the ACFTU states that:

The election of shop-floor level trade union committees, standing committees, union chairpersons and vice chairpersons are guided by the ACFTU Constitution and within the parameters of management authority and as such the results of such elections shall be reported to and approved by the Party Committee and the next level up of the trade union.

Shop floor initiative vital

In terms of organising and fostering a sense of ground-up unity in the work place, Article 17 also allows ACFTU members to revoke and replace a branch chairperson and may be carried out at a workplace union assembly with the consent of more than half of those present. This provides the best opportunity for workers to improve their working conditions with minimum risk. Unlike the experiment with elections that are usually administered from the top-down, the replacement by popular vote of an existing chairperson calls for workers to take the initiative themselves.

The Goodrich Corporation is a leading worldwide supplier of aerospace components, systems and services with an enviable record of profitable growth. The company is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, and employs over 18,000 people worldwide in 133 facilities across 20 countries. One of these facilities is a limited company in China's Fujian province that was also cited in the aforementioned Hunan Workers Daily article as a factory where the employees successfully removed an incumbent trade union chairperson and voted in a new one. No details on the actual process were provided by the report. However, much to the annoyance of some both in and outside China, the presence of multinational corporations has in fact provided an opportunity to push the barriers on workers' representation in companies under pressure from trade unions and NGOs in their home country. It remains to be seen if this can be translated into forging links between Chinese and foreign workers unfettered by State or management intervention.

This said, the primary force ‘pushing the envelope’ on trade union elections, no matter how imperfect, is Chinese workers themselves. The dramatic increase in small scale protests and gradual increase in organised strikes has persuaded the Chinese authorities to tinker with improved worker representation and the ACFTU has no choice but to obey and take the plunge on direct elections. We should be aware of the limitations but explore ways to support this change for the better.