(Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2016), 224 pp., $19.95.
As is well known, the lack of independent labor unions is one of the reasons that China is so attractive to global capital. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the official organization that represents workers, is highly dependent on the Chinese Communist Party and government, allied to their national political-economic strategies and policies. The horrendous conditions of many Chinese industrial workplaces are arguably evidence of the ineffectiveness and problematic status of the ACFTU. While some see independent labor struggles in negative terms, other Chinese workers are very much struggling to protect their own interests and improve wages and working conditions through various forms of direct action. These workers are struggling simultaneously in the context of the contradictions of capitalism and in the particular social and historical context of China and Chinese socialism. China on Strike explores these at once familiar and less-than-familiar struggles in the narratives of Chinese workers themselves.
Through workers’ own accounts, we get a view of labor’s limited power in terms of slowdowns, strikes, protests, and negotiations. Unlike other books on the topic, it is collectively written and edited by both Western and Chinese individuals, linking academic expertise with direct workplace experience. The collective is based at the International Center for Joint Labor Research at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. Han Ren, the leading editor of the Chinese language version, has worked in a Chinese labor rights-oriented NGO as well as local industry. Most of the text consists of transcribed and translated interviews with workers (men and women, Han and minorities) who participated in direct action, and with their leaders. The original Chinese language version had the explicit goal of disseminating practical experience and knowledge to assist other workers in matters such as formulating demands, selecting representatives, and resisting police repression. Originally, various sections were distributed in magazine form among workers themselves.
The book’s introduction gives a short history of industrial development and labor struggles in China. Then, the body is organized around those narratives of workers and leaders involved with various actions. After background on the particular individual interviewed, the factory in question, and the labor issues, the authors describe each action from the worker’s perspective as it unfolds through time and then the lesson learned for future actions. The reports are organized according to the general cause of the action. The first part deals with actions related to factories that go bankrupt, dismiss workers, and/or fail to pay wages. Then, there is a part on actions responding to benefit cuts, pressure to increase production, the imposition of unfair fines for workers, and the reduction of rest days. The final part deals with actions related to low wages.
Throughout, there is a wide range of experiences. Workers reach their breaking points, discuss labor law, access information through the Internet, print flyers, strike, contact newspapers and television stations, block roads, and attempt to protect one another from violent police reactions. At the same time, workers struggle with low levels of education, the intricacies of Chinese law and capitalist economics, and how to maintain confidence, motivation, and solidarity in a very difficult context. At times, actions threaten to devolve into an emotional release, a break from work, and a form of entertainment, or are broken apart by police and other forces using threats and more overt forms of coercion. While sometimes the actions fail, there are numerous examples of brave workers improving working conditions.
Of particular note is the way in which distinctive forms of Chinese social relationships function at once to facilitate informal worker organization and to mask contradictions, thus impeding successful direct action. Many factories depend upon village, county, and provincial level relationships for their labor, and these relationships are based in a shared identity that includes things like common dialect and food preferences. This can lead to preexisting solidarity amongst workers that facilitates direct action. But there are also examples where this identity can be an obstacle to direct action, as when a worker defends a capitalist owner, even in the context of wage arrears, because of a common identity with the owner. Factory owners use such common identity to deescalate direct action and/or infiltrate workers’ informal organization. In contrast, when a factory owner has a different and often more local identity than workers, he can threaten to or actually use his own networks of social relations to coerce workers. There was at least one case in which workers mentioned their own ability to access such networks for purposes of retaliation against repression. Thus, the struggles of Chinese workers have a universal class basis as well as a particular geographical, social and historical dimension.
The book has some limitations. For example, as the editors acknowledge, the worker narratives are sometimes unclear. The interviews seem to have been conducted on a single occasion. A single interviewee is used to represent a complex, collective direct action. The book would have benefited from pursuing different worker perspectives on a particular direct action. Likewise, the text is illustrated with cartoons in the labor activism tradition, but we are not told whether they were created for the book by the editors, by workers themselves for earlier magazines, or originate elsewhere (the only information provided is that one cartoon is from Mexico). Finally, the book lacks theoretical discussion of issues such as spontaneity versus formal organization, and the role of civil society institutions and the state in labor struggles.
Overall, this book does a great job in documenting Chinese workers’ agency and their attempts, without independent unions, to protect their interests and improve wages and working conditions. We need to learn more about how these struggles can become more effective, and contribute to broader social, economic, and political change in China. Hopefully, there will be a sequel to this book.
Reviewed by Michael L. Zukosky
Department of Geography and Anthropology
Eastern Washington University