Using Traditional Resources to Organize Workers

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Introduction: This article is a transcription of a CDB interview with Professor Guo of the Sociology Institute at China’s Politics and Law University. Given that organizing independent unions is not a possibility in the current system, Guo discusses the possibility of organizing migrant workers in the construction sector through China’s only legal labor union – The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).
He recognizes the ACFTU’s difficulties in acting as an effective voice for labor, but believes the ACFTU is making more of an effort to reach out to workers through grassroots unions. Ultimately, he believes workers can only improve their situation by working within the system, though he acknowledges that change will be difficult given the close ties between business and government interests at the local level.

The Dual Nature of the ACFTU

The structure of our system is multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the Communist Party with the ACFTU as the Party’s assistant1. The Party focuses on different goals at different time periods; currently this focus is on economic development, specifically attracting foreign investment. As such, development work is of the highest priority and to this end, the specific function of labor unions is to organize and protect the interests of workers.

Due to the nature of their different goals, some tension exists between the Party and the ACFTU. The ACFTU must balance this tension with its own actions, and show a willingness to be flexible. For instance, at the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s when the Party began to focus on attracting foreign investment, the ACFTU was subject to the demands of this economic model. Recently, the government has become more people-oriented and prioritized scientific development and the establishment of a harmonious society. This has allowed unions to better align their goals with the goals of Party. Protecting the interests of workers is a people-oriented task, and in this way, labor unions can carry out Party goals as they work towards their own2.

My personal feeling is that the ACFTU has been changing since 2002. It is gradually putting more emphasis on organizing workers, protecting workers rights, helping workers to sign collective contracts and collective bargaining. Additionally, it has also started promoting the formation of grassroots labor unions to deal with these issues3. This is a reflection of the ACFTU adjusting its role in a new era.

More Space for Labor Organizations

The capacity of grassroots labor unions varies from place to place. The mobility of the migrant population creates different types of labor issues. Because the environment in which different unions work varies, so do labor unions’ methods for solving problems. Generally, in places with a large influx of workers, working conditions are poor and the rights of workers are often infringed, so workers often require the assistance of unions. But unions must subordinate themselves to the stable development of society, which may conflict with protection of workers’ rights. In areas with a large outflow of workers, grassroots labor unions do not face much local pressure and can become very successful. Such conditions allow NGOs and other service organizations to support the organizing and education of workers, and work to have grassroots unions placed under ACFTU management. In areas with such an outflow of workers, labor organizations have the space to develop successfully.

Effective Use of Traditional Resources

I feel that establishing an independent labor union in China is nearly impossible. Grassroots labor unions in China, like all unions, are under the absolute direction of the ACFTU. Current grassroots unions mainly consist of company unions and unions at the street committee level4. The question of whether these industry-specific unions can succeed is currently being explored. For example, can grassroots unions be organized for construction workers coming from different areas, and how would they be managed by the local-level ACFTU? In reality, local unions have already started exploring this question. In Hebei, Xingzai Renjian (行在人间) helped to start a model for grassroots unions5 A report from Sichuan Province shows that the provincial ACFTU helped workers who left the province to demand pay. In this situation, grassroots labor unions can work with provincial unions to enhance their effectiveness. In China, finding space to develop grassroots organizing starts with finding ways to develop organizations, and is followed by finding an appropriate opportunity to display their potential. This requires the proper opportunity and the right plan.

In the face of a great disparity between labor and capital, it is important to promote the ability of workers to organize. The development of truly independent organizations is difficult, so one must use traditional socialist resources, and socialist ideology along with symbols of socialism6. These are ideas familiar to many people, and are part of the official ideology. In the present situation in China, specifically when endeavoring to organize workers, one must firmly hold onto socialist ideology to protect the rights of workers. Secondly, one needs to use the current administrative system, including mass organizations and other organizations closely connected with workers, and exploit their dual and contradictory nature to create positive conditions that will aid workers. Only then will workers see changes in this traditional, administratively-structured system7. This is different from Western civil society’s history of confrontation and is different from various plans for cooperation proposed by scholars after the 1980s.

Why is Nonpayment of Wages Such a Difficult Problem to Solve?

The problem of migrant laborers not getting paid has persisted for many years. During this time, laws and regulations have been improved, but this problem has still drawn public concern. Recently released investigations and research has shown that withholding or delaying wage payments is still very common in the construction industry, but the question remains: what are the causes?

An important factor is the difficulty of ending the practice of multiple levels of subcontracting. The law must differentiate between these types of very technical questions. Workers will either sign a labor contract with the company or a labor dispatch company can send workers; most current labor dispatch companies do not sign contracts with workers, so this is subcontracting labor at another level. There is no one to claim responsibility and all labor contracts have either become labor-service contracts or engineering subcontracts.

But the current problem, as the report by Xingzai Renjian demonstrates, is that contracts are often changed; for instance contracts with a foreman are never signed. This is related to the mobility and cyclical nature of the construction industry, but this is a secondary problem. I feel the main issue lies in the construction departments borrowing a characteristic of the construction industry and considering these labor issues as so-called “Chinese characteristic” problems. The reason for these problems with contracts is that capital (e.g. company owners and managers) is much stronger than labor. Capital is so strong that in some cases, it controls local supervising departments. Originally, the construction commission (the responsible government agency) should exercise supervision of construction companies, however, sometimes these commissions end up speaking for the companies8.


  1. Editor’s Note: The term used here, gong hui, translates as labor union, but we translate it as the ACFTU which is the only legal labor union in the PRC. The Chinese term for ACFTU is zong gong hui but the author uses gong hui and zong gonghui interchangeably. The ACFTU is a mass organization, or what we might call a GONGO, created by the Communist Party to represent the workers. Independent trade unions are not allowed to form. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The author is saying here that during the 1980s and 90s, when the Communist Party was focused on increasing GDP, the ACFTU had to subordinate its goals to that of the Party. But now that the Party is focusing less on GDP growth and more on resolving pressing social issues such as inequality and social welfare, the ACFTU will have a more active role to play. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The term “grassroots” is used here to refer to unions formed at the lowest levels of the ACFTU hierarchy. It does not refer to independent labor unions. The Chinese term “jiceng” translates as basic-level or grassroots and is used in official parlance to refer to the lowest level of the administrative hierarchy that is closest to the lives of ordinary people. Thus, grassroots democracy is a reference to village elections that are held under Communist Party supervision. The term “jiceng” should therefore be distinguished from “caogen” which also translates as “grassroots” but is used by NGOs to denote organizations that are independent of the state. 

  4. Editor’s Note: the street committee level, sometimes referred to as the sub-district level, is the lowest level of administration in China’s urban areas. 

  5. Editor’s Note: Beijing Xingzai Renjian Culture and Development Center (北京行在人间文化发展中心) is a social service organization supporting migrant workers. It is also discussed in another article in this same issue, “A Dialogue with Construction Workers”. 

  6. Editor’s Note: Here, the author resorts to a strategy familiar to sociologists called “framing” which refers to activists using language that is familiar and acceptable to those in power, and to society at large, in order to gain support for change. In this case, he advocates appropriating the Communist Party’s own rhetoric about protecting workers’ rights to push for social justice for workers. 

  7. Editor’s Note: The author is making a veiled reference here to the need to work within the system, with mass organizations and GONGOs, for change. 

  8. Editor’s Note: the main obstacle the author seems to be pointing to is the symbiosis between business and government at the local level. As long as this fusion of political and economic power persists, labor will find it difficult to enforce their rights. 

In Brief

his article is a transcription of a CDB interview with Professor Guo of the Sociology Institute at China’s Politics and Law University.
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