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Workers fight to save their union activists

The case of Ole Wolff (Yantai) Electronics Ltd

This case of unusual rank and file union activism in China can be seen as both good and bad news. The good news is that, in the North-Eastern Chinese port city of Yantai there are workers’ willing to struggle for two years for their right to form their own union that will stand up for their rights. The bad news is that this struggle has taken a heavy toll on union activists, at least seven of whom have been fired because of their union activity as part of a persistent and illegal union busting campaign by the company. The company in question is Ole Wolff (Yantai) Electronics Ltd, a Hong Kong and Danish co-owned company that produces cell phone speakers, receivers and other electronic productions. Ole Wolff Yantai is owned by Ole Wolff (Asia) in Hong Kong, and the latter in turn owned by Ole Wolff Electronics. Also unprecedented is that these activists have directly sought help from a foreign trade union, in this case a few Danish trade unions. Almost unbelievable is that *the story of this protracted struggle has been widely covered sympathetically by the local media, the ACFTU’s Workers’ Daily, China Central Television and Central People’s Radio in Shandong Province and OWYTU’s own excellent website.

CLNT has translated numerous accounts of the brave and persistent activism on the part of OWYTU leaders, to assist international trade unions – especially from Denmark – rally together in solidarity with trade union activists at Ole Wolff.

A rare case of rank and file union activism

China is notorious for its “yellow unions”, bureaucratic entities affiliated with the official All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), more interested in maintaining harmonious relations with management than representing the interests of workers.
However the Ole Wolff (Yantai) Trade Union (OWYTU) is different. Ole Wolff workers themselves applied to establish the union after 67 women workers were fired in 2006 for complaining to the local Labor Department about sudden reduction in their wages, and the company’s refusal to sign employment contracts. Ole Wolff Yantai refused to acknowledge the OWYTU, so in September 2006 workers went on strike for 13 days. The OWYTU was successfully established one month later, making it, in workers’ own words, “the first Chinese trade union to be set up through strike.” The OWYTU has taken a confrontational stance towards both the company and the local union branch. It describes itself boldly as a “red union” (chise gonghui) (i.e. Socialist) while dismissing the ACFTU as a “yellow union” (huangse gonghui). On the union’s internet blog is a feisty article, entitled: “Where there’s oppression, there will be resistance!” (Nali you yapo, nail jiu you fankang!) In China, such militant language is very rarely heard in trade union circles.

Even though the OWYTU was successfully established in October 2006, what followed was an unbelievable string of union-busting attacks from the company. Union activists have reported an incredible number of threats against them – too many to list here, and so we instead direct readers to the following chronology of events compiled by the OWYTU on its internet blog translated by Globalization Monitor in Hong Kong.

Download the translated article here:
“Chronology of the Ole Wolff (Yantai)Trade Union’s struggle”

View the original Chinese version here:

In short, Ole Wolff’s attacks on the union have included:
• Firing seven union activists – some more than once, such as Ms Liu Meizhen who was been fired from Ole Wolff on four separate occasions! Acting union chair Ms Jiang Qianqiu was fired for objecting to workers made to use cleaning fluid containing benzene (a known toxin).
• Refusing to sign employment contracts with workers until they revoked their union membership (the company has since capitulated).
• Posting a public notice threatening that each striking worker would have to compensate the company 15,000 RMB if they did not return to work.

Ole Wolff has ignored two court orders to re-instate six of the fired union activists, one from the Yantai City Labor Department in December 2006, and another from the Yantai City People’s Intermediate Court in October 2007. Ole Wolff has also refused proper compensation. Furthermore, according to Ms Liu Meizhen, the company has never filed the paper work to terminate her employment, and has refused to return her personal documents. Without these documents she is unable to engage in formal employment anywhere else, and her social insurance and pension account are withheld by Ole Wolff. Ole Wolff has also ignored an order from the Yantai City Labor Department to reinstate the current union chair Ms Jiang Qianqiu, who was also fired by the company for her union activity. The company even made false claims that Jiang Qianqiu had signed a document renouncing her claim for compensation.

CLNT has translated a sympathetic investigative report of the union’s struggle covered by the Shandong Evening Press. The report is long, however it conveys just how incredibly persistent Ole Wolff’s attack on the union has been and how hard the workers fought back.

Download the translated article here:
“Women Workers Repeatedly Fired for Applying to Set Up a Union: the pains of a grassroots foreign-enterprise trade union defending workers’ rights”

View the original Chinese article here:*
《申请成立工会,女工屡被开除 —- 一个外企基层工会组织的维权之痛》 (上) (下)

ACFTU and local government responses
The local trade union – the Fushan District Trade Union – has been unsympathetic to the OWYTU and apprehensive about its radical stance against management. In the early days the ACFTU in Beijing was supportive of the OWYTU, and so the local Fushan union followed suit, but very quickly it adopted a critical stance when union activists wrote a letter demanding improvement in working conditions in October 2006. Since 2007 the Fushan union has done nothing to support OWYTU.

The OWYTU has proved itself willing to challenge the district union. CLNT has translated a report from the OWYTU’s internet blog, describing how the OWYTU angered the Fushan District Trade Union by video recording a tripartite meeting with the company and Fushan District Social and Labour Protection Bureau, in order “to prevent their [the Fushan District Trade Union’s] denial of what happened once we were out of the room”. Both the OWYTU’s insistence of filming the meeting, and the confrontational tone of the written account, demonstrates how unusually courageous this union is.

Download the translated article here:
“Ole Wolff Trade Union’s Short Video Interlude”

View the original Chinese version here:

The Fushan District Labor Department has been unsupportive of the OWYTU. When workers went on strike in support of their application to start the union in October 2006, the company claimed the strike was illegal. When contacted by the OWYTU, the national ACFTU confirmed that the strike was not illegal. But the Fushan District Labor Department sided with the company, insisting the strike was illegal. The response from Chief Shi of the Labor Department was: “What does the ACFTU know?” The OWYTU had to campaign hard to get the Department to rule in favor of unfairly dismissed union chair Jiang Qianqiu in October 2007, and when Ole Wolff ignored the ruling the Labor Department did nothing. In December 2007 the OWYTU even tried to sue the Labor Department for administrative neglect, but the suit was rejected by the court claiming that the supporting documents were “not well written”.

International Support
In yet another rare move by the OWYTU, union advisor Zhang Jun contacted Denmark’s biggest union federation, the United Federation of Danish Workers or 3F (Fagligt Fælles Forbund) in April 2008, requesting its support. In our knowledge, this is the first time that Chinese grassroots union activists have gone to a foreign union for help. In her letter, Ms Jiang expressed:

“We have almost exhausted all means, including judicial, administrative, media, the Internet etc, to stand up for our rights but still unable to make the company to comply with the laws.”

By last month 3F, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) have made contacts with the Danish parent company of Ole Wolff expressing their concern over the repression of the OWYTU, and other problems with working conditions including lack of employment contracts and underpayment of overtime. The ITUC sent a copy of its letter to the Fushan Labor Department. Mr Ole Wolff responded to ITUC expressing confidence in the “excellent” working conditions at Ole Wolff Yantai. Ole Wolff also met with 3F personally, and expressed that these problems were out of his control.

Ole Wolff’s response to ITUC was translated into Chinese, and the OWYTU itself has rebutted Ole Wolff’s claims about working conditions, saying that the problems outlined in 3F’s letter were only remedied after workers went on strike in 2006.

Thanks to the committed concern of a Danish journalist, the case was reported on Danish national television.

In another demonstration of solidarity, in early September representatives of four Hong Kong NGOs and the ITUC/HKCTU/HKTUC Hong Kong Liaison Officer (IHLO) protested outside Ole Wolff’s office in Hong Kong. They prepared a protest letter addressed to company management, but the company refused to receive it. News of the protest reached the OWYTU in Yantai.

Effective use of internet blogs
Another remarkable feature of this case has been the effective publicity work carried out by union members and – in particular – an “advisor” (guwen) to the union, Mr. Zhang Jun, the husband of fired union activist Liu Meizhen. Zhang Jun has used an internet blog to accumulate and distribute an impressive collection of documents in support of the OWYTU struggle. http://blog.sina.com.cn/youyudzhongguoren

As the Shangdong Evening Press article (available for download above) points out, Mr Zhang Jun himself has played a unique role in this struggle. We have never before heard of an “advisor” representing a Chinese trade union in negotiations with management and with upper levels of the ACFTU. In this very complicated case, the Fushan District Trade Union has behaved ambivalently in relation to Zhang. The district union recognizes Zhang as a negotiating partner, but at the same time tries hard to publicly discredit him. Zhang does enjoy some support from the national ACFTU, and this surely influences the local Fushan union’s treatment of him. Given Zhang’s novel role in this saga, it is worth wondering whether in future this might be a way of involving actors from outside the ACFTU and the government in trade union negotiations.

At the time when this posting is uploaded the struggle is still continuing.

Download PDF version of this introduction

More English language resources from the 3F website:

Danish Factory accused of Union Busting in China

Chinese Workers Blog Versus Danish Factory

Campaign updates are available from the China Reports section of the Globalization Monitor Website


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