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Ole Wolff (Yantai) Union Struggle Part Two

A union struggle for union self-determination continues

In October 2008, CLNT covered the case of the Ole Wolff (Yantai) Trade Union, or OWYTU. The case was unique in several ways – the workers’ tenacity in establishing their own union, in choosing their own union leadership, in withstanding employer retaliation, in achieving a sympathetic local profile in the media and in successfully forging solidarity links to the Danish trade union in the employer’s home country.

For more background on the case, see:
http://www.clntranslations.org/article/35/workers-fight-to-save-their-union-activists

This edition of CLNT picks up the story as it has developed over the past four months. Even as the global economic crisis has rapidly deepened and provided more cover for foreign capital to withdraw (the workforce at Ole Wolff (Yantai) Electronics Ltd. has now shrunk from more than 200 to approximately 30 workers) management’s efforts alternately to repress, undermine, buy-off, or distract the union’s leadership have failed to deter them finally. Mobilizing assistance from advocates within China, Hong Kong and in the international labor community, the OWYTU has persevered in pressing for their legal rights to properly represent their members’ interests. The case bears studying particularly because it highlights the potential of international labor to sustain the efforts of local trade unions, even when the challenges are formidable.

Workers compensated for illegal firings

In November 2008 a partial – but important – victory was achieved when six union activists who had been illegally fired by Ole Wolff won compensation of two months back wages (ranging from 1,300-1,600 RMB). The OWYTU Chair Ms. Jiang Qianqiu, who had also been harassed and fired from her job, received compensation of 19,000 RMB. This monetary concession of Ole Wolff is significant, but it is not the only outstanding issue.

One of the fired workers, Liu Meizhen, appears to have been targeted for extra retaliation owing to the effective advocacy of her husband, Zhang Jun, throughout the campaign. Ms. Liu’s employment file has not been released to her and she is therefore unable to seek a new job. Numerous local lawyers have declined to take the case because of its sensitivity. Because Liu Meizhen has now been unemployed for some time, their family is impoverished and unable to afford a lawyer, or even travel expenses for a lawyer from another city.

For more details pertaining to the compensation win, see
http://www.globalmon.org.hk/en/news/china-reports/report-on-ole-wolff/ole-wolff-yantai-workplace-union-won-partial-victory/

Keeping their eyes on the prize

But even more significant is the continued demand of the fired union leaders that management recognizes and deals with the OWYTU, as required by Chinese labor law. Having been pushed out of the factory themselves, the trade union committee members nevertheless asserted the on-going right of the OWYTU to recruit union members and represent their interests. With the – correct – understanding that they retained their status as elected TU leaders despite the firings, and that it would be impossible for them to carry out their duties while not allowed into the factory, they skillfully utilized the international labor link to bring more pressure on management.

Having first established contact with the Danish union 3F, on the basis of shared interests with other workers employers the Ole Wolff enterprise in Denmark, the OWYTU was, in effect, able to negotiate with foreign management through 3F’s intervention. On 8 December 2008, a meeting was convened by Jesper Nielsen, a member of the Solidarity and Development Assistant office of 3F, with Ole Wolff and representatives of The Danfoss Group, a global corporation to whom Ole Wolff sources. The highly developed role, particularly of northern European unions, in monitoring and exposing adverse social practices of their employers, allows them a legitimate role in brokering such a negotiation.

At the meeting, the outstanding concerns of the OWYTU were systematically discussed and the responses conveyed by Mr. Nielsen back to the OWYTU leaders. Unsurprisingly, Ole Wolff asserted that the case was concluded by his payment of compensation to the fired workers and insisted that the union “stamp” (necessary for the union to officially conduct business) be returned so that new TU elections could be held. A series of questions were placed to the OWYTU, seeking clarification. An equally systematic response came quickly from the OWYTU, focusing primarily on the demands that management cease their intimidation (including an additional firing of a worker who spoke to a Danish journalist), to recognize the rights of the trade union, and to resolve outstanding grievances.

What is most remarkable is that this may be the first time in modern Chinese labor history that such multi-party negotiations have been documented, revealing the effective interplay between Chinese workers, their elected TU leadership, a foreigner owner of a direct FIE mainland enterprise, a transnational corporation involved in the sourcing chain, and a foreign trade union.

To read the pair of documents in this negotiation, see:

“Report on 3F Meeting with Danfoss”
CLNT_OleWolff_letter_from_3F.pdf

“Letter from Zhang Jun to 3F”
CLNT_OleWolff_letter_to_3F.pdf

“Letter from Zhang Jun to 3F” CHINESE
CLNT_OleWolff_letter_to_3F_CHI.pdf

Fighting the poison of rumors

During the two year period that the OWYTU struggled into existence and then fought for enforcement of its legal rights, TU leaders faced an onslaught of rumor-mongering by the management designed to destroy their reputations and poison their relations to other workers. Such a fog of untruths and diversionary stories are common during many union organizing campaigns, but the vigilance and persistence of the OWYTU in refuting them is more unusual.

Rumors ranged from the accusation that Ms. Jiang had tried to extort money from management in exchange for betraying the union, to claiming that all workers had been issued proper labor contracts when they clearly had not.

For a detailed response by the OWYTU to the rumor-mongering attacks, see:

“The compilation of the rumors by the Ole Wolff Electronics Yantai against the Ole Wolff (Yantai) Workplace Union”
CLNT_OleWolff_Rumours.pdf

While all such rumors, often common during a union organizing campaign, may have a chilling effect on the workers, a particularly serious impact can be expected if rumors start about investigation by the National Security Bureau (NSB). On 12 December 2008 the OWYTU issued a statement responding to a spate of such rumors initiated by management. What is most notable in their response is the keen sense of legal entitlement they have as union leaders to pursue their legitimate grievances against management, including disclosure in the media and even establishing contact with the foreign trade union 3F. As Chinese workers continue to gain confidence in seeking their legal rights, the willingness to publicly raise challenges to management is a necessary step. Strategically wise, they OWYTU leaders explicitly acknowledge the NSB’s responsibility to “guard the people’s democratic dictatorship system and socialism system,” and its right to investigate any concerns about national security “according to due process.” They conclude by asserting that, though the NSB has in fact never contacted them, they would welcome and cooperate with any investigation, thus demonstrating their admirable self-confidence.

For the OWYTU’s response to the rumor of NSB investigation, see:

“Ole Wolff Trade Union statement on NSB”
CLNT_OleWolff_statement_NSB.pdf

“Ole Wolff Trade Union statement on NSBCHINESE
CLNT_OleWolff_statement_NSB_CHI.pdf

Download PDF version of this introduction here:
CLNT_OleWolff_2_INTRO

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