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Beijing Worker Takes Initiative to Establish Union in Privatized State Enterprise

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In this issue we document how through the effort of one individual worker in Beijing, Liu Rongli, a small workplace union branch was set up successfully against all odds.

This case demonstrates that there is some support within the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) for workers to take the initiative to set up their own union branches, within the parameters of China’s Trade Union Law. Five years have passed since the ACFTU’s highly publicized campaign to set up union branches in Wal-Mart stores and to hold collective “consultation” with management. But the Wal-Mart unions in the end have not actively represented workers after all. By contrast, in this case Liu Rongli set up a union on his own initiative, and the message from the authorities was that his efforts were indeed legitimate.

Yet as far as we are aware, amidst the large number of strikes and labor disputes in China, few other workers have attempted to set up union branches. In 2009, CLNT reported how workers in Ole Wolff, a Danish company in Yantai Shandong with their help of their consultant, Zhang Jun, struggled to set up a union and then fought management for five years to ward off suppression. We are also aware of cases in Guangdong in which workers did try to set up unions in their factories, only to be blocked by management and/or local government, or the election process was corrupted by the local union branch.

For background of the Liu Rongli’s struggle to set up a union, readers may want to revisit CLNT’s 9 May 2010 issue http://www.clntranslations.org/article/54/liu-rongli. Liu’s campaign began in 2003 when corrupt state enterprise management in the factory where he worked began privatizing. From a medium size state enterprise of 1,500 workers it was parcelled off to corrupt management staff into six private companies, still located within the same factory compound. At that time Liu led the setting up of a staff and workers representative council to salvage something back for the workers. Liu was convinced that workers too have a right to the company’s assets. In 2005, with great difficulty, Liu was able to reclaim part of the ownership by getting management to recognize workers as shareholders. In this fight he had full support from his 15 co-workers. But Liu thought that in addition to being shareholders, workers should also have their own union, as there was none after privatization. In 2008 he was able to convince nine workers to sign a letter to apply to the trade union one level above the enterprise, as required by law. Permission was granted. But Liu’s effort failed because of management interference, and lack of active support from the local union. Management intimidated workers, bought some of them off, and insisted that management approval was needed to formalize the union.

This CLNT issue documents Liu’s renewed struggle to form a union this year. In August he assessed that it was an opportune time to give it another try. In the name of a representative of the preparatory trade union committee he went to the city district level union to hand in his application. We have translated Liu’s record of the exchanges he had with a certain Mr. Zhang, the district union organization and propaganda chief. Armed with moral authority Liu was almost able to cow Mr. Zhang into being apologetic about his inaction. Mr. Zhang admitted that he was scared of factory managers closing doors on him and would prefer the workers themselves to take up the cudgel. As a low level trade union functionary his best tactic was to pass this unusual case to upper level unions to handle. Both the Beijing City union and the ACFTU knew about Liu Rongli and undoubtedly had decided to support Liu if he would take the initiative. With this approval Liu was able to set up his union with only one other member while other workers were too timid to join. The ACFTU granted approval to set up a two-member union, by lowering the membership requirement to the absolute minimum.

For sure this is an interesting case. The struggle and the number of people involved are minuscule by any standard in trade union history, but in China today it is not totally insignificant. The case demonstrates that not only does the ACFTU sometimes take such labour activists and the Trade Union Law seriously, but also that there is space for workers to advance their own rights using legal instruments. Workers cannot rely on the local unions to do the job for them, but if they are motivated enough they might yet succeed. Of course, Liu’s fight is not yet over. Tough negotiation with management lies ahead amidst a climate of indifference among his co-workers and others in the factory compound.

Click below to read Liu Rongli’s own account of the process by which his two-person union was established.

Setting Up a Trade Union

工会成立过程

Fortunately Liu and his young colleague Guo Wei have support from bloggers which keeps up their morale. Among them is Zhang Jun, the former consultant of union activists at Ole Wolff in Yantai City, Shandong Province. To demonstrate his solidarity, Zhang visited Liu in Beijing recently and wrote a report of the visit for his own blog, which we have translated. One of Zhang’s photos shows the three activists standing together: a 60-year old, a 40 year old and Guo probably in his twenties. Liu has to retire soon. All his life he has been a rebel causing him to “eat quite a bit of bitterness”. He lives a very modest life. Today he is only making just over 1,000 RMB a month (USD150), not a living wage in Beijing. He cannot afford to own a mobile phone and he normally rides a bicycle, goes to the library and visits the internet cafe to upload articles in his blog.

Click below to read Zhang Jun’s description of the newly established union.

The two-person union I have come into contact with: what I know about the Beijing Tonghuasheng union

我所接触得两人工会 —— 记我对北京通化盛工会得了解

This case may seem small, but its political significance is not. The political sensitivity of monitoring corrupt restructuring of SOEs is clear from the case of imprisoned labor activist Zhao Dongmin. Zhao, a lawyer and labor activist, was involved in organising almost 400 workers from several factories in Xi’an to apply to set up an enterprise restructuring watchdog in 2009, which would assist the work of the trade union in defending workers interests in SOEs and report managerial corruption. But unlike Liu, his efforts have been fiercely resisted by the relevant Party authorities, and on 22 October 2010, he was sentenced to three years in prison http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/world/breakingnews/chinese-labour-activist-sentenced-to-3-years-for-organizing-workers-rights-group-105506188.html.

For more information about Zhao Dongmin, including translated open letter from Zhao himself, see: http://www.china-labour.org.hk/en/node/100560

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