Wang Jiangsong, May 7, 2018
On April 25, an open letter from a WeChat group named “Changsha tower crane operator federation” (长沙塔吊联盟) was circulated. It said:
To all hardworking front-line tower crane operators, conductors, and elevator operators, greetings! As construction, crane, and mechanical equipment operators and engineers, in the most dangerous line of work on the construction site, our salary and compensation is severely out of step with the risks we take and the utter indispensability of our work. In the construction industry, the hours we work far exceed those stipulated in the Labor Law, and we have no social security. Yet despite being in the most unsafe work and working the longest hours, our pay is miniscule. In order to trigger a wave of simultaneous strikes among crane operators around the country, in order to protect our basic labor rights and dignity, and gain an equal salary, the Changsha tower crane operator federation has decided to unite, stand-up, and declare that we have the right to basic dignity in our labor and the right to engage in collective bargaining. Thus, we call for a united strike on the eve of International Labor Day of May 1, in Changsha’s May First Square (五一广场), so that we may make our voice known. We welcome and will be grateful for support from all walks of life.
Location: Changsha May First Square
Content: Organize a more robust crane operator federation, make better videos of the demonstration scene than that of crane operators on strike in other provinces, and reiterate our demand for construction labor rights.
Given the kind of activity and the particular nature of the profession involved, we hope that all fellow workers will proactively participate and make our voice known to the whole of society.
Changsha Crane Operator Federation
April 25, 2018
The letter caused an uproar in the WeChat group, and when shared around came along with expressions of concern for the safety of the crane operators. As expected, the following afternoon, one of the workers who posted the message said: “Terrifying. Because I forwarded a post about a worker strike on May 1 yesterday, the Changsha Ministry of State Security collected all possible information about me within a day, including my address, telephone number, work unit and more. Two hours ago they came to my workplace and demanded that I come to the police station and explain myself.” The worker promised to the MSS agents that he would not participate in any of the activities and was then allowed to leave, though he’s now worried that his employer is going to fire him because of it.
Moreover, the event was not limited only to crane tower operators in Changsha, but one that had been called for by various WeChat groups of tower crane operators across the country, making it a national event. On April 26, the spokesman for crane operators in Hainan published a video on Weibo calling on all operators in the province to join the national strike on the morning of May 1, with the demand that their regular salary and overtime wages be increased. “If we don’t strike, who’s going to increase our income?” he asked, adding: “A strike won’t be nationwide without workers in Hainan. Hainan crane operators too are full of passion, so let it burn!” On the same day, crane tower workers in Zigong, Sichuan Province, held a demonstration, their banners demanding wage hikes, or else they’d also join the May 1 strike.
The following day, workers in the following eight cities in eight provinces also held banners and circulated photographs of their protests online: Nanchang in Jiangxi, Tianshui in Gansu, Zhumadian in Henan, Xiantao in Hubei, Qingzhen in Guizhou, Huaian in Jiangsu, Hengyang in Hunan, Xiamen in Fujian.
Over the next three days, workers in at least 13 cities (Wuhan, Shijiazhuang, Yinchuan, Sanmenxia, Luoyang, Lankao, Yuncheng, Zhuzhou, Yueyang, Pingjiang, Dazhou, Zhongshan, Maoming) and elsewhere also held assemblies and shared photos and videos of their protests online. As of April 30, according to a preliminary count, the provinces in which crane operators staged demonstrators, held banners, called slogans with their demands, and shared photos or footage online, include: Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hainan, Fujian, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Shaanxi — 19 provinces, with protests in between 27 and 30 cities. Participants ranged from dozens to hundreds in each event. This is the first instance of such a large-scale, nationwide, collective action by industrial workers in China for over decades, and may in fact be the first instance of its kind ever.
When May 1 came around, however, China’s crane operators did not formally go on strike. There are three potential explanations for this.
The first is that some places already agreed to the demands to increase wages and overtime pay, while other cities saw those examples and emulated them; the second is that some local governments said they would strictly prohibit any such strike, and the workers were sufficiently cowed as to call off the plan; the third is that the crane operators didn’t want to get mixed up with the ‘May First National Civil Resonance’ (五一全民共振) called for by some overseas activists, which has explicit political objectives. The latter, under the strict control of the authorities, didn’t go anywhere.
Despite that, the genesis of this large scale ‘mass incident’ of crane operators deserves our attention and analysis.
- This is an inevitable development in the evolution of China’s market economy and labor-capital relations
During the first wave of labor mobilization in China from 2010 to 2015, almost all collective worker actions took place at specific companies: for example, with strikes at Carrefour and Walmart. In these cases, though the strikes spanned multiple stores, the number of participants involved was not large, and still the action was limited to that particular chain of stores.
China’s labor movement is bound to follow the trajectory of the broader economy and labor-capital relations, and thus expand from actions in particular companies to actions spanning multiple companies, regions, and even industries. This instance of a simultaneous mobilization of crane tower operators in dozens of cities across the country has every qualification to be considered the beginning of a historical inflection point in labor in China.
Strictly speaking, collective rights defense taking place at one enterprise can only be called a ‘collective labor action,’ and not really a ‘labor movement.’ Only when many workers establish horizontal ties among one another, achieving a cross-enterprise and cross-region network, can it be called a labor movement proper. One of the most effective and powerful forms of organization, allowing a group of geographically distributed workers to unite their forces and coordinate actions in a single organizational structure, is the industry-wide labor federation. This is also why this form is a core component of labor movements in market economies, and the primary vehicle for collective bargaining between labor and capital. The reason for this is that workers in the same occupation, business, or industry, are in the same position vis-a-vis capital, and have identical interests that they demand from the same counterparty, thus their solidarity and unity has the lowest cost. As soon as they unite, they immediately have the power of scale; once they’re successful, they have ongoing efficiencies of scale to maximally resolve the structural problem [of disparate power between capital and individual workers], and the collective bargaining agreements they reach with industry have the power of law in governing labor-capital relations. All this is entirely consistent with the aspirations and demands of freedom, equality, and justice in exchange and contracts in a market economy, and at the same time is the fundamental meaning of a market economic system governed by the law. The responsibility of the state (defined as legislature, administration, and judiciary) is located in the preservation, not the destruction, of the freedom, equality, and justice of this negotiating mechanism between labor and capital.
- The state should rationally treat self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective actions and acknowledge and protect the three rights of labor
The outside world only learned about this collective action by crane operators after the fact, and knew nothing of their internal discussions, contact with one another, organization, and planning before the fact. There is also no information or evidence indicating that outside players (for instance labor NGOs) got involved or played any role in assisting, counselling, guiding, or providing any other form of help. Even less has there been any shadow of ‘hostile foreign forces.’ Thus, we have every reason to understand this sequence of events as a self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action on the part of crane operators themselves.
If this conclusion is valid, then the mistaken judgement of the relevant organs in the government must be corrected: they believe that collective action by workers are necessarily directed, organized, manipulated, and planned behind-the-scenes by hostile foreign forces or domestic NGOs, and that they’re competing with the Party, government, and official unions for the working class. This is likely one of the primary reasons behind the mass arrests and prison sentences of labor organizers in December 2015, particularly the arrests on December 3. Following the December 3 incident however, instances of collective rights defense by workers did not contract in scale, but after a short lull in fact came back in full force, and as in the case of the crane operator demonstration attained a high water mark. All this abundantly demonstrates that the level of [labor] consciousness and organizational capacity of workers in China has reached a new level, at least in some sectors and regions, and they’re capable of their own collective action without the involvement of outsiders.
In the past, the standard operating procedure for the relevant organs when faced with labor protests — they themselves having failed to do their job and duty of defending the legal rights of workers, then lost the trust of workers — was to find a scapegoat: blame it on the incitement of hostile foreign forces or domestic NGO activists. This was how they passed it off to their own superiors. The shame is that this sort of buck-passing is actually able to deceive the higher-ups, though workers aren’t fooled, and the actual problems facing workers are unchanged. Thus the resentment and rage builds up daily, and the conflicts between labor and capital, and even between labor and the government, become more and more intense. Put it bluntly, the scapegoating that goes on is simply digging the government into a pit.
The experience and norms of market economies tells us that the state should rationally and forthrightly address issues raised by self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action, and acknowledge and protect the rights of workers to form organizations (freedom of assembly), to engage in collective bargaining (the right to collective dispute resolution), and to strike (the right to industrial action).
- The demonstration by crane operators establishes a model for broader labor and social movements
Crane operators, as the prime movers behind this collective labor action, appear to have come to a clear realization of themselves as a specially-positioned technical worker in the production chain — they have a ‘structural power’ and to a degree are irreplaceable. The crane operators also effectively reached out to and integrated in their efforts crane conductors and elevator operators, upon which they recognized that the interests of the entire construction site and all the workers and jobs on it are related, to a large extent, and in common with their own. From this they could foresee that as long as there is no undefendable attack by an outside force, the natural course of affairs would have it that a construction industry union is formed. This is the only fundamental means of getting at the root of the chaos and problems in the construction industry.
From a broader perspective, it is beneficial not only to workers, but the entire construction industry, society, and the nation. The next direction for the labor movement in China is for workers in each industry and sector to autonomously form their own federations.
There is absolutely no evidence indicating that the collective action on the part of the crane operators had any connection with the ‘national civil resonance’ advocated by overseas democracy activists. In fact, the opposite is the case: just as that event failed to gain much traction, the protests by crane operators appeared all the more remarkable and successful.
It can be said that in contemporary China’s social transition, the democracy movement (referring to the narrow opposition political movements that aim to change China’s political system) should perhaps take a leaf from the book of the labor rights movement. The current stage of the labor movement of course focuses on increasing its economic benefits, and this is the primary reason that they’re able to mobilize and unite a sufficient number of workers and thus gain some small victories, or at least be able to retreat largely unscathed. The political quality and value of the labor movement requires only that individuals with perspicacious judgement look beneath the surface, make their own inferences, and carry it forward.
Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is a labor scholar in China.
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