Automobile workers’ collective actions and development of grassroots unions: a case study of ST Auto Parts Factory

Author: Elizabeth, from Red Balloon Solidarity. Edited by CLQ
ST Auto Parts Factory (hereafter: ST Factory) is jointly-owned by Japanese and Taiwanese investors and is one of the very few Chinese factories where direct elections of its enterprise union have successfully been conducted. ST Factory employs 536 workers, producing auto springs and shake absorbers for Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Since 2010, two strikes have broken out in ST Factory, with workers demanding to increase their wages and receive their annual bonuses. In 2011, its union started to run democratic elections. The key to ST workers’ success is linked to the automobile industry’s characteristics. However, one should not overlook how they have also have encountered pressure from the factory management and the upper level union.

Picture from internet

Automobile workers’ power & the industry’s characteristics

Compared with workers in other sectors, automobile workers tend to have a stronger sense of their rights, awareness of their worth and recognition of their identity. These factors strengthen their determination in pushing for union democratization. Furthermore, Japanese and Korean automobile producers tend to use a single supplier for a certain auto part, to reduce the costs of merchandising and production. Thus, when a strike in an auto parts factory takes place, it can lead to a halt of the whole production line. This gives the automobile workers a formidable bargaining power in front of the employers and government.

In the past, collective actions might be unorganized and an one-off. The recent union-led collective actions have become better organized and contributed to actively building up a workers’ network. This has also provided better protection to labour activists. Yet, in the process of building a democratic union, ST workers have encountered many obstacles.

Major barriers to union development after its democratic election

Firstly, after the democratic election, the majority of union representatives and union committee members turned out to be line managers and engineers, who would rather not risk their current wages and welfare and tend to keep quiet in front of the employer. To make matters worse, the employer is offering job promotion to the union chairperson, to buy his cooperation in suppressing the call for collective consultation, a vocal demand in the third term of the trade union.

Secondly, ordinary workers are generally obedient and afraid of authority; they tend to elect their managers as union representatives, instead of those who genuinely speak for workers. Ordinary workers’ union participation is also restricted. The ST trade union, for example, sends emails to inform its members about attending meetings, but since ordinary workers are not allowed to use mobile phones or computers at work they often miss the union meetings.

Pressure from the upper level union: inadequate room for grassroots unions to perform

The upper level union defines the role of its grassroots unions as a facilitator to smoothen labour relations instead of as defenders of labour rights. Such a definition restricts the grassroots unions’ development. The ACFTU expects the grassroots unions to handle workers’ problems and consider the enterprises’ interests. In its views, grassroots unions serve the roles of resolving labour disputes and reducing industrial actions.

The ST Union is still a young union. Grassroots workers’ recognition of a bottom up organizing approach and wisdom to crack the intervention from their employer and the upper level union are the key to their union growing strong and independently.