Using Traditional Resources to Organize Workers

China Development Brief, no.50 (Summer 2011)

中文 English

Introduction: This article is a transcription of a CDB interview with Professor Guo of the Sociology Institute at China’s Politics and Law University. Given that organizing independent unions is not a possibility in the current system, Guo discusses the possibility of organizing migrant workers in the construction sector through China’s only legal labor union – The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).
He recognizes the ACFTU’s difficulties in acting as an effective voice for labor, but believes the ACFTU is making more of an effort to reach out to workers through grassroots unions. Ultimately, he believes workers can only improve their situation by working within the system, though he acknowledges that change will be difficult given the close ties between business and government interests at the local level.

The Dual Nature of the ACFTU

The structure of our system is multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the Communist Party with the ACFTU as the Party’s assistant1. The Party focuses on different goals at different time periods; currently this focus is on economic development, specifically attracting foreign investment. As such, development work is of the highest priority and to this end, the specific function of labor unions is to organize and protect the interests of workers.

Due to the nature of their different goals, some tension exists between the Party and the ACFTU. The ACFTU must balance this tension with its own actions, and show a willingness to be flexible. For instance, at the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s when the Party began to focus on attracting foreign investment, the ACFTU was subject to the demands of this economic model. Recently, the government has become more people-oriented and prioritized scientific development and the establishment of a harmonious society. This has allowed unions to better align their goals with the goals of Party. Protecting the interests of workers is a people-oriented task, and in this way, labor unions can carry out Party goals as they work towards their own2.

My personal feeling is that the ACFTU has been changing since 2002. It is gradually putting more emphasis on organizing workers, protecting workers rights, helping workers to sign collective contracts and collective bargaining. Additionally, it has also started promoting the formation of grassroots labor unions to deal with these issues3. This is a reflection of the ACFTU adjusting its role in a new era.

More Space for Labor Organizations

The capacity of grassroots labor unions varies from place to place. The mobility of the migrant population creates different types of labor issues. Because the environment in which different unions work varies, so do labor unions’ methods for solving problems. Generally, in places with a large influx of workers, working conditions are poor and the rights of workers are often infringed, so workers often require the assistance of unions. But unions must subordinate themselves to the stable development of society, which may conflict with protection of workers’ rights. In areas with a large outflow of workers, grassroots labor unions do not face much local pressure and can become very successful. Such conditions allow NGOs and other service organizations to support the organizing and education of workers, and work to have grassroots unions placed under ACFTU management. In areas with such an outflow of workers, labor organizations have the space to develop successfully.

Effective Use of Traditional Resources

I feel that establishing an independent labor union in China is nearly impossible. Grassroots labor unions in China, like all unions, are under the absolute direction of the ACFTU. Current grassroots unions mainly consist of company unions and unions at the street committee level4. The question of whether these industry-specific unions can succeed is currently being explored. For example, can grassroots unions be organized for construction workers coming from different areas, and how would they be managed by the local-level ACFTU? In reality, local unions have already started exploring this question. In Hebei, Xingzai Renjian (行在人间) helped to start a model for grassroots unions5 A report from Sichuan Province shows that the provincial ACFTU helped workers who left the province to demand pay. In this situation, grassroots labor unions can work with provincial unions to enhance their effectiveness. In China, finding space to develop grassroots organizing starts with finding ways to develop organizations, and is followed by finding an appropriate opportunity to display their potential. This requires the proper opportunity and the right plan.

In the face of a great disparity between labor and capital, it is important to promote the ability of workers to organize. The development of truly independent organizations is difficult, so one must use traditional socialist resources, and socialist ideology along with symbols of socialism6. These are ideas familiar to many people, and are part of the official ideology. In the present situation in China, specifically when endeavoring to organize workers, one must firmly hold onto socialist ideology to protect the rights of workers. Secondly, one needs to use the current administrative system, including mass organizations and other organizations closely connected with workers, and exploit their dual and contradictory nature to create positive conditions that will aid workers. Only then will workers see changes in this traditional, administratively-structured system7. This is different from Western civil society’s history of confrontation and is different from various plans for cooperation proposed by scholars after the 1980s.

Why is Nonpayment of Wages Such a Difficult Problem to Solve?

The problem of migrant laborers not getting paid has persisted for many years. During this time, laws and regulations have been improved, but this problem has still drawn public concern. Recently released investigations and research has shown that withholding or delaying wage payments is still very common in the construction industry, but the question remains: what are the causes?

An important factor is the difficulty of ending the practice of multiple levels of subcontracting. The law must differentiate between these types of very technical questions. Workers will either sign a labor contract with the company or a labor dispatch company can send workers; most current labor dispatch companies do not sign contracts with workers, so this is subcontracting labor at another level. There is no one to claim responsibility and all labor contracts have either become labor-service contracts or engineering subcontracts.

But the current problem, as the report by Xingzai Renjian demonstrates, is that contracts are often changed; for instance contracts with a foreman are never signed. This is related to the mobility and cyclical nature of the construction industry, but this is a secondary problem. I feel the main issue lies in the construction departments borrowing a characteristic of the construction industry and considering these labor issues as so-called “Chinese characteristic” problems. The reason for these problems with contracts is that capital (e.g. company owners and managers) is much stronger than labor. Capital is so strong that in some cases, it controls local supervising departments. Originally, the construction commission (the responsible government agency) should exercise supervision of construction companies, however, sometimes these commissions end up speaking for the companies8.


  1. Editor’s Note: The term used here, gong hui, translates as labor union, but we translate it as the ACFTU which is the only legal labor union in the PRC. The Chinese term for ACFTU is zong gong hui but the author uses gong hui and zong gonghui interchangeably. The ACFTU is a mass organization, or what we might call a GONGO, created by the Communist Party to represent the workers. Independent trade unions are not allowed to form. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The author is saying here that during the 1980s and 90s, when the Communist Party was focused on increasing GDP, the ACFTU had to subordinate its goals to that of the Party. But now that the Party is focusing less on GDP growth and more on resolving pressing social issues such as inequality and social welfare, the ACFTU will have a more active role to play. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The term “grassroots” is used here to refer to unions formed at the lowest levels of the ACFTU hierarchy. It does not refer to independent labor unions. The Chinese term “jiceng” translates as basic-level or grassroots and is used in official parlance to refer to the lowest level of the administrative hierarchy that is closest to the lives of ordinary people. Thus, grassroots democracy is a reference to village elections that are held under Communist Party supervision. The term “jiceng” should therefore be distinguished from “caogen” which also translates as “grassroots” but is used by NGOs to denote organizations that are independent of the state. 

  4. Editor’s Note: the street committee level, sometimes referred to as the sub-district level, is the lowest level of administration in China’s urban areas. 

  5. Editor’s Note: Beijing Xingzai Renjian Culture and Development Center (北京行在人间文化发展中心) is a social service organization supporting migrant workers. It is also discussed in another article in this same issue, “A Dialogue with Construction Workers”. 

  6. Editor’s Note: Here, the author resorts to a strategy familiar to sociologists called “framing” which refers to activists using language that is familiar and acceptable to those in power, and to society at large, in order to gain support for change. In this case, he advocates appropriating the Communist Party’s own rhetoric about protecting workers’ rights to push for social justice for workers. 

  7. Editor’s Note: The author is making a veiled reference here to the need to work within the system, with mass organizations and GONGOs, for change. 

  8. Editor’s Note: the main obstacle the author seems to be pointing to is the symbiosis between business and government at the local level. As long as this fusion of political and economic power persists, labor will find it difficult to enforce their rights. 

利用传统资源培育工人的组织性

工会的两重性

我们的制度架构是党领导下的多党合作,工会始终是党的助手。共产党在每个时期都有整体的规划重心,现在的重心是经济发展,具体体现在招商引资模式,将发展当作第一位的工作。而工会的具体职能是定位在工人组织和工人的权益维护。

因此,党的中心工作,与工会作为工人权益维护和工人代表的职能之间是有一定张力的。中国的工会需要在行动中平衡其中的张力,表现在不同阶段有不同的工作重心。例如,在20世纪80年代末和90年代,党和政府将招商引资作为突出核心时候,工会服从党的经济转型和招商引资的需要。近年来,政府提以人为本、科学 发展观、和谐社会,一定程度上使工会能够把与自己的职能和党的中心工作更紧密地联系起来。工人的权利维护也是以人为本,有利于工会通过自己的职能工作将党的重心工作落到实处。

我个人的感觉是,自2002年工会就开始转型,逐渐强调组织工人、替工人维权,包括组织工人签订集体合同、集体协议,另外也开始推动基层工会的落实问题。这是不同时期工会调整自己的职能的体现。

在流出地发育工人组织更有空间

不 同地区的基层工会,在具体身份上也有些摇摆和不同。农民工的流动性使得流入地和流出地会产生不同的劳工问题,因此工会的工作环境也是不一样的,有不同的问题解决策略和思路。一般认为,流入地的工会面临更为艰难的工作环境,因为流入地往往容易产生工人侵权案件,往往需要借助工会去维权,但工会又需要服从发展 稳定的大局,与工人权益维护有一定冲突。但流出地推动建立基层工会,应当说对当地没有太大压力,甚至可以作为一项工作政绩,使NGO以及支持性组织有一定 的空间去进行工人教育,推动基层工会挂靠和归口管理。现有背景下,有可能在流出地寻找到空间和局部性优势,去发育工人组织。

善用传统符号资源

我 觉得在中国运作独立工会几乎是不可能的。基层工会总体上指的是总工会下的基层组织。现在的基层工会主要是指企业工会和街道内的工会,而能否有行业性的基层工会也正在探讨中,如建筑工人,能否以流出地的建筑工人组建基层工会,归口地方工会管理?实际上,地方工会已开始在放这个口子。“行在人间”就在河北乡村 推动建立了一个基层工会的雏形。四川省曾有一个报道,省总工会发起帮助外出打工工人讨薪,在这样的情况下,基层工会就可以加入省工会的工作方案中去发挥作用。在中国,寻求草根组织的发育空间,可以先把组织发育起来,再找到合适的时机发挥正当性功能,这需要讲究时机和策略环境。

面对劳资力量悬殊失衡的情况下,重要的是提升工人的组织性。真正独立的组织发育艰难,所以要利用好后社会主义传统中的资源,即社会主义意识形态的符号资源。这既为公众熟悉,也是主导性的官方意识形态。在中国目前的情况下,尤其是面对工人的草根组织,仍然需要紧紧抓住社会主义意识形态去维护工人权益,其次就是 要利用好现有的行政和准行政系统,包括群团组织中与工人相关的组织也要去争取,借助它们在职能上的两重性和矛盾性,创造条件发挥对工人有利的方面,才能推动它们在整个现有的传统和行政架构内慢慢转型。这有别于西方公民社会对抗的道路,也有别于20世纪80年代后期一些学者提出的一厢情愿的合作道路。

建筑行业欠薪为何难以化解?

农民工欠薪问题提了多年,相关的法律法规又在不断完善,舆论也高度关注,但从发布的调研报告来看,建筑行业的欠薪问题仍然非常普遍,原因是什么?

主要还是层层分包的问题难以杜绝,这在法律上有非常技术性的问题需要予以明晰。。。。而是应直接雇用工人,要么签劳动合同,要么劳务派遣过来也可以,但我们现在成立的劳务派遣公司也不和工人签署合 同,再次劳务转包,将责任化解掉了,将所有强制性的劳动合同全部转化为劳务合同或工程分包合同。

但现在的问题,像行在人间发布的调查报告发现,即便是转化后的合同,例如跟工头的合同,很多也没有签。这和建筑行业的流动性和周期性有关系,但这是次要问题,我觉得主要问题在于建筑部门有意借建筑行业的特点,把劳动问题转化为所谓的中国特色问题。这种转化的背后原因,还是劳资力量的失衡,资方势力太大,使有时候足以俘获地方监管部门。本来建委应当对建筑企业开发商监督约束,但有时候变为替他们说话。

(付涛根据采访录音整理,郭伟和系中国政法大学社会学院教授)

Translated by Glen Meyerowitz

Reviewed by Emily Boitel

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