Project 02: Labor NGO Activism and Trade Union Reform in South China
Let me briefly explain what prompted me to take up this project, how I did the fieldwork, what questions I explored, and what the main findings are.
The period of 1990s to 2010s is China’s Gilded Age. Chinese sociology, only rebuilt in the 1980s, has been grappling with explaining the great transformation of Chinese society. The changing relations between labor, capital, and the state has fundamentally reshaped many aspects of Chinese urban and rural life, as well as state-society relations. Since I grew up in a shipyard deeply affected by these changes, when I began to learn sociology, I am especially interested in labor and work issues.
In Fall 2013, when I began fieldwork, I was planning to compare how and why cities in North and South China treat rural migrant workers differently. After initial contact with the Department of Sociology at Tsinghua University, I got to know that there was an emerging movement for demanding collective bargaining in South China’s Guangdong Province. While I was about to decide to do ethnography in Laowei Law Firm and other labor NGOs, the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions (in Guangdong) came to hold a training workshop in Beijing, inviting leading labor sociologists to provide lectures. Then the union and scholars formed an informal reform alliance, and I was invited to join the Tsinghua labor research project. My job was to study the Shenzhen Union reform and assist the union in designing a new experiment.
I changed my dissertation topic and went to Shenzhen, exploring how union and NGOs experiment with different strategies to organize workers or institutionalize labor conflicts. I should note that, while Shenzhen is just one city and the reform and labor struggles are local, the city is the first China's Special Economic Zone, where Chinese labor law was born, All-China Federation of Trade Unions began to reform, and government stability maintenance agency was invented for repressing labor protests. Like workers' struggle in Detroit, labor relations in Shenzhen shapes the national landscape of labor politics in many important ways.
In the Shenzhen Union, I had opportunities to talk to many officials and read union data and documents. I gradually got a sense of what the Shenzhen Union had been trying to do before I came. In my dissertation and now my book project, a lot of those information goes to chapter 1 and 2, which are about workplace union reform. The reform experiment I got involved becomes chapter 5, which is about community-based unionism. The three chapters on the Shenzhen Union reform show liberal officials’ decade-long experimentation with the institutionalization of labor unrest on behalf of the Chinese state.
I spent spare time with labor NGOs and worker activists, with the Shenzhen Union’s permission. Labor NGO activists also knew my connection with the Shenzhen Union. In addition to observe grassroots activism at training sessions, mobilization meetings, and celebration banquets, I was also able to follow activists’ activities and participated in discussions while I was in the union because labor NGO activism was very active on social media at that time. The data collected with labor NGOs is put into chapter 3 and 4, which are about the five-year campaign for collective bargaining right. The two chapters on labor NGO activism show a bottom-up effort by labor lawyers and activists in carving out new space for organizing workers, and how their challenge to the official union reform pushed the Shenzhen Union and the state to adjust strategy, responding with new experiment and repression.
Instead of only focusing on trade union reform, or grassroots mobilization for a short period, this project presents a dialectical dynamic about how reform-minded officials and labor activists grappled with labor unrest and tried to institutionalize labor struggle over a decade. While the context is still changing rapidly, I argue that the contestation between the state reformers and social actors is reshaping the institutional framework of China’s labor relations. This argument contrasts with other arguments that emphasize either the Chinese state has a strong adaptive, repressive capacity to quell labor activism or independent labor organizations are too precarious to make a challenge.
Theoretically, this project shows how the dynamics of Karl Polanyi's countermovement flashes out in the ever-changing context of contemporary China. Rather than focusing on mobilization or the “insurgent moment” of countermovement in democratic settings, my research shows the dynamics of “institutional moment” of countermovement under China’s authoritarianism. Chinese labor reformers and social actors are working within a legacy of the communist regime and a new network of transnational labor activism. The former tried to reform the existent union structures to absorb labor’s challenges to capital and the state. The latter made efforts to carve out new space and strategy for empowering workers to make the challenge stronger, pushing for the transformation of labor organizations and reshaping institutions.
While the Chinese state cracked down on the campaign for collective bargaining right and the current regime is extremely hostile to social activism, the space opened by labor activists and union reformers are not closed, and labor unrest persists. Moreover, after cracking down on labor activism in 2016, we see an unprecedented level of cross-regional organizing attempts by Wal-Mart store employees, truck drivers, crane operators, platform food delivers, and digital workers. As manufacturing employers are leaving coastal China, a process started before the US-China trade war under Trump administration, more labor struggles would shift to the service industries, and so far, scholars of Chinese labor have not been able to study these new struggles under the current political constraints. We don’t know that, how the persistent labor unrest and the institutional space created by the previous cycle of the labor reform movement would shape the institution-building in the near future, and it is worth exploring.
Lin, Lefeng. 2015. “Notes from the Field: The Changing Landscape of Chinese Labor Politics.” Global Dialogue 5(3).
Lin, Lefeng. 2015. “Contested Arena – The Hitachi Factory Union Election.” Shenzhen Labor Movement 39: 50-61 (Internal Government Reference, in Chinese).
Lin, Lefeng. 2015. “Rebuild the Base of Trade Union – Start from Shop Floor.” Chinese Workers 9. (Official journal of All-China Federation of Trade Unions, in Chinese).
Lin, Lefeng. 2015. “How to Protect Labor Rights: An Analysis of Changde Walmart Protest in China.” Chinese Workers 4. (In Chinese)
Lin, Lefeng. 2014. “Hidden Assumptions in Chinese Labor Studies and Trade Union Work – A Short Critique.” Chinese Workers 10. (In Chinese)
Two Articles under Review:
Lin, Lefeng. “Experimentation in Flux: Trade Union Reform in Shenzhen" (Under review)
Lin, Lefeng and Li, Chunyun. "Law, Stability, and Insurgency: Chinese Workers in Search of Collective Bargaining Right (Under review)
Two Articles in Preparation:
Lin, Lefeng. "Technocratic Unionism in Chinese Workplaces."
Lin, Lefeng. "Labor NGO-led Mobilization"