Ralf Ruckus is a labour researcher and activist studying Chinese workers’ struggles. His work can be found at www.gongchao.org. He spoke to Solidarity on a recent visit to Australia.
The level of protests and strikes in China seems to have increased over the last few years. What are the reasons for this?
Statistics include workers of different types: migrant workers and urban workers, the old working class that work for the state-owned companies.
Migrant workers for a long time were called peasant workers, indicating that technically they are still part of the rural population [although] some have been in cities for ten years or even grown up in the city and can’t farm.
In terms of the urban workers there was actually more going in the late 1990s, early 2000s. State workers, always a minority in China but tens of millions still, got attacked in the late 1990s when the Communist Party allowed redundancies and closures of state companies. There were large-scale strikes, demonstrations, riots even.
The increased struggle of the migrant workers started about 2003-04. Migrant workers, a kind of new working class, are responsible for the large increase [in strikes] of the last few years.
There is one big change in the last ten years. The first generation of migrants entered the cities and industrial zones in the 1990s. They were farmers, [not] used to city life and factory discipline. Their plan was to work, [earn enough to] build a house in the countryside or send someone to school in their family and then go back home.
What’s responsible for this increase in struggles is the second generation [of migrant workers]. They have siblings or parents who had already been to the city, and some of them grew up in the city. They don’t want to go back [to the villages] and their cultural perspective is urban.
They also don’t carry the trauma of [the] Tiananmen [square massacre]. They are more openly demanding improvements and use the internet or mobile phones to organise.
In other cases of rapid industrialisation: in the US, in Central Europe, in Brazil and South Korea, it was also this second generation that started struggling on a larger scale.
You could say that these struggles represent the formation of a new working class.
It’s often not the worst paid workers organising the struggles [but] foremen or skilled workers.
Workers who do most of the unskilled work earn so little that they cannot settle down in the city. They have to live in dormitories and can’t bring their families into the city.
Line leaders and skilled workers who are also migrant workers also can’t settle down for legal reasons, [as there is a] system that divides Chinese people into migrant or urban populations, and all migrants keep their rural status and cannot settle down permanently in the city.
But skilled workers [do hope for this], because they earn enough money to rent a flat and bring their family.
A lot of ordinary workers go on strike because they are angry and they want more but they don’t have the same expectations yet.
What issues and grievances typically cause disputes?
In the boom times, and most of the last few years have seen industrial growth, a lot of the issues are around wages, conditions in the dormitories (most workers live in dormitories with six, eight, ten in one room) food in the canteen and unpaid wages.
In times of crisis, for a few months in 2008, and now in the last few months [when] there was also talk of a recession, we have a lot more disputes around people being fired and [not getting] their redundancy payment and also demanding back pay, because if a factory closes the workers are really scared they won’t ever get [unpaid] wages.
These are often the immediate demands, but what lies behind [the desire to] strike is the situation of exploitation, being put into a dormitory, working overtime, not really having the chance to advance and hopes being destroyed—so there’s a lot of anger involved.
In 2010 successful strikes at Honda triggered a wave of similar actions across the car industry. What was the outcome of this?
Honda wasn’t the first time this happened, where there was a strike in one factory and a copycat effect where others then strike themselves in the same industrial region. The first case I know was 2004 in the electronics industry.
Honda was special because it was larger and concerned one of the pillar industries, the car industry.
[In most disputes] workers in one factory or one department go on strike because of an issue, and management or the local state try to solve it within a day or two.
Honda, [where there was] two weeks of strike action was very unusual. We don’t have any statistics or know the full extent of this movement. But the length of struggle at Honda and the fact that it spread all along the east coast, that was special.
How do workers organise given the amount of state repression?
Many struggles happen in places where people have had little experience [of striking], but the conditions at work and the fact that there are few channels to express grievances leads workers to use various kinds of resistance.
The unions are not on the workers’ side but openly on the [bosses’] side and try to prevent struggles. So workers have to self-organise. They use their everyday social forms of organisation to do that.
For instance they all live in dormitories and have [small] communities there. People from a certain region or village would socialise together and help each other.
This is not specific to China, but since there is no official representation, it is much more important to Chinese workers.
In recent years experienced worker militants who know how to do this [have emerged]. An example: in China if you organise a struggle and it ends with direct negotiations between workers and the boss, usually the local government will ask the workers to elect representatives to negotiate. Afterwards they will get [sacked by management].
So in some struggles workers just won’t elect anyone, and flyers with their demands are thrown down from the dormitory into the factory compound. Or a piece of paper will go down the line, saying strike today at 5 o’clock, and no one will know who made this demand. Often management has to just raise wages because they don’t know who to attack or who to fire.
Most strikes are successful because of the rapid economic growth and the fact that the wages are really low so there’s room to improve conditions.
Even if they lose their job it has been pretty easy for them recently to find a new one. Many change their jobs after a few months or one year, or they go back to the countryside for a month to relax and recover. There is not a labour shortage everywhere, [but] there are localised labour shortages. Usually this means workers aren’t willing to work under the conditions offered. So there’s pressure anyway to improve the conditions to make them accept work.
Whenever the government hears about any more permanent cross-company, cross-regional forms of organisation they step in and try to destroy it. So people engaged in this will not openly acknowledge it.
But we can say that during the Honda struggle for instance there were several organised groups in China and NGOs from Hong Kong trying to get involved and publish the demands and write about them.
Workers have a [computer] chat [program called] QQ. Websites are important, and a lot of them are closed down by censorship, but for a while they circulate information about workers’ struggles.
Twitter is banned but they have [a Chinese version called] Weibo. If there’s a dispute you search Weibo and there will be information. So there’s a network for circulating information.
There is a discussion amongst workers about strikes, there are experienced militants, there are people who try to theorise what’s happening and publish that, there’s a culture of even migrant workers who write songs and poems about [struggle] and circulate them. So you could say there’s a proletarian counter-culture developing.
Do people hear about events like the Arab revolutions or movements overseas?
Migrant workers I have talked to know about May 1 and what it means in Western countries. The problem is they only speak Chinese and it’s difficult for them to follow certain events because there is no coverage [in Chinese] apart from the government coverage. However government coverage of events outside China is much better than events in China.
I was in China during the Occupy movement and I saw TV interviews with the people in Wall St on the news.