On 1 November 2008, all of the drivers at the Wenjiang Guanghua Bus Company in Chengdu went on strike to secure higher wages. The strike lasted for one day and resulted in the company agreeing to pay a subsidy of three yuan for each one-way bus trip. The bus drivers did not bother to ask their trade union for help in securing a pay rise, and organized their own strike action. The union chairwoman, Ms Wen, criticized the strike, calling it “unreasonable.”
CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to Ms Wen a few days after the strike about the role the union should play in an enterprise, especially during a labour dispute. The interview illuminated many of the current problems and limitations of enterprise trade unions in China; controlled by management, they are unwilling and unable to represent workers interests. However, at the end of the interview Ms Wen did accept that the Wenjiang Guanghua union would have to learn lessons from the strike, and seek to re-engage with the workforce.
When the drivers went on strike, Ms Wen explained that the union “mediated to protect the employees’ legal rights.” The demand for a higher per-trip subsidy did not come from the union on behalf of the drivers, she said, but came from the drivers themselves. The demand, said Ms. Wen, “could not really be called reasonable,” because there had already been a recent “wage adjustment” for the drivers, and they appeared to be motivated by the fact that “for some of those running on the same routes, other companies paid a little bit higher than ours.”
It also appeared that the union did not support the notion of using strikes, when necessary, to secure fair pay for workers. “It’s not really right to use a strike to resolve questions about wages,” she said. “If there is a problem, they should use the regular channels to resolve it.” The wage issue had recently already been brought up and dealt with, Ms. Wen said, through “everyone discussing it” at an employee representative meeting.
“Another company was giving commissions for exceeding production targets,” she said, “after they started getting that money, it gave our drivers this idea…So then the employees engaged in this sudden, irrational action. An unconventional action to get this, you see.”
Union lackluster in defense of workers rights and interests
Ms Wen explained that: “Because the union in a company is not independent, it should go along with the company’s intentions, but when employees raise opinions, you have to do your best to do this work well!” When asked whether the union supported the strike, Ms. Wen added, “When the situation has already occurred, the union then has to “deal with it at every level, no matter whether we support it or not.” Defending the union’s lack of support for the workers in this strike, Ms. Wen asserted, “Our wage level was on the high side for the industry in the Wenjiang district.” And the company will be paying out “over a million yuan more each year,” as a result of this pay increase, she said.
“The union in a company is not an independent body,” Ms. Wen repeated. “The union should support the company’s production and operations, working to increase its own income and at the same time increase workers’ income, concerning itself with both of these things. It is not an independent entity.” Asked whether she thought the union’s role was clearly spelled out in the 2001 amended Trade Union Law, which states the basic role of the union is “protecting workers’ lawful rights and interests,” Ms. Wen responded, “I think that the union’s function, if the union chairman is independent, with wages not paid by the company…with that kind of mechanism, it may, I hope it may be close to that.”
Currently, enterprise union officials’ salaries are paid by the company out of two percent of payroll. This has often allowed management to exert undue influence or pressure on union officials. Ms. Wen agreed with the idea that the union “certainly represents the interests of the workers!” But she insisted that the union could not play an independent role in her situation: “in government bureaus, the union is independent, but in a company, the union cannot be independent,” because a company has a “management responsibility system.” Later in the conversation, Ms. Wen also said that, in larger companies, “then the union is independent. There is a separate union chairman. Small companies are all like us.”
Ms. Wen later acknowledged that, in addition to being the union chair, she was also the deputy general manager of Wenjiang Guanghua Bus Company. It was her duty, she said, to “secure more profits for the company, secure better social and economic returns for the company. In my union role, it is to protect the legal rights of the workers.” Her area of managerial responsibility, Ms. Wen said, was “the expansion and development of the company,” such as negotiating with the authorities and paying fees to initiate new bus routes, which resulted in increased costs for the company in terms of more buses and drivers. Although reducing costs was not her specific duty, she said, reducing costs was “everyone’s joint objective.”
Ms. Wen did not see a conflict between her roles as the union chair and company deputy general manager. “I don’t think there is any great conflict,” she said. “I still want to protect workers’ rights, no matter whether I’m the union chairman or focused on the company’s business…I play the role of bridge and coordinator for the company…if the workers demand a wage increase, we have to give them a wage increase, or take both the company’s interests and the employee’s interests into account and patiently go about our work.”
However, she admitted that the November strike had “been an experience from which we are drawing a lesson. We were truly quite moved this time, and I feel that in our work from now on we need to be more proactive, try to understand the workers and let them tell us about the issues that are important to them.”
Asked why she thought the bus drivers did not approach the union before going on strike, Ms Wen said, “I don’t know,” and speculated that it was because the previous wage increase, the solution mediated by the union, had only recently been put in place. When the rival company came out with a higher wage increase, the situation escalated suddenly. “They…they acted as their own leaders, that’s how it went,” she said.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Ms Wen was broadcast in two episodes in November 2008. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.