Chinese Trade Unions and the Challenge of Labour Unrest

Dr Tim Pringle

09.Mar.2011 17.00
G22, Baines Wing - Leeds


The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is a powerful institution in China with the potential to pose a serious challenge to the authority of the Party itself. Not surprisingly, the latter has ensured that the ACFTU's constitutional acceptance of Party leadership remains legally, politically and administratively intact. On the other hand, the development of capitalist employment relations over the reform period has given rise to increased labour militancy in both the shrinking state sector and expanding private sector. This phenomenon has caused considerable concern among Party leaders seeking to ensure continued development, stability and Party authority. An important outcome of the deficit between stability and labour militancy has been pressure on the ACFTU to improve its capacity to represent working people – both migrants and the traditional urban working class – while doing nothing that might exacerbate unrest. For its part, the Party-state has obliged with new laws that afford better protection to workers. But the prevailing view inside and outside China is that the unions themselves are incapable of reform.

The proposed seminar will challenge this mainstream view of Chinese trade unions. I base my argument on the results of fieldwork examining two trade union pilot projects. The first concerns the contentious establishment of China's first trade union-managed labour rights centre. The second examines two models of enterprise-level trade union elections one of which includes the 'sea elections' pioneered in the countryside. I argue that the results of my research demonstrate that it is no longer useful to refer to the ACFTU as a monolithic organisation. My argument departs still further from the mainstream by locating the impetus for trade union reform in the challenge of increasingly sophisticated labour militancy from below, rather than reacting to orders from above. I conclude with a speculative discussion of questions raised by my research and its conclusions: to what extent have workers begun to exercise freedom of association in practice even as they are denied it in law? Is the emerging labour movement part of the weiquan movement? What are the prospects of a 'second trade union' emerging?

Biographical Notes

Tim Pringle studied Modern Chinese Studies at Leeds University in the mid-eighties and has been working on labour relations in East Asia and China since 1994. Tim moved to Hong Kong in 1996 and spent a decade working with trade unions and non governmental organisations to promote labour rights in Hong Kong and Mainland China. In 2004, he was appointed executive director of the International Confederation of Trade Unions' Hong Kong Liaison Office responsible for informing and developing the international labour movement's China policy. Tim returned to the UK in 2006, taking up a research post at the University of Warwick on an ESRC-funded project and completing his PhD. He has written reports and articles for numerous trade union and human rights organisations and has published in academic journals. Tim will publish two books in the coming months: The Challenge of Transition: Trade Unions in Russia, China and Vietnam (Palgrave) with Professor Simon Clarke; and Chinese Trade Unions: the Challenge of Labour Unrest (Routledge).