Inside the Rebellion

Chinese auto workers are becoming increasingly militant, but lack mass, independent organizations.

A large and growing wave of worker strikes and protests is sweeping across China. Last year alone, there were over 2,700 actions — double the total for 2014. And over a thousand have taken place so far this year.

Workers face an uphill battle. The Chinese Communist Party — unmoved by worker invocations of the CCP’s avowed values, including a commitment to working-class liberation — is cracking down on the unrest. They’ve arrested activists and closed key autonomous worker centers.

But the political turmoil engulfing the party has also created a potential opening for workers.

Chinese authorities are walking a tightrope, coupling a harsh response that seeks to limit the scope of protest with strategic concessions to demands for severance, pension payments, and wages.

In this turbulent period, explaining ongoing working-class resistance in China — its forms, expressions, potentials, and limits — along with the particular approach of the CCP and the state is an important and challenging endeavor. Sociologist Lu Zhang tackles this project in her new book, Inside China’s Automobile Factories: The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance, providing a brilliant analysis that springs from an exhaustive study of China’s auto sector.

Legitimacy Leverage

For twenty months between 2004 and 2011, Zhang conducted ethnographic research in seven large auto assembly plants (both state-owned and joint ventures) in six Chinese cities. At each facility she talked with workers (including permanent, temporary, and student workers) on the shop floor, in work group meetings, and outside the factory during employees’ spare time. Zhang also interviewed managers, party and union members, arbitrators, government officials, and industry experts.

The result is an expansive look at industrial transformation, extending from the beginning of the late eighties and early nineties reform period until today. Zhang shows how the changing political and economic context — particularly the country’s post-Mao development trajectory — catalyzed dramatic changes in the organization of production and the structure of the workforce. In the process, workers and management forged a fraught new relationship.

For Zhang, the auto sector is central to explaining larger structural shifts in the Chinese economy, particularly as it concerns the working class. In China, as in many other countries, the auto industry occupies a special place in the economy. The state views it as a bridge to building deeper (and ultimately more profitable) industrial and manufacturing capacity.

Autoworkers recognize their position in the production process affords them a special capacity to engage in effective workplace actions — to shut down production to achieve workplace gains.

Autoworkers’ experience has changed substantially from the state socialist period, however.

The challenges facing the Chinese state in a capitalist market environment — both in China and in the world economy it has chosen to enter — have radically altered the ability of Chinese autoworkers to defend their rights and act as protagonists.

While the political and ideological tendencies of China’s revolutionary project still carry weight among the country’s working class — and affect the relationships between workers, the ruling party, and the state — the requirements of capitalist development have created intense competition in China’s auto industry. Profitability demands constant cost reduction, often through exploitative practices like lean or just-in-time production and the segmentation of the workforce by wage rate, work status, and so forth.

These trends are present throughout the world. But what makes Zhang’s book so compelling is that she melds an analysis of workplace and industry processes with broader political shifts in the country. In particular, following Beverly Silver, she examines the interplay between legitimacy and profitability. Declining rates of return, Zhang writes, often lead to political crises rooted in questions of social legitimacy.

The regime tries to burnish its legitimacy in a couple of ways.

One is by appealing to the past. Working people still celebrate the CCP’s revolutionary transformation of China, which propelled the country out of semi-feudal, dominated status and promised to build a society that favored the working class. The state socialist system provided guaranteed work, social and health benefits, and the prospect of a better life.

When the CCP adopted a strategy of capitalist development — which necessarily involved the new processes of commodifying labor — it was forced to revise its appeals.

Today, the CCP secures legitimacy primarily through its vows to grow the economy and maintain social stability. Indeed, economic growth is a means to retain the party’s monopoly on political power — not necessarily the goal in itself.

Chinese workers aren’t inanimate objects in the legitimation process. In an environment without autonomous collective organization and collective bargaining, workers use the CCP’s need to justify its rule to make gains on the shop floor (a tactic Zhang calls “legitimacy leverage”).

These shop-floor struggles have been multiplying. The Chinese government itself noted that the number of labor disputes increased from 48,121 in 1996 to over 350,182 in 2007. In 2010, workers at a Honda transmission and engine plant struck, shutting down the company’s four Chinese assembly plants. Local actions also proliferate: collective refusals to participate in management rituals; sit-downs demanding wage increases; individual protests like absenteeism, sabotage, and slowdowns.

Workers Divided

One of the key developments in the Chinese auto industry — and auto industries across the world — is the emergence of a “dual” labor force.

In China, state-owned auto plants have gone from employing a relatively secure workforce to a segmented, or dual, labor force. “Core” workers — which include managerial and technical workers as well as permanent semi-skilled and unskilled workers — are largely those who used to be the beneficiaries of the danwei system (which guaranteed jobs and benefits) and who now work in a system of labor contracts. They toil alongside a secondary or temporary workforce, many of whom came from the countryside.

But while the formal employees work side-by-side with their temporary counterparts, and perform similar jobs, they do so under quite different conditions. Core workers receive higher wages and benefits and enjoy more job security; temps bear the brunt of profitability drives and cost-reduction efforts.

Additional social differences abound; they’re further separated according to education and training levels, urban or rural residency, and age.

The authorities have assumed that these myriad fissures — coupled with an acceptance by the formal workforce that their security is partially based on the insecurity of their temp coworkers — would be enough to secure permanent workers’ loyalty. Yet while core workers have preferential benefits and options for promotion, there is still constant attacks on their pay, working conditions, and the length and stability of their contracts.

Meanwhile, the secondary workforce has evolved over time into a younger, more highly educated, urbanized group. And they’re increasingly fighting back against extreme violations of their rights, at times with the backing of the core workforce.

At one job site, temps worked ten- to twelve-hour days for two months without a day off — only to find that the company wouldn’t pay them their wages and bonuses. So they went on strike. The work stoppage won them the support of formal workers, and after a couple of shifts, management relented and promised to pay.

Other strikes have been less successful in attracting support from formal workers, but many have still resulted in pay increases. And, Zhang writes, strikes and protests in the industry have helped pressure the state to pass important labor legislation, establish new rules for written labor contracts, and impose regulations on temporary labor agencies.

Poor People’s Movements

Zhang looks at the maelstrom of labor agitation in China and concludes that the working class can “bargain without unions” — that given the particular balance of forces, the role of the state, and the nature of the labor organization in auto, “grassroots labor unrest and pressure from below are the genuine forces that drive meaningful change in the workplace and reforms from above.”

The disruption such movements cause — even when they lack independent class organizations and class-oriented parties — can provide the impetus for reform, not only in China but around the world.

“[M]any of the gains made by ‘poor peoples’ movements’ do not come from the establishment of formal organizations oriented toward the capture of state power,” Zhang writes, summarizing the work of American sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, “but are a result of concessions wrung from the powerful in response to widespread, intense, spontaneous disruptions from below in response to the threat of ‘ungovernability.’”

To be sure, the form and scope of worker resistance that Zhang details has forced the Chinese state to at least oscillate between repression and accommodation. The CCP cannot simply act with impunity.

Yet without a larger oppositional framework — buttressed by conscious class organization — the ability to do more than limit the damage and indirectly shape contemporary capitalism is impossible. In China and elsewhere, working-class political parties and other popular organs remain essential for broader and deeper systemic challenges.

How such challenges can be launched in China in the face of an authoritarian state leadership is something activists and scholars will need to ponder. But Inside China’s Automobile Factories is a valuable contribution to that vital discussion.