It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest
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Shenzhen is in many ways an exemplar of the new China, having grown from a population of some 30, people to over eight million in under twenty-five years. As early as —94 there was a wave of strikes among migrant workers for wage rises to cover inflation, but militancy thereafter declined as a new labor law gave workers legal remedies against mistreatment.
However, by the number of strikes surged again as workers discovered that the law gave them little real protection. This was a relative rather than absolute shortage, with growing numbers of peasants either staying in their villages as agricultural rates increased or going further north for better-paying jobs, but it left Shenzhen short of some , workers.
The response of the local authorities was to increase the minimum wage in , and again in —an increase of almost one-third in two years. To what extent this works is unknown, but what is certain is that workers are very aware of minimum-wage rates. Just how aware workers are was shown in July , when the local government followed the provincial government in not increasing the minimum wage for that year. This was met by a new round of strikes, which forced the local government to backtrack and raise the minimum rates in October.
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In the West, it is the rich people who influence politics and the government fears the rich. Now, in China, it is the rich who fear the government and the government fears the poor. The poor have a high potential to threaten social stability and social order. The following year, of course, the world economic crash hit, with some twenty to thirty million migrant workers in China losing their jobs as plants closed, and workers losing the advantages they had enjoyed over previous years.
However, this view is balanced by his finding that strikes left no lasting organization behind, and that strike leaders often lost their jobs following their return to work. High turnover and the effects of the hukou system household registration that denies migrant workers the right to settle permanently in the cities also contributed to the loss of momentum following strikes. He is clear-sighted about gender divisions, the role of supervisors and the minority of skilled workers in organizing strikes and protests, and the contradictory nature of place-of-origin association.
These organizations of workers from the same village, county, or province are often how workers get jobs in the first instance, and they provide everyday support in workplaces and communities where workers speak various dialects or languages, have many customs, and eat very different foods. Everyone came together for fun. Wow, all of us felt great! The workers were especially thrilled when they heard a rumour that the mayor had gone to the control station to take command of the police in person. In the first years of this century, workers gradually pushed back the limits of what was possible.
Although there is still no legal right to strike in China, in practice strikes will be tolerated if they stay within acceptable limits—demands on the employer over wages or conditions. Any attempt to raise wider political questions, or to talk about independent unions, will attract repression.
And yet the frequency of strikes necessarily raises the question of permanent organization if workers are to defend the gains that they win during a strike. Trade Unions in China opens with two chapters on workplace organization and workplace militancy from the Maoist era until the early s, including an account of the battles around redundancy terms and agreements among workers in state-owned enterprises, from a perspective quite close to that of this journal. But with the growth of private and foreign-owned or foreign-invested industry through the s, ever greater numbers of workers fell outside this mechanism of control.
The mass sackings in state-owned industry further weakened it, with membership dropping by sixteen million in just four years in the late s. Like Chan, Pringle demonstrates how the growing militancy was a conscious choice made by increasingly confident workers:. Whereas in the past a collective strike was, generally speaking, a last resort to be used only after other forms of redress had been exhausted, it is increasingly the case that workers take strike action as a more efficient alternative to formal and crowded dispute resolution procedures.
In other words, they have become more militant.
Publications — Department of Management
At the center of the book are three very detailed examinations of particular initiatives by local ACFTU sections to make themselves more relevant to migrant workers. His conclusion, however, seems to suggest that in the short term workers have little alternative:. Indeed militant workers are usually very keen to avoid such a dangerous challenge in favour of calling for the open election of worker representatives. As the case studies show, the ACFTU is capable of responding to militancy at the local level, where the challenge has been most acute, by developing structures and practices that by no means overcome the limitations of state-sponsored trade unions, but which provide building blocks for the future.
In the immediate, this is undeniable. The problem, of course, is precisely the future. The auto strikers of , for instance, could not have used the ACFTU to make links among various plants. But for all we might disagree with some of the conclusions, this is an extremely well-researched and well-argued contribution to the literature, which assesses the ACFTU in terms of how well it can serve as a vehicle for worker militancy.
China in revolt? And even state-owned enterprise workers were still paid money wages, which they mostly spent on food when it was available. In several other cases, he details very innovative-sounding arrangements between union bureaucrats and either local government or employers, before speaking to workers who said they had never heard of them. If you already know something of the politics of migrant labor in China, this book will be very useful, but it does seem something of a missed opportunity.
The Challenge of Labour in China and T rade Unions in China are excellent resources, which any socialist can learn from, and which I think would work particularly well read together. Insurgency Trap is more a book for specialists, the worthwhile research unfortunately tangled up in a very flawed conceptual framework. Scattered sand However good an academic book may be, authors are always under a certain pressure to make political judgements in forms acceptable to the academy.
As the late Peter Sedgwick once famously noted:.
This arises because the considerable time and energy spent in writing them may have to be justified to departmental colleagues or seniors, and their names may well be included in a list of published works submitted in application for a research grant or a job. How do I know? Hsiao-hung Pai, the author of Scattered Sand , is under no such constraint. A socialist journalist, she is an activist writing for activists, and aiming to give readers a sense of the contradictory lives of migrant workers.
She has a chapter on factory workers in Guangdong that echoes the other books reviewed above in discussing the growing militancy and spread of strikes, with accounts of the Honda strikes and several others.
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Many second-generation migrant workers have become increasingly reluctant to take up the lowest-paid jobs. In widening her focus beyond Guangdong, though, she gives some sense of the depth and breadth of that ocean. We meet—all too briefly—miners working in illegal private mines in Shanxi, workers in brick kilns on the outskirts of Tianjin, and earthquake refugees in a Sichuan labor market. Preview Your Review. Thank you. Your review has been submitted and will appear here shortly. Extra Content. Read from the Book Fences and WindowsNo Logo articulated the concerns of a generation and chronicled a new movement.
In doing so it became an international bestseller and was translated into twenty-three languages. Since its publication Naomi Klein has tirelessly contributed to the contemporary debate on globalization, its impact and its future. Fences and Windows brings together two years of commentary written at demonstrations and summits around the world -- eyewitness reports from the front lines of the globalization debate. It brings us up-to-date on the protests and possibilities, the hopes for change and the barriers raised against it. Preface: Fences of Enclosure, Windows of PossibilityThis is not a follow up to No Logo, the book about the rise of anti-corporate activism that I wrote between and That was a thesis-driven research project; Fences and Windows is a record of dispatches from the front lines of a battle that exploded right around the time that No Logo was published.
Overnight, I found myself tossed into the middle of an international debate over the most pressing question of our time: what values will govern the global age? What began as a two-week book tour turned into an adventure that spanned two and a half years and twenty-two countries.
It took me to tear-gas-filled streets in Quebec City and Prague, to neighbourhood assemblies in Buenos Aires, on camping trips with anti-nuclear activists in the South Australian desert and into formal debates with European heads of state. The four years of investigative seclusion that it took to write No Logo had done little to prepare me for this.
But this was no time to be shy. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of people were joining new demonstrations each month, many of them people like me who had never really believed in the possibility of political change until now. It seemed as if the failures of the reigning economic model had suddenly become impossible to ignore -- and that was before Enron.
In the name of meeting the demands of multinational investors, governments the world over were failing to meet the needs of the people who elected them. Some of these unmet needs were basic and urgent -- for medicines, housing, land, water; some were less tangible -- for non-commercial cultural spaces to communicate, gather and share, whether on the Internet, the public airwaves or the streets. Underpinning it all was the betrayal of the fundamental need for democracies that are responsive and participatory, not bought and paid for by Enron or the International Monetary Fund.
The crisis respected no national boundaries. A booming global economy focused on the quest for short-term profits was proving itself incapable of responding to increasingly urgent ecological and human crises; unable, for instance, to make the shift away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy sources; incapable, despite all the pledges and hand-wringing, of devoting the resources necessary to reverse the spread of HIV in Africa; unwilling to meet international commitments to reduce hunger or even address basic food security failures in Europe.
When schools were underfunded or water supply was contaminated, it used to be blamed on the inept financial management or outright corruption of individual national governments. Now, thanks to a surge in cross-border information swapping, such problems were being recognized as the local effects of a particular global ideology, one enforced by national politicians but conceived of centrally by a handful of corporate interests and international institutions, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
It is, instead, an intricate process of thousands of people tying their destinies together simply by sharing ideas and telling stories about how abstract economic theories affect their daily lives.
TOPIC: Aluminum Workers Union
Like others who found themselves in this global web, I arrived equipped with only a limited understanding of neo-liberal economics, mostly how they related to young people growing up over-marketed and underemployed in North America and Europe. But like so many others, I have been globalized by this movement: I have received a crash course on what the market obsession has meant to landless farmers in Brazil, to teachers in Argentina, to fast-food workers in Italy, to coffee growers in Mexico, to shantytown dwellers in South Africa, to telemarketers in France, to migrant tomato pickers in Florida, to union organizers in the Philippines, to homeless kids in Toronto, the city where I live.
This collection is a record of my own steep learning curve, one small part of a vast process of grassroots information sharing that has given swarms of people -- people who are not trained as economists, international-trade lawyers or patent experts -- the courage to participate in the debate about the future of the global economy. These columns, essays and speeches, written for The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications, were dashed off in hotel rooms late at night after protests in Washington and Mexico City, in Independent Media Centres, on way too many planes.
They contain the most damning arguments and facts I could get my hands on to use in debates with neo-liberal economists, as well as the most moving experiences I had on the streets with fellow activists. Sometimes they represent hurried attempts to assimilate information that had arrived in my inbox only hours earlier, or to counter a new misinformation campaign attacking the nature and goals of the protests. Some of the essays, especially the speeches, have not been published before. Why collect these ragtag writings into a book?
In part because a few months into George W. It has also inspired many activists, who had previously registered only symbolic dissent outside of summits, to take concrete actions to de-escalate the violence. But as the movement entered this challenging new stage, I realized I had been witness to something extraordinary: the precise and thrilling moment when the rabble of the real world crashed the experts-only club where our collective fate is determined.
So this is a record not of a conclusion but of that momentous beginning, a period bookended in North America by the joyous explosion on the streets of Seattle and catapulted to a new chapter by the unimaginable destruction on September A few months ago, while riffling through my column clippings searching for a lost statistic, I noticed a couple of recurring themes and images.
The first was the fence. The image came up again and again: barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders, to express political dissent, to demonstrate on public streets, even keeping politicians from enacting policies that make sense for the people who elected them. Some of these fences are hard to see, but they exist all the same.
A fence goes up around the family farm in Canada when government policies turn small-scale agriculture into a luxury item, unaffordable in a landscape of tumbling commodity prices and factory farms. There is a real if invisible fence that goes up around clean water in Soweto when prices skyrocket owing to privatization, and residents are forced to turn to contaminated sources. These fences, of course, are as old as colonialism. He was referring to the terms of a British loan to Argentina in Fences have always been a part of capitalism, the only way to protect property from would-be bandits, but the double standards propping up these fences have, of late, become increasingly blatant.
But the asset protection guaranteed to companies under free trade deals did not extend to the Argentine citizens who deposited their life savings in Citibank, Scotiabank and HSBC accounts and now find that most of their money has simply disappeared. Every protected public space has been cracked open, only to be re-enclosed by the market.