The union election in Guangdong focuses democracy from three aspects: the first aspect is the generation of union member representatives. Workers will elect the representatives without any intervention from upper-level unions. The second aspect is the generation of union committee. Candidates are generated by a diverse combination of recommendations from workers, enterprise union or upper-level union, and enterprises. Union member representatives will then elect union committee members from this pool of candidates. The third aspect is the generation of union chairman. The union committee will generate the candidates for union chairman and vice chairman. Union member representatives will then vote for union chairman and vice chairman from this pool of candidates. This whole process emphasises bottom-up democracy.

Ohms union chairman Zhao Shaobo made a speech during the third union member representative meeting

Ohms union chairman Zhao Shaobo made a speech during the third union member representative meeting in 2012

Even the reformers in China’s trade union system do not think all companies are ready for democratic union elections. They fear that in certain factories, labour relations would go out of control if union leaders are democratically elected. Generally speaking, there are three types of factories that are not suitable for democratic election: first, factories that have tense labour relations. Workers at this kind of factories are likely to elect radical leaders as union chairman, who will not be helpful in stabilising labour relations. The second type is factories where workers come from different provinces that are antagonistic to each other. Southern Metropolis Daily once reported a union democratic election in a gas furnaces factory. As there are equal numbers of workers from Sichuan and Hunan provinces, the union election becomes a competition between workers from these two provinces. The result is, no matter who becomes the union chairman, he will find it difficult to carry out his work (Wu, 2003). The third type is factories that have just started production. Workers from these factories are not familiar with each other, and hence have no idea who to vote for. Back in 1991, when Shenzhen China Merchant Bureau started rolling out democratic union elections in Shekou Industrial Zone, it stated four types of enterprises that are not suitable for such elections: 1) those who are going to set up their first union committees; 2) those who have an annual worker turnover of over 40%; 3) those whose workers are obviously forming province factions; 4) those whose elections are severely intervened by hostile forces. Guangdong provincial union also introduced such restrictive regulations in Guangdong’s relevant union setup directives.

Obviously, the restrictive conditions reflect Chinese officials’ conflicting strategies in carrying out union reforms. On one hand, in a factory with frequent labour disputes, a democratically elected union chairman is easier to control than a group of unorganised workers. On the other hand, officials are worried if the grassroots unions go out of control (Howell, 2008). But if workers are not encouraged to partake in union elections, then the democratic union election is just hot talk. Take the Yantian International Port in Shenzhen for example, after workers strike in 2007, the company conducted union election, and in the union committee, most elected workers were radical workers during the strike (Wang, 2011). However, Yantian union was not unmanageable as imagined. The union had closer relationship with the upper-level union, and in 2012’s election, the mild but resourceful workers, rather than the radical workers, were elected by workers into the union committee. Companies that were hit by strike can be an opportunity to carry out democratic union elections, which can make use of workers’ awareness of solidarity and organisation developed during strikes. Workers are also at a better position to choose their leaders. As for as ‘control’ is concerned, a local union official once said, “Controlling a person is apparently easier than controlling a group of people.”

Democratic union elections are not only limited to certain factory types, but also have restrictive procedures. ACFTU launched Grassroots Trade Union Election Interim Regulation in 1992 and Trade Union Chairman Generation Method in 2008 to set out specific procedures for union election. The regulations also indicate the government’s top-down control over the election. First, although the candidates for union chairman will be discussed and generated by workers, the candidates have to be approved by the factory’s communist party committee and upper-level union.

Also, the procedure regarding the election process is very ambiguous. “Union chairman can be directly elected by the union member conference or union member representative conference, or can be indirectly elected by the union committee.” ACFTU does not advocate either of those two methods, as it holds that different enterprises have different circumstances. But in general, the former is more democratic than the latter.

The union election in Guangdong focuses democracy from three aspects: the first aspect is the generation of union member representatives. Workers will elect the representatives without any intervention from upper-level unions. The second aspect is the generation of union committee. Candidates are generated by a diverse combination of recommendations from workers, enterprise union or upper-level union, and enterprises. Union member representatives will then elect union committee members from this pool of candidates. The third aspect is the generation of union chairman. The union committee will generate the candidates for union chairman and vice chairman. Union member representatives will then vote for union chairman and vice chairman from this pool of candidates. This whole process emphasises bottom-up democracy.

Of course, there are obstacles in democratic union election. For example, in Ohms democratic union election, it is unpredictable who will be elected as union chairman, and the upper-level unions have no control or influence over the democratically chairman. The fact that Zhao Shaobo was elected as chairman was surprising. This approach generated a gap between the opinion of union committee and the opinion of workers representatives, making it difficult for Zhao to lead the union committee and perform duties. In the end, workers have to ask Zhao to step down. The lesson learnt is when the factory experiments trade union election for the first time, it is probably better to try the indirect union election first, which is to let the union committee rather than workers representatives elect the union chairman, so as to build solidarity among union committee members.

 

This article is the second section of our translation series for Wen Xiaoying’s paper entitled, “Labour Union Election: Guangdong’s experiences and lessons”. You can read the original Chinese version here.

The first section of this translation series: Guangdong, a beacon for China’s trade union reform

The second section of this translation series: Driving forces for Guangdong’s direct trade union elections


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Jennifer Zhang

Jennifer Zhang is USi’s China coordinator based in Hong Kong.

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