Chinese unions get wake-up call

GUANGZHOU, China — The wave of strikes rippling through China's southern manufacturing heartland have forced the country's officially sanctioned unions to try something novel: speak up for workers or risk being permanently sidelined.

Migrant workers, wary of company unions seen as ineffective or allied with management, chose to shut them out altogether when they made demands for higher wages and better benefits. It was a wake-up call for the umbrella group, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and their patrons — the communist leaders who thought they could rely on it to help keep a tight leash on labor unrest.

Founded on the backs of a peasant-worker revolution, China's trade union group has long been a paradox. With 1.8 million trade unions and some 226 million registered members, it is the largest labor body in the world. Yet to most Chinese workers, unions have largely been irrelevant because they have seldom advocated on behalf of workers.

Historically, it was established to relay the Communist Party's instructions to workers, not represent them.

Dozens of strikes in May through July that forced some companies including Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. to halt production have highlighted a major demographic shift in China: its citizens are aging while three decades of the one-child policy have limited the size of the working-age population. Migrant workers feel their bargaining power growing, as a younger, better educated and more assertive generation enters the labor force.

"If you don't represent workers, workers will give up on you," said Chang Kai, director of the Institute for Labor Relations at Renmin University. "There have been other strikes before but the Honda strikes showed that workers' awareness in protecting their interests is increasing. They didn't only ask for increased salary but they wanted to reorganize the trade union," he said.