Stanley Lubman, long-time specialist on Chinese law, writes on the recent labor strikes and the role of China’s only labor union, All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) for the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time China blog:
China has had only one union since the PRC was established in 1949. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was first organized in 1925, de-emphasized after 1949 because the CCP was deemed to represent the interests of all workers, and then ceased operation during the Cultural Revolution. It was re-established at the end of that social upheaval and endorsed by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. A Labor Union Charter, its basic organizational document, was enacted in 1983. That document states that the ACFTU is independent — subject to the supremacy of the CCP.
After the rise of opposition to Communist regimes in Europe in the 1980’s, notably by the Polish Solidarity movement and the establishment of independent labor groups during the Democracy movement that ended in Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, the Chinese leadership realized the potential power of conflict between the interests of workers and state policy. The economic reforms that began in 1979 led to many urban workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) losing their jobs and their entitlement to their “iron rice bowls,” and also to the erosion of union numbers. The arrival of foreign invested enterprises (FIEs) stimulated state attempts to strengthen the role of labor unions without endowing them with real independence or power, creating the potential for tensions that are now rising to the surface.