When more than 700 workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen walked off the job in March, few people took notice. Even within the palm-tree-lined industrial estate, where the factory sits among dozens of others in concrete blocks differentiated only by the numbers on the door, the Ohms strike didn’t cause a stir. The employees were mostly young people from the countryside. Their strike consisted of little more than sitting on blue plastic stools outside the factory while they waited for the Panasonic-owned electronic-switch maker to respond to their demands. A single banner that read “Defending Rights” was the only sign they weren’t simply on break. But despite the workers’ intentionally low-key approach, their decision to walk off the assembly line had led to a significant development in the way China manages the relationship between labor and industry.
One week after walking off the job, the Ohms workers’ informal representatives met with management and hashed out a compromise. (Ohms representatives declined to comment on the strike.) The agreement included a pay rise of $28 a month, just shy of the $32 they were seeking and an increase of 10% on their basic wages. “It’s not 100% of what we asked for,” says one Ohms worker. “But they relented and we’re very satisfied with the results.” That sort pay of increase is commonplace in China, as labor shortages, inflation and rising worker expectations have all combined to push wages upward. What stands out about the Ohms workers was their third demand in addition to better pay and benefits: an election for the representative for the factory’s branch of the government-authorized labor union. That right is granted in Chinese labor law, but it is usually a top-down process that reflects the interest of management, not the workers themselves, says Han Dongfang, director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong–based NGO. On May 27 the Ohms workers elected a new representative: a 35-year-old assembly-line worker who ousted the standing union chair. “This is the first case of a real, bottom-up workers election. This is historical,” says Han. “It opens the door.”
The Ohms vote has been blessed by the local branch of the national state-run union. This year in Shenzhen the terms of union chairs at 163 companies will expire, and the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions will push for Ohms-style democratic elections for their replacements, said Wang Tongxin of the official union body. “In the future, democratic elections of trade-union representatives won’t be news,” Wang, the vice chairman of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions, told Chinese media in June. “It’s not something pioneering, it’s just the normal course of business.” But Han, who is best known for his role as a leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, says that this union vote is different because it was born out of a strike. “This is based on workers’ initiative,” he says. “If the union doesn’t defend workers’ rights, then it will be questioned by the workers.”
China’s ruling Communist Party, mindful of the political force of disgruntled and organized workers, remains wary of collective bargaining and cracks down hard on any efforts to create independent unions. But in coastal manufacturing regions there have been signs of grudging acceptance of workers taking action to push for higher wages. For one thing, the workers’ demands mesh with government goals of raising incomes. Over the past decade the average minimum wage has more than doubled, and the authorities want that to continue, calling for an average annual increase of 13% up to 2015. In cases like the Ohms strike, the authorities have come to realize that workers can forward the authorities’ agenda. “The government realizes it’s an economic matter,” says Han. “None of the workers are organizing strikes because they want political freedoms. It’s all about better salaries and benefits.”
(PHOTOS: Portraits of Chinese Workers)
The past few years have seen a steady growth in labor actions. The change became clear in 2010, when Honda Motor was hit by a series of strikes at its Chinese factories and suppliers. A two-week walkout at a transmission factory in the southern city of Foshan, which crippled production at the Japanese automaker’s four factories in China, was resolved only after a 24% pay increase. That spurred strikes at two other Honda-parts makers and an assembly plant, then China-based suppliers for rival Toyota. “Since the 2010 Honda strike, the cases of Chinese labor disputes and collective action have taken off,” says Liu Kaiming, a labor researcher and executive director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation. “In 2011 there were 1.27 million cases. That’s huge. And there were more than 1,000 large-scale strikes. Every day there were more than three big strikes.”
Unfettered union elections could help reduce some of that unrest, Han says, by giving workers a factory representative to voice their demands to management. And success in Shenzhen, a fishing town that became a model for China’s economic miracle after it was made a special economic zone in the early 1980s, could see the direct-vote model duplicated elsewhere in China. Still, labor advocates acknowledge that the government could backtrack on pledges to free up the voting process for union representatives. “We will watch this, of course, and we will push it,” Han says. “But I feel quite confident that as long as workers don’t have channels to express their needs, we don’t have to worry. They will be the real pushing power.”