Between May and July of 2018, several workers at Shenzhen Jasic attempted to form a union, but were dismissed from the factory. In mid-July, these former employees obtained support from people outside Jasic (including university students, workers from other factories and former Jasic employees who had been fired or pressured to leave over the previous few months) and went with them to the factory gates a few times demanding reinstatement. On July 20th, local police seized about twenty of the protestors and held them at the station overnight. They were released the next day, but they and other supporters went back to the station on the 22nd and protested with a list of demands. On the 27th, twenty-nine people involved in these protests (including former Jasic employees, workers from other factories and at least one current student) were placed under formal detention as suspects for the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事罪). Over the following days, more students and other supporters from several cities came to Shenzhen, where they carried out acts of solidarity calling for the detainees’ release. Attention to the case spread quickly via social media, inspiring lofty phrases such as, “This struggle has opened up a new chapter in the contemporary Chinese working class’s self-conscious fight against oppression.”
On August 24th, police seized about fifty other supporters, sending some of them home, placing others under detention, interrogating them, etc., until the solidarity campaign basically died down. By the end of the month, most of the detainees had been released. (At present about ten people remain in detention.) On September 3rd, four of the workers were formally charged and are awaiting trial.
Shenzhen Jasic Technology Co., Ltd., was established in 2005. It mainly produces industrial equipment for welding and cutting. Its factory in Shenzhen’s Pingshan District has about one thousand employees, including six hundred general production workers. In 2018, the basic starting wage is 2,130 yuan per month—the legal minimum wage for Shenzhen. The company provides lodging for free but charges for food. There is usually plenty of overtime during the busy months. Jasic requires joint contribution of employees and the company into the Social Insurance program (as per the law), but allows them to choose whether both parties contribute to the Housing Fund (although this too is required by law). After deducting the payments for insurance and food in the canteen, and adding overtime and bonuses for performance and seniority, general production workers make about 4,600 yuan a month. In addition, the company claims that it provides air conditioning in its dormitories, leisure facilities for sports and karaoke, and annual holiday excursions.
All of this is average for a mid-scale enterprise in Shenzhen. On the other hand, over the past two years, the factory has continuously increased production, pushing down labor costs. According to one former employee, until he was pressured to leave in March, his daily productivity had nearly doubled since last year, using tricks in scheduling to decrease the factory’s expenditure on overtime pay. In order to control costs, the bosses had made some vexing moves related to wages. Since about 2016, it has become common for the management to practice tiaoxiu (调休)—the redefinition of workers’ days off (including times when managers told them to stay home due to supply shortages) as “weekends” or “holidays” in order to decrease overtime pay (so when they actually work overtime they are paid only the regular wage)—and when workers requested days off for personal reasons, their wages were deducted in double. Some employees estimate that the factory saves several hundred yuan per worker every month through such methods. It also saves money by calculating the high-temperature subsidy on a daily basis (rather than per month as required by law).
In order to make the workers follow orders, the management set up a special, wide-ranging disciplinary system called “the Eighteen Jasic Prohibitions” (佳士十八禁). Prohibition #3, for example, calls for dismissal without severance pay if an employee “fails to comply with work arrangements,” and #16 says workers are to be fined between one and two hundred yuan for “wasting food or failing to queue up properly in the canteen.” Both ordinary employees and low-level managers have been punished for such reasons. However, activist workers did note that the Prohibitions have not actually affected many employees.
Another characteristic worth mentioning is Jasic’s system of “collective (management) shareholding,” i.e. all levels of management, including several of the lowest level team leaders, own shares in the company, from which they receive substantial dividends each year. According to some of the workers, this is an important reason that the managers have gone to so much effort in implementing company policies. And of course the pressure caused by the managers’ investment in the company’s profits and losses has been felt by the workers on the production line.
The Resistance of a Few Workers
Starting last year, several employees at Jasic began to resist the factory’s oppression. In July 2017, about a dozen workers went to the Labor Bureau and registered a complaint about the factory’s fines, tiaoxiu, and underpayment of the high-temperature subsidy. Henceforth, tiaoxiu was reduced and wages were no longer deducted in double when workers took days off for personal reasons, but the management also punished several of the workers who had taken the lead by transferring them to positions cleaning out the warehouses for an extended period of time.
In March and April of this year, this group resumed its activities. Some of them went again to the Labor Bureau to register a complaint about the “Eighteen Prohibitions,” requesting that the money they had been fined be returned to them. The Bureau investigated the factory and told its managers to change their practices, and the latter promised to stop fining the employees and controlling overtime, but refused to return the money that had already been deducted. A few of these workers also expressed opposition to the factory’s requirement that already fatigued employees participate in “marching exercises,” but those who raised the objection were punished by being barred from working overtime. A few days later, the management found excuses to dismiss them entirely.
These militant workers seem to have concluded that they would not last much longer at the factory. In May, they went to the Pingshan District Federation of Trade Unions (PFTU) and applied to establish a union in the plant. On the surface, the PFTU expressed agreement, as did the plant’s senior management. But this was only on the condition that Jasic first provide documents agreeing to the establishment of the union, which it kept postponing.
In June, the company organized elections for a so-called “Employee Representative Congress” (职工代表大会). According to workers, the election process was a complete joke, with the managers directly assigning candidates, preventing those who received the most votes from running, failing to read out the ballots in front of the workers, etc. Needless to say, none of the workers who had proposed the idea of forming a union were elected.
In early July, those workers who had applied to form a union began to canvas their workmates in the dormitories, collecting signatures for a “Statement of Willingness to Join the Jasic Union” and publicizing the virtues of forming a union. Before long they had collected 89 signatures. These unionist workers later said someone responsible for the PFTU had said on the phone that they could do this. But the situation quickly changed. In mid-July, six of these activists were dismissed, one after the other, nominally for “fighting” or “refusing to be transferred to new posts.” The PFTU also changed its attitude, severing its ties with the unionist workers. That’s when the events mentioned above began to unfold.
Overall, the employees at Jasic were discontent, but no collective rebellion broke out. The resistance of this group of workers, including their attempt to organize a union that the media has focused on, was met with a few expressions of sympathy, but it remained essentially isolated. Of course after “the Jasic Incident” had given rise to social repercussions, the company and the state tightened their grip, making it even more difficult for the former employees to do anything together with workers still inside the factory. However, it should be acknowledged that throughout the previous few months of agitation, the overwhelming majority of workers had never budged from their inactive position on the sidelines.
Why Didn’t Most of the Workers Take Action?
Anyone familiar with workers’ struggles in the PRD knows that the main motivation for leaving one’s distant village to come here and work is quite simply to make money. Workers’ biggest concern is whether they have the chance to work enough overtime to make a decent income. They are rarely willing to stand up and fight back against everyday oppression just at the drop of a hat. One of the activist workers who tried to organize the union at Jasic emphasized how strenuous the work was on the assembly line:
We have to work continuously from dawn to dusk. They yell at us if there’s any problem. We don’t even have time to use the toilet or get a drink of water. Last year no one on my line took any days off, but this year everyone has. If things continue like this, I’m going to have a breakdown!
But this is just the way things normally are in factories throughout the PRD, China and even most parts of the capitalist world. A defining characteristic of workers (in the PRD and probably most places) is that they generally adapt themselves to the environment and focus on making money, no matter how hard it is. Even if the boss starts punishing the workers with fines for minor infractions, or practicing tiaoxiu, workers normally just put up with it. If it gets so bad they can no longer stand it, they usually just quit and look for another job.
As mentioned above, the pay and conditions at Jasic are quite normal for Shenzhen—neither good nor particularly bad. Even when workers do encounter an especially bad factory, the usual response is not to try to improve it by fighting back, but simply to leave. To simplify a bit, workers’ everyday forbearance derives from their overall condition as members of the oppressed class, from their institutionalized subordination to industrial production. This deeply rooted passivity is not something that can be changed simply by “talking sense into them” or performing a few brave demonstrations of resistance.
At the same time, workers aren’t made of wood, they just bury their rage within their hearts. When it’s time to rebel, they aren’t afraid to pull out a long list of grievances. For many years now in the PRD, once a strike has gotten underway, it has been common for workers to begin expressing a vast array of previously suppressed demands: “There are bedbugs in the mattresses! There’s not enough food at lunch! We want AC in the dorms!”
So when is it possible for workers to take action collectively? Regardless of the specifics, when they do, there is always some focal point of concern to everyone involved. Ten years ago this usually centered on wage arrears, wage cuts, or failure to increase wages according to schedule. The past few years this has shifted toward severance pay when factories close or relocate, or to back-payment for years of unpaid Social Insurance contributions. Those who take the lead in such actions have usually been low-level managers or senior workers who are familiar with the rhythms and internal workings of the factory as a whole.
As for the struggle at Jasic, a preliminary assessment is that a focal point did not emerge capable of catalyzing everyone’s interests. This was demonstrated by the lack of any collective action there for at least the past few years. In addition, the boss has used the strategy of “collective shareholding” to boost the managers’ morale. Although the factory had been operating for many years, none of the workers involved in trying to form the union were the sort of senior employees who had undergone disputes with management in the past and could, on that basis, establish a foothold among the workers. It would thus have been hard for the activists to bring out more workers or find an appropriate opportunity to launch a collective action.
Among the many strikes occurring regularly in the PRD, a small number have involved efforts at establishing (or, more commonly, electing new leaders for existing) plant-level unions. Sometimes this has been proposed as a bargaining chip, as in, “If you don’t fork over the cash, we’ll get organized!”—pressuring the state to make the boss compromise, lest things get out of hand. There have also been a few cases where workers who won a struggle then hoped to take things a step further. For example, in the union elections after the Honda strike of 2010, both the company and the state expended great effort to prevent militant strikers from taking control over the union. In any case, according to Chinese law, the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) has absolute power over all basic-level unions, so the latter have no autonomy in any real sense. Setting aside the long-standing international debate about what kinds of unions may help or hurt workers to build class power, and under which conditions, in contemporary China these questions still await exploration.
Considering that there were no widespread grievances about which the workers had accumulated anger over an extended period of time (as has been common in recent years for factories facing relocation, replacement of senior employees, changes to employment contracts, etc.), there was nothing in particular to catalyze them, which is to say no basis for collective action, so it is not surprising that the effort was defeated so easily.
Although the call to form a union initially received some positive responses (in the form of 89 signatures among), once the effort was obstructed, there was no sign of collective action. In other words, what supporters and the media have emphasized as “Jasic workers forming a union” must be soberly acknowledged to have amounted to little more than the isolated battle of a few activist employees.
Activist Worker Yu Juncong
Over the past month or so, supporters of the detainees have published a number of texts about Yu and the other activist workers that help us to better understand their approach to organizing through their past efforts.
The eldest in his family, twenty-five year-old Yu had been out working for several years. He survived a fire at the apartment he was renting in an urban village. His wife had a miscarriage due to overwork at Jasic. While trying to obtain medical treatment for her, he discovered that the factory had linked their health insurance to a certain private hospital, and it was difficult to transfer coverage. He took up spreading information to help workers fight for their rights, visiting several state agencies in Pingshan: the Social Insurance Bureau, the Labor Bureau, and the PFTU. He wrote out the lyrics to “The Internationale” in his notebook and underlined the words, “When everything belongs to the workers / we will no longer tolerate parasites [i.e. an exploiting class]” (一切归劳动者所有，哪能容得寄生虫).
He worked hard and knew when it was necessary to appear accommodating to the boss. Last year when he took the lead in going to the Labor Bureau to register a complaint about Jasic, he was punished by being transferred to a position cleaning the warehouse. Instead of reacting rashly, he performed the task diligently but went to negotiate with senior management several times, wrote a self-criticism (检讨) as requested, and was finally restored to his former position.
This April, he again pissed off the managers by registering another complaint: “They did everything they could to make me leave: transferring me back to the cleaning position and threatening to deduct my coworkers’ performance bonuses if they talked to me.” He stood his ground, but his coworkers couldn’t keep up the pace. He wrote of his frustration: “The worst part was that some of my workmates accepted the company’s propaganda saying that I was deliberately stirring up trouble, that I was crazy. […] Many of them were already married with kids and didn’t dare to take risks.” These frustrations come from the heart, surely, but are limited in perspective. Regardless of whether workers are married or have kids, they have often been willing to participate in strikes for many years in the PRD. The real question is how to get things started.
Yu expressed awareness that his coworkers found him different from a “normal” worker in the PRD: “Many workmates have asked, what’s the point of staying at Jasic when the managers treat me like this? Why don’t you go look for a better job? It’s not like you’re going to outlast them (耗不过)!”
In response to such well intentioned advice from “normal workers,” he obstinately replied, “Everyone says resistance is futile, but look at the reality: after I reported to the Labor Bureau last year, Jasic stopped docking our pay for leave of absence, and tiaoxiu isn’t as common as it was before.”
This May he was dismissed from Jasic, but he returned to play an active role in the protests about the union, up until he was detained. At a speech during one of the protests, he said:
Those of us who work in factories far from our hometowns all understand how much money we can make in a month. Despite such low wages, the bosses still dock our pay left and right. When our productivity goes up, they reduce our overtime. With so little pay, how can we raise our families and children? How can we even survive in Shenzhen? When we try to increase our pay just a little, to get back what they’ve illegally taken from us through fines and tiaoxiu, we go to the Labor Bureau but they don’t stand up for us. Instead, the bosses accuse us of stirring up trouble! They accuse us of ulterior motives! […] Each one of our bosses has billions of yuan worth of assets, whereas we make only twenty or thirty thousand yuan after working an entire year. What’s wrong with trying to increase that a little by getting back what was illegally taken from us?
These are the words of a worker speaking with confidence that justice is on his side, without parroting anyone else, without any intentional rhetoric or sensationalism.
Yu and Chun: Two Approaches to Everyday Resistance
After this group of workers engaged in such activities on and off for over a year, the management, with the nose of a bloodhound, began to smell something fishy. Jasic’s HR department made a public announcement (later shared online by the workers and their supporters): “Our company has encountered four employees who are hard to deal with. They all got jobs here at the same time last year. They’re always stirring up trouble.”
Judging by the information available to the public at this point, among the workers who played a central role in this struggle and subsequent solidarity activities, including present and former Jasic employees and workers from other factories, most have experience taking the lead in fighting for workers’ rights at other factories, including: reporting to state authorities about illegal overtime arrangements (forced overtime and underpayment), reporting about nonpayment of contributions to Social Insurance and the Housing Fund, demanding that bosses contribute to the Housing Fund for temp agency employees, demanding equal pay for agency employees, and that agency contracts be converted to direct-hire in a timely manner. For such reasons, these workers have often been dismissed or pressured to leave with a little severance pay, like offerings to the God of Pestilence.
After a few years of this, it becomes more and more difficult to put down roots in any factory. One former Jasic employee with a similar experience was informed that some of the firms in Pingshan share a blacklist with the Bureaus of Human Resources and Labor. The person who told him this (an injured worker with activist experience) said, “If you keep doing this (i.e. fighting for workers’ rights) everywhere, you’ll be put on the list as a ‘specialist in coercing people into stirring up trouble’ (专门闹事讹诈), and you won’t be able to find a job anywhere in Pingshan.”
In contrast with such workers who boldly rush to the front lines, some other proletarians in the PRD who seem more sensitive to details of time and place also egg on their fellow workers in the face of labor disputes, actively setting an example, but there are clear differences in their observation of the climate, and in their grasp of when to advance and when to retreat.
After nearly thirty years out working and trying to fight for workers’ interests, Chun has discovered a few tricks. While working in the warehouse of a Hong Kong-owned paint factory in Shenzhen, he saw his coworkers grow increasingly furious with the company. Going along with this sentiment, he took advantage of the opportunity to play an active role in several labor disputes. Once, when over one hundred warehouse employees discovered that their annual bonus was less than expected, he told them, “If we feel this is unreasonable but continue to work, what will the company say? Of course they’ll ignore us.” After a strike had broken out but the managers continued to say “the boss isn’t here,” he and several coworkers confronted them, saying, “You claim to speak on behalf of the boss, but at the same time you claim to lack the authority to meet our demands? In that case, there’s no point in talking.” Eventually the company offered to pay half a month’s salary. Chun wasn’t content with this, but everyone was going back to work, and he didn’t try to stop them since that wouldn’t have accomplished anything.
Later the company’s HR department accused Chun of “leading” the action. He didn’t argue with them, but warned, “Do you have any proof? If so, then fire me. If not, then don’t talk nonsense.”
When the warehouse discovered that the company was cutting their customary bonus for working that position, Chun phoned the general manager and pressured the department to restore the bonus. This is how he explained why he continued to fight for everyone’s collective interests despite the others’ inaction: “Although none of us trusted the company, the others were hesitant to take action and would only complain about it. They would say, ‘It’s useless to fight back against this sort of thing.’ Only I took the initiative to call the general manager, but if they paid only me and not the others, they knew I wouldn’t accept that.”
Through such everyday resistance, Chun conveyed a message to the others: “We have to fight both to keep what we have and to get what we don’t have yet. Anything is possible.” At the same time he was careful to make sure he was expressing something that his coworkers felt too, rather than appearing to be an isolated “troublemaker.”
By contrast, although the activist workers at Jasic tried to develop ties with their coworkers for nearly two years (actively participating in activities organized by the company and introducing themselves to everyone), they seem to have been in a rush to succeed without paying sufficient attention to their environment.
These workers’ demand for reinstatement after being fired from Jasic went beyond the norm for labor disputes in the PRD. They weren’t interested in pursuing the customary solution to such problems of illegal dismissal—monetary compensation (or the satisfaction of some other material demand)—but instead took the risk of incarceration in order to push the struggle forward and turn it into a public spectacle.
This begs the question: did these activist workers have something in mind beyond simply helping their coworkers in an immediate sense? For example, did they hope the latter would follow their example? When they persisted in trying to form a union from the bottom up when the odds were clearly stacked against them, were they trying create a spectacle and raise workers’ struggles from their present low level by “pulling up the seedlings to make them grow”? We can only wait for clarification. This is not to imply, of course, that the workers who participated did not genuinely resent Jasic and its bosses or desire a struggle against them.
Rhythm is Essential
If a group of activist workers are eager to “organize the masses” in a factory before having become accustomed to the managerial rhythm of capitalist enterprise, they are likely to meet with frustration. For people like Yu Juncong who have done their time in such settings, this is less of a problem than that of how to properly take the lead among their coworkers. But even among the activists at Jasic, not all managed to acclimate themselves to the rhythm.
During the protest at the gates of Jasic on July 24th, the speech of one young woman who used to work there stood out. She mentioned that her position involved the use of a box-cutter, and that everyone on her line “had cut their hands more than once, severely enough to cause bleeding more than one.” She mentioned that there was a first-aid kit in her workshop, but it was always out of bandages. She said that she tried to use this fact to inspire her coworkers to rebel, but instead they just wanted to finish their work as quickly as possibly so they could clock out. She discovered that she was allergic to some of the chemicals used in the workshop and wanted to warn the others to be careful, but a coworker just said, “That’s normal, everyone’s allergic and gets rashes.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. She mentioned the bosses’ unlimited power: “If they want you to do overtime you have to do it, and if they want you to take the day off you have to comply.” Toward the workers around her, she developed the sense that “It was so hard to unite them, they didn’t understand or accept [the idea that they should fight back]… I began to feel hopeless.” Eventually she couldn’t take it anymore and resigned.
Anyone who wants to organize workers for struggle must learn the skill of patience. This is not so much a personal quality as it is the willingness to adapt oneself to the capitalist rhythm of industrial production, to the rhythm of survival of workers as a class: to grasp the changing dynamics behind the class’s alternating quietude and arousal, and to move forward together on its path to liberation.
A Dormant Class Sentiment
Regardless of whatever mysteries might be involved, the Jasic struggle’s “firm and powerful” (硬朗) style (as some observers have put it), and the words and deeds of the workers from Jasic and other factories who came forth to support them, have displayed a normally concealed sentiment that has been accumulating in the PRD over the course of many years. This should be taken seriously.
The efforts of Yu and the others to build solidarity in the factory should be acknowledged and valued. The lessons of their experience should be carefully studied by others who want to be involved in labor activism. As one supporting worker from another factory said in a video about police brutality, right after being released from detention: “If we workers are ever to achieve any dignity and stop being abused, we’ve got to get organized and fight back!”
–September 16th, 2018
 From the Peking University students’ petition: 北大学生就「深圳7·27维权工人被捕事件」的声援书 2018年7月29日
 However, the workers say the company does not pay its full share of the payment for Social Insurance and the Housing Fund.
 In an interview on July 24th, one of the activist workers said, “Most of the employees haven’t been fined. Most are obedient and are careful not to break the rules.”
 《致佳士科技职工代表换届选举筹备组的一封信》 螺丝哥 打工一家人 6月29日
 According to unionist worker Mi Jiuping, on July 18th PFTU official Xi Zhihai request that he sign that the effort to form a union at Jasic had no ties with the PFTU.
 One of the activist workers said that in late July the boss treated all the employees to dinner in order to express concern for them. Also, the police are suspected of sending agents into the factory to threaten the workers against discussing or acting in response to the protests outside.
 Interview, 24 July 2018.
 During the protest on 24 July, one of the activists from Jasic introduced an outside worker who had come to support them: “She works for another factory nearby that pays only five yuan for nightshift subsidy, doesn’t pay into the Housing Fund, and defaults on medical payments for workplace injuries.” In other words, at a nearby factory even worse than Jasic, most of the workers still aren’t willing to take action for themselves, and apparently only this one was willing to come support the protest at Jasic.
 In the Nanhai Honda strike of 2010, for example, the workers presented the managers with a list of over one hundred demands.
 See, for example, Article 11 of the Trade Union Law: “The establishment of a basiclevel trade union […] must be reported to the trade union organization at the next highest level for approval.”
 From an online article by his wife: 《我的丈夫余浚聪——那个领唱国际歌的工人》（2018-08-10）“他的本子上还记着许多劳动法的知识，也经常给大家聊，什么补偿金赔偿金的适用情况啦，什么哪几种算非法开除啦等等”.
 “哪里有压迫哪里就有反抗！” 木鱼和金鱼 普工之声 5月2日
 哪里有压迫哪里就有反抗！木鱼和金鱼 普工之声 5月2日
 被打员工余浚聪何许人也？ 普工之声 5月9日
 换厂是不可能换厂的！窃格瓦拉 普工之声 4月22日
 2018-09-04 “平平无奇胡平平，不平则鸣胡平平！——记深圳建会工人声援团工友胡平平”; 2018-09-03 “7·27被捕工人代表刘鹏华：为工友掏心窝，为工友建工会”
 2018年8月19日 “天下乌鸦一般黑，坪山何处艳阳天！”
 2017年版《珠三角抗争工人口述集 第二期》“一切皆有可能！ ——港资油漆厂员工自述”
 For example, on July 20th, after the former Jasic employees were detained by police together with a dozen supporters (while protesting at the factory gate, demanding reinstatement), they were held at the station overnight and released the next day. On the 22nd, these workers and their supporters went back to the station and protested, announcing three demands to the police chief: (1) “severely punish the thugs who assaulted people and dismiss the evil police (黑民警) who assaulted people”; (2) that the police reimburse the workers for their losses, including medical expenses and wages lost during the time they were held in custody; (3) that the police apologize publicly to the workers and promise not to break the law again. This was extremely different from the customary style of resistance for workers in the PRD. Normally, in order to try to resolve their own issues (related to wages, Social Insurance, severance pay, etc.), workers go to the Labor Bureau, the Social Insurance Bureau, the Petitions Office, trade union offices, or even the district or municipal government, but almost never the police station or the Public Security Bureau, partly because it’s not the function of the police to resolve such workplace issues. If demonstrating at the factory gate made sense as a direct confrontation with Jasic and an attempt to elicit support from workers still inside the factory, the idea of going back to the police station to protest can only be understood as a conscious effort to transform the struggle into a public spectacle in which it would be convenient for civil society to get involved.
 One possibility cannot be excluded: that the Jasic struggle—especially in its stages of forming the union, protesting at the police station and soliciting support from civil society—was a propaganda campaign devised by a few young people eager to see some sudden breakthroughs, under the influence of certain leftist ideas. Many of those active in the solidarity campaign have made public statements such as, “The workers urgently need to be armed by Mao Zedong Thought. We call on Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Troupes to enter the factories, the industrial zones and the lives of the workers.” (2018.8.14“要为底层谋翻身，要为工人争口气——从小就是毛泽东思想的继承人唐向伟”)