“Doing Worker Work”: Activist Workers & the Jasic Affair

 In May of 2018, a small group of employees at the Jasic welding equipment plant in Pingshan District, Shenzhen called for the establishment of a workplace-level union in compliance with the Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China, beginning the preparatory work for setting up the union. The following month, Jasic found excuses to fire several of these organizers. From late June until mid-July, these former employees and some external supporters organized demonstrations until the police came and placed them under detention.

Throughout the following months, state agents have investigated, warned and detained many other people concerned with labor issues, placing at least forty under criminal detention.[1] The fate of these detainees has been followed closely by the international press and on Chinese social media, inspiring all kinds of solidarity activities. Some supporters, such as Professor Pun Ngai of Hong Kong University (who has researched labor issues in the Pearl River Delta for many years), have argued that “the Jasic incident” was “an inevitable outcome of China’s social development, one with extraordinary historical significance.”[2] Many other supporters have expressed similar sentiments.

In an earlier article, I attempted to clarify the course of events surrounding the Jasic affair, arguing that no sufficiently focused set of interests ever emerged at the plant that could have sparked workers’ collective action. As a result, there was little popular support for the activists’ efforts to form a union, which led to their failure.[3]

After that article’s publication, some supporters of the Jasic activists acknowledged that the plant’s “strict managerial system, its atmosphere of White Terror, the limits imposed by objective conditions ([activists such as] Yu [Juncong], Mi [Jiuping] and Liu [Penghua] only managed to communicate with about a hundred [of the plant’s one thousand] emp­loyees), and the high turnover rate of employees (with the plant ‘switching to fresh blood’ basically every three or four months): all these factors caused the efforts of Yu, Mi and Liu to meet with severe bottlenecks, making it hard for them to achieve the goal of building workers’ power.”[4] Among these activists, some were aware that the soil for collective resistance at Jasic was still not very fertile. Former employee Hu Zhi contrasted the plant with other places where he had worked over the past two years:

At Jasic I met with nothing but frustration. I had to challenge the powerful managers all by myself, so of course I was quickly defeated. Once I calmed down nothing was left but the loneliness of facing coworkers who didn’t seem to sympathize with me.[5]

On the other hand, the indomitable spirit of the Jasic struggle was remarkable. This was one of the main reasons that some supporters considered the incident to be of special significance: “The activist [workers] who took the lead were not afraid of threats, beatings or arrest. This marks major progress over workers of the past.”[6]

Indeed, the courage of this small group of activists to confront state violence head-on and refuse to surrender lightly is something rarely seen among workers’ struggles of recent years. This begs the questions: who are these individuals, and what sort of experiences gave shape to them? Over the past half year, supporters have published numerous testimonials about these workers and their past activities, much of which seem to be factually reliable.[7]

A Collective Portrait: Eager to Help Others, Willing to Stick Their Necks Out, Ready to Fight

In these testimonials, one characteristic shared by all the workers involved in the Jasic protests—from Ah-Ying, who left the mountains of Guizhou at age 15 to eke out a living, to Mengyu, who completed her master’s degree at a top university before getting a job at an auto plant as an ordinary worker—is that they were all eager to help others and to develop relationships with their coworkers. Ah-Ying saw a coworker’s two children fighting over a piece of candy and, saddened, bought make-up she didn’t need from her. Her husband Li Zhan gave his new jeans to a coworker who was short on cash after the boss had docked a month of his pay. Mi Jiuping would lend money to coworkers in need from time to time, altogether doling out several thousand yuan that he never got back. Hu Zhi got together with older workers to plant a vegetable garden and eat sugarcane. Liu Penghua would take his coworkers out on excursions during their days off, bringing along everything they might need for the trip, from tissues to carsickness pills, like Doraemon.

These testimonials also tell us that one thing all these workers did regularly was to invite coworkers over for dinner parties. Mi Jiuping was particularly generous. and Although he always explained it away, saying “my wages are higher,” the truth was that his department had a lot of overtime. Often it was Mi who bought the groceries, did the cooking and then even washed the dishes afterwards. Ah-Ying and Li Zhan would cook together for coworkers who weren’t doing so well. Mengyu would invite coworkers from the auto plant where she worked home to “share a feast,” where everyone took part in the preparation over friendly chatter. As for the significance of these parties, she explained:

Some workers have been in the same workshop together for years and yet still don’t really know each other, but our dinner parties would quickly bring everyone much closer together. They would get to know a lot more about each other. Workers’ power is hidden within these [relationships].[8]

Another point the testimonials emphasize is that, no matter which factories they worked in, all these activists sought to fight against injustice, and they were willing to take initiative in doing this. When Hu Pingping was a student at Nanchang University in Jiangxi, he helped campus workers who had been injured on the job to obtain compensation and unpaid wages. After coming to work in an auto parts plant in the Pearl River Delta (PRD), he led his coworkers in an effort to obtain their unpaid Housing Fund contributions, even filing a report on the state office personnel who tried to shrug off their responsibility for taking care of the issue. At another factory, Liu Penghua took the lead in demanding the back-payment of Housing Fund contributions and overtime pay for all employees. Similarly, at an injection molding plant, when managers forced Hu Zhi and several coworkers to work excessive overtime, they went together to file a complaint with the general manager, making him promise to “rectify the matter.” At another auto parts plant in Guangzhou, Wu Haining helped coworkers who had been injured on the assembly line to report their injuries and provide evidence that they were work-related. At a third auto parts plant, Mengyu collected signatures from workers on her shop floor for an open letter demanding an improvement to the air quality there. Finally, during a strike at a Japanese-owned electronics factory, Shang Yangxue became a delegate of the general workers and faced off with the Japanese managers, refusing to compromise.

These actions may have been spontaneous expressions of personal ethics, conscious efforts to become closer to their coworkers, or a little of both. Maybe they involved the motive of inspiring people to fight together. What is clear is that these activists were atypical among workers in the PRD to the extent that they were not content to settle for individual improvements, instead hoping to lead other workers in a struggle to “fight for dignity” (争一口气、做一回人), as I wrote about Jasic employee Yu Juncong.[9]

Unfortunately, among the sources publicly available at this point, none clearly describe the path whereby these workers became militant,[10] with the exception of Shen Mengyu. Perhaps her story will shed some light on some of the others as well.

From Sympathizing with the Poor to Struggling in Factories

In 2010, a wave of industrial conflicts along the coasts reverberated throughout Chinese society. University students became more concerned with the plight of migrant workers. Some conducted investigations of industrial districts or got jobs in factories during their summer breaks in order to get a better understanding of workers’ conditions.[11] For the most part, these activities were like dragonflies skipping along the surface of the water: the participants were motivated by serious political considerations or simple curiosity, but usually had no plans to put down roots and undertake the long-term work of supporting workers’ self-organization. Worth noting is that, among some students who got jobs in factories for short periods during this time, voices had already begun to emerge calling for the use of industrial conflicts to “mobilize the masses” by “taking the initiative to do something.”[12]

Over the following two years at university, Mengyu supported local sanitation workers in their struggle to obtain unpaid Social Insurance contributions, visited and interviewed workers striking for severance pay as their factories prepared to relocate, and worked short-term jobs in factories. In November of 2015 she got a regular position at an auto parts plant in Guangzhou, where she remained for over two years. In 2018 she looked back at this period of her life and concluded, “My decisions weren’t a momentary flight of fancy but became deeply rooted in my life’s course of events, in my understanding of workers’ conditions and the necessity of changing them.”[15]

In this factory, Mengyu networked and made friends, organized a small protest to improve the work environment, and endured her share of scorn from management. She learned that the factory had a union, but that most of its officials were managers and it did very little. In the union’s 2017 election, Mengyu’s division elected 31 member representatives, but only seven of those were ordinary production workers, and among the eleven plant-level committee members, only one was a worker. Mengyu was elected as union member representative for her workshop, and she hoped to use this position to make a difference.

In April 2018, after Mengyu and a few companions did some campaigning among coworkers, she was elected as her workshop’s employee delegate for that year’s “collective consultation” (i.e. bargaining) with the company over wages. On April 10th, the union committee published the list of employee delegates, including Mengyu. That evening, she began distributing a questionnaire to collect employees’ suggestions, attracting the attention of management. On the 16th, the company decided to bar Mengyu from entering the shopfloor to work during the consultation period in order to prevent her from networking among the employees. On the 24th, the union announced that the election for her division’s member representatives had not followed proper procedure and was invalid. The next day, Mengyu published an open letter to all members of the union, declaring that “no matter how much pressure is put on me, I will resolutely defend the legitimate demand for a raise on the part of all employees.” On the 26th, the union member representatives held an assembly where someone proposed rescinding Mengyu’s position as consultation delegate, but the proposal failed to pass.

On May 18th, as employees boarded a company bus, they found anonymous handbills maligning Mengyu. That afternoon, the employee delegation met for the third time to decide on a wage raise proposal. At the meeting, the union chairperson said the proposal would not require input from other employees. Mengyu expressed opposition, pointing out that, since there was disagreement among delegates and the proposal might not be in the interests of all employees, it was necessary to have ordinary union members confirm the proposal’s legitimacy. On the 21st, the company told the union to dismiss Mengyu from the delegation on the grounds that her questionnaire had “divulged company secrets.” She was also prohibited from working overtime and was assigned to perform busy work by herself. After a few formalistic “warnings,” she was fired on the 28th, without any severance pay.[16] A couple weeks later, after several rounds of negotiation, the company granted the wage raise demanded by employees.

After Mengyu left the factory, she and two coworkers went to court and sued the union for violating the Trade Union Law, and she also applied for labor arbitration regarding her dismissal from the job without just cause. In these procedures, the overwhelming majority of her coworkers were mere observers.

Why Didn’t Mengyu’s Coworkers Stand Up for Her?

In the factory, Mengyu tried to make friends with everyone and took the lead in fighting to obtain small improvements. Her coworkers’ decision to elect her as consultation delegate showed at least that they considered her to be reliable. The factory accused her of “causing problems,” signaling for the union representative assembly to rescind her position as a consultation delegate, but failed. Maybe some of the managers (many of the union member representatives were managers and office staff) secretly wanted a scapegoat to use against the boss at that critical juncture in the wage negotiation.

After Mengyu was fired, only a tiny handful of coworkers were willing to stand up for her. This is easy to explain in the context of PRD industrial relations. Although everyone was concerned about the wage negotiation, there wasn’t much intensity of action, with Mengyu basically fighting alone. Her coworkers had already shown some support (voting for her, participating in the questionnaire, opposing the company’s attempt to rescind her position as delegate), and maybe they felt that was already the most they should do considering that the factory was always putting pressure on everyone.[17]

Anyone familiar with labor struggles knows that it’s common during collective actions for workers to “abandon” those who initiated the action, or for initiators to abandon their coworkers. At present, PRD workers’ conventional understanding of such struggles is that it’s not the end of the world if you lose. So, it’s not hard to guess the thinking of Mengyu’s coworkers: whether it’s a matter of working or of electing Mengyu as consultation delegate, the purpose was the same—to make a little more money. If she was fired, that’s a pity. If she wants to take the case to court, good luck with that, maybe she can win some compensation. On the other hand, when actions are protracted and intense, with deeper investment on the part of the workers, they might be more active in standing up for those who take the initiative, even pooling funds to help cover their costs.[18] Of course, knowing this doesn’t decrease the disappointment felt by anyone who is “abandoned” by their coworkers.

Several years ago, another young woman named Xiaomei was working in a low-level managerial position (技术员) at a Japanese hardware factory. She had just been promoted due to her excellent performance, and she was on personal terms with a few high-ranking managers. Senior workers, with guidance from a local NGO, called on her, as a particularly “capable individual” (能人), to lead several hundred employees in a fight to obtain back-payment for Social Insurance contributions (although personally she had always received these payments from the company on time), which ended up lasting about a year. After she was stripped of her right to go abroad for training, transferred to a position “sorting company documents” in an open-air room, and eventually fired, the employees finally received their payments. But in the face of treats from the company, everyone quietly avoided her. Later, Xiaomei told an interviewer about her mood at the time:

That was the beginning of my repression. In the past, they [the workers fighting for Social Insurance] would often come and talk to me, but that was just because they hadn’t gotten the money yet. As soon as they got it, everyone became quiet. After the company installed surveillance cameras and began monitoring my conversations, people who had been friendly with me before no longer dared to come close. The boss met with them, warning them to stay away from me. […] I remember that period after I was fired, sitting at home by myself. I don’t usually cry in the presence of others, so I cried a lot by myself at that time, especially after the company punished me. I was really nervous.[19]

Later, Xiaomei got a job at a labor NGO, where she provided guidance for a successful struggle involving multiple strikes at a large-scale footwear factory, whose workers demanded severance pay in the face of relocation. Another wave of repression came in December 2015, when she was arrested for such activities. After being detained for several months she was forced to “confess and repent” and was sentenced to probation.

What’s Special about These Militant Workers?

 The plights of both Xiaomei and Mengyu after being persecuted by their bosses are common occurrences among workers who fight back. Regardless of who takes the lead, there are always obstacles in the process of resistance. Activist workers such as Mengyu, Mi Jiuping and Yu Juncong cannot escape this pattern.

Although the online testimonials tend to sound optimistic, it is easy to see that these activists have entered a difficult period in their efforts to encourage their coworkers to fight and in their confrontations with the bosses. Whenever someone stands up for their coworkers, it’s hard to avoid being fired, transferred to different post, or “escorted out of the territory,” as in the cases of Liu Penghua, Wu Haining and Hu Zhi. Workers unite to fight successfully for small concessions (such as forcing the factory to promise increased provision of safety masks), yet most become unresponsive when someone tries to push them forward to the next step (such as back-payment for Housing Fund contributions)—as experienced by Mengyu. When talks stall amidst a strike about severance pay in the face of factory relocation, hundreds of workers can be expected to surround the administrative building, but after some time passes, it becomes hard to mobilize even ten of these workers to support the struggle to form a union in another factory—as encountered by Shang Yangxue.

On the other hand, despite these obstacles, there are always opportunities to try to unite in struggle with their coworkers. In the PRD, where employment is full and bosses universally break the law, the counterpart to such obstacles is that it’s easy to begin struggles in the first place: as long as you’ve got the guts to open your mouth and demand what the company owes you, you might be able to get something, and the worst that will happen is that you may be fired. In an industrial environment characterized by a great deal of low-intensity friction, when Mi, Yu and their comrades challenged the bosses of various factories (setting an example for other workers), they often began things without finishing them. This kind of “hit and run” tactic gave them space to exercise their fighting skills.

Maybe it was precisely the relaxed space of a prosperous era that distorted these activists’ reading of the situation. After Mengyu was fired, while her coworkers merely stood by and watched, messages like the following continued to appear on her public WeChat account: “Throughout the entire [negotiation] process, we’ve seen the company’s weakness and the union’s ugly visage, repressing employees at the drop of a hat. Truly, ‘all reactionaries are paper tigers,’ and since half of this paper tiger has already been burnt away, the remaining half is even less cause for concern.”[20] Between the lines we can detect a sort of self-deception, a mindset that confuses imagination with reality.[21]

At this point, my tentative conclusion is that there was nothing special about the activities of these militants in comparison with those of other workers, in either the process or the results. Mengyu’s praxis in the auto-parts plant demonstrates this: She hoped to awaken workers to recognize that, as a class, they have much greater interests to fight for than just obtaining a little more money, but after she tried to mobilize them, they obviously remained in the same mindset as before.

If anything was special about these activists, it seems to have been themselves as people rather than their activities: they had higher hopes about what they wanted to accomplish by participating in struggles than ordinary workers. Maybe they represented part of the exploration of labor struggles in search of ways to promote solidarity and raise militancy? Or maybe the essence of the Jasic affair was that they (or some of them) were misled by certain political perspectives, rushing to establish influence and attract more comrades to join in their fight?

Continuing to Explore the Path of Workers’ Struggle

At present, Mengyu, Mi, Liu and their companions have been locked up, their exploratory praxis forced to end. The effort to form a union at Jasic failed due to lack of collective power and unfavorable timing. Maybe they had too little experience and too many illusions. Maybe they couldn’t see the path forward clearly enough to orient themselves.

Since about 2016, China’s capitalist economy has seen the decline of old industrial sectors and the growth of new ones under the pressure of international competition. This competition will only grow more intense as the global crisis deepens. In the coming years, moreover, the Chinese state will ensure that wage growth continues to stagnate.[22] Workers in the PRD, like Chinese society as a whole, are undergoing the transition to a new era. Workers’ old strategies and habits of survival may be forced to change in turn. Not long ago, some observers pointed out:

As a whole, workers in the PRD have developed more complicated demands as they’ve reached a certain age, like a living creature. Now they not only need jobs but have also begun to consider how they’ll survive when they get too old to work, the future of their children and grandchildren, or at least the ability to meet the basic standards of “civilized” life. They’ve begun to fight more actively than in the past for Social Insurance, and they hope their children will enjoy better prospects for education, marriage and careers than those of their own generation[….] Workers’ worries about the future have multiplied, but this increased burden contains the potential impetus for throwing themselves into more serious struggle.[23]

What such “more serious struggle” might involve remains to be seen. But it is clear that workers in the PRD and throughout China face two main tasks in this period of transition: to defend what they already have and to win what they don’t have yet. In order to coordinate between these two tasks, they will have to recognize the necessity of uniting together for protracted struggle. They will have to recognize that, as a class, they have much bigger things to fight for than merely obtaining a little more money. As one of the Jasic workers wrote at the end of 2018: “We’re going to take back everything thing that they owe us!”[24]

—Written in January 2019, revised after discussion with readers the following month

Postscript, February 2019

The aim of this article was to was to attempt a preliminary analysis of certain activities connected not only to the Jasic affair in particular, but to leftist labor activism more broadly, known as “doing worker work” (做工人工作), in the PRD throughout the historical period since 2010. The main obstacle to such an analysis is that too little specific information is publicly available. People connected to the Jasic affair have published a great deal of information, such as the testimonials cited above, and Shen Mengyu’s activities were made public even prior to this. Together these sources provided a basis for analysis.

The article may have been clearer had I directly raised a series of political arguments. For example, I could have argued that this group of activists subjectively treated workers as props to be used for their own political activities, rather than developing any deeper understanding of class struggle. However, there is not sufficient evidence to support such a conclusion at this point. Moreover, hastily making such arguments would probably not be of much help to those people who really are trying to support workers in their struggles.

One question that cannot be avoided in analyzing this sort of labor activism is: why is it necessary to “do worker work”? Where is the power of the working class? Some friends keep pointing out that deindustrialization is decreasing the importance of factory workers, but for me the key question isn’t about the number of any particular type of workers, but whether the proletariat as a class possesses revolutionary potential. Leftist labor activism in the PRD, as an organizational strategy, has largely been conducted without really considering this question—whether workers have the power to make revolution. Instead it has aimed at using workers are instruments for leftist politics.

At the same time, however, through their first-hand experience with the realities of class oppression, labor struggles and all kinds of social ills, some of these militants, such as Mengyu, have found themselves pushed into the search for a path to liberation. Considering that the PRD still has so many labor struggles happening all the time, we should throw ourselves into them rather than watching from the sidelines—that seems to be the attitude of such activists. We haven’t yet seen the end of this type of praxis, and there is still much to reflect upon.


Notes

[1] 2018年11月,深圳市坪山区某劳工服务机构“青鹰梦工场”的多名工作人员被捕。2018年12月底,8名原佳士员工以及声援的工人、学生,因参与宣传性的社会活动被警方拘捕。

[2] 2018年8月17日 潘毅:深圳佳士工人维权的两大意义

[3] “Preliminary thoughts on the Shenzhen Jasic events” (https://wolfsmoke.wordpress.com/2018/09/17/jasic/), Chinese version reposted on Red China as “适应节奏很重要”——佳士事件短评: http://redchinacn.net/portal.php?mod=view&aid=37799

[4] 青年先锋网 先锋评论员2018-12-20“‘甩脱尾巴很重要’——佳士事件短评的短评”

[5] 2018年8月19日 天下乌鸦一般黑,坪山何处艳阳天!

[6] 2018-09-07专访潘毅谈佳士工运:以“社会主义”探索如何跨越“资本主义”

[7] 这些文章以“佳士工人声援团”的名义发布,要么(至少名义上)由当事工人创作,要么文章涉及的员工,他们的家人对内容没有提出异议。

[8] 佳士工人声援团2018年10月3日“沈梦雨传”

[9] “Preliminary thoughts on the Shenzhen Jasic events” (https://wolfsmoke.wordpress.com/2018/09/17/jasic/).

[10] 这些回忆文章的一个共同特点,就是叙述的人物事迹很不完整。只有沈梦雨作为日弘厂工资集体协商风波的当事人,公开了较多的实践细节。

[11] 《深圳下厂经历》文/alexmaoist(北京航空航天大学)2010年7月 文章作者这样解释自己的进厂动机:“作为一个自命毛派的左青,长期混迹于北京的学生圈子里,虽然在全国各地搞过不少走访调查,但对南方的工厂,对于新一代的工人几乎没有了解”

[12] 同上:“短期下厂的青年,通过刻意制造在一定限度内与厂方的冲突(要自己能控制自己的情绪和冲突的激烈程度),比如拒绝加班,要求改善工作条件,或者辞工讨要工资,在冲突过程中,尝试做到对工人的启发,以冲突为话题与工友开展交流”

[13] https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/D-LnMxzXImxYPQy_8aeJgA “梦雨:无悔选择——从中大硕士到流水线女工” 2018-7-7

[14] Ibid.

[15] “梦雨:无悔选择——从中大硕士到流水线女工”

[16] https://jiashigrsyt.github.io/sp/ 2019-01-21“认罪视频”细节公布|污蔑终将被破除

2018年8月,梦雨参与了佳士建会的声援活动,随后失踪,疑似被官方拘押。2019年1月初,官方在一定范围展示了她与其他三人的“认罪视频”。据知情者透露,在视频中,她声称自己“(中大研究生)毕业后,加入企图通过工人运动颠覆党和政权的组织,接受组织安排打工。”

[17] 通勤车出现抹黑梦雨的传单后,有七八个员工作证车上确有传单,立即遭到厂里的惩罚警告。

[18] 2013年,深圳某家私厂的搬迁补偿罢工中,工人代表老吴被刑拘后,部分员工集资筹了一笔钱给他家属。(见《2013 搬厂罢工》中的访谈)

[19] 自印小册子《工人访谈员》《工人代表访谈录》之三

[20] https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/c7IUzBYWdNFIYbk6I41OjA 读者来稿 “团结就是力量” 2018-6-30 微信公众号“梦雨有话说”

[21] 回过头看,在佳士建会以及后续的声援活动中,一直存在“以想象代替现实”的强烈倾向。

[22] 中央财经领导小组办公室主持下,2012年出版的研究文集《两次全球大危机的比较研究》第二篇 “从经济金融理论视角看两次危机”第三小节“对我国的启示”。文中强调“要坚决防止民粹主义倾向的政策,最低工资过快上涨、劳动者过度保护、工资水平提高过快,会使劳动力水平高于均衡,反而会增加失业和降低劳动生产率。”

[23] 2017年自印版《工厂里的行动 珠三角抗争工人口述集 第二辑》

[24] 2018-08-10“我的丈夫余浚聪——那个领唱国际歌的工人”

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