Look to Chinese strikers for hope
Published On Fri Jun 25 2010. Ken Lewenza President. Canadian Auto Workers
Leaders representing the G20 will soon arrive in Toronto to participate in a two-day summit to discuss a variety of global issues — including how to stop the slow, continuous bleeding brought on by the most devastating economic recession in recent memory.
It certainly seems a tall order for a two-day, country club-style gathering of politicians, especially since many of them actively promoted the same free-market-focused and deregulation-driven agenda that caused this mess in the first place. If working people are cynical that this get together will yield meaningful and positive change, they have every right to be.
But I remain hopeful that the future will produce better outcomes for working people and their families. I have to.
Even though chances are slim that the G20 meeting will prove a watershed moment in outlining an ambitious agenda for decent jobs, income equality, poverty reduction, environmental protection and peace, I firmly believe these are still achievable goals. They just won’t be realized through our world leaders sipping expensive wines and dining on gourmet foods inside a heavily fortified convention centre in the downtown core.
Instead, it will be the actions of working people and community members, together, building solidarity and raising their voices that will drive this positive and progressive social and economic agenda.
Unions are still the single most important vehicle for people to make these ambitious goals a reality. Unions promote the coming together of workers, and all citizens, to challenge existing structures of authority and help rectify the major power imbalances between rich and poor. Through unions, workers forge an identity for themselves, and force social change.
I was inspired by the news of Chinese autoworkers who, against all odds and possibly severe repercussions, took to the streets in protest over insufficient wages and poor working conditions at two Honda parts factories in the province of Guangdong. This was followed by a worker-lead protest at a Toyota parts facility just this week.
The province has experienced a huge jump in labour disputes in past months, prompting the local government to move quickly on long overdue minimum wage reforms. Although still insignificant by most standards, it is certainly a big step forward in a country that is amassing an incredible amount of wealth that is unevenly distributed among its massive population.
Some of the region’s major employers, including Honda, are offering even higher increases in an effort to bring down picket lines and stave off growing worker discontent. Others, particularly the now-notorious electrical equipment manufacturer Foxconn, have been forced to make substantial workplace changes in the face of heavy public scrutiny following a string of heartbreaking worker suicides.
Whatever their form, the protests of Chinese workers are definitely symbolic in a country known for its low wages, income polarization, bad living standards and authoritarian state control. They exemplify the principles and fearless spirit of trade unionism and are an acknowledgement of the disconnection between working people and their, supposed, union representatives — many of which are simply entities of the state and act as “company unions” would in Canada and elsewhere in the world.
A strong, independent and united Chinese trade union movement can support and inspire unions and workers’ movements globally, there’s no doubt. In fact, the resolve of Chinese workers has highlighted, in no uncertain terms, that peaceful demonstrations planned for the G20 are necessary for a proper and healthy democracy.
It is high time we put an end to the agenda of cutthroat corporate competition that hides under the veil of globalization. Workers’ security, standard of living and quality of life are not up for negotiation.
Let’s keep our eyes on the G20 leaders as they congregate in Toronto. Let’s continue to raise our voices and demand policies that support fair trade, promote equality, alleviate poverty, protect our environment and hold the financial sector accountable for its actions, in part through a financial transactions tax, among other global issues. Unions, working together, can lead this charge.
But let’s not get discouraged, no matter the outcome. The key to progressive social change lies in the hearts and minds of people who are committed to building a better future, as workers in China appear set to prove yet again — not in the corridors of lavish convention centres, or in boardrooms cordoned off by steel fences and security guards.
Change is driven by our willingness to unite against injustice and the belief that fighting back will make a difference.
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