Neither Reform Nor Regime Change: Labor Politics in China and India's Automobile Industry

Wednesday, 13 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Distributed Paper
Manjusha NAIR, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Eli FRIEDMAN, Cornell University, USA
The summer of 2010 saw an unprecedented upsurge of labor unrest in the automobile industry in China, beginning with the much-discussed wildcat strike at the Nanhai Honda transmission plant in Guangdong province. The Nanhai strike set off a chain reaction of unrest among autoworkers around the country as strikes erupted in supplier plants for Honda and other foreign automakers. While worker activism in auto plants in India was not as concentrated as in China’s 2010 strike wave, the period 2009-2014 witnessed 20 strikes nationwide, indicating a significant uptick after the global recession. Like their counterparts in China, the striking Indian auto workers demanded representative unions, wage hikes, job security and end of draconian work discipline. How might we characterize this labor-capital conflict?  The 20th century labor movements created reform, typical in northwestern Europe and North America, in which liberal democratic states incorporated labor movements into systems of industrial relations, which allowed for rationalized contention between labor and capital. Without discounting huge internal variation, the reform path implied a democratic negotiation of class compromise. Labor movements in the newly industrialized countries of the late 20th century showed a different political trajectory of regime change. When we look at the paradigmatic cases of South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa, we see that politicized labor movements – and autoworkers in particular – played a key role in anti-apartheid and democratization movements. Drawing on this historical experience, we might reasonably expect a strong labor movement challenging state power in authoritarian China, while the democratic Indian state should be relatively supple in adopting reforms in response to labor agitation. But despite very different conditions in China and India, we show that intensified labor resistance from below is translating into neither reform nor regime change.