Becoming Labor Movement NGOs in China
Can Chinese labor nongovernment organizations (NGOs) foster a labor movement through collective action? The prevailing literature suggests that they have not facilitated worker collective action and face strong constraints in doing so. However, some labor NGOs have changed from provider of recreational and legal services to advocates of collective bargaining and collective action since 2011. To explain this transformation, I argue that a critical dimension of understanding labor NGOs’ activities and their roles in labor movement is their relationship with rural migrant workers (RMWs). I further argue that, through a process of collective experiential learning, some labor NGOs have transformed to empower worker collectives and contributed to a fledgling labor movement. Since the late 1990s, Chinese labor NGOs were mainly created by former RMWs and supported by funding sources that have concern for this marginalized population. The NGOs’ initial practices focused on recreational and cultural activities and legal counselling and aid, which corresponded to the major needs of RMWs seeking to live and work in the cities. These earlier practices enhanced the NGOs’ experiential learning about the effectiveness and viability of their action strategies. Contradictions between prior action strategies and the absence of significant improvements among RMW groups prompted some labor NGOs to experiment and/or to adopt another viable strategy, namely collective bargaining as a method to empower worker collectives to address the root causes of their problems. Collective experiential learning, i.e., practical learning between labor NGOs and between labor NGOs and RMWs, underlay the transformation process. These transformed, labor movement NGOs empower worker collectives through developing leadership among workers and advising them on collective contention tactics. I draw on one-year participatory observation of 5 labor NGOs in Guangdong and interviews with 67 staff from 38 NGOs.