Insurgent Representation: Labor NGO-Led Collective Bargaining Campaign in Southern China

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 15:30
Oral Presentation
Lefeng LIN, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
In this article, I draw ethnographic data to examine the response of Chinese civil society to worker insurgency since early 2010s, asking how independent labor NGOs in China have managed to organize and sustain workers’ collective contention in an oppressive political regime. I found that, domestic labor activists’ strategic choice and initiative, with support from overseas labor advocacy network, played a key role in experimenting with innovative approach to address precarious workers’ collective grievances. Allying themselves with the state-led collective bargaining campaign, labor activists adapted the western concept of collective bargaining to the China’s context. Avoid being illegal to organize independent unionism, they took civil representation from Chinese Civil Law and applied it to worker representation in their grassroots collective bargaining campaign: Workers authorized worker leaders and labor activists as civil agents to represent them in negotiation with employers and government officials, which produced a committed worker leadership – worker representative committee – who actively engaged organizing and mobilizing fellow workers to confront employers and local officials. By exploiting legal and political space created by the state, labor NGOs have turned collective bargaining as a stabilizing mechanism for setting up labor-capital compromise to a grassroots organizing/mobilizing mechanism among rural migrant workers. They have formed a viable strategy to organize workers to contend with employer and government officials and help workers gain health care, pensions, job security, and compensation. However, when the new model of labor organizing became an alternative to the state-controlled trade unions, China's trade unions mobilized state power to restrain the growth of grassroots worker organizing. Compared to trade union, this labor NGO-led organizing is case/issue-based, indiscriminate to all workers, no bureaucracy, low running cost, and very flexible and mobile. I argue it stands as a viable organizing model to confront both capital mobility and authoritarian regime.