Turning Associational Power into Workplace Institutional Power? the Case of Migrant Workers in China

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Elaine Sio-ieng HUI, Pennsylvania State University, USA
While worker associational power, defined as “the various forms of power that result from the formation of collective organizations of workers” (Wright, 2000, p. 962), is often understood in connection to trade unions or other worker organizations (Chun, 2005; Silver, 2003; Von Holdt & Webster, 2008; Wright, 2000), this article distinguishes between two types of associational power: union-led associational power and worker self-organized associational power. Based on this distinction, the author argues that China’s rural-migrant workers, a deprived and precarious workforce, has no union-led associational power because official trade unions in China, which are under the manipulation of the state and companies, have failed to organize workers collectively (Chen, 2009; Friedman, 2013; Lee, 2007). However, in the past decade increasingly more migrant workers organized themselves collectively to stage wildcat strikes, elect their own strike leaders, set up solidarity fund, develop divisions of labor among activist-workers, and so forth. All these have strengthened their self-organized associational power, which is independent of the party-led trade unions.

This article also examines if migrant workers are able to convert their self-organized associational power into workplace institutional power, defined as workers’ collective power, recognized by employers, that aims to influence employment terms and conditions on a regular basis. This will help us understand, at the conceptual level, the relations between these two types of power, what conditions are warranted for converting worker self-organized associational power into workplace institutional power, and what obstacles to such conversions are.

Data of this article was collected from 2010 to 2017 through two major means. First, the author interviewed over 100 migrant workers, labor NGO staff members, and labor experts in China. Second, the author conducted participant observation in worker meeting, strikes, collective disputes, and worker gatherings.