Friends or Foes? Labor Unions and Anti-Pollution Activism in Taiwan

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 13:20
Oral Presentation
Hwa-Jen LIU, National Taiwan University, Taiwan, Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, Taiwan
From the data of Taiwan’s environmental protests between 1961 and 1987, we observe four different responses of labor unions when their companies faced pollution disputes. Sometimes unions engaged in physical fights with environmentalists to defend their “right to work;” sometimes they sided with pollution victims by openly denouncing the polluting practices of their own companies. In some other cases unionists played the intermediary role between the management and pollution-stricken protesters, by either brokering a deal to pollution victims or covertly sending classified documents to environmental groups. Yet in the majority of cases, labor unions stayed on the sidelines and remained silent, either out of indifference or out of survival instinct to stay safe.

It has been rather clear that “pollution” is never an event taking place exclusively outside the factory fence; ample evidence also attest to the horrendous records that the management of polluting corporations manifested in basic labor rights and workplace health and safety. Even if the system of enterprise unionism in Taiwan institutionally tied workers’ interest with their employers, it simply could not explain away the fact that labor unions responded differently in the face of pollution disputes.

Hence, this paper uses the data of environmental protests and union survey to specify the conditions under which labor unions responded differently to anti-pollution protests. Besides the usual culprits that one might attribute to unions’ favorable or unfavorable responses to environmental protests (unions’ historical relations with the management, unions’ personnel overlapped with other social movements, the democratic practices inside unions), the paper pays particular attention to unions’ ties to the pollution-inflicted communities filtered through the polluting corporations’ residential arrangements and personnel recruitment policy, a factor that the author believes might be of great importance.