Beijing's Trade Unions Seek Economic Independence

By Wang Yan
Published: 2010-09-14

Nation, page 9
Issue 485, September 6, 2010
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

A Powerless Union President?

Fang Jun hopes to be a more independent leader of the labor union he represents.

Mr. Fang is the union representative at a small South Korean company located in Beijing's Chaoyang District.

"We're in the process of collectively bargaining with our boss in order to negotiate a raise. But it's been difficult. The boss is increasingly dissatisfied with me and has publicly criticized me many times. I'm afraid I will become the next 'Tang Xiaodong'," says Fang, referring to a former labor representative at a Japanese-Chinese joint venutre in Beijing who attracted attention four years ago when he sued the company after he was fired for speaking up on behalf of the employees against managment.

Tang lost the case.

When the case was over, a high-level executive from Tang's former company told the media that "we received support from the Beijing Municipal Federation of Trade Unions."

Fang Jun also revealed that he had received a well-intentioned warning from high-level executives at his company, recommending him to "consider his future at the company."

Reforming the System

Beijing Municipal Federation of Trade Unions (BMFTU) is working hard to push forward the "collective wage-bargaining" mechanism that Fang Jun mentioned.

The Federation has assembled a team of 127 instructors who have fanned out across the capital offering support and advice for the city's first attempt at collective wage negotiations. These instructors have entered various industrial and key enterprises across the city. The instructors' aims are to "enhance the negotiating ability of trade unions and set up standard procedures for collective wage-bargaining negotiations."

"The wages of our workers are significantly lower than those of others working in the same sector. So, workers hope that this push by the BMFTU to introduce a new collective wage-bargaining system, will provide them with a new platform from which to engage managment in a dialogue and improve existing conditions," Fang Jun told the EO.

Fang Jun said his company only established a union at the request of the district-level Federation of Trade Unions. "This was two years ago. As I was a bit of a veteran and relatively popular among the other employees, my boss appointed me."

"Later I found out that my job involved nothing at all like the work responsibilities listed in the Trade Union Law. Aside from collecting membership fees, doling out additional compensation for working in extreme weather conditions and special birthday payments, I was also responsible for writing company press releases. To make our business performance look better, it must be well written."

Fang Jun admitted that, aside from these administrative tasks, he didn't have any other powers.

When he was first appointed as the trade union chairman, Fang was given a raise. "I was very happy at the time, thinking it was a recognition of the new responsibilities I was taking on. But later, I found out that the boss' decision to give me a raise came at a price; I was required to speak on his behalf."

What made Fang feel uncomfortable was that when higher trade union officials visited his company and inquired about the pay of employees, his boss told him to answer: "not bad."

"From what I understand, wages at our company are noticeably lower than that of other companies in the same industry, and sometimes there are problems with

 overtime, but it was clear to me what the boss wanted, and that my only other option was to quit."

"After that, now every time higher-level labor union officials visit our company, I always tell them what my boss wants me to say. There's nothing I can do about it,  he's the one who pays me after all."

Independent Income

Towards the end of July this year, the BMFTU recruited over 1,000 full-time officals - this was the federation's first step toward reforming the trade union system.

Aside from recruiting independent full-time staff, BMFTU is also working to organize and promote reform of the city's grass roots trade unions which includes the direct election of low-level union officials and economic independence.

"We've been working on these reforms for the past two years," an anonymous source from the Organization Department of the BMFTU told the EO.

From the recently recruited 1013 professional union workers, about a dozen will be selected to act as full-time chairmen of the various regional and industrial associations of the federated trade union.

In addition to improving the democratic procedures in relation to the election of grass-roots trade union leaders, company-level labor union leaders will also be directly elected. The election process will by supervised by the high-level labor unions.

After these full-time labor leaders are elected, they'll assemble a team of individual workers who will be hired on a more flexible basis and get to work on the current tasks of providing support to workers in need, assisting members participating in collective wage bargaining and mediating labor disputes etc.

Aside from the recruiting of this new group of full-time officials, the other reform to which much outside attention has been paid is the attempt to seperate the union salary of union officials working in a particular company or area from that company or area.

It's hoped that leaders of Beijing's grass-roots unions will have their "union salary" paid for by the higher-level labor unions, which means, they will be economically independent union leaders.

This push is being labeled the "independent salary movement."

Aside from this, BMFTU will also consider sending union leaders to work in different areas to help strengthen their independence and capacity to perform their duties independently.

For a long time, due to the weakness of grass-roots unions, employees have been unwilling to pay union fees. Because of this, union fees have instead been collected from companies in the form of a tax. This has resulted in a situation in which it is businesses and not workers who are financing the trade union.

"This means that, ultimately the company is responsible for picking up the tab of the union's activities, which results in the embarrasing situation where union leaders do not speak for the workers but only the boss of the company," according to an academic from Renmin University's School of Labor and Human Resources who wasn't willing to be quoted by name.

As for who will pay for the wage of labor union workers if companies do not, a source from the BMFTU told the EO that "the details of the reform are still being considered."

During the piloting of the project, the responsibility for paying the salary of union officials will be split up between different levels of government, so for example, one third of the salary of full-time labor union leaders might be paid for by the municipal government while the remaining two thirds would be paid for by the district-level government.

Currently, BMFTU offers a small payment of 1,400 yuan per month for labor union assistants with a bachelor degree and a 700 yuan per month stipend for workers without a university degree.

Difficulties Remain

Many union leaders, including Fang Jun, are unsure whether after the reforms have been carried out, will the duties and functions of grass-root labor unions return to normal?

The Renmin University academic quoted above, also said that labor unions had been considered company-affiliated organizations for a very long time.

Their job is not to protect the rights of workers but to provide leaders with the veneer of their company "having democracy."

Union leaders are stuck in the embarrassing position betweem the company and their fellow employees: When workers demand the union leaders to speak up for their rights, management views the union representative as a "trouble maker and when managment asks union leaders to mediate on behalf of the company, he's accused of being a "scab."

This is exactly the situation in which Fang Jun find himself, pleading "how can I protect the rights of workers, when I can't even protect my own rights."

Fang Jun is not alone. According to Zheng Minghua, deputy director of the Organization Department of the Hubei Provincial Federation of Trade Unions (HPFTU), the union leaders of only ten enterprises in this province have their union wage paid for by the next level up in the trade union.

Li Mingshu, director of the law office of Henan's Linzhou City Federation of Trade Unions said that the leaders of all the labor unions in the city are paid for by the companies where they work.

Another problem is the lack of full-time labor union workers. "The labor union leaders at private enterprises are powerless to stand up for the rights of their workers because the boss pays their wage," according to Zheng Minghua.

Some trade union leaders also worry, that once professional union leaders are sent to a particular company or area to work on behalf of their union members, due to their remarkable capabilities, the boss may try to recruit them to another position that is closer to him so that the union leader's postion is compromised.

"To take Beijing for example, even if things change and trade union leaders are paid by the next level up in the federated trade union, they may only get a stipend of a bit over 1,000 yuan per month - that's not attractive at all."

Fang Jun agreed admitting that his current salary "is definitely higher than that."

Some trade union officials are paid a salary package equal to that of a deputy general manager or even a general manager.

So it's obvious that they'll still prefer to accept generous renumeration from their company rather than a small stipend from the Federated Trade Union.

Even some of the 1,000 plus newly-recruited trade union officials are unsatisfied with their current salary.

"I don't know how long I'll keep this job. I've just graduated from college. The competition in the job market is too intense. So I chose this," said one of the newly-recruited full-time labor union workers who asked to be referred to as Zhou Xiaoyun (not her real name).

Zhou just took up a position in a local-level neighborhood trade union in Chaoyang district.

Paying full-time labor union officials will also be a big challenge to the higher-level trade unions.

"Based on Chinese law, enterprises with over 200 employees can establish a full-time labor union leader or chairman. Currently Beijing has more than 11,000 grass-roots trade unions, which means there are over 10,000 trade union leaders, not to mention full-time union officials. Will the higher-levels of the Federation of Trade Unions be able to bear the burden of paying the salaries of all these officials? Where will the money come from? Will it be collected by the labor unions themselves or transferred from fiscal revenue? Currently we know nothing about this," the Renmin University scholar quoted above said.

An official with the Chaoyang District's Federation of Trade Unions Organization Department also expressed his concern, "income is not confined to salary only. Suppose the salaries of those labor union leaders are paid for by their higher authority, but the other benefits are still provided by the companies, in that case, are they really independent?"

Fang Jun said, even for labor union leaders who have been sent by the leaders higher up in the union heirarchy to work in particular companies, it was difficult for them to maintain independence, because, even though they were not paid by the companies, they would receive material or other benefits from the company that would influence their orientation and judgement.

Labor union scholar Jin Haiyan believes it's not enough to have higher-level labor unions pay for the work of officials on the next level below. What is more important is ensuring that the work of labor unions is supervised by employees, that trade union leaders are directly elected by the workers and that they can operate under the protection of the law.

"Only when labor unions are not economically dependent on employers and when, under the regulation of workers and union members, union leaders become the true representatives of workers' interests, will they have the power to protect the legal rights of workers," Jin Haiyan said.

This article was edited by Ruoji Tang and Paul Pennay