Beyond the Union‐Centred Approach: A Critical Evaluation of Recent Trade Union Elections in China

AuthorElaine Sio‐ieng Hui, Chris King‐chi Chan
Publication Date01 Sep 2015
doi: 10.1111/bjir.12111
British Journal of Industrial Relations
53:3 September 2015 0007–1080 pp. 601–627
Beyond the Union-Centred Approach:
A Critical Evaluation of Recent Trade
Union Elections in China
Elaine Sio-ieng Hui and Chris King-chi Chan
Many Western scholars have regarded union democracy and elections as affairs
that are internal to trade unions and unconnected with outside forces. Going
beyond the mainstream union-centred approach, this study critically assesses
one significant type of union election that has been emerging in China since 2010
and that has been driven by different forces from previous elections. Previous
workplace union elections had been ‘top-down’ — initiated by the party-state or
its apparatuses, or else transnational corporation-induced — but this newer
type of election has been driven by workers’ strikes. This study illustrates how
the dynamics among the quadripartite actors — party-state, higher-level trade
unions, capital and labour — have shaped these strike-driven elections. Con-
trary to the claim that these elections have been ‘direct’ and ‘democratic’, our
case studies show that they have been indirect and quasi-democratic in nature.
Many Western scholars (e.g. Hughes 1968; Turner 1962; Webb and Webb
1896) have regarded union democracy and elections as internal affairs of
trade unions that do not operate in connection with outsides forces, such as
the state or employers.
For instance, following Michels’ idea of the ‘iron law
of oligarchy’ (1962), Goldstein (1952) argued that full-time trade union offi-
cials in Britain could easily get around the democratic mechanism within
trade unions because of the low level of member participation. Clegg (1979)
analysed the characteristics of British trade unions that could turn them into
oligarchies. Focusing on procedural democracy, Taft (1956) studied the
degree to which the election process of union officials and the treatment of
Elaine Sio-ieng Hui is at the University of Kassel. Chris King-chi Chan is at City University of
Hong Kong.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd/London School of Economics. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd,
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unions’ finances in the USA are democratic. Strauss (1977) summarized from
the past research three criteria — legal, behavioural, responsiveness and
control — for measuring local union democracy in the USA. Kelly and Heery
(1994) explicated how elected union leaders in Britain try to maintain their
positions by fending off challenges to their authority with their expertise and
the unions’ resources. Comparing the trade unions in the USA and Britain,
Edelstein and Warner (1975) suggested that the extent to which elections for
union officials are contested and the turnover rate of incumbent officials are
two key indicators of union democracy. Following the approach of Edelstein
and Warner, Strauss (2000) took the union presidential elections as a
measure of union democracy and concluded that unions in the USA have
become more democratic. Levi et al. (2009) were concerned about participa-
tory democracy and considered members’ active participation within the
trade union as a key measurement of a union’s democracy.
This article contends that the dominant union-centred approach can hardly
capture the new development of trade union politics in China. As Clarke
reminded us, it is inappropriate to analyse post-socialist trade unions within
the ‘theoretical frameworks developed through the analysis of trade unions
that have grown up in capitalist societies’ (Clarke 2005). Following the
neo-Marxist perspective advanced by Hyman (1975), which highlights both
the internal and external constraints facing trade unions with regard to union
democracy, this article argues that due to the socialist legacy of China, trade
union elections and democracy can only be properly understood when the
union–state, union–management and union–workers relations in the transi-
tion period are seriously considered. Going beyond the union-centred
approach, this study examines the post-2010 strike-driven trade union
elections in China.
Industrial relations in China have undergone substantial changes since
1978, as the country has shifted from a command economy to a market
economy and been gradually incorporated into global capitalism. With the
large-scale privatization of state-owned enterprises and the increasing
inflow of foreign investment in the private sector, the Chinese workers have
become vulnerable in the labour market, and have been subjected to
unfair and often illegal treatment at work (Chan 2001; Lee 1998). The
party-controlled trade unions, which some scholars call sham trade unions
(Taylor and Li 2010), a transmission belt (Chan 2008; Warner 1996), gov-
ernment bureaucracy (Friedman 2009) and party apparatus (Lee 2006),
have failed to protect workers against unscrupulous employers. This has
induced widespread extra-trade union activism in the country. Specifically,
strikes bypassing official trade unions have become a vital means through
which Chinese workers safeguard their interests in the face of capitalist
exploitation (Chan 2011; Chan 2010). In 2010, the Honda workers’ strike
sparked a country-wide wave of strikes in China (Chan and Hui 2012; Hui
Increasing labour militancy has created huge pressure on both the Chinese
government and the official trade unions to promote at the enterprise level
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd/London School of Economics.
602 British Journal of Industrial Relations

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