The wave of strikes rippling through China's southern manufacturing heartland have forced the country's officially sanctioned unions to try something novel: speak up for workers or risk being permanently sidelined.
Migrant workers, wary of company unions seen as ineffective or allied with management, chose to shut them out altogether when they made demands for higher wages and better benefits. It was a wake-up call for the umbrella group, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and their patrons - the communist leaders who thought they could rely on it to help keep a tight leash on labor unrest.
Founded on the backs of a peasant-worker revolution, China's trade union group has long been a paradox. With 1.8 million trade unions and some 226 million registered members, it is the largest labor body in the world. Yet to most Chinese workers, unions have largely been irrelevant because they have seldom advocated on behalf of workers.
Historically, it was established to relay the Communist Party's instructions to workers, not represent them. Union leaders often come from the ranks of company managers or relatives of the owner. At higher levels, they are usually Communist Party appointees.
Dozens of strikes in May through July that forced some companies including Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. to halt production have highlighted a major demographic shift in China: its citizens are aging while three decades of the one-child policy have limited the size of the working-age population. Migrant workers feel their bargaining power growing, as a younger, better educated and more assertive generation enters the labor force.
"If you don't represent workers, workers will give up on you," said Chang Kai, director of the Institute for Labor Relations at Renmin University. "There have been other strikes before but the Honda strikes showed that workers' awareness in protecting their interests is increasing. They didn't only ask for increased salary but they wanted to reorganize the trade union," he said.
"It's a very pivotal time. China must change the mode of economic development or it will meet difficulties. You can't sacrifice workers to drive the economy any more."
Reformers within the union body are pushing for change, and they're finding support in the upper ranks of the ruling Communist Party who hope a more vigorous national union will placate worker frustration as China attempts what could be a rocky transition from being a predominantly low-wage manufacturing economy.
The union federation has issued several directives encouraging unions to become more democratic and proactive in speaking up for workers. It has also advocated establishing unions at foreign-operated companies, where many of the recent strikes hit.
In June, workers at the Nanhai Honda auto parts manufacturer in the city of Foshan, southern Guangdong province succeeded in negotiating pay raises of 24 percent and an agreement to disband the enterprise union in favor of a worker-elected group.
In an open letter issued at the end of talks, the workers said they had staged the two-week strike "for the protection of workers' rights and the right to democratic election of workers' representatives." Thanking supporters for "a tremendous boost in the morale of the workers' struggle," they signed the joint letter on behalf of "all the production line workers."
The Nanhai factory has been approved as the site for a pilot experiment for direct elections of leaders at the company union. Elections could be held as early as next month, said Kong Xianghong, vice chairman of the provincial Guangdong trade federation, who is in charge of a team that will oversee the balloting. If a union leader can be selected democratically, it will send a message that the union federation is serious about regaining workers' trust and about reforming itself, he said.
"This is an opportunity for us. We have to take advantage of this opportunity to transform our trade unions. This is what we're thinking. We have to turn a bad thing into a good thing. We should not be afraid of these problems," Kong said.
Although a trade union independent from the Communist Party is unlikely anytime soon, labor experts say direct elections like the one at Nanhai could be the start of establishing company unions that have independence from management.
"Right now, it's not possible to break away from the party. But the ACFTU should have some room to improve the independence of enterprise unions. This could benefit workers, management and the government by reducing labor strikes," said Mingwei Liu, an assistant professor of labor studies at Rutgers University who has studied Chinese labor unions.
China has experimented with grassroots democracy in the past, allowing direct election of village and some county-level leaders for the past two decades. However, in practice, those elected simply carried out policies made by the Communist Party.
Direct elections have also been tried at factories before, but the Nanhai results will be much more closely watched given the high stakes, said Anita Chan, a China labor expert at the University of Technology in Sydney. Workers at other factories operated by Honda are also demanding elections, she said.
"I do think there's a genuine thing happening there, but in any kind of election, the management will try to control the outcome. I have no doubt the Guangdong trade union wants a real election but whether it's successful, it is difficult to tell," Chan said. The election process can be manipulated at various stages, including the nomination of candidates, she said.
If the Nanhai experiment is successful, it could serve as a model for Guangzhou and elsewhere in China, said Liu Xiaogang, deputy chairman of the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions which includes some 35,000 local trade unions representing 2 million members.
"The Nanhai Honda incident is a good lesson, which educates us about how a chairman of a trade union should be elected and how they should speak for workers," said Liu, who says his federation has been prepared to follow through with direct elections at the grassroots level.
In addition to democratically elected unions, the national trade union body is also pushing collective contracts, saying earlier this month it plans to introduce legislation to establish a nationwide system for collective negotiation on wages, benefits and overtime.
Union officials in 10 provinces will be trained on collective bargaining as part of a pilot project. Meanwhile, the southern province of Guangdong, which includes the manufacturing hub in the Pearl River Delta, said it was reviewing a draft for the country's first law that would set rules for labor disputes. Being debated are rules that would allow workers to elect representatives to carry out collective bargaining.
"This period has been called a critical time for trade unions of China," said Liu. "If trade unions in this period change too slowly or they still don't speak for the workers, they will sooner or later be phased out. We know that."
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.