Disaffection with trade unions in China:
Case Study from Three SOEs
in the auto industry
China Labour Studies Centre
Beijing Normal University
Despite the growing research into China’s
industrial relations system there is remarkably
little research into how China’s workers regard
their trade union.
This article draws on over 500 interviews
conducted in three SOEs in the auto industry in
Hubei Province to examine this question
It examines workers’ disaffection with their trade
union in relation to a range of personal and job-
and finds that the most important predictor of
disaffection with trade unions is an underlying
conception of management having different
interests to workers,
this suggesting the potential for a different form of
trade union consciousness to that currently catered
for by the All China Federation of Trade Unions
The ACFTU is the biggest trade union federation
in the world with a claimed mbership of nearby
All trade unions in mainland China must belong to
the ACFTU and whereas all workers enjoy the
freedom to join a union, any union must be
approved by and under the leadership of the
The basic political principle of Chinese trade
unions is to accept the leadership of the
Communist Party at all levels.
the mainbuildings and the ensign of
Data collected in 3 car facoties blongs to a
big SOE auto group.
532 workplace interviews (structured and
424 manual workers
88 office staff and supervisors
Map of China
1. The development of the auto industry in
China and the three car factories in context
Since the 1980s, technology for auto production
has been imported;
home market demand has increased significantly;
China has become the largest car market in the
Almost all the major international auto
manufacturers have set up facilities in China.
The Chinese workers in auto industry
Very brief history of auto industry in
The 1950s saw the setting up of the First Auto
Works. Designed by Russia technicians, this was
situated near the Russian border.
In the early 1960s, China pursued two decades of
independent auto production development.
Dongfeng Motor Group was located in Hubei in
Since then the auto industry has been regarded as
an important pillar industry by Hubei Province
government and has become one the most
important automobile industrial bases in China.
1.2 The three car factories and their
AutoA: traditional SOE
The chair is also vice-secretary of the party committee.
Union officers see it as their most important task to
help management to promote production.
Social activities have fallen away as workers have to
work overtime and lack the time to engage in them.
No collective contract has been signed.
The migrant workers who work in a subcontract
workshop on site are not members of the union.
Part SOE; managers own 20% of stock; ‘private
The Party Committee, the Youth League Branch
and the trade union offices have been merged into
one department. The current chair of the trade
union holds four positions and says he has ‘no
time to think about the work of the union’.
Almost no union activities of any kind have been
No collective contract has been signed.
The union mostly concerns itself with the
organisation of social activities, making suggestions
to help management and running emulation
Collective contracts have been signed since 1997
and the trade. However, few workers know there has
been such a contract.
Less than half the migrant workers have joined the
union. The chairman is also secretary of the party and
performs yet other functions, and there is no full-time
trade union staff.
Control via Contract:
-Fixed-term contracts renewed on the basis of
performance, sickness and absence records.
Control via wages:
- AutoA: 20-30% basic wage, 70-80% piecework
- AutoB: 15% basic; 85% individual performance
- AutoC: 100% piecework.
Heads of Department/Supervisors decided flexible element
of workers wages. (eg, AutoC piecework divided 80%
output/20 % quality, variable)
Worker discipline through wage deduction.
The extent of the disaffection
Almost half of those employed in each of these
factories rate their union as poor or very poor,
which suggests widespread disaffection.
But around 7 out of 10 think that trade unions are
Overall assessment of the union and of the
necessity for a union Percentage
Auto A Auto B Auto C All
Rate the union
as poor or very
48 48 43 46
trade union 66 79 71 72
The individual characters of the workers and
the dissatisfaction of the union
The old, with open-ended contract workers, and
also less ability in free labour market workers,
who are dissatisfied with the unions seriously.
The experience of such onerous working
conditions is significantly associated with
disaffection with the trade union. Those who
experience greater insecurity are also more likely
to be disaffected.
‘Every day, the head of workshop told us to pay attention
to the quality. And he told us the factory had introduced
the foreign management methods to control us. I don’t
know the foreign stuff. The only thing I know is that if you
make any mistake, you will be punished.’ (Female
production operator, AutoB)
I think there are a lot of workers’ complaints about the
intensity of work. Actually, it is true. I remember last
month, the factory got a big order from abroad. In order to
finish the work, we always worked 12 hours a day and 6.5
days a week. We can have a rest on Sunday afternoons. I
felt very tired every day. (Production Worker, AutoB)
Social activities, voice and union
Chinese unions commonly ‘organised not much
more than dance parties and sports events’. In
some cases the lack of such provision is part of the
workers’ complaint and represents a minimal
expectation of what the union should do.
Sometimes the failure of the trade union to behave
in an oppositional way leads to the judgement that
the union is ‘not necessary’—meaning that it is a
waste of time.
Good or bad union?
Ask workers, they find it difficult to answer
whether they think their union is a good union—
difficult because what some of them would like a
union to be is not attainable under the present
Trade union officials' payment
Trade union officials are paid by the companies;
they typically either perform or have performed
management functions, and they are charged with
the duty of assisting management.
It makes sense, therefore, that those who think that
management has different interests to workers
should be the most disaffected with the trade union,
for there is an important sense in which to be
disaffected with the management is to be
disaffected with the trade union.
The workers' extensive disaffection with the
ACFTU has not led to disaffection with all trade
Why workers are disaffected?
Almost half of the workers are dissatisfied with their
involvement in decision making,
and such dissatisfaction at their lack of voice is
significantly associated with disaffection with the
the interest dissonance is the most powerful predictor of
disaffection with the trade union.
It is conceivable that the ACFTU might develop
some sort of (officially controlled) increase in
worker involvement in decision making in an
attempt to highlight workers’ sense of
involvement. However, it is difficult to see how its
version of trade unionism could fulfil an
oppositional conception of management–union
It would be easier to take a more optimistic
view of future union politics in these
particular factories had migrant workers.
However, it is not inevitable that migrant
workers will keep quiet, and there is
certainly evidence of their militancy,
especially in some cities in the south, albeit
outside of the ACFTU.