Trade unions and their role in creating a democractic space for the Uyghur people in China

The Australian Workers Union, 21 March 2011

Speech by Paul Howes, National Secretary of the Australian Workers´ Union, to the Uyghur Leadership Training Workshop at NSW Parliament House sponsored by the World Uyghur Congress.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference.

As a trade union leader you will not be surprised that my short talk today will concentrate on the importance of trade unions:

  • in helping to create a democratic space;
  • helping to build and independent civil society, and
  • to train people to have the confidence in speaking up for themselves and their communities.

One of the most important measures of democracy in any society is the right given to workers to form independent unions.

Unions that ensure workers have a real voice in the workplace, and a voice in the wider community.

Unions that, when necessary, are prepared to challenge authority.  Any authority. Be they powerful corporations or powerful political elites.

Now when I talk about unions I want to clearly define them as democratic institutions who are accountable to their membership – and no one else.

We do know that there are many organisations who claim the label ‘union’ but are actually not democratic institutions.

These ‘unions’ are not accountable to their members – but rather to the state, to a political party or to an autocrat of some sort.

The officers of the ‘union’ are there at the whim of the party, the State or a particular political leader.

And they stay there in their union position only because they demonstrate their loyalty to the party, State or leader.

Recently in Egypt Sharan Burrow – who formerly led the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and is now at the head of the International Trade Union Confederation – told local media: “There is no real democracy without free, representative and independent trade unions.”

Sharan was in Egypt eight days ago, to support the creation of a new independent Egyptian national trade union centre.

She told the local Egyptian media that working people’s aspirations, working people’s voices, had been shut out of Egypt because of the monopoly position of the officially – endorsed national trade union centre the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was fully integrated with the former Mubarak dictatorship.

The global trade union movement is supporting the democracy revolt in Egypt and Tunisia, and supporting the independent trade unions who have played a crucial role in that revolt.

In the last few months we’ve all been watching these extraordinary democratic developments in the Middle East – led by Tunisia, and now Egypt.

In both cases workers and their trade unions played a crucial role in the campaign for democracy, and in the protests which overthrew their regimes.

Now today in Bahrain, in Oman and in Algeria unions are playing key roles – sometimes at dire cost to the lives of individual leaders – in their peoples protests demanding a new democratic era in the Arab world.

No wonder that other dictatorships – not just in the Middle East – are watching carefully, fearfully, the success of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

The role of trade unions in Egypt and Tunisia provide interesting models for any discussion about what unions can do for a democratic and independent China – and for the Uyghur people in western China.

Certainly for the Uyghur people the fact that these two societies – Egypt and Tunsia – are infused with similar Muslim ( often secularized) cultural values makes it all the more interesting as possible different models.

But these models point to options for all of China’s working people, as pathways to democracy.

And I am happy to note that there are, admittedly small, signs that opportunities are available to develop new worker voices in China, voice who can help expand the democratic space in that country.

First up it is interesting to note here that the trade union creation of a democratic space in Egypt, and in Tunisia, did not follow exactly the same path.

There is something to be learnt from these different models in Egypt, and in Tunisia, for those who wish China and her people well in the drive to bring democracy to China.

Certainly there are indications that there is now a sharp rise in economic demands by working people in China – and many are becoming increasingly self-confident organising for these demands to be met.

So what are the lessons for China and for the Uyghur peoples out of the Middlea East?

First let’s look at Egypt – by far the most important country in the Arab world, as one in four Arabs are Egyptians.

Here we have seen an extraordinary flowering of independent worker organisations and unions which have slowly grown over a decade or more.

This is despite the fact that the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation had a legal monopoly on worker organisations and has, with the aid of the State, done everything in its power to stamp out independent voices.

This has also included at times the hiring of thugs to violently attack the leaders of independent groups and break up their meetings.

In the last days of the Mubarak regime the dictator gave the ETUF a directive: Go out and stop workers from leaving the factories and the workplaces, to join the democracy protests in Cairo and the rest of the country.

The ETUF officials fanned out across the country to follow the directive – but they failed.  Failed miserably.

The reason is that for the last decade most of these workers had given up on the official body.

They had begun organising, successfully, their own unions (often not recognised officially in their workplaces or by the courts) and standing up and demanding their voices be heard.

In the last twelve months two groups of workers had achieved so much power in the workplace – health workers and tax workers – that they had successfully forced the State to recognise their independent unions and talk to their leaders.

But even in other workplaces – such as the huge Ghaz El-Mahalla spinning factory where more than 70,000 workers are employed and the equally large Tanta Linen, Flax and Oil Company – independent groups had succesfully established themselves.

In 2009 when the management of the El-Mahalla spinning factory – with the connivance of the official union leadership – tried to transfer the ‘troublemakers’ out almost the whole factory stopped in a massive sit-in. And won their demand to stop the transfers.

While we have all probably read that Egypt was a Facebook revolution – many of those who have been closely watching that country for decades have noted that the real impetus for success came when strikes and workplace protests began in support of the demand for democracy.

It was only when strikes erupted in a breadth of different industry sectors – among railway and bus workers, state electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in the factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages, and at some hospitals that we began to see the tide turning in favour of the Tahrir Square protests.

The workers were not cowed by the ETUF officials, their thugs, and the security apparatus trying to stop them from joining the protests.

Mubarak and his Ministers tried to buy some of them off by promising, in the dying days of the regime, to finally increase their wages.

But there has been for the last 10 years, or more, an enormous wave of worker protests in Egypt.

These workers – who had slowly gained confidence in their power over that period and who had been demanding to have their voices heard – came out in their tens of thousands and linked their economic demands to the political demand that the Mubarak regime must go.

None of this happened accidently.

A key organisation was the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS).

Ever since they were established they were harassed by the regime. But they were supported by the international trade union movement.

Their continuing campaigning and legal and organisational support for independent worker groups across Egypt – and the respect they had from unions in Europe, the USA and the rest of the globe – eventually forced the Egyptian government, about two years ago, to lift the ban on the CTUWS.

Once the right to freedom of association is recognised – the right to organise independent unions – inevitably a new platform becomes available in a campaign for a democratic civil society.

These new ’real’ unions develop their own agendas, which while mostly economic demands inevitably, when they demand members be treated with decency and respect, create the political space for a wider social agenda.

In the industrial city of Mahalla, during the 2008 strikes, the spinners and weavers, who had had some successes with their economic demands in previous years , began putting broader demands on the agenda.

They began demanding schooling for their children, better hospitals, a just judiciary, freedom and dignity and an end to corruption and torture in police stations.

These workers were joined in 2007 by what became known as the April 6 youth movement.

The April 6 youth movement is now quite well known across the globe for its use of social media to co-ordinate this year’s Tahrir Square protests.

But their first use of Facebook, and other social media, was actually to help co-ordinate the strike by Mahalla workers in 2007  – their use of social networks ensured  the workers’ struggle became a national event in Egypt.

It was their alliance, over many years, with the independent workers’ groups which gave the April 6 youth the skills, and the courage, to organise what was eventually a successful democracy struggle.

At this point I should note that I don’t think the democratic revolution in Egypt is complete.

The democracy activists know that. They are expecting many ups and downs over the coming months, and years, in the drive to firmly implant democracy in this important country.

But as the independent worker groups now form new recognised independent trade unions, and are rapidly going from strength to strength, they will become the core groups behind the democratic impetus.

These new trade unions have over the last few weeks established a new independent national trade union centre – which has been quickly recognised by the global trade union movement.

The state controlled ETUF is now being investigated for corruption; but meanwhile labour actions, strikes and protests – even boss-nappings – are spreading across the country following Mubarak’s resignation as workers seek to cleanse their workplaces of the regime.

Now I would like to turn to Tunisia.

While Egypt with its huge population which dominates the Arab world – and a massive rural sector – may have some similarity with China, Tunisia is an extremely small nation but in many ways it holds important lessons for our current discussion.

Here, unlike in Egypt, it was the State-aligned official trade union movement which remarkably provided the impetus for democratic reform – turning on their masters in the dictatorship.

The Tunisian General Union of Labour (known locally by the acronym UGTT) theoretically played a similar role in that country as did the corrupt state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation.

However the UGTT – which is a powerful institution in Tunisia – was not a monolith.

Many UGTT sections had over a number of years developed local unions which saw themselves as being accountable to the membership, rather than the dictator Ben Ali and his family.

Even in the top leadership of the UGTT there was a split between those who saw themselves as being responsible to the state apparatus, and the dictator Ben Ali, and those who felt they should be accountable to the workers.

Certainly in the central Tunisian industrial town of Sidi Bouzid,  where the uprising started after Mohammed Bouzazi set himself alight last December, the UGTT was known as being independent-minded and helped to organise the initial protests.

By the start of January the UGTT national centre was completely behind the protests and seen to be the leading voice in the democratic struggle when the protests reached Tunisia’s capital.

During the weeks of Tunisian protests in January – protests which eventually triggered the uprising we now see almost across all of the Arab world – the UGTT issued several public statements promoting the demands for a new democratic Tunisia.

What was interesting to watch is how the leadership at times was out of step with the members, and were quickly pulled up, and then changed tack.

At one point during the weeks of protests, after Ben Ali and his family escaped to Saudi Arabia, the UGTT leaders agreed to appoint three or four people to take part in the transitional government.

The internal ruckus inside the UGTT over that decision  – because union members saw it as a trick to maintain the status quo – was such that the national union leaders came out, somewhat shamefaced, and retracted their original  announcement.

Just as the UGTT was not one monolith whose centre controls all parts of its organisation I would like to suggest that there is considerable evidence that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions is not a monolith – and the Beijing centre does not completely control all its units.

In the last few years especially on the southeastern seaboard of China we’ve watched major changes in the way local units of the ACFTU have operated.

One of the most interesting recent changes was the introduction of collective bargaining at the Honda factory in Guandong province.

This month – after some violent strikes last year – they won their first collective agreement.

One of the Guandong ACFTU provincial leaders Kong Xianghong, became personally involved in re-organising the union at the plant after the strikes.

As part of the re-organisations the workers were able to democratically elect their own leaders, who acted as observers during the final negotiations which won a bigger pay rise than the workers had won during the strikes the previous year.

Now the workers are said to be demanding that during the next round of collective bargaining they should be able  to conduct the negotiations – rather than just be observers.

Another interesting phenomena has been the freelance labour organisers who are often anonymous and sometimes have a legal background.

They have developed quite a romantic aura as they travel across China  helping to organise workers who have issues with their employers, trying to leave a democratic structure behind them, and then moving on one step ahead of the police.

They remind me of the fabled American wobblies who did much the same in the early days of the US trade union movement.

Someday a book and film about their escapades will be written up – but at the moment much of this work is hush hush.

All of these developments are being watched eagerly by the international trade union movement – and some global supporters are lending a hand.

Here in Australia, for some years now, my colleagues at the CFMEU – Mining Division – have been quietly, but persistently, lending a hand to the mining division of the ACFTU to try and turn around the shocking figures of coal mine accidents and deaths.

It is a long, slow, struggle but there is some evidence that with the advice and support of the Australian miners’ union occupational health and safety standards at China’s coal mines have started to improve.

Just as in Egypt and Tunisia the free trade union movement is providing in small, and different ways, on the ground support for different sections of the ACFTU.

Some of it is certainly controversial. Mistakes have been made. Some of it is quite naïve because the top Beijing leadership of the ACFTU is completely enmeshed with the Communist Party structures.

But the further you get away from Beijing head office there is evidence that in some regions the local ACFTU is working like what I would recognise as being a union – representing workers and their interests rather than the interests of the state and the employer.

The ambition of the global union movement is to support any group in China who wants to build a real labour movement independent from the Party, independent from the government – this is something that is not going to happen overnight and it won’t happen easily and smoothly.

While I stress caution I do believe we should always be ready to work with any genuine unionists and worker groups in China – whether they are inside the ACFTU or outside.

One of the most interesting phenomena happening in China is the rise of pro-worker NGOs, many of them based in Hong Kong.

These NGOs are careful to work using the existing Chinese labour laws to promote worker rights.

Groups such as the China Labour Bulletin, led by Han Donfang, who first came to prominence during the Tianman Square protests trying to organise independent trade unions.

Or the extraordinary university student group based in Hong Kong – Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) – established in 2005 to campaign for improved labour conditions for cleaners and security guards it has become one of the most active worker advocate groups sending Hong Kong university students into mainland factories, during their summer break, to collect information and agitate for workplace improvements.

SACOM now provides in-factory training to workers in South China.

Educating workers about what they can claim under Chinese labour laws.

They are creating democratically elected worker-based committees that represent the real voices of the majority of workers; committees which sit alongside, sometimes quite uncomfortably, with the local official state trade union.

Some other groups doing similar work are China Labor Watch and Corporate Social Responsibility Asia.

I would compare all of them favourably with the Egyptian NGO the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS) which has been the core group supporting the flowering of the independent Egyptian trade union movement.

The CTUWS is today the nuclei of the first independent national trade union centre in Egypt – which will soon affiliate to the global free trade union the International Trade Union Confederation.

There is no doubt that much of this NGO work happens over on the eastern seaboard well away from where the Uyghurs live – but as China begins now to suffer (unbelievably) from labour shortages, there will be interesting new opportunities for the Uyghurs to get involved.

Certainly the World Uyghur Congress should – if they haven’t already – find ways to make contact with these NGOs and find ways to get them involved with Uyghur workers way over in the west of China.

These groups can help educate and give confidence to the Uyghur people to make new economic demands which suit their interests and respect their cultural and national needs.

Just as we’ve experienced in Egypt at the same time as new economic demands are raised new local Uyghur workplace leaders, can use their training to create a new democratic space for independent and alternative action on a wide range of community interests.

Finally I note that at this conference you will be discussing relationships with Turkey and Kazakhstan. Obviously the Uyghur people have close cultural and linguistic relationships with the Turks and Kazakhs.

Interestingly one of the most vibrant new trade union movements, who have been struggling for the creation of democratic institutions,  is the Turkish trade union movement.

The Turkish trade unions, along with the Egyptians and the Tunisians, now have the opportunity to blaze new paths, creating an independent, democratic, largely secular, trade union culture within the context of a Muslim world.

But the Turkish trade unions could provide an interesting alternative bridge for the Uyghurs in China. There must be a potential to build alliances with the Turkish unions providing interesting new opportunities to create a democratic space for the Uyghur voice.

Later this year the Turkish trade unions are hosting a conference of labour activists, sponsored by LabourStart, where members of democratic unions across the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific will be in attendance.

Maybe the World Uyghur Congress should send along observers to see whether there are any possibilities to work together with democratic unions from the Middle East.

Let me conclude by thanking you for inviting me here to speak – and noting that unions should always play a role in helping to create a democratic future for the Uyghurs.

A measure of democracy in China will always be: How free, representative and independent are the local trade unions to promote the real aspirations of their Uyghur members.

Let’s work together to bring that day forward.