Here are the readings we are doing this week in preparation for the Hong Kong dockworkers’ visit to Seattle:
See reading group FB invite here
When the Hong Kong dock workers went on a historic 40 day strike last May, they used the slogan, “All On the Same Ocean” (see video below) to describe their struggle.
They were striking against Li Ka Shing, the owner of Huchinson Whampoa, and the richest man in Asia. Li Ka Shing is also heavily invested in the Alberta Tar Sands extraction and the Keystone pipeline, contributing to the destruction of the planet’s climate and the further colonization of indigenous/ First Nations territories on this continent.
The Chinese capitalists are part of a global alliance of international ruling classes. Their business interests dovetail with those of US corporations, from Walmart to Amazon.com. This global capitalist empire exploits low-wage workers in factories across Asia; it also aims to reduce living standards for exploited and marginalized people here in the U.S. and around the world, through austerity programs and increased state repression.
Instead of uniting with workers across the Pacific to fight this common enemy, the US mainstream labor and environmental movements have often been stuck in old divisions. (see this article: http://www.unionbook.org/profiles/blogs/afl-cio-hosts-anti-chinese-yellow-peril-movie)
Slogans like “the Chinese are stealing our jobs,” to “the US is getting more polluted to help develop China”, cover up the fact that many Chinese workers are not benefiting from these developments. In fact, they are fighting back against their own exploitation and the pollution of the air we all breathe. They should be our allies, not our enemies.
Hong Kong dock workers who recently went on strike in May 2013 to form their union, the Hong Kong Dock Workers Union, will be coming to visit Seattle in the beginning of April. Their visit offers us an opportunity to challenge nationalist, divide and conquer divisions, and to build global networks of class struggle/ social liberation.
To prepare, we are starting a reading group aimed at bringing together folks, especially people of Asian descent and local workers interested in building solidarity with Chinese workers. Hopefully our conversations and discussions can be the beginnings of a grassroots formation that builds with Chinese activists abroad while also addressing local issues.
Below is the reading list. The links are active here:
Pieces will be summarized at the beginning of the session. The aim is to build a supportive group culture that can build off each other’s strengths and support with reading and understanding.
Please email for access to articles at firstname.lastname@example.org
Look forward to learning together!
In preparation for the upcoming visit by Hong Kong port workers in April, some of us in Seattle are gathering to do some reading and discuss the significance of Chinese labor struggle to local politics. Please email for access to articles at email@example.com
If you are interested in joining, let us know!
Looking forward to learning together!
Week 1: Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta
(A) News articles about the Hong Kong Dock Workers strike and beyond：
(B) Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook. Edited by Stefan Al (Excerpts) *please email
(C) Signs of New Hope: Resistance in China by Au Loong Yu & Bai Ruixue
Week 2: Labor structures and organizations:
Week 3: Gender and class formation
Gender and the South China Miracle by Ching Kwan Lee (Chapters 6, 7,8) *please email
Week 4: China & the US
America’s Head Servant by Hung Ho Fung
Walmart in China by Anita Chan *please email
Week 5: The Global Supply Chain
Forgotten Spaces (Film)
A recent major accident in the Pacific Northwest, just another piece of this drilling, shipping, and money-making business that stretches across oceans. The following is reposted from Daily Kos.
Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:12 PM PDT
Zoltan Grossman, a geography professor at The Evergreen State College outside of Olympia, Washington, has been digging into the facts surrounding the collapse of the I-5 bridge across the Skagit River north of Seattle. The picture he is putting together of this incident is even more shocking than we initially believed. Mullen Trucking, the Calgary based operator of the truck that hit the span is involved in hauling large and heavy drilling from the Port of Vancouver, WA, to the Alberta Tar Sands field. The equipment is placed in a large box for the trip north and east from Vancouver, WA. After unloading the trucks return to Vancouver with the empty housing boxes to be loaded again. The truck that hit the bridge was carrying one of those large housing boxes back to Vancouver for another load of drilling equipment.
Thanks to Zoltan there is more below the flying orange squig.
Initially, these trucks were routed East across Oregon, Northern Idaho and into Montana before heading north into Alberta. Because of organized protests in Missoula, Mullen started diverting some of their drilling cargo north on I-5 through Seattle to take some of the pressure off Montana, however, they continue to use the Montana route as well.
Mullen Trucking L. P. is no two-bit player in the business of moving drilling rigs. It has a market capitalization of $2.5 billion according to Anil Tahiliani, portfolio manager with McLean and Partners Wealth Management in Calgary. Mullen will be in Booth 2001 at the Oil Sands Trade Show and Conference, Sept. 10-11, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. They operate the largest specialized fleet in Western Canada with 140 trucks and 450 trailers designed to haul drilling equipment.
Professor Grossman provides the following links to sources for his analysis:
“The tractor-trailer was hauling drilling equipment housing to Vancouver, Wash.”
Mullen Trucking has “escorted numerous loads destined for the tar sands”:
Mullen Trucking at Oil Sands Trade Show
“There are some big players in the logistics industry in Alberta’s oil sands. For example, Mullen Trucking L.P. has a $2.5 billion market cap. Terrible road conditions mean trucking equipment around is hugely important…rig-moving equipment is ‘the latest thing.'”
“Opponents force Imperial Oil to send megaloads to Canada’s oil sands on interstates, avoiding scenic highways” (with map)
All Against the Haul
It would appear that the environmental damage of the Tar Sands/Keystone Pipeline Project is beyond our is beyond our worst fears and will only get worse.
The tentacles of that monstrosity reach across our country and Canada.
Interesting Side Note:
Professor Grossmans diligent discovery is the Second Grand Slam for Evergreen State College this Spring. Thomas Herndon, the grad student at the University of Massachusetts who exposed Reinhart and Rogoff’s treatise on National Debt and Economic Growth as a fraud is an Evergreen graduate.
Originally posted to ratcityreprobate on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:12 PM PDT.
Who won the port strike? As ever, this kind of question has no simple answer but, such as they are, the answers are more interesting than might be imagined.
Let’s start with the big question of whether the dockers won or lost. Clearly, they did not achieve the pay rise they were seeking – the 9.8 per cent accepted being around half their original demand – but management was forced to double its initial offer and to concede improved conditions of work that it initially refused even to discuss.
In purely monetary terms, it will be hard for the strikers to claw back the lost pay they sacrificed during the dispute; moreover some are now jobless. Yet they emerge from the strike with a strong sense of pride and solidarity, plus the comforting assurance of widespread public support for their cause.
What the strike crystallised was a significant change in the way many people regard Hong Kong’s leading businessmen, once hailed as rags-to-riches heroes but now seen in a very different light. The change in mood may well produce some interesting results.
Li Ka-shing, the man in the eye of the anti-big-business storm, emerges from this strike in bad shape. True, he kept his port company more or less at arm’s length. Yet, by actions such as taking out full-page newspaper advertisements denouncing the strike and its leaders, the company reinforced the impression that Li was at the centre of the strike, and not in a positive way. I have not heard anyone saying anything good about his actions; at best, they have been described as “understandable”.
On the other hand, the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions, under the leadership of Lee Cheuk-yan, has clearly enhanced its status as the most impressive fighter for workers’ rights. The bigger pro-Beijing unions were largely left on the sidelines and suffered from the suspicion that they could no longer be relied upon to support the workers. This is damaging because one of the central planks of the pro-Beijing camp’s credibility is that it has a strong working-class base.
As for the government, well what can we say? Officials kind of stood aside at the outset, then kind of got involved and then kind of claimed to have settled the dispute. In other words, it was kind of muddled and ineffective. Smart governments either keep well away from private industrial disputes or plunge in with some determination. This government did neither. What a surprise.
There are wider questions to be asked about the consequences of this strike for collective bargaining. It is well known that those engaged in industrial disputes enjoy no more than minimal protection under Hong Kong’s laws. And we shall see, for example, whether there is longer-term retaliation against the strikers, who lack legal protection against such action. Yet the strike clearly showed that even employers who, as in this case, refuse to recognise the union leading the strike could be forced to sit down and negotiate with them.
One institution emerges from this strike with its reputation very much intact.
The judiciary resisted the legal bullying of Li’s lawyers trying to remove strikers from outside his headquarters, by ensuring that the rights of assembly were upheld, while also ruling on the removal of obstructions arising from these rights that were causing problems of public access.
The courts did their job in exemplary fashion and sent a reassuring message that they were not to be swayed by those with the biggest wads of cash.
Overall, the strike shows the effectiveness of industrial action and a change in public attitudes towards it. Who would have thought that as Hong Kong enters the 21st century, the place often portrayed as an epitome of capitalist values would be moving in this direction? This story is far from over.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur
Union of Hong Kong Dockers
6 May 2013
Members of UHKD decided in the meeting held this evening to call an end to the 40-day strike in the HIT terminals.
On 6 May, UHKD received a written confirmation jointly signed by the four contractors of HIT, Everbest, Comcheung, Lem Wing and Pui Kee via the Labour Department. The four companies confirmed the new salary plan of 9.8% increase in the basic wage for all their employees at different works in the Kwai Chung Contrainer Terminals, effective for one year from 1 May 2013. In the workers’ meeting called by UHKD in the evening, members considered the written assurance by the four contractors with the Labour Department a step forward compared to the verbal, unilateral announcement these companies made on 3 May. Although the strike has not secured a collective bargaining agreement with the employers, the 40-day industrial action has broken the “tradition” of unilateralism and succeeded in forcing the contractors to seal a written confirmation about the pay and working conditions. UHKD believes that this is the first step towards building a mechanism of communication and negotiation between the employers and the union representing a large section of the contractual workers in the Hong Kong terminals.
The four contractors’ written confirmation also gives details committing the employers to “improve the occupational safety and health protection with the terminal companies”, as well as providing the crane operators the right “to stop the machine to take lunch freely”, and “leave their workplace for toilet”. Members of UHKD decide that these concrete commitments are important basis for the union to continue the engagement with the contractors and HIT in good faith in the future.
While calling an end to the strike, the union is now working to assist the re-employment of its members, particularly the hundred crane operators employed by Global Stevedoring which announced its closure on 18 April. The union is pressing the Labour Department to negotiate with all the contractors for the soonest possible re-employment of these members.
UHKD will see to the end that the contractors abide by their promise of non-retaliation; and that none of its members will be penalized in the future for having taken part in the strike. The union will follow up to demand the contractors and HIT for a mechanism to schedule the rest and lunch breaks, enforce the safety and health provisions, review the salary regularly and eventually establish a collective bargaining mechanism that includes the contractual workers in the terminals.
The passionate support and generous donations of the Hong Kong community, the international trade unions and organizations have helped us to sustain the strike for forty days. On behalf of our members, UHKD is thankful to all of you who have been giving us unwavering support. Together with you, we have demonstrated again the importance of workers’ unity in fighting not only for reasonable pay, but also our dignity and our future.
It is the time for Hong Kong SAR government to re-table the legislation on collective bargaining, scrapped by the government in 1997, in obligations under the ILO Convention No98. The working people in Hong Kong must have an internationally recognized mechanism on collective bargaining to ensure the right to fair negotiation of their working conditions and protection of the unions they belong to.
Hong Kong Dockers Claim Victory
Ellen David Friedman
May 7, 2013
More than 500 dockworkers at the Port of Hong Kong ended their 40-day strike yesterday with a settlement that included a 9.8 percent wage increase. The strike, closely followed by mainland China labor activists and sympathizers, is a much-needed sign that resistance to global capital remains not only relevant but also possible. Photo: Left 21.
A 40-day strike of more than 500 dockworkers at the Port of Hong Kong ended yesterday with a settlement that included a 9.8 percent wage increase, non-retaliation against strikers, and a written agreement, all of which had been fiercely resisted by the four contractors targeted in the strike.
Strikers accepted the offer by a 90 percent vote.
The four contractors also agreed to work through the port manager Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT) to provide meal and toilet breaks, which had been lacking even for workers on 12- or 24-hour shifts. Crane operators laid off during the strike will be rehired.
Workers see HIT—owned by Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s wealthiest capitalists—as the real power at play, as the interview below demonstrates.
Though members of the Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers (UHKDW) had been holding to their demand for a double-digit wage increase, they had growing concerns about contractors’ use of scabs and the relative ease with which shippers could reroute from Hong Kong to the nearby mainland China port of Shenzhen. After the breakthrough accomplishment of forcing the contractors to negotiate, and clearly winning the battle of public opinion, strikers were ready to return to work.
The strike was notable in that dockworkers across multiple sub-contractors first self-organized, from the bottom up, before seeking affiliation for their union with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).
The political environment in Hong Kong allows inter-union competition between HKCTU and the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). Workers have the chance to see the differences between the HKFTU’s pro-corporate brand of unionism and the HKCTU’s anti-corporate stand—but are also caught between the antagonistic interests. During the strike, HKFTU carried to workers the employers’ low-ball wage-increase offer (5 percent). These negotiations exposed HKFTU’s relative illegitimacy.
The support of students, particularly through the group Left 21, was critical to engaging Hong Kong society as a whole. More than HK$8.5 million (US$1,105,000) was raised for a strike support fund which stood at only HK$30,000 (US$3,900) at the outset. Financial contributions and solidarity resolutions came from the West Coast longshore union in the U.S. (ILWU), the International Federation of Transport Workers, and transport workers unions in Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands.
Solidarity actions such as informational pickets, slow-downs, or rallies didn’t materialize, however—although in the U.S. and Canada, the Steelworkers were considering action at facilities owned by Husky Energy, a subsidiary of Li Ka-shing’s vast empire.
Interview with Hong Kong Dockworkers Leader
Stephen Philion, associate professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, conducted this interview with the dockworkers union Secretary Wong Yu Loy last week in Hong Kong. Philion also translated.
The battle of the Hong Kong dockers, as union Secretary Wong Yu Loy reveals, was important not only because of the rarity of strikes in Hong Kong, or because it was a pitched battle with Hong Kong’s wealthiest corporate magnate, but also because of the way corporate globalization set up the terms of the battle and the importance unions around the globe attached to it.
As Wong suggests in the interview, the strike was followed closely and supported by labor activists and sympathizers in mainland China. The strike thus has potentially powerful implications for a global labor movement much in need of a sign that resistance to global capital remains not only relevant but possible.
Click here for more information and updates on the strike.
Q: To start with, what are the key issues that that have brought about the Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT) dockworkers’ strike?
Wong Yu Loy: Wages and workplace conditions. From 1995 to 2011 wages for stevedores had been constantly cut to the point where the wages were less than in 1995. In 2011 the union finally succeeded in securing a HK$200/day (US$26) wage increase, which still meant daily wages were HK$150 less per 24-hour shift than in 1995. As for crane drivers, they are paid much less if they are hired by subcontractors than by HIT directly.
This current conflict started brewing around March of last year. We attempted collective bargaining, sending a letter to all the terminals demanding a salary adjustment for workers across the industry, but this was met with rejection. We were basically ignored by the dock owner (Hong Kong International Terminals), a unit of multibillionaire and Asia’s wealthiest person Li Ka-shing’ s Hutchison Port Holdings Trust.
Subcontractors used various measures to repress the union, most notably insisting on direct negotiations with individual groups of workers. But from the outset dockworkers had insisted that negotiations be conducted with union representatives. These negotiations met with no success. Now, for the 10 years prior to 2011 there had been no wage adjustments, and it’s in the last year that the conflict reached a boiling point. Workers had waited a long time for changes and were frustrated with attempts by subcontractors’ strategy of negotiating with groups of 100, 200 workers. How do you conduct such negotiations?
Q: But isn’t the union the representative of the workers?
Wong: Sure, but the subcontractors wouldn’t acknowledge this. Instead, they just regard workers as their hired help and repress the union where possible.
Q: How many dockworkers does HKCTU represent?
Wong: About 700 altogether who are our members. HIT employs about 3,000 and total dockworkers comes to about 5,000.
Q: And other unions represent them?
Wong: Yes, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, which historically is close to the Chinese government. Now, of course, they’ve been around much longer than us (HKCTU was only established in 2006). However, many of its leaders have become “small bosses,” i.e., subcontractors. There is a subcontractor who is an FTU dockworkers union executive council member. So their approach is often to put forth what seem to be very appealing demands, but the results are always far less. So the mass of workers don’t have much faith in FTU.
Our union is only seven years old, organizationally growing step by step.
Q: Are there members of HKCTU that have left HKFTU?
Wong: Yes. A fair number of our members have worked on the docks for 10 to 20 years, or even longer. Mind you at that time HKFTU was the only union they could join. Some workers began to lose faith in FTU, not believing they represented dockworkers’ interests.
Q: What is the difference between how HKCTU and HKFTU approach organizing?
Wong: I think the biggest difference is that we organize from bottom up. As many of their cadres have been promoted to management level, they have considerable power to get dockworkers to join the FTU. A worker might feel they have little choice in the matter. But such union cadre can’t really represent the interests of dockworkers. Our union works from below persuading worker by worker to join and get organized, with the effect of enabling rank-and-file workers to make their voices heard.
Q: Have dockworkers who are not in the HKCTU shown support for this strike?
Wong: Yes, there have been examples of that in the form of dockworkers working to rule (slowdowns), and refusing overtime, having an impact on dock productivity. From what we’ve heard, roughly 80 percent of crane drivers are carrying out such actions, in all perhaps 500.
Q: Is the fact that perhaps only about a fifth of the dockworker workforce is on strike a challenge or barrier to this strike’s success?
Wong: The members involved in this strike occupy key skilled positions on the docks, as crane drivers or stevedores. This kind of skilled worker is hard to replace. Of those still working are truck drivers, who are all subcontracted out. You can imagine how easy it is to divide and conquer them. Interestingly, in 1990s this was the most advanced group of workers in terms of organizational power. HIT took note of this significance and broke them up via subcontracting.
Q: Yet there remain crane drivers at HIT working who are not members of HKCTU and not engaging in work to rule, right?
Wong: Yes, but keep in mind it’s not a sustainable situation since they have to work overtime, in some instances up to 48 and even 72 hours straight. The pressure on them is great!
Q: Work hours is also an issue in this strike, right? Which is tied to workplace injuries?
Q: How do you explain that these issues have become so serious over the past decade? Main factors?
Wong: For one, the unemployment rate in Hong Kong has been pretty low, hovering around 3.1 percent, combined with a very high rate of inflation. Dockworkers look around and compare their situation with other workers in Hong Kong and in other countries. For example, in construction, bar benders, whose level of work intensity is roughly equivalent to dockworkers and who also are members of one of the more strongly organized HKCTU unions, recently reached a collectively bargained agreement that won them 50 percent pay increases that in three years will give them HK$1,800 (US$230) per day. That’s for workers who work only eight hours a day, with one hour for meal breaks and an additional half hour regular break. That is, they are only working 6.5 hours! So the dockers compare, “How come I work for 24 hours straight?”
Q: I have not worked on docks before—how do they last for 24 hours straight?
Wong: Well, they don’t work straight through, there are periods where they are not working for 5, 10 minutes. But during peak season, I’ve heard of extreme cases of workers working for one straight week. And they are working for 24 hours straight for $HK 1,300 (US$169). It’s terrible. This of course makes them unhappy, thinking, what was the point of exhausting myself so and getting so little in return?
Q: Is this kind of work-hours arrangement common in other countries?
Wong: No, I’ve seen the collectively bargained agreement of the ILWU [the West Coast Longshore union in the U.S.]. They work three shifts and have overtime pay. Medical care, pension, and children’s educational benefits are included. But in Hong Kong, we don’t see any of these.
Q: These workers are hired through subcontractors, right?
Wong: Yes, crane operators’ jobs in the 1990s were subcontracted out. Stevedores have been subcontracted out for even longer. The terminal owner (HIT) claims that they are not the direct employers of these workers, instead the ship owners are. The terminal operators hire dockworkers through the contract agent to work for the ship owners! For the stevedore workers, there are two main hiring subcontractors and three for the crane operators.
Q: Originally, were there more subcontractors? What about the role of subcontracting as a factor in pushing down dockworkers’ wages? We see competition between subcontractors as having this race-to-the-bottom effect in many industrial sectors in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Wong: Oh, this is one of the more amazing features of this industry. Why do I say so? In Hong Kong, though these subcontractors have a contract with the terminal operator, actually the terminal operators control the whole hiring system. The biggest difference of daily pay among subcontractors is all of HK$10-20 (US$1.30-$2.60), very minimal. Something funny is going on here—why is the difference so small? Isn’t there some preexisting agreement reached behind closed doors?
Q: So the purpose is not so much to push down wages as to enable the terminal operator to avoid responsibility for the low wages and work conditions?
Wong: Exactly. We researched the background of these “subcontractors”and it turns out they are nearly all registered shareholders in British Isles offshore tax havens. We suspect that they are controlled by the terminal operators who have worked out kickback arrangements with these contractors.
Q: How is globalization a factor in this strike’s occurrence?
Wong: Oh, I think it’s a big one. Globalization intensifies the degree that workers from different parts of the world need to compete with each other in a race to the bottom. Just a few decades ago Hong Kong was an important manufacturing center. As China underwent market-based restructuring, Hong Kong’s textile and electronics companies all relocated to China because workers there are cheaper. Now even Mainland China faces such problems, as manufacturers move to Cambodia, Burma, and Laos.
You know, dockworkers are a vital cog in the corporate supply chain. Any knots that emerge in that chain block movement to the next link. If the dockworkers were all to go on strike, this would cause many factories in China’s Pearl River Delta region to experience stoppages. If the containers can’t move, their commodities have nowhere to go. Major shippers might need to skip Hong Kong, going to Taiwan or Singapore instead. The effects will be felt around the globe. It is a very real form of resistance to globalization.
Cross-national solidarity during this strike is very important, therefore. For example, the Maritime Union of Australia has sent representatives here to express support. The ILWU has raised funds for the strikers and might also send a representative to the strike line. Even though they are not themselves on strike, their donations are greatly appreciated. These donations let Hong Kong’s dockworkers know they are not alone. We are brothers and sisters across the globe. This leaves a big impression on Hong Kong’s working class.
Q: What do you see as the significance of this strike for Hong Kong’s working class?
Wong: I think Hong Kong’s workers are very happy to see this group of some 500 ordinary workers coming together in solidarity as a formidable force able to stand up to the wealthiest man in Hong Kong and eighth richest man in the world. This is very encouraging to Hong Kong’s working class. Of course, we don’t have a tradition of socialism or social democracy in Hong Kong.
Q: So seeing so many ordinary Hong Kong citizens donating so much to the strike fund is really quite remarkable.
Wong: Yes it is. I believe that Hong Kong’s people see Li Ka-shin as up to too many nasty tricks. He’s got hands in everything, retail, shipping, manufacturing…so many businesses. Many are just worn down by his accumulation of power via monopolistic ownership. Concretely, we can see this from the strike fundraising results, which to date have approached US$ 1 million. We’ve never seen a strike receive so much in the way of financial donations from the general public.
Q: So how much was your strike fund before the strike started?
Wong: Wow, this is shameful! You know, union dues are very cheap, all of HK$10 per month. Almost nothing! Before the strike we had barely HK$30,000 (US$3,900), an evening meal for Li Ka-shin!
Q: So then the support from the general public in Hong Kong has been very critical.
Wong: Hugely important. I think their support is absolute crucial in enabling us to sustain the victory and achieving a victory. I hope that we don’t let them down.
Q: Your success would mean what to Hong Kong’s workers?
Wong: It would mean a great deal in terms of collective memory. Every donor will have a memory that they donated to the strike fund and a victory, and this would contribute to the gradual development of a new collective consciousness in Hong Kong.
Q: Likewise what is the significance of this strike for China’s working class?
Wong: Wow, it’s massive. And why? On the second day of the strike, I asked a friend who was more familiar with China’s internet discussions if there was much information about our strike. He responded that the strike has already become a “hot topic” in internet chat rooms. Mainlander students and visitors have come to our strike line and donated to our strike fund.
Q: Has the strike received any media coverage in China?
Wong: Actually, Xinhua.net, China’s official media station, reported on it and it was pretty fair in its coverage. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of support from within China. It’s partly a reflection of the hopes that Chinese labor supporters or activists have for our strike. They’re paying attention to the developments in the strike. They’ve sent several thousand $HK to our strike. They might not have a great amount of money, but it’s a way of expressing their belief in us.
A Chinese labor activist has also written up an analysis of the significance of the strike for Chinese workers. It’s quite well written, from a class struggle perspective. He argues that the Chinese working class movement also needs to develop similar types of strikes through an organizing process in lieu of the present trend of spontaneous short-lived strikes that don’t develop organizational power.
I also know that we have friends in Taiwan who have sent donations, along with Korea and Japan. In fact, the All Japan Dockworkers Union was the first to publicly show support for our strike with a public letter of solidarity. The ILWU has also sent a donation to the strike fund. Around the world Hutchison is known as a major terminal operator, so dockworkers internationally understand the significance of this strike.
Q: What is the likelihood of a success for this strike?
Wong: Well, to begin, in any negotiations, you know you’re not going to get everything you originally demanded. At this time (April 26) I can’t say with any certainty what the final result of the strike will be in terms of who will gain the most. But at the very least, the strike will show to the world that Hong Kong’s dockworkers have the ability to carry out a strike and are able to secure from the terminal operators fairer wages and work conditions.
Q: One of the subcontractors that is an employer of the striking workers has announced it is closing up shop. Will that affect the strikers’ ability to retrieve their jobs?
Wong: It shouldn’t. I am confident that the other subcontractors will look to hire them since in this industry there is a shortage of labor. It’s very hard labor and not many people are willing to do it. So I’m not worried about getting their jobs back.
Q: So far the negotiations have broken down several times. Do you anticipate that HIT and the subcontractors will finally negotiate seriously with you?
Wong: I think that they will get to a point where they have no choice but to seriously negotiate. As ports remain unable to get back to normal due to lack of enough skilled dockworkers, the need for more serious negotiations will be apparent.
Q: Do you anticipate the strike lasting through to (winter, pre-Christmas) peak season?
Wong: I think the striking dockworkers would like to settle this issue as soon as possible. It’s my own hope that after May 1, we could resume work. The terminal operators will also want to get this over with and get back to normal operations.
Q: For this strike you’ve chosen the non-peak season. Why not the peak season?
Wong: Hong Kong’s workers are very disciplined. They want to show the terminal operators that they are sincere and have integrity. And if the strike went for too long, that’s not something that would benefit us. But I also believe that after this strike we will reconsider our tactics and look at pursuing strikes in the future during peak season, as that would result in a greater likelihood that the terminal operators would respond to and meet our demands more quickly.
We would have the support of the public too. We can say that we already tried a softer approach to the strike by choosing the non-peak season and that wasn’t effective. We can gradually win over a Hong Kong public, that is not accustomed to accept future strikes, to a strike during peak season.
Q: What about the reaction of the Hong Kong government?
Wong: Really, it’s a handicapped government, impotent. They can’t do anything about Li Ka-shin. Only deep into the process did the Labor Bureau Secretary finally call for mediation, but that went nowhere. Of course he’s the richest man in Hong Kong and the government doesn’t have a mandate. It puts the government in a weak position. It has no popularly elected leaders.
I’m not saying U.S. elections are the ideal; they are contests between different wings of capital. But even the bare minimum of free elections in Hong Kong we don’t enjoy. The executive is chosen by 1,200 representatives. As a result, it’s a government with no real power to confine or restrict the power of capital. So I always say Hong Kong is a capitalist heaven!
Q: HIT has been placing quite expensive ads in many of Hong Kong’s newspapers attacking the union for this strike. How do you respond to those quite public broadsides?
Wong: Yes, it’s quite something. On the one hand we are not having any effect, according to HIT, but they are spending a fortune to buy up full-page ads in Hong Kong’s newspapers to smear us for “class struggle” (!). And it’s a real shame they’re willing to spend all this money on ads, but won’t put out for a fair wage increase. This is really ridiculous.
We respond with facts about the wage system, the fact that we are just seeking a reasonable pay, showing how our wages lag behind where they were in 1995. They say our demands will hurt the Hong Kong economy. We say the real economic predators in Hong Kong are the real estate speculators constantly causing the price of housing to increase. They claim that working 24 straight hours is something we volunteer to do. We ask whether HIT management is willing to work for 24 hours straight. In fact workers don’t have that freedom to reject such work hours.
Q: Actually, it’s understandable why they’re willing to put out money for ads instead of a fair wage settlement. If their strategy is long-term-oriented, it is to prevent future strikes and organization from below via breaking this dockworkers union.
Wong: Well, true, but Hong Kong’s citizenry feels the impact at the everyday level of corporate control and exploitation. So, the more ads they place in the newspapers, the more we respond with the truth and the public sees that we’re in the right.
Q: What means do you have to rebut them since you don’t have the resources of this global corporate giant?
Wong: We only bought a one-day ad in two newspapers, whereas they placed their ads in every newspaper for three separate days. But I think that the mass media in Hong Kong, with the exception of a handful who have sided with HIT, have shown their sympathy for us. That is a reflection of just how serious the level of inequality that exists in Hong Kong’s society is. In most countries, usually the mass media is pro-corporation. So this is a pretty exceptional situation.
Ellen David Friedman is a retired union organizer, on the Policy Committee of Labor Notes, and a Visiting Scholar at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.