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