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Our experience has taught us that it may take a long time for workers embrace their own agency, but once they do, successful organising and unionisation will follow
Han Dongfang is the founder of China Labour Bulletin, a nongovernmental organisation supporting the worker movement in China.
All of us in the international labour movement were disappointed by the outcome of the union election in the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, U.S. Nevertheless, we congratulate the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) for its efforts against what seemed like insurmountable odds.
I, together with my fellow Chinese labour activists, have had productive meetings with our brothers and sisters in RWDSU in the past and we have learned a lot from their experiences in organising workers.
Now, in the wake of the Bessemer defeat and the rumbling of union ambitions among Amazon workers in Staten Island, we may have something to give back: lessons from our successful experiences fighting for workers’ rights in Asia.
Our experience has taught us that it may take a long time for workers embrace their own agency, but once they do, successful organising and unionisation will follow.
For the last five years, my organisation, China Labour Bulletin, has been working with garment workers in Bengaluru, India, establishing unions and encouraging collective bargaining.
When we started training workers in a factory owned by one of India’s largest producers and exporters of apparel, they were not interested in joining a union. Workers expressed deep grievances about the brutal treatment they experienced at the hands of factory management. At the same time, they viewed themselves as weak and felt that nothing could be done to improve their situation.
We spent many hours differentiating between the benefits the workers wanted to gain, and the pain they wanted to avoid. Single mothers wanted more time with their kids, as well as paid childcare. Others wanted clean drinking water and longer rest breaks. Everyone needed higher wages. What they feared was management retaliation: that they would be terminated or harassed at work.
We refrained from demonising their employer even though management’s behaviour, to us, was sometimes appalling. Similarly, while it is common to paint Amazon and its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos as the devil, our experience in Asia is that there are no angels and there are no devils – only people and their interests. We believed that casting the employer as a villain would backfire and make the workers lose hope.
After two years of intensive discussions and coaching, the narrative changed from “management is evil, and we are poor and powerless” to “this is in our hands – let’s see if we can make our lives a little better”. Even more significantly, “I joined the union” became “I am the union.”
The turning point came in early 2018, when the workers presented their union’s credentials to the factory management team and asked to be recognised. The response from the factory managerial staff, allegedly, was to insult and then violently beat the union members, resulting in hospitalisations, and ultimately, their employment was terminated, as recalled by the workers.
Within weeks, the majority of the factory’s workers demonstrated their support for the union. Multinational brands purchasing from the factory seemed appalled at the tactics employed by management, and the factory’s owners started to understand the danger to their reputation and business.
They offered to reinstate the worker representatives on the condition that they would not pursue a union. This was the moment when the workers showed the power of “I am the union”. The management’s condition for reinstatement was rejected. Within a day, management had agreed to reinstate the union leaders without conditions.
These developments had a remarkable ripple effect. Other workers in the garment-producing hub of Bengaluru learned of the beatings of the union members as well as their ultimate victory in establishing a union that could negotiate with management. Workers from those factories approached the union, requesting help on their own struggles for dignity and fair pay.
The best lesson we learned was that it was only when the workers themselves took control of their own destiny and had a clear vision of what they wanted, that the involvement and support from international brands, media and politicians could play a useful role.
Even support from the President of the United States as you had in Bessemer is just a tool to get what you want. In order to use these tools, you need self-confidence and solidarity.
If these well-intentioned outsiders took charge of the struggle on behalf of the workers, the case might have ended with a brand investigation report and maybe a few floor managers being fired. But surely there wouldn’t be any recognition of the union.
Trade unionists and worker activists around the world are regularly confronted with new and different onslaughts.
As power and wealth have become more concentrated in the hands of the few, my organisation’s experience in India proves that even when confronting the most daunting business leaders, worker solidarity and unionisation can reset the current systems of power.
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