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Worker fights downsizing at Harbin Railway, and demands a democratic union

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This issue of CLNT features the blogs of Zhu Chunsheng – a worker activist who since late 2010 has been resisting the Harbin Passenger Railway’s efforts to lay-off staff and force remaining employees to sign illegal contracts with worse conditions. He himself has been laid-off. Zhu claims the enterprise union has refused to assist workers, and he is now calling for new union elections for real worker representatives.

The strike at Nanhai Honda in May 2010 generated widespread attention, because it was a rare example of migrant workers demanding democratic union elections. Although it was significant that this demand came from young migrant workers in a foreign-owned enterprise, it is important to note that an unknown number of worker activists have been making similar demands for democratic union elections in state-owned enterprises for a long time. Zhu Chunsheng at Harbin Railway is one of those examples.

Background to Zhu’s case
As part of the Harbin Railway Bureau’s larger plan to lay-off staff and restructure the workforce in all the Harbin Railway Sections, the Passenger Section unilaterally tore up hundreds of workers’ existing non-fixed term contracts which provide secure employment protection, and coerced workers into signing a blank contract on 1 January 2011. Many workers reluctantly signed, but a few workers resisted, including Zhu Chunsheng.

Zhu worked as a train maintenance technician. He argues, the purpose of the company’s illegal changes to employment contracts is to make future dismissals easier, with far less compensation. Zhu and several other workers made formal complaints and petitions to the authorities, and Zhu has been active in documenting the development on his blog. This later led to his harassment by the company security guards and the local police. He has since been laid-off.

This first translation provides a more detailed outline of the story.

The Zhu Chunsheng Incident at Harbin Passenger Rail: details of events and progress!


As of early April 2011, Zhu and other workers had achieved at least partial success. Two hundred workers who had been earlier laid off were reinstated, and the Harbin Railway Bureau has scaled back the plan to dismiss 30,000 workers to 4,000. While Zhu and others have generated pressure on management, Zhu is also frustrated that there is still insufficient support from most of the workers. The struggle is still ongoing, and workers’ support will be crucial for success.

In his resistance against management, Zhu has appealed to the enterprise union, which refused to do anything for workers. Disillusioned and angered, Zhu has since written about the need for a trade union that is accountable to workers. He points out that the trade union officials at the Harbin Railway are not elected by the workers, and therefore they either side with the management or are totally useless. The solution for Zhu is to have a genuine workers’ union with periodic elections, and this would then help develop workers’ collective consciousness to better protect their rights.

The second article articulates the reason and demand for a more accountable trade union.

If Only We, the Workers, Had Our Own Union


This story is in many ways similar to our past coverage on a worker – Liu Rongli – in Beijing, who set up an enterprise union after a long battle with management. Both demand workers’ representation to articulate and protect their rights. And while Zhu has yet to see any reform of the trade union at his workplace, there has been a growing awareness amongst workers to demand more representative trade unions through regular democratic elections.

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