Automobile Factories Drive Worker Resistance

The explosive growth of the Chinese automobile industry has led to cities such as Changchun to be dubbed 'the new Detroit.' But as in Detroit, this new demand has had serious implications for Chinese workers. Lu Zhang, a professor of sociology at Temple University in Philadephia and author of “Inside China’s Automobile Factories: The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance,” spoke at Pomona College on Nov. 17, discussing Chinese workers' struggle for justice in the automobile industry. 

In her research, Zhang examined the issue at a deep, analytical and immersive level to understand the underlying structural dynamics and labor politics of the industry. Since the 1990s, China has intensified its auto industry in an effort to keep up with the competitive international market, chasing after an increasing profit potential. 

However, the workers’ rights have been sidelined as the industry grows. Today, workers' wages are far too low. This is compounded by workers working overtime for many grueling hours, often under extremely difficult physical strains. 

To understand the struggles and the resistance, Zhang spent at least two months in each factory. As a part of her case study, she conducted extensive interviews with both workers and managers.

Zhang went on to discuss the rising resistance of the Chinese labor force, sharing anecdotes of autoworkers' resistance, which included everything from wildcat strikes to sabotages and student resistance. The Chinese government passed a few labor laws in response, but mainly to pacify the workers—not necessarily for the greater welfare of its labor force.

“Knowing that wages have been so low for decades is really concerning,” Crystal Sin PZ '19 said. “I wonder if there was hope for radical change.”

Even so, Zhang also provided reason for hope during her talk. She emphasized that there are microstructural dynamics that are changing due to the workers’ resistance and are furthering their cause. The strikes have led to growing workplace bargaining power, enabling solidarity between Chinese workers.

“If the Chinese workers continue fighting, their ongoing struggle for justice and dignity will no doubt pay off,” she said in her speech.

Despite this hope, Zhang insisted that hard work and effort is still required to make these goals a reality. Remaining optimistic, she plans to continue covering the workers’ struggle. To the many college students in her audience, her words resonated strongly, as the majority of the Chinese workers’ resistance organizing begins in university dorms.

And with a new generation comes an undeniable hope for change.

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