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Diary of a Strike: 3,000 workers at the Shuangma Cement Plant strike in protest at management's comp

Published by MAC on 2007-07-26

Diary of a Strike: 3,000 workers at the Shuangma Cement Plant strike in protest at management's compensation offer

China Labour Bulletinn

26th July 2007

At 7.00pm on 29 June 2007, more than 3,000 workers at the giant Shuangma Cement Plant in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, downed tools and went on strike to protest against the company's proposed severance package.

Shuangma, a former state-owned enterprise, was in the process of restructuring after being acquired in May by the world's leading building materials company, Lafarge. Shuangma's proposed severance package of 1,380 yuan for each year of employment was the equivalent of the average monthly wage in Mianyang and included a clause which meant workers agreed to forgo all other retirement, medical and welfare benefits. When this package was presented to the workers on 27 June as the company's final offer, it was immediately rejected. Management failed to address workers concerns and instead held a banquet in Mianyang City with local government officials to celebrate their good fortune after the Lafarge buyout. They had just started the banquet when the strike began.

The response of management and the local authorities and police to the strike was to seal the town off from the outside world to prevent news leaking out, however, in the early stages of the strike at least, internet postings and blogs provided a valuable insight into the day to day developments in one of the most significant labour protests in China this year.

The strike has now ended but it is still unclear as to whether or not the workers have agreed to management's terms.

The following is an edited compilation of news from Shuangma during the first week of the strike before the media clampdown made it difficult to attain anymore information. The veracity of the information below can not be independently verified but CLB publishes it here as a candid account of the strike from the workers' perspective.

30 June: When tools were downed at 7 o'clock in the evening on 29 June, Mianyang government officials and the management of Shuangma were at a banquet in the city to commemorate the handover of Shuangma to the French construction-materials multinational Lafarge. At 11 o'clock, Shuangma Cement President Tang Yueming and local government officials hurried back to Shuangma, but they were cornered in a Shuangma hotel by angry workers and detained there until this morning, when they left under the armed escort of the riot police. At noon today, a female employee of Shuangma was seized by company officials. Enraged workers blocked all the entrances to the company office building, demanding the release of their colleague. Six senior managers were trapped by the workers in a meeting room until five o'clock that evening when the detained worker was freed.

A few hours later, once the senior managers had been released from the meeting room, Shuangma Radio broadcast a speech made by the police chief of Jiangyou (the district north of Mianyang that includes Shuangma) alleging that; "a handful of criminal elements provoked and used the workers, who did not understand the true situation, to cut the power supply at the plant, leading to the production shutdown and strike." The broadcast appealed to the workers to return to their workplaces and support production, and featured a written self-criticism by a worker in a Shuangma laboratory. The speech and self-criticism were broadcast continuously in a loop until eight o'clock in the evening. Shuangma's television channel also aired the speech and the self-criticism continuously in place of its schedule programming. The infuriated workers all flocked back to the company office building after their evening meal, and then as the evening wore on gradually filed home. However, nobody went back to work.

Today an Internet cafe manager said there is an Internet blackout on comments about the Shuangma strike, and that print shops and photocopying facilities had been told by officials not to print or copy posters for Shuangma workers. Police are on guard at the bus station, and any Shuangma worker wanting leave the town must present their identification documents, register and give a reason for wishing to leave before being allowed to pass. The bus that runs once a day from Shuangma to Mianyang has been suspended. Shuangma's workers are already (effectively) under house arrest.

Another Shuangma employee was seized today in broad daylight, and four police were posted at the entrance of the police station. Two cameras have been mounted on the first floor, and armed police patrol the balcony at the top of the building. Two more workers have been detained. Details are unclear.

2 July. This morning, all workers held a meeting at the end of the bridge leading to the entrance of the Shuangma plant. Police were occupying the factory entrance and inner forecourt, and a loudspeaker van was playing the same broadcast over and again at the entrance, urging the workers to see reason, support the business reorganization, and firmly rebuff the handful of criminal elements creating a disturbance, destroying public property and affecting production.

The workers dispersed at around 10 o'clock in the morning today due to a rainstorm. Some 500 police officers have been sent in from Houba, approximately 10 km from the Shuangma plant. At present, the situation is calm, and we've heard that some people from Lafarge came to visit the plant yesterday.

One of the four detained workers, a woman, cut her wrists at a police station at Houba. She was sent to the hospital at Zhongba where she is believed to have died. Official nerves have been rattled by this young heroine's brave self-sacrifice, and they released the other three workers one by one during the evening. Yesterday afternoon also saw a gradual scaling back of the police presence, and now 90% of them have left Shuangma (the reason is that in Jiangyou, approximately 50 km away, citizens and country people are besieging the city government buildings, evidently because of a problem over the relocation of residents). Many rank-and-file policemen, while chatting with the workers, praised their actions, and said they thought they could win this dispute in the end. The morale of the strikers is growing firmer.

5 July: Today was peaceful and relations between the factory managers and the workers have returned to the kind of "Cold War" state. In Mianyang, large numbers of officials, at a high-level meeting called by Shuangma, were really shocked at the production shutdown and the length of the strike.

The retired employees of Shuangma have organised themselves, and written an open letter to the Standing Committee of Sichuan Provincial People's Congress, the provincial anti-corruption bureau, disciplinary inspection committee and trade union federation, in which they allege the misappropriation of funds to build, among other things, luxury villas for company bosses. The letter claims that over the last decade, company president Tang Yueming turned the plant from one of the most profitable businesses in the municipality into a loss-making enterprise, and demand that his tenure as president be investigated.

The workers of Shuangma are a good lot. They are dedicated to their work and to the company. Over the last 50 years, they have made a major contribution to China's economic development and helped maintain Shuangma's sterling reputation.

They have until recently suffered in silence under years of repressive management policies implemented by President Tang and his team. At one time, Shaungma generated over one billion yuan in state taxes each year but in the ten years since President Tang took over, basic wages at Shuangma have stagnated, while pay in the broader Chinese economy has risen rapidly.

Today, while the average workers' wage in Mianyang has reached 1,380 yuan per month, ordinary Shuangma employees have to support their families on just 500 to 800 yuan a month. Many have to rely on their retired parents for financial assistance. By contrast, Tang's top managers live in luxury houses and drive BMWs and Mercedes. This is a disgrace. Workers have waited so long for this day, only to learn they will be paid just 1,380 yuan for each year of service to compensate their economic losses.

Under severe pressure and provocation, the ordinary workers of Shuangma have decided to break their silence.

As the strike entered its second week, local government officials in Mianyang intensified their propaganda efforts, sending out three member work teams to visit and canvas opinion from the families of the workers, and attempt to persuade them to abandon the strike. This is well established practice in Chinese labour relations whereby management, in collusion with local government, seeks to disrupt worker solidarity by pressuring and even intimidating individual workers and their families rather than engaging in genuine collective bargaining.

And in the case of Shuangma, the approach seems, for the time being at least, to have been successful. CLB has long argued the need for genuine collective bargaining. Indeed if a democratic and representative union had been in place at Shuangma, it might have been able to negotiate an acceptable severance package with management during the restructuring process and averted the need for strike action in the first place.

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