Post-socialist trade unions: China and Russia Simon Clarke

Post-Socialist Trade Unions: China and Russia

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Post-Socialist Trade Unions: China and Russia

The idea of ‘path dependence’ (Nee and Stark, 1989) implies that the transition countries cannot simply choose among societal models provided by existing capitalist societies because they are constrained by structural, institutional and ideological legacies. In the case of trade unions, this implies that it is inappropriate to analyse post-socialist trade unions in terms of their development towards one or another existing model of trade unionism, because they have to construct their own trade union practices on the basis of inherited structures and within a framework that is outside their control. Similarly, the specificity of their historical legacy makes it inappropriate to conceptualise post-socialist trade unions within theoretical frameworks developed through the analysis of trade unions that have grown up in capitalist societies, however diverse may be the experiences of the latter and however many superficial similarities with the situation of post-socialist trade unions may be observed. In this paper, as a prelude to the theorisation of post-socialist trade unionism, I intend to outline an analysis of the constraints and dilemmas that confront post-socialist trade unions on the basis of a comparison of the development of trade unionism in Russia and China through the various stages of reform, culminating in the transition to a capitalist market economy.

Such a comparison is apt because, at first sight, the Russian and Chinese cases of the transition from state socialism could not be more different. In Russia, in the wake of mass strikes in 1989, the political system disintegrated and Party rule was replaced by formally democratic institutions. In China, the Communist Party tightened its grip after the shock of 1989 and its rule is still unchallenged. The contrast between the economic success of China and the failure of Russia could not be more stark. In democratic Russia, GDP per head fell by almost half over the 1990s, in Communist China it doubled. While industrial production in Russia fell by more than half, in China it increased more than three times. The constitutional status of the trade unions is also radically different in the two countries. In Russia, the trade unions declared themselves independent of the Communist Party in the late 1980s, in China the trade unions continue to be kept under strict Party control. The Russian trade unions are affiliated to the ICFTU, while the ICFTU eschews all contact with the Chinese ACFTU.

Although the outcomes of the transition to a capitalist economy have been dramatically different in Russia and in China, both the starting point and the reform processes have been very similar. The starting point was an economy based on the state ownership of the means of production and strict centralised control of wages, prices, employment and production. The transition was initiated by the attempt to develop a ‘socialist market economy’ in which state ownership of the means of production would be retained but the control of wages, prices, employment and production would be relaxed and a private sector would be allowed to develop in the interstices of the state socialist economy. The contradictions inherent in a ‘socialist market economy’ rapidly made themselves felt and were resolved, first in Russia and a little later in China, by the rapid corporatisation and then privatisation of state property and the transition to a fully capitalist economy.

The transition had radical implications for the role of the trade unions. Trade unions had been an integral part of the state socialist system, not as representatives of the interests of the workers in opposition to their employer, the state, but as the means of integrating workers into the state socialist system by performing state functions in the workplace and beyond. It is important to emphasise that state socialist trade unions were fundamentally different from trade unions in a capitalist society, however much the latter might collaborate with employers and be integrated into corporatist structures of participation, both because state socialist trade unions had a directive rather than a representative role and because they played virtually no part in the regulation of the employment relationship. The collapse of the state-socialist system removed the basis on which the state socialist ‘trade unions’ performed their traditional functions, but their transformation into organisations which could represent their members and participate in the regulation of the employment relationship would have to involve far more than their establishing their independence from the Party-state. More fundamentally, it would have to involve the adoption of entirely new and unfamiliar functions and practices.

In the first stage of the transition to a ‘socialist market economy’ in both Russia and China, the government established collective bodies to represent the interests and harness the energies of the enterprise as a whole, thereby identifying the interests of employees unambiguously with those of the employer. However, the idea that harmony could prevail was shattered by the radical workers’ protests that erupted in both countries in 1989, in response to which the transition to a socialist market economy gave way to a transition to capitalism.

In response to the 1989 protests the Russian trade unions declared their independence of the Party-state and proclaimed their new role as defenders of the workers, while the Chinese trade unions were brought under stricter Party control. But both the Russian and the Chinese trade unions have found their traditional role undermined by the dismantling of the state-socialist economic system and have faced the dilemma of whether they should attempt to re-establish their traditional state and management functions on a new foundation, or whether they should attempt to transform themselves into trade unions which can represent and defend their members in relation to their newly capitalist employers.

The development of post-socialist trade unions has not been simply a matter of their own strategic judgements, but has been strongly constrained by the priorities of employers and the state. For employers, trade unions which perform their traditional role remain very congenial, while trade unions which seek to restrain managerial ambitions are seen as a threat to be averted. For the state, the trade unions can perform useful administrative functions as well as important stabilising and legitimating functions in a period of growing social tension, provided that they commit themselves to ameliorating tension rather than exploiting grievances. Both the employers and the state have very powerful sticks and carrots to persuade trade unions to remain within their traditional roles, which they do not hesitate to use, while the trade unions have no tradition of mobilisation and their members do not look to the unions for their protection. The failure of the trade unions in Russia and China to transform themselves is not, therefore, so much a matter of the conservatism and indolence of their leaders, but of the severe structural constraints to which they are subject.

There is no space in a short paper to spell out the empirical details underpinning the analysis (for a more detailed account of the development of trade unionism in post-Soviet Russia see Clarke et al., 1993 and Ashwin and Clarke 2002 and for China see Ng and Warner 1998 and especially Taylor, Chang and Li 2003). The analysis of Russian trade unions in this paper derives primarily from my own fieldwork with my Russian colleagues and a systematic reading of the Russian and English-language sources since 1991. The analysis of Chinese trade unions derives from my more limited fieldwork and a systematic reading of the English-language sources, but also from extensive discussions with colleagues in Beijing and Hong Kong, to whom I am extremely grateful.1

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