Expansion of democracy? China trade union to allow direct election of shop leaders
CHRISTOPHER BODEEN, Associated Press Writer
Friday, September 26, 2003
2003 Associated Press


China's sole official trade union, long dismissed as a tool of Communist Party authority, is drafting rules to let its members elect local union leaders directly -- an apparent further step along the country's tentative path toward greater grass-roots democracy.

The reforms are a response to worker demands for more active unions amid mass layoffs at state enterprises and the growing influence of foreign-invested and private companies where workers aren't organized, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

There was no timetable for the reforms.

The All China Federation of Trade Unions will "promote the popular vote to elect grass-roots trade unions' chairmen as a main task in the next few years," Xinhua quoted union official Guo Wencai as saying.

The federation is the only body permitted to represent Chinese workers, and has long been tightly controlled by the party.

While claiming 134 million members, the organization has been largely ineffective in defending workers' rights. Workers say its main role is in enforcing the party's demands for social stability and quashing challenges to its political authority.

The plan for the federation mirrors reforms in the selection of village heads, China's broadest experiment with direct democracy thus far. Formerly appointed by party officials, leaders are now directly elected by villagers in 700,000 hamlets in China's vast countryside, although they must still share power with appointed village-level party cadres.

Xinhua announced Friday the election of senior party official Wang Zhaoguo as federation chairman at the federation's annual congress. Wang is considered close to President Hu Jintao, who has been placing allies in influential positions since taking office in March.

Although union officials are mostly selected by higher-level party officials, grass-roots unions in four economically developed coastal provinces have already begun directly electing their leaders.

In wealthy Hangzhou city's industrial district, more than one third of 900 grass-roots unions have been directly electing their chairmen since 1999, Xinhua said.

Grass-roots unions are those located in a single office or enterprise and can number from a dozen to several thousand workers.

Labor rights monitors welcomed the announcement, but said more needs to be done to ensure elected union leaders have the authority to defend workers rights.

Elected leaders are often ignored by higher-ups in the union when they try to communicate worker concerns such as payment of wages, pensions, and insurance, said Robin Munro, a Hong Kong-based author and human rights activist.

"We hope the formal election process is accompanied by a push to make leaders accountable and really represent the problems of the workers," Munro said.

Word of the union reforms come amid scattered protests, including some in Beijing, by workers laid off from sluggish state companies with little or no compensation.

2003 Associated Press

 

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