New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

A New Deal for China's Workers? Labor Law Reform in the Wake of Rising Labor Unrest

Cynthia Estlund, NYU School of Law
Seth Gurgel


The 2010 Honda strikes in China marked a turning point in its labor relations regime, not because they were unprecedented but because they followed several years of rising labor unrest. In some ways reminiscent of New Deal labor law reforms in the U.S., rising collective labor protest has spurred government efforts both to improve labor standards through direct regulation and to institute more participatory and democratic structures for the resolution of labor disputes. Yet China's leaders generally regard collective activity that is outside of and independent of the state as a threat to political stability and Communist Party control, and as a civic wrong rather than a civic right. So for now there is little prospect of China's recognizing workers' own independent labor organizations. Rather, reform efforts focus on reshaping some features of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China’s only lawful labor union structure.

The main reform proposals call for democratic elections of union officers at the enterprise level and a more robust framework for collective negotiations. These democratizing reforms would represent major steps forward for China’s workers; yet they face serious challenges, for they challenge entrenched habits and traditional functions of the ACFTU. If the reforms come to fruition, they seem more likely to stimulate than to satisfy grassroots demands for democratization, and to channel workers' discontent more squarely toward the party-state. The reforms aim to shore up the dominant role of the party-state in directing major social forces and the current system for official representation and control of labor; yet their implementation would likely sharpen the contradictions between that system and China’s modernizing market economy. A more promising (but more radical) response to its labor troubles would be for China to transform the role of the state, on the labor front as it largely has on the capital front, from one of directing collective activity to one of regulating otherwise autonomous collective actors.