New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



Forthcoming in China and ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (Roger Blanpain, Ulla Liukkunen, & Yifeng Chen, eds., 2014)


China does not recognize the international labor law principle of 'freedom of association.' China's only lawful trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and its branches, is controlled by the Communist Party, and its enterprise-level "grassroots" chapters have been dominated by management, for example, through control of nominations for grassroots union officers. The union has thus been widely seen as ‘useless’ to China’s workers in their efforts to protect their legal rights and economic interests, and thus rather useless to the state in seeking to control rising labor unrest. While there is no sign that China's leaders intend to loosen either party control of the ACFTU or the ACFTU’s monopoly on collective worker representation, they are seeking to make the ACFTU a more effective and responsive worker representative. One focal point of reform has been democratization of grassroots unions. Recently, some striking workers have begun to demand and to get open ‘haixuan’ elections (in which workers nominate their own candidates) for grassroots union officers. This chapter examines these developments from a broadly comparative and historical perspective on the relationship between labor unrest and workers’ ability to secure fundamental labor rights, and on the relationship between unions' accountability to workers and the goal of securing industrial peace.

Electoral democracy at the grassroots level of the trade unions in China would be a modest step in the direction of ‘freedom of association.’ It might also put pressure on the unelected local union and party-state officials that sit above them -- and vice versa -- with the end result of either extension or frustration of democratic reforms. The labor arena may be functioning as a laboratory in which to test competing views within China's leadership over the best strategy for maintaining stability -- the right mix of control and flexibility, repression and responsiveness, cooptation and democratization. Behind these competing views lie different theories about what Chinese workers (and citizens) want: Will worker-citizens be content with material improvements or will they hold out for a meaningful voice in their working lives and communities?

Date of Authorship for this Version