Challenging the Atomization of Discontent

Patterns of Migrant-Worker Protest in China during the Series of Strikes in 2010

Author: Florian Butollo and Tobias ten Brink


Based on a review of divergent interpretations of migrant-worker protests in China, this article analyzes strike patterns during labor struggles in the summer of 2010.

The analysis reveals (1) a shift toward more offensive demands for wage increases and (2) a high level of strike contagion. While these elements were evident to some extent in earlier struggles, the authors see their specific combination in 2010 as an indicator of an ongoing process of "class formation." The strikes were centered on auto supplier factories, however, and this shows the limitations on cross-sector protest due to the fragmented conditions in China's heterogeneous industrial structure and a continuing ban on independent organization.

Taking a broader perspective on the peculiarities of the strike movement, the authors discuss the impact on the government's comparably permissive stance toward the strike movement. This stance created favorable conditions for the proliferation of strikes. Attempts by state authorities to institutionalize worker conflict, while legitimizing the demand for higher wages, fall short of granting rights to organize independently and bargain collectively. Instead an opening has been created for worker militancy rather than integrating it into some authoritarian form of social compromise.

Regions: East Asia
Countries: China
Topics: Labor | Migration

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September 2012
© James Scambary