Aug 3, 2009
On July 24, workers shut down a large, state-run steel mill in Tonghua, Northern China, to protest the privatization of the plant and looming mass layoffs.
When riot police were sent, the workers fought back with bricks. Reportedly, about 100 people were injured. The workers ended the shutdown after 11 hours, only when the government announced that the privatization was suspended indefinitely.
Tonghua workers had every reason to fight back. In the 1990s alone, state-run enterprises in China laid off about 50 million workers. Since then, mass layoffs in China have continued. These layoffs often come with the privatization of state-run enterprises – in many cases an outright handout of huge industrial plants to private interests.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and their families have thus been thrown in the street, while those who still have jobs mostly toil for meager wages. At the same time, a handful of Chinese “entrepreneurs” have been getting obscenely rich. For example, the owner of Jianlong, the company that was supposed to take over the Tonghua mill, was the tenth richest man in China in 2008, with a fortune of 2.9 billion dollars.
Jianlong had gotten out of a deal to buy Tonghua last year, when the plant showed a loss. When Tonghua was profitable again this summer, Jianlong came back to buy a majority share in the plant, with money from the Chinese version of a government “stimulus” program.
Jianlong then announced that the company would lay off 25,000, or five out of six workers, at Tonghua. That’s when workers took matters into their hands, and stopped the take-over, and layoffs – at least for now.
Unlike other workers’ actions like this, which are quite wide-spread in China, the Tonghua events made the news all over the world – but mainly because the plant’s general manager, Chen Guojun, was killed during the shutdown.
According to news reports, Chen had personally made the announcement about the layoffs, and angered the workers further with his arrogant attitude. About 1,000 workers apparently attacked Chen in his office and beat him to death. If it weren’t for this death, the international news media would have ignored the workers’ mobilization. To the capitalist media, the death of one boss is more important than the death, and suffering, of hundreds of millions of workers and their families.
This manager got caught in the middle of a big social dispute – a dispute between a handful of big capitalists on the one side, and millions of workers and their families on the other. In this dispute, not only in China but the whole world, the big bosses are fighting for the privilege of increasing their personal wealth beyond any limit. It’s workers who produce all that wealth, but for some workers – actually hundreds of millions in China – the fight is not only about a dignified life, but survival.