China’s communists threatened by the striking working classes

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By Didi Tang, AP

NANLANG TOWNSHIP, China–Timid by nature, Shi Jieying took a risk last month and joined fellow workers in a strike at her handbag factory, one of a surging number of such labor protests across China.

Riot police flooded into the factory compound, broke up the strike and hauled away dozens of workers. Terrified by the violence, Shi was hospitalized with heart trouble, but with a feeble voice from her sickbed expressed a newfound boldness.

More than three decades after Beijing began allowing market reforms, China’s 168 million migrant workers are discovering their labor rights through the spread of social media. They are on the forefront of a labor protest movement that is posing a growing and awkward problem for the ruling Communist Party, wary of any grassroots activism that can threaten its grip on power.

��The party has to think twice before it suppresses the labor movement because it still claims to be a party for the working class,�� said Wang Jiangsong, a Beijing-based labor scholar.

Feeling exploited by businesses and abandoned by the government, workers are organizing strikes and labor protests at a rate that has doubled each of the past four years to more than 1,300 last year, up from just 185 in 2011, said Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, which gathers information from China’s social media.

China’s labor law, which went into effect in 1995, stipulates the right to a decent wage, rest periods, no excessive overtime and the right of group negotiation.

Workers are allowed to strike, but only under the government-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions �X which critics say is essentially an arm of the government that has failed to stand up for workers.

Workers who organize on their own can be arrested, not for striking but on charges such as disrupting traffic, business or social order. In Shenzhen, worker representative Wu Guijun was charged with gathering crowds to disrupt traffic, but was released with no conviction after a year in detention.

Migrant factory workers are perhaps the vanguard of this movement, but labor activism is slowly spreading among a working class that, all told, forms more than half of China’s 1.4 billion.