Are Chinese transport workers learning from Western transport unions?

Last week, London bus drivers, members of Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, voted by more than 90 percent for strike action during the upcoming Olympic Games to press their claim for a £500 bonus.

At the same time, more than 80 percent of the taxi drivers in the town of Yueqing, near Wenzhou, went out on strike on the first day of the national college examination (高考) in a bid to draw attention to the unfair competition they face from unlicensed cabs.

Transport workers in the West have for decades now been staging strikes at times, such as public holidays and major sporting events, specifically designed to cause maximum disruption and focus attention on their grievances. Now it seems that Chinese workers are adopting the same strategy.

Anyone who has lived in China knows how important the annual national college exam is; it is an almost sacred ritual, one that demands respect and reverence for the next generation of college students. So for taxi drivers to go on strike on the first day of the exam, hindering the progress of students and their parents to and from school, is a bold move – one that shows just how determined the drivers are to have their grievances heard.

One of the drivers told the Oriental Morning Post (东方早报) competition from “black cabs” and motorised tricycles was now so bad it was threatening their livelihood. Daily operating costs could reach 250 yuan but sometimes cab drivers could not even earn 200 yuan, he said. Moreover, he pointed out that licensed cab drivers could only charge what was on the meter even on long journeys to the countryside with little hope of a return fare, while black cabs had more flexibility.

In the end, there was minimal disruption to the examination. The local government laid on special buses and community care vehicles (社会爱心车辆) to ferry students to the examination halls. Local education officials claimed that not one of the 11,047 registered students was late for the exam.

It is difficult tell right now how effective the strike will be forcing the local government to crackdown on black cabs or to what degree the drivers’ action was supported or opposed by local residents. As transport workers in the West know from long experience, staging strikes at the most disruptive times is a double-edged sword; while it is guaranteed to get attention in the media and cause major headaches for management, it also risks alienating an otherwise supportive public.

However, the fact that transport unions in Europe have been using these tactics on a regular basis for many decades now, suggests that they are on balance effective. It will be interesting to see the extent to which they are adopted in China in the future. Of course, there is absolutely no way transport workers would be allowed to disrupt a major sporting event like the Olympics but smaller more targeted actions like the one in Yueqing might well become more frequent in the next few years.

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