Thursday, July 21, 2016

A sunflower by another name doesn't get any attention...yet

If you read New Bloom, and I hope you do, you might be one of the only people in Taiwan who knew about the workers' hunger strike in front of the Legislative Yuan these past two days. The workers held the strike to protest the DPP government's intent to cut the number of public holidays from 19 to 12 and, for all intents and purposes, legislate away the 2-day weekend that Taiwanese workers fought hard for not that long ago. 

Considering that the DPP rose to power in part on a promise to be more considerate of labor interests rather than blindly sucking corporate dick like the KMT (is it too early to say I miss the unholy triad of gangsters, property developers/big business and politicians that defined pretty much every stretch of KMT rule the country has known? Do the DPP have their own gangster-businessman handjobs to give?), this is basically a slap in the face of workers. I cannot imagine the DPP will be treated kindly at the polls if this legislation passes as-is. It also has me taking seriously the idea that the DPP is a far more conservative government than we'd thought they'd be, mirroring the KMT in ways that society never wanted them to.

What's more, despite the NPP vowing to fight for labor rights, they didn't seem to take much of an interest in the hunger strike either. I have my own issues with the NPP not caring about all labor in Taiwan (they certainly don't care about foreign labor, and no I will not shut up about it as that affects people I know directly and keeps me from fully supporting the NPP), and this is additionally worrying. What are they fighting for if not this?

Well, anyway, the strike ended with nothing achieved. While some labor protests gain social support (see the China Airlines strike just recently), this one lay flaccid and ignored. As New Bloom noted, activists largely did not seem to notice, and those who did seemed supportive but didn't necessarily show up in big enough numbers.

My theory as to why: China Airlines' staff striking meant major inconvenience for travelers and business alike (and not just the airlines' own business). They not only blocked up Nanjing Road, but managed to shut down a fair amount of air traffic. Of course that was going to be more electrifying. Sitting outside the Legislative Yuan, where you affect precisely no one who isn't used to this sort of thing, is simply not going to be as effective. Smarter would be to organize and threaten nationwide strikes on the holidays this new legislation would cut were it to go into effect.

But here's the thing: the government still ignores this at its own peril. The students and associated supporting activists do too. Also, the media. And possibly you.

If you don't remember how the Sunflower movement gained momentum, go ahead and read J. Michael Cole's Black Island: from the Next Media acquisition to anti-nuclear protests to Yuanli to Dapu to Huaguang to Losheng to the Wang residence, the Sunflowers didn't just appear on the scene, suddenly inspired as they never had been before to shut down the legislature. (Note: a lot of what I'm going to say about them is partly from my own experience and partly from re-reading about that time in recent Taiwanese history through that book. Credit where credit is due).

They fought many small, often unnoticed battles and usually lost. The Dapu homes are gone. Huaguang is gone. People didn't pay attention to them as the DPP held opposition rallies that attracted lots of people and achieved nothing, and then one day the momentum everyone had been ignoring on the sidelines (or calling "naive" and "irrational" though it was anything but) exploded in a wildly successful social movement that has quite possibly changed the future of the country.

Side note: notice how I call Taiwan a "country" and aggressively do not call it an "island" although it is one. "Island" is very common in English-language media reporting on Taiwan, but it's a cop-out, a way of being technically correct without having any nuts whatsoever. Taiwan is a country. CALL IT ONE, for chrissakes. Or are my nuts bigger than yours?

This image is "extra large", LIKE MY NUTS.
Anyway, image stolen (sorry, but my nuts need to be seen) from here
Also, I do not recommend you Google "my nuts" to find this image. 

Anyway, those who were surprised were not paying attention. That's on them.

As I see it, it's starting again, but this time with workers. They might lose this fight, and the next one, and the one after that. Their hunger strikes may go unremarked-upon, and the parties that came to power promising to work with them may betray them. But, like the students, they have all of the markers of becoming the next thing that shakes the country.

First, they are right. No question. Fuck the Man. Seize the means of production. All that great stuff. Taiwanese workers are overworked and they are underpaid, and business assholes have been exploiting them for far too long. This has to change.

They are not afraid to strike, and have been inspired recently by the China Airlines strike and the successes it brought. Hopefully, they'll learn from that and conduct more successful strikes in the future.

Worker strikes, if done well, have the potential to really inconvenience a lot of people - rather like occupying the Legislative Yuan but being so peaceful and reasonable that the police don't dare to use force (which they shouldn't). Remember, you need workers to do things. All things. Like literally all of the things. If you like things getting done, you need workers. If workers refuse to work on a large scale, or in very targeted ways at very targeted times, that is going to suck for everyone. This is a good thing. It's actually an advantage the students did not have.

Though this particular protest went unnoticed, like the early student activist protests that predated the Sunflowers, there is a lot of potential there for broad public support, especially against the well-defined demon of Business Assholes. It's true that they have a lot of Business Asshole enemies and some Stockholm Syndrome types (I wonder if my good buddy who is heretofore banned from commenting will pop up and be one of these! You won't see his comments because I won't publish them, but hey buddy! Stay angry. It's fun. Never change) will complain about the inconvenience rather than consider the reasons for such drastic action, but that we know who the enemy is and most Taiwanese suffer under the current worker-business status quo means the potential is there to get the country mobilized behind them (and vote for...who? I don't know. When the KMT and DPP both fail you and the NPP is not doing as well as you'd like, who do you vote for?).

This looks like it's going to be one of those long fights - Business Assholes don't give up easily. What this means is lots and lots of protests that end up training the workers who want better conditions to engage in civil revolt more effectively, much as the activists who became the Sunflowers learned a lot from the protests that helped the movement coalesce. You are going to see workers going after what they want far more effectively - I'd put money on it. If I had a lot of money, which I don't, because teaching English at a professional level in Taiwan does not pay well.  (Again a note: that's not a complaint about my various current employers. It's a complaint about the state of ESL education in Taiwan and the world in general).

Regarding that last point, the workers also have the benefit of coalescing, clarifying their message and engaging in more effective civil disobedience while the rest of the country is mostly ignoring them. Their mistakes won't be particularly public. I noticed that the student leaders were incredibly well-versed in the history of effective nonviolent civil disobedience. Someone for sure has read up on their King and their Gandhi. I can only hope the workers have leaders who are well-read in the history of labor movements and what has worked.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, they are persistent, because they really believe in what they are fighting for, and the conditions they are fighting against are truly untenable and have been going on for far too long. It is reaching a tipping point. Taiwanese actually drop dead from overwork on a startling basis, and almost everyone - even if they pretend otherwise - know that the work is far too grueling hours-wise and far too low-paid to be something Taiwanese give up and settle for. The idea that this is just going to go away is nonsense. It's not, because there is no option to give up. The consolation prize - a continued shitty work life and not even earning good money for it - is not acceptable. So they are not going to stop pushing.

And when you won't stop pushing because losing is not an option, you tend to break through and succeed, jumping over so many proverbial fences and storming so many proverbial legislatures eventually.

I do hope people start to pay attention. The youth movement needs to pay attention, certainly - even those who are still in school are going to be entering the Taiwanese working world soon. Anyway, they care about the future of the country - so not only will these workers be them soon enough, it would be a very unfortunate thing indeed if they missed where the next big movement was coming from and did not contribute their own experience, followers and support to this very important issue.

Business Assholes need to pay attention because otherwise they are going to be shocked when they wake up one day and find they can't grind Taiwanese down to nubs day after day for circus peanut pay.

Foreigners need to pay attention, because we need to fight for better labor rights, protections and immigration rights too. Foreigners not in Taiwan need to pay attention, because all your semiconductors are belong to us. 

Everyday people need to pay attention, because life is eventually going to start to get difficult for them.

And the media needs to pay attention, or they are going to be as caught off-guard as they were by the Sunflowers. Something tells me that this is exactly what is going to happen, though, because the Taiwanese media.

I don't know what they will be called - which flower or berry or something entirely new - perhaps the White Orchids, because as much as you mistreat an orchid it stubbornly blooms? - but they are coming, and you'd best wake up.


Laopi said...

Thanks for sharing the links to New Bloom Mag. I've read some of NBM articles in the past but I missed these ones. I'll subscribe for sure.

This issue (the 7 holidays to be removed) is a national issue. It affects everyone working in Taiwan: locals or foreigners, private industry workers or public offices servants, juniors or seniors.

Why isn't there a big consensus on this and massive demonstrations in the streets to secure these basic rights? Why are people lethargic? I'd be happy to go on a demonstration at any time, because the amount of holidays in this country is ridiculously low anyway, and everyone knows that overworked people don't provide good work anyway.

You ask: When the KMT and DPP both fail you and the NPP is not doing as well as you'd like, who do you vote for?

My take would be: the Social Democratic Party (社會民主黨). I believe they have stronger positions on social issues than the NPP has.

Finally, just let me say I'm happy to read this kind of article, and this kind of message. As I like to repeat it, and I think it comes from economist Bernard Friot: Workers don't need companies, but companies do need workers. (and not the other way around)

taiwan said...

I agree with the sentiment, but the future looks darker, not brighter.
Reconsider this: "Remember, you need workers to do things. All things. Like literally all of the things. If you like things getting done, you need workers."

-> Our Automated Future