Showing posts with label strikes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label strikes. Show all posts

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Taiwan needs more strikes!


As you've no doubt heard if you follow Taiwan news at all, Taiwan ugh China Airlines pilots were on strike until very recently. Notably, while part of the negotiations to end the strike included an annual bonus (de rigueur in most Taiwanese workplaces, so I was surprised to learn that apparently pilots did not receive one? Huh), overall the strike was not about higher pay, better 'perks' or other 'benefits' not related to health and safety.

At the core of their demands were that more pilots be assigned to longer flights, so that total working hours for pilots could be brought down to a reasonable standard that would not leave them overworked and overtired. It also prioritized hiring Taiwanese pilots (including foreign pilots residing in Taiwan) over foreign pilots.

I have no particular opinion about the latter demand, but the former is simply reasonable. Nobody wants an overworked pilot; that's how disasters happen, and let's not forget that until very recently China Airlines had a poor safety record (in recent years things seem to have improved). Although China Airlines says its safety and working hour policies are within international standards, considering said safety record and how overtired pilots can be a factor in plane crashes, I question this.

Besides, it's simply not that culturally ingrained in Taiwan to strike at a particularly busy time for your employer (the strike began over Lunar New Year, one of the busiest travel times in Asia), especially if better compensation is not the employees' core demand. To take an action like this, the pilots themselves must have known that overwork and lack of sufficient cockpit crew was a major issue. The only real rebuttals to these demands were, essentially, "but that would cost money!" (yeah, a safe work and customer environment usually does) and "but we'll lose passengers!" (yup, but you'll lose more if there's a major crash and people will die), which underscores how strong a case the pilots made.

The thing is, this kind of strike has been a fairly rare phenomenon in Taiwan, especially in earlier decades. Up through the 1980s, generally pro-business, anti-labor laws governing collective action made strikes difficult if not impossible (not surprising given the repressive Martial Law political atmosphere more generally), and even in the 1990s, despite some strikes taking place, "legitimate union strikes" were still rare, and difficult to legally carry through. Although strikes have become more politically possible since then, they're still fairly rare, with an exception being the China Airlines flight attendant strike in 2016. (That the ground zero for highly-publicized strikes seems to be China Airlines also points to an anti-labor bent to their workplace culture).

The lack of strikes in previous decades wasn't just about anti-worker labor laws - there is an overall lack of a strong labor movement in Taiwan for a number of reasons. There are surely some cultural reasons for this (think of stereotypical "East Asian" work culture which values hierarchy and collectivism; there's a kernel of truth to it, although Taiwan is certainly more chilled-out than South Korea or Japan in this way).

But, more importantly, it's the result of an intentional political attempt to keep labor from organizing so as to advocate for its own needs. This has been done in a very devious way: not by union-busting or trying to dissuade workers from organizing, but by preemptively creating worker "unions" and "trade associations" that employees in a company or industry may belong to, so as to create the veneer of organized labor, but which is ultimately controlled by the companies or government, not the workers themselves. Such organizations have typically represented the best interests not of the workers but of management (or the government) and did not necessarily take on labor advocacy at all. In fact, what "management" and "the government" might want were not always different, given the history of nationalized industries / state-owned enterprises in Taiwan and how government control of industry and labor was used as a tool for political repression.

Of course, as independent labor movements coalesced, these came into conflict with the old-style "unions", there were disagreements on whether to improve the lot of labor overall or to address specific needs of specific groups of workers's all very complex but essentially, that's the reason why not every political party, group and organization which claims to represent the interests of "labor" is on the same page, or even gets along. For more on this point I recommend Yubin Chiu's chapter on trade union movements in Taiwan's Social Movements under Ma Ying-jeou (I'm sorry that it will probably cost you $50 to buy the book if you wish to do so, though that's better than the earlier price of $150 - and although Chiu obviously comes from a Marxist viewpoint on labor issues, he's good at explaining the fundamentals and historical complexities of trade unionism in Taiwan).

Under such conditions, it's not surprising that the labor movement has not been particularly robust and strikes have been fairly rare in Taiwan.

Anyway, taking all of this together, Taiwan simply needs more strikes.

First, because the typical Westerner's idea of a "strike" seems to involve the workers demanding better compensation. An anti-union libertarian friend of mine has even said that he imagines that only mediocre workers support collective bargaining, because the most talented employees have a strong position from which to negotiate better remuneration - it's only the employees who are not particularly distinguished who need to rely on collective action to improve pay and benefits.

That's wrong for a number of reasons, most notably that it assumes that all collective bargaining is aimed at better compensation for each individual rather than improved working conditions for everyone as a collective whole (it also assumes that more valuable workers don't care about whether their less-highly-performing coworkers are compensated fairly, which isn't always true.) But the flight attendants' and pilots' strikes show that this simply isn't that common a motivation in Taiwan: although compensation played a minor role in these actions, the crux of what the workers in both cases were demanding had to do with overwork and general working conditions.

Although I also support strikes for better collective compensation, there's a moral high ground to striking so that you can do your job better, not just to get more "stuff". Salaries in Taiwan are quite low and organized labor has not made any strong moves to push for better pay overall. There are a lot of hurdles for labor to jump simply in terms of social awareness of this issue: it's still taken as normal that one cannot challenge one's boss; changing jobs more often to garner wage increases rather than asking for a raise at one's current job is still seen as a good strategy; and it's still quite common for workers to defend long hours in the office because they prioritize making more money over having more personal time (even though one could argue that workers deserve both reasonable pay and reasonable hours, the rejoinder is that if management won't even give workers one of these two things, it's unrealistic to expect both).

 Of all the good reasons to strike, strikes in Taiwan seem to happen for the best possible reasons. So, more strikes please.

What's more, modern labor movements in Taiwan tend to be tied to other important social issues -
this labor protest attendee is marching to "end overwork", and also showing his support
for marriage equality

Second, given the cultural and historical reasons outlined above, there's no reason to believe that Taiwan's economy or infrastructure will grind to a halt (as seems to happen regularly in France) due to a large number of strikes. Despite the two prominent China Airlines strikes, they are still seen as a last-ditch strategy by labor unions that have only fairly recently coalesced outside of management control. Without a strong history of striking, it's unlikely to become a popular or even particularly common strategy. I don't foresee any sort of slippery slope here where there's a strike every few weeks over every little issue.

And if workers feel that their complaints are valid enough, and their conditions urgent enough, that this 'last ditch' strategy is necessary, there's probably a good reason for that. More strikes please!

Even if there were a slide into strikes taking place over a greater variety of issues - pay, sex discrimination in the workplace or the gender pay gap (still real problems in Taiwan), long hours - this would overall be a good thing for Taiwan. These are intractable issues that have been allowed to fester. Employers in Taiwan have taken the attitude that "I hired you and pay you, so you have to do everything I ask of you exactly when I ask for it, even if I take up all of your free time and I will take it as a personal affront and loss of face if you challenge me in any way on this or even attempt to discuss your working conditions" for too long. Labor standards are a joke. If strikes are what it takes for management to wake up to the fact that their employees are not their chattel, then more strikes please!

Working conditions, culture and compensation have been problems entrenched in Taiwanese society for far too long, and have arguably hindered Taiwan's economic development overall, as it loses its Millenial generation to better career opportunities, pay and working conditions overseas. Greater labor organization that is not under management control will become easier to attain as workers take stronger collective action, and will be the final step to eradicating the old government/management collusion which has been both historically politically repressive and anti-worker. It has the potential to bring various social movements together (see the image above).

Yet strikes are not likely to become yet another entrenched problem in Taiwanese society given how they are already typically viewed as an action that ought not to be commonly taken.

To put it simply, Taiwan needs more strikes.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The China Airlines strike and outdated expat narratives: Confucian values are REALLY not the problem

Something I've learned: I often have thoughts kicking around in my head for awhile, and I try to write blog posts about them, only to find that they come out ponderous, aimless and full of questionable or dull tangents. An important element of focusing my thoughts is to have some sort of catalyst, some it's-happening-now event to bring it all together into what I really want to say.

That bit of navel-gazing aside, for the past month or so a pushback against the conventional expat narrative of Taiwan being bogged down by "Confucian values" has been kicking around in my head - ever since I wrote about how, while bad management is a problem in Taiwan, "Confucian values" aren't what's keeping Taiwanese workers from taking the initiative at work rather than saving their best ideas for their own start-up small businesses. Long work hours and low salaries are because only a fool would share their best ideas with someone who exploits them through overwork and substandard pay. Taiwanese are no more fools than anyone else, so it makes sense that they wouldn't give their best work to bosses who are effectively narcissistic, self-serving nitwits at best and figurative slave masters at worst. (Obviously #notallbosses blah blah blah).

Well, it's taken the China Airlines zeitgeist to prod me into finally posting about it.

If you think "Confucian values" are Taiwan's biggest problem, you haven't been paying attention and your narrative is outdated. The same old story of "Taiwanese workers are passive, they endure long working hours for low pay and don't complain because Confucius or something" simply isn't the case anymore, and if you've been watching the country change, you'd know it hasn't been the case for awhile (if it ever was, though I'd argue the Ma years were notably turgid).

First and foremost, strikes like the China Airlines one in terms of rhetoric and scale don't just pop up out of a society that is passive, supplicant to authority or not actively looking to improve their own and their country's lot. They don't spring fully formed from a "poor exploited Taiwanese who don't even know they're exploited or if they do, they don't fight back" pile of bullshit. They spring from a long-running activist movement that has bracingly modern values at its core (as I have argued), modern enough that we Westerners, who often think we've got the market on progressivism cornered, ought to sit up and pay attention.

This isn't just a big deal because of one strike, this is a big deal because it's been coming for awhile, reveals Taiwanese society to not be some caricature of a cliched 2500-year-old philosophical system, and because it has implications across every industry where laborers are exploited (which is basically every industry, including English teaching. Yes, that too).

By the way, if you read any one thing on the strike, make it the link above.

This has been brewing for awhile - if you stop and talk to any given group of Taiwanese labor, you'll find that they are well aware that they have been exploited for awhile, and society has been collectively, often tacitly, but perceptibly, working on a solution-cum-backlash. You can see it in the increased rhetoric around worker-led (as opposed to "official") unions, in the New Power Party's pro-labor platforms (well, pro-labor for citizens, apparently we foreign workers don't rate and I'm still pissed about that), in the annual demonstrations on Labor Day, in the economic concerns of the student movement, in the very common desire to quit one's exploitative job and strike out on one's own.

Where out-of-touch pontificating expats come up with these tableaux of beaten-down workers who don't know what's best for them, kowtowing to boss, family and religion, I see a country full of people dreaming of something better and knowing full well, in 21st century terms, what that means.

Simply put, people who gather at midnight to announce a pre-meditated strike that almost reminds one of siege warfare (or maybe I've just been watching too much Game of Thrones) and who talk of improving the condition of labor across Taiwan, freeing workers from onerous hours and unacceptably low pay are not only not victims of "Confucian values", they prove that "Confucian values" never were the problem (or never were enough of a problem to put up much of a barrier to the new tide of activism). People who dream of quitting and opening their own businesses, whether they are smaller versions of the businesses they already work for or a total departure down a culinary or artistic road, but are toughing it out for now, are not victims of "Confucian values".

The electorate's increasing willingness to listen to the youth - a concept somewhat (but not entirely) non-Confucian, and the newly-elected political elite's willingness to do the same, even dropping charges against the Executive Yuan occupiers saying that the "values of the Sunflowers have become widely accepted across the country", are further proof. It's such a deep and long-coming sea change that even the newly-minted opposition are trying to co-opt these values in the weirdest, most discordant and least appealing ways. KMT gonna KMT I guess.

The citizenry's increasing willingness to occupy, to demand, to escalate, to take the fight to social media - none of this screams "Confucian values"...the key being that that's not only the case right now, but it proves that it hasn't been the case for awhile, because these sorts of sea changes don't sweep in like tsunamis. They slowly build like earthquake pressure. The only difference is you can't predict earthquakes, but this could be seen coming since the run-up to the Sunflower occupation.

In sort, this is 2016 AD, not 500 BC (and it's kind of insulting to imply that a culture has not sufficiently evolved in those two and a half millenia). The Taiwanese aren't getting their modern values by looking to the West, but by looking within themselves. And they're not chained to a 2500 year-old-philosophy because they are so clearly willing to fight back. I know I'm repeating myself here, but I want to drive that message home.

To go back even further, I'd like to add that if the main problems in Taiwan could really be traced back to "Confucian values", you not only wouldn't have China Airlines workers striking now, the Sunflowers in 2016, and employees who dream of quitting and starting their own companies, you also wouldn't have had several of the pro-democracy and national identity incidents that have defined modern Taiwanese history. There was nothing Confucian about the uprising that led to 228, the Kaohsiung Incident, Nylon Cheng's self-immolation, the dangwai or the White Lilies, either. The willingness to think, talk, plan and finally fight back in spectacular fashion - non-Confucian but wonderfully modern things all - is truly not new to Taiwan.

Because I like to ramble, two more things before I release your eyeballs, if you are still reading.

The first is that if you think Confucianism is all about the big boss beating down the little guy and hierarchical systems of tyranny, whether it's civil or private, you have a cliched and inaccurate view of Confucian thought. I'm no fan of Confucius, I'm more of a "hey guys just chill" Daoist type myself even though I am personally not very chill, but this is absolutely not what Confucius espoused.

He was all about those in power exercising restraint, openmindedness and responsibility. In not just being leaders because they felt entitled to be leaders, but actually leading. Not beating down their underlings because they could, but nurturing them and getting their best work from them. I suspect if he were alive today he'd be a policymaker at best, a self-proclaimed management guru at worst (I strongly dislike management gurus and business cliches).

I mean, take a look at some of his actual "Confucius Says" proverbs. "A tyrannical government is worse than a tiger" (課徵猛於虎) - that could apply not only to an actual government but a figurative management structure. "Bend down thine ear" (Chinese coming when I have access to my hilariously outdated book of Chinese idioms again) - he affirmed the right of leaders to exercise authority, but admonished them to listen to their underlings. His whole philosophy boiled down not to kings beating up subjects or managers beating up workers, but to society moving together in harmony, as if dancing in sync to music (I think he actually said something like that at one point).

I'm still not a fan, but that Confucianism - *actual* Confucianism - is not necessarily a problem in society, if understood and applied correctly. The West doesn't actually have all the answers.

The second is that I just want to say I am blown away by the maturity and adroitness of the activist movement (all of it, from the workers to the students). They remind me not of hippies - though there's a touch of Bob Dylan in them for sure - and not of union strikes or populists but of Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance (and as Gandhi said, there is nothing passive about nonviolent resistance - in that way too they are not held back by "Confucian values" in the more cliched, or even the true, sense. Even in true Confucianism it's on the leaders to do the right thing, there isn't much room for subjects to resist, even nonviolently). Someone has read up on the Indian independence movement, the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, even as the impetus comes from within the strikers and activists themselves.

They are facing their problems with the only route available to them - the only route that has ever actually worked (look at history - it's rare that violence settles things well, though I can think of a few exceptions. Usually, the only way to get something done and build after you tear down the old order is nonviolent resistance). And they know it. I truly admire them for it.

There is absolutely nothing at all Confucian about that.