In a Country Without Formal Unions, 8,000 Chinese Teachers Strike for Higher Pay

For three days in November, 8,000 schoolteachers in China’s northern Heilongjiang province refused to enter a classroom. They were on strike, demanding that the city government honor a pledge made in January to raise their salaries and benefits.

What’s remarkable about this demonstration is that there is no equivalent of the American Federation of Teachers in China; independent unions in any industry sector remain illegal. And yet, from factory workers to teachers, Chinese citizens are increasingly using the toolkit of collective action to push for fair labor practices.

Earlier this year, the government of Zhaodong, a city of about 100,000 people, promised to raise teacher salaries and provide compensation for those forced to travel in snowy and inclement weather. (Heilongjiang is China’s northernmost province, bordering Siberia.) For almost 10 months, the promises went unfulfilled.

In mid-November, the teachers sent an open letter to the city government accusing the administration of breaking China’s labor laws. In addition to unmet promises, they cited the fact that they had been forced to fully pay social security contributions out of pocket, contravening regulations. Moreover, the teachers gave interviews to a local radio station and to the national financial magazine Caixin, hoping to stir public attention and rally support for their cause.

In the past, local governments in China have often attempted to silence citizen-led campaigns by arresting or paying off movement leaders. Xiong Bingqi of 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, says that such tactics could only escalate the conflict in Zhaodong. “Things will get even worse if they seek to threaten teachers by removing and firing some of them,” he told Caixin.

After delivering their open letter to City Hall, 8,000 teachers joined a strike that lasted from Nov. 17 to 19. On Nov. 20 the teachers returned to their classrooms after the local government promised to meet some of their demands, although the final wage settlement has not yet been made public.

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