Hong Kong: Dockers claim win in 40-day strike

May 28, 2013

The 40-day strike of more than 500 dockworkers at the Port of Hong Kong ended on May 6 with a settlement that included a 9.8% wage rise, non-retaliation against strikers and a written agreement, all of which had been fiercely resisted by the four contractors targeted in the strike.

Strikers accepted the offer by a 90% vote.

The four contractors also agreed to work through the port manager Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT) to provide meal and toilet breaks, which had been lacking even for workers on 12- or 24-hour shifts. Crane operators laid off during the strike will be rehired.

Workers see HIT — owned by Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s wealthiest capitalists — as the real power at play.

Though members of the Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers (UHKDW) had been holding to their demand for a double-digit wage rise, they had growing concerns about contractors’ use of scabs and the relative ease with which shippers could re-route from Hong Kong to the nearby mainland China port of Shenzhen.

After the breakthrough accomplishment of forcing the contractors to negotiate, and clearly winning the battle of public opinion, strikers were ready to return to work.

The strike was notable in that dockworkers across multiple sub-contractors first self-organised, from the bottom up, before seeking affiliation for their union with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).

The political environment in Hong Kong allows inter-union competition between HKCTU and the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). Workers have the chance to see the differences between the HKFTU’s pro-corporate brand of unionism and the HKCTU’s anti-corporate stand — but are also caught between the antagonistic interests.

During the strike, HKFTU carried to workers the employers’ low-ball wage-increase offer (5%). These negotiations exposed HKFTU’s relative illegitimacy.

The support of students, particularly through the group Left 21, was critical to engaging Hong Kong society as a whole. More than HK$8.5 million (about $1 million) was raised for a strike support fund, which stood at only $30,000 at the outset.

Financial contributions and solidarity resolutions came from the West Coast longshore union in the United States, the International Federation of Transport Workers, and transport workers unions in Japan, Australia and the Netherlands.

Solidarity actions such as informational pickets, slow-downs, or rallies didn’t materialise, however — although in the US and Canada, the steelworkers were considering action at facilities owned by Husky Energy, a subsidiary of Li Ka-shing’s vast empire.

[Reprinted from Labor Notes. Ellen David Friedman is a retired union organiser, on the Policy Committee of the US Labor Notes, and a Visiting Scholar at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.]

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