Lu ZhangMay 10, 2015
Inside China's Automobile Factories
The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance
Cambridge University Press 2015
China's automobile industry has grown considerably over the past two decades. Massive foreign investment and an increased scale and concentration of work spurred the creation of a new generation of autoworkers with increased bargaining power. At the same time, China entered the global competition in mass-producing automobiles at a stage when the level of that competition was very high and profit margins were very thin. The state, as a consequence, has restructured the industry and increased competition since the late 1990s, and this has forced Chinese automakers to move toward a "leaner & meaner work regime," according to Lu Zhang's new book. The result for autoworkers has been an increased intensity of work, reduced job security, stagnant wages, a lack of opportunities to advance, and an inferior status in a very hierarchical factory social order. Inside China's Automobile Factories: The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance (Cambridge University Press, 2015) explores one important consequence of this transformation, the emergence of "labor force dualism" (a divide between formal and temporary workers) as a central component of labor relations in the Chinese auto industry. Lu Zhang's book is the fruit of 20 months of ethnographic research inside seven large auto assembly factories in six cities in China between 2004-2011 - spending at least two months in each factory - in addition to interviews with a range of workers and managers from those factories and archival research. She reminds us of the importance of reading this ethnography with a sensitivity to the specificity of China's condition as a "state-led, late-industrializing nation with strong revolutionary and state-socialist legacies." Tracing the roots and mechanics of labor unrest as it has emerged from those conditions, the book argues that widespread grassroots protests among autoworkers in China have succeeded, on some level: they've won workers wage increases, improved conditions on the shop floor, and pressured the government into enacting new labor laws and policy changes. Still, there is work to be done, and the book concludes by considering possible future scenarios for Chinese auto labor relations in the context of labor force dualism.