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Working In These Times

Monday, Aug 17, 2009, 1:00 pm

Strike Stops Chinese Steel Mill Privatization

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

A Chinese steel worker labors in front of a blast furnace at the Chongqing Iron and Steel Factory in Chongqing Municipality, China.   (Getty Images)

Steel workers in China achieved a victory yesterday when the government of Henan Province called off the privatization of a state-owned steel plant in response to massive protests last week.

3,000 workers at the Linzhou Iron and Steel Company went on strike last Tuesday to protest the plan to sell the public company to private owners. The workers briefly detained a government mediator.

Earlier this summer, 30,000 workers at the Tonghua Iron & Steel plant in the northern province of Jilin seized that mill to protest layoffs. The protest erupted after management threatened to lay off 25,000 workers in three days’ time.

Job losses are an especially dire prospect for Chinese workers, because unemployment is rampant in China and the social safety net is virtually non-existent.

Union activism is on the rise in China’s steel industry, the largest in the world and a pillar of the nation’s economy. Chinese steel production soared this year with help from China’s $585 billion stimulus, but prices are falling because of reduced spending on construction and infrastructure.

Membership in China’s sole state-sponsored trade union has also skyrocketed since 2007. (English-language media have little to say about who organized the recent steel mill actions, but it’s unlikely they were supported by a state-controlled union.)

The increasing militancy of the Chinese steel industry may be part of a larger trend toward labor activism in East Asia. Auto workers in South Korea recently resolved an epic strike that involved hundreds of workers occupying their plant for several weeks and withstanding a paratrooper assault.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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