The history of independent unions in Taiwan is relatively short, and while the nation’s larger unions have had great success, many improvements still need to be made to the bargaining process and workers’ representation.
Prior to the lifting of martial law in 1987, true workers’ movements were impossible. Companies had workers’ representation groups that were actually concerned with the firms’ interests and were loyal to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The largest of these groups fell under the umbrella of the Chinese Federation of Labor, which served KMT interests, such as the monitoring of workers.
The nation’s first major workers’ protest was on July 15, 1988, when 2,000 members of the Taiwan Petroleum Workers’ Union took to the streets to call for better wages, fairer evaluations for annual bonuses and the removal of barriers to promotion for bottom-tier employees. Unsurprisingly, members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) participated in the protest. Authorities were nervous and some called for martial law to be reinstated. The union and Chinese Petroleum Corp — now CPC Corp, Taiwan — eventually reached an agreement and the protest was heralded as a success, prompting other unions to take action.
However, this was not the end of worker repression. A strike by Far Eastern Group workers was ruthlessly suppressed by police the following year. Although martial law had been lifted, existing legislation governing strikes had not been amended, so companies and the government could continue to oppress workers.
Unions responded by allying themselves with each other and with the DPP. By 1997, the Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions was formed, which submitted proposals that have become labor policy and facilitated more widespread participation in unions.
The confederation was officially recognized in 2000, when the DPP rose to power for the first time. However, the DPP has not always been on the side of workers. In a report titled “Who Cares for Unions: Public attitudes toward union power in Taiwan, 1990-2005” published in a 2010 issue of Hong Kong academic journal China Perspectives, Chang Chin-fen (張晉芬) and Chang Heng-hao (張恆豪) cited the DPP as being critical of a strike by the Taiwan Railway Labor Union during that year’s Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Unions have also been critical of a DPP labor policy amendment that eliminated seven national holidays.
There is also the issue that unions represent only a fraction of workers. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s workers are unionized, and of those, the majority are craft or industrial unions.
The report said that service-sector workers should also be unionized, as they are among the most vulnerable and in need of a collective voice to improve work conditions. It cited survey data showing that while some older workers might be more likely to see worker action as “destabilizing,” the majority of respondents over four successive years said that they were in favor of greater union participation.
However, despite this evident support for unions, the public reaction to a strike by China Airlines pilots suggests that Taiwanese might not be in favor of a strike if the effect on the public is deemed too great. Online media outlet ET Today on Saturday last week reported that members of the Taoyuan Union of Pilots had been called “bastards” by affected passengers after an announcement that the strike would continue indefinitely. Comments on the report and other related stories echoed similar sentiments, with members of the public expressing frustration at being treated as “cheap pawns.”
Union membership should be widened to allow for better representation of workers, but an effective and independent system of arbitration is needed to facilitate bargaining and to check that companies follow through on agreements. Better arbitration could also produce fairer outcomes for both parties and in less time, so that the effect on the public is minimized.
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