Chongqing Taxi Drivers Strike

01:45 Nov 3 2008 Chongqing China

From Caijing (English):

A two-day strike by more than 8,000 taxi drivers in Chongqing, China’s largest municipality, ended peacefully after the city government pledged to address grievances and allow formation of a long-sought trade union.

Calm returned after taxi drivers returned to work November 5. The incident formally closed the next day, after the local Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, called for a taxi driver union during a roundtable discussion with drivers and citizens.

But tensions ran high in the city of 13 million during the walkout, which began on a Monday morning. Taxi drivers refused to take passengers, forcing commuters into packed buses. Businesses were disrupted, rendering the city dysfunctional.

Violence erupted as well. Strikers attacked some of the few drivers who stayed on the job. Drivers who picked up passengers had their cars blocked, or even smashed.

Why Strike?

What prompted such a large-scale strike by taxi drivers? The municipality’s deputy secretary, Cui Jian, offered a four-point explanation.

First, he said, drivers were upset about the management fees collected by taxi companies. In the past year, Cui said, companies set fees arbitrarily, charging each driver between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan a year.

In addition, some drivers think the base fare – 5 yuan – is too low. Fuel shortages, which led to long queues at filling stations, was a third complaint. Another reason for the walkout, Cui said, was the prevalence of unlicensed “black taxis” whose drivers compete against legitimate taxis for customers.

Disgruntled drivers who spoke with Caijing also cited the rising cost of living.

“I think the real reason is that living costs are going up,” a driver who refused to be named said November 6. “Our people’s incomes have not risen at the same pace or level (as costs). Instead we earn less than before. We only earn 2,000 yuan per month, no matter how hard we work.”

Wang Shaolong, a driver with the Gaobo Taxi Co., said take-home wages have actually fallen over the past decade. “Ten years ago, we earned more than 3,000 per month,” Wang said. “But now we only earn 2,000. We earn less even though we work harder.”

A taxi driver well known in Chongqing for filing a lawsuit against local traffic police, Yang Xiaoming, said reasons for the strike can be found in the official statement as well as on the street. But he argued that a fundamental reason is the method of profit distribution at taxi companies.

Tension caused by conflicting interests in the local taxi industry has been growing, Yang said, and the bubble was bound to burst someday. Moreover, drivers lack job protection, which affects their benefits such as social security, as well as labor relations and workloads.

Government Action

Amid the turmoil, party secretary Bo called in department heads to analyze the strike. Immediately, a plan was launched: Public transportation was expanded, taxi companies were urged to encourage drivers back to work, supplies of the natural gas that fuels local taxis increased, and the city pledged to fight black taxis more strenuously.

The party faulted the city transportation commission for “not being responsible for a long time” and said it “should be held responsible.” The party and city administrators ordered transportation chief Ding Chun to pinpoint mistakes, name those responsible for the strike, and impose penalties.

Ding submitted a punishment report to the party committee November 5. Afterward, police said they were investigating persons who allegedly manipulated the strike. In a November 7 interview with Caijing, city government spokesperson Zhou Bo said those involved in the violence against picket line-crossing drivers had broken the law and should be punished.

“But we should differentiate between deliberate behavior and the normal appeals of drivers,” Zhou said. “We should not impose theoretical concepts on normal behavior.”

Four press conferences were held by the city government between the afternoon of November 3 – the strike’s first day – and the afternoon of November 5. Thus, city officials on the one hand dealt directly with the matter but, on the other, tried to win media support through public relations. “In today’s Internet era, hiding things does not help,” said Zhou. “It will only make things worse.”

Meet the Drivers

By 6 p.m. on November 4, some 80 percent of the city’s taxi drivers had returned to work. And by 8 a.m. the next day, transportation was back to normal.

But the city government had more work to do. To defuse the tension, a meeting was arranged by Bo and other government officials with 40 taxi drivers, 20 citizen representatives, five taxi company representatives, and two fuel station representatives.

The discussion was aired live by a local TV news channel, a radio station, the Xinhua News Chongqing channel, the People’s Daily Net and other media. It was also podcast live on the Internet.

Bo and other officials sat among the taxi drivers. The atmosphere was relaxed; no one at the table sat behind a name card. The conversation lasted three, peaceful hours. People spoke freely.

“We did not arrange (the discussion) or decide who would speak or when,” city spokesperson Zhou said. “Otherwise, the audience would know and feel anxious, which would make things even worse.”

Bo brought a stack of paper that a participating official told Caijing was “a collection of the most outrageous critiques from the Internet about the drivers’ strike.”

The insurance issue was raised by one driver, even though another driver who attended told Caijing that his “company leader told us we should not raise medical and pension insurance issues at the meeting.”

At the end, Bo made several promises, including pledges to “crack down on black taxis,” ease the fuel crunch, and reduce the management fee. Also, government officials said they would continue negotiating with taxi companies in hopes of lowering management fees.

The open discussion led to positive media coverage and Internet reviews, and many have argued that it improved the government’s credibility.

Taxi Driver Association

One incredible aspect of the strike was that almost every driver in the city was involved, even though none belong to an organized union.

A proposal for a taxi driver union was raised as early as 2005. But the plan was rejected. Drivers later repeated their wish from time to time, but never was the request well received.

“We thought a labor union would be impossible,” Yang said. “So we did not mention it again.”

So it was quite a surprise when, toward the end of the meeting with drivers, Bo embraced the union idea.

“We have an association for taxi companies, but we do not have an association for taxi drivers,” he said. “I think in the future taxi drivers should have an organization to more effectively and regularly make their appeals.”

Forming an association for taxi drivers is “a systematic guarantee,” Bo said.

Yang said he “will definitely compete” for the position of leader of the future union. Such a union chief should have integrity and represent the interests of drivers, he said.

Would an organized and empowered drivers’ association strengthen to the point of competing against the government, making it more difficult for the government to deal with similar cases? Zhou said city officials don’t think so.

“This is surely a difficult question that Secretary Bo answered for us,” Zhou told Caijing. “We will not see a taxi driver association as a rival against the government, but as a communication channel to better understand their wishes and requests. We have confidence and the ability.”
Credibility: UP DOWN 0

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