Democratic Labour Movement Lives On

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June 4, 35th Commemoration Statement

History will remember this day. 

The 1989 pro-democracy movement in China represented the most important anti-authoritarian struggle for democracy in history and also marked a crucial political awakening among the Chinese working class.

In 1989, Tiananmen Square in Beijing was crowded with workers from many occupations. They spontaneously united to support the student movement, forming the first independent labour organisation, the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation, which successfully broke away from the Chinese Communist Party-controlled trade union. They called for citywide strikes in solidarity with the students’ fight for democracy. They bravely called on the people to block the military trucks from entering the city. They stood on the square until the last moment, sacrificing themselves to protect the students. Following the brutal crackdown during the June 4 massacre, many members of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation were arrested, imprisoned, and even sentenced to death on allegations of “counter-revolution.” To this day, we still do not know the names of all the workers who died.

The tragic events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre demonstrated that independent labour movement and authoritarian regimes are fundamentally incompatible. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), founded in 1990, was inspired by the spirit of the 1989 Democracy Movement and was committed to upholding the values of Hong Kong’s independent labour movement. Since its establishment, the HKCTU has unwaveringly promoted democratic ideals. They firmly believe that only through democracy can workers break free from the shackles of exploitation—a requirement for workers’ freedom and equality.

After thirty years, the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests marked a significant political awakening for Hong Kong’s working class this time. Following the participation of one million and two million people who took to the streets, workers led a political general strike, bringing more momentum to the movement. On August 5th, over 300,000 workers went on strike to fight for the ‘Five Demands.’ (i.e. Full withdrawal of the extradition bill; Retraction of the characterisation of protests as “riots”; Release and exoneration of arrested protesters; Establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police behaviour; universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and the chief executive elections). This campaign created a new wave of labour union movement dedicated to fighting for democracy.

The Chinese Communist regime continues to target independent labour movements, as it did in 1989. Since implementing the National Security Law, the HKCTU and numerous independent workers’ organisations have been forced to disband under political attacks. Labour rights activists have been arrested, imprisoned, or forced into exile, and the trade unions’ struggle for democracy have been seen as subversive to the state, while the international solidarity of the labour movements has been smeared as collusion with foreign forces.

Today, despite significant setbacks in independent labour movements in both China and Hong Kong, we still firmly believe that where there is oppression, there will be resistance. This is a long-standing rule of union activism. Those in power cannot keep suppressing workers’ resistance to exploitative systems! As China’s economy faces a downturn, workers have resumed frequent collective actions after the pandemic, with angry cries for survival. In Hong Kong, despite the severe blow inflicted on the independent labour unions, workers have never given up on finding ways to protest under the red line, and spontaneous industrial actions can still be seen.

The labour movement has historically played a key role in democratising various countries. Labour unions represent the largest democratic forces in society. In China and Hong Kong, autocracy and dictatorship cannot last forever, but the democratic labour movement will undoubtedly persist until the people oppressed by the dictatorship are liberated.