by Keegan Elmer

School is back in session, and China’s teachers are back on the streets.

On 10 September, National Teachers’ Day, teachers in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, took advantage of the holiday to demand unpaid subsidies on the steps of a local government building.

A Chinese teacher conducts lessons for children of migrant workers in Beijing, China, on 25 April, 2005. As the caretakers and nurturers of future generations, China’s teachers, like others, are concerned about inequality, differences in opportunity, and widening gaps between the children of the elite and the average, or poor, students in their classrooms.(AP/Ng Han Guan)

he Wenzhou teachers were one of many cases of teachers’ strikes and protests recorded on China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map. In September alone, the map collected a broad range of teacher actions, from a strike by a handful of teachers that shut down a pre-school in Sichuan, to over 1000 retired teachers from across China gathering in Beijing demanding proper social insurance coverage in their fifth demonstration this year.

When most people think of labour unrest in China, their first thoughts are of workers on an assembly line, making electronics or shoes, walking-off their jobs and out into the streets.

Teachers, however, are some of the most restive workers in China. While teachers represent less than two per cent of the country’s workforce, they account for about four per cent of labour unrest in China.

These findings are part of a new report out this year from China Labour Bulletin (CLB) entitled Over-worked and underpaid: The long-running battle of China’s teachers for decent work.

Aside from the findings about pay and working conditions, the report examines the 168 incidents of teacher strikes and protests in China between 2014 and 2015.


What’s so special about teachers’ organising?

While relatively few in number, the many teachers’ strikes undergone in China stand out in their size and scale.

Because the livelihoods of many teachers are tied directly to government policy, their labour disputes often affect teachers across large government jurisdictions, and ignite actions that span across entire cities, provinces or even nationwide.

One famous case took place in the winter of 2014 in the province of Heilongjiang, when an action involving 200 teachers protesting arrears in social insurance contributions quickly spread to thousands of teachers within days; some reports even put the number of striking teachers at 20,000.

Compared to other workers, teachers are highly organised and capable of persistent campaigns to address long-standing grievances.

In their struggles, striking teachers create historical accounts of actions over years, and marry subtle legal analysis of the legitimacy of their demands with poetry and calligraphy. Their particular capacity for these sustained campaigns is quite unique to the struggles facing Chinese teachers.

While many factory workers change from job-to-job, and sometimes industry-to-industry, teaching positions are generally more stable, and their labour struggles often continue even after they have formally left their jobs.

The capacity for long-term protests is particularly true amongst retired teachers. Retired “community teachers”, examined at length in the CLB report, are a particular historical legacy of the problems encountered in education in the 1980s and 1990s, when many teachers were hired by local governments to fill the desperate need for teachers, but without the salaries, social benefits and pensions of full public school teachers.

Teachers’ activism, as they began to approach retirement, won them national-level entitlements to the same pension rights as other public school teachers, though local governments have often failed to put forward the money.

Today, there are networks of thousands of teachers spread across the entire country. They realise that they are all in the same boat and are willing to fight together.

In addition to the sustained mass protests in Beijing, just last month, hundreds of retired teachers from across Hunan provincegathered at the provincial government education department demanding a proper pension – something that had been promised to them for decades but never granted.


Where is the union for China’s teachers?

It is common knowledge in China that teachers are underpaid, and years of policies to address these problems have failed.

Since the 1990s, national-level policies have declared, in various forms, that teachers should have the right to the same pay as public servants – an historical demand of striking teachers.

Moves to increase wages through adding performance pay have not only failed to increase wages, but caused further grievances from teachers as the pay systems and standards are set arbitrarily by management and local governments.

These issues, long at an impasse, are on the forefront of teachers’ struggles within the Chinese labour movement. In many other countries, these demands become reflected through trade unions – affecting wage increases through bargaining, forming labour-relevant policy recommendations, and providing democratic leverage for teachers in their workplaces.

However, China’s only trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has long been absent from the work-lives of teachers, and many teachers know it. In the words of one teacher interviewed for the report: “Our unions here aren’t like those outside China that you can go to with a real grievance; they just hand out gifts at holidays and host party events – what’s the use of that?”

Teachers, perhaps exceptionally so, care about social issues that affect their whole society beyond their workplaces.

As the caretakers and nurturers of future generations, China’s teachers, like others, are concerned about inequality, differences in opportunity, and widening gaps between the children of the elite and the average, or poor, students in their classrooms.

Teachers, with their thought, care, and proven willingness to act, have all the potential to grow to be a great force for positive social change in China’s increasingly unequal society.

Realising this potential depends heavily on the future development of China’s labour movement as a whole, and the role of teachers as workers in that movement is not one we should easily forget.