China gives workers a voice to prevent Solidarity-like movement

Housing for themselves and jobs for their children are the two chief practical concerns of workers, according to two delegates to China's 10th National Congress of Trade Unions.

The congress, which meets every five years, has been going on in Peking's Great Hall of the People since Oct. 18. There is nothing of the color and cheerful disorder of an AFL-CIO convention. But China's 110 million nonagricultural workers are a force which the nation's leaders know must be handled with care.

Poland's outlawed Solidarity trade union is not much mentioned here these days, but it is a constant reminder of what can happen should workers feel alienated from their government and management.

Thus, President Li Xiannian, representing the party and state leadership, told the nearly 2,000 delegates to the congress to ''struggle against everything that jeopardizes the workers' interests.''

Among the delegates listening to President Li were Song Shengbin of the Mudanjiang cement plant and Wang Huailan of the Qiqihar machinery works.

Interviewed later, Mr. Song and Miss Wang defined the two major tasks of their unions as ''safeguarding the workers' democratic rights'' and ''safeguarding the workers' vital interests.'' Mr. Song sits on the presidium of the current congress. Miss Wang works in the foundry division of her huge factory.

Miss Wang's plant has been through difficult years recently because of a government shift from emphasizing heavy industry to light industry and from blindly producing according to orders from above to profit-oriented production. The factory, Miss Wang said, mainly makes steel rolling machinery. Demand was low and the factory had to be subsidized.

''We had plenty of workers and plenty of equipment, but we didn't get enough orders,'' she said. ''We had to go out and look for orders from other factories.'' The trade union played a role in finding workers construction jobs, building much-needed housing. Today the factory is profitable.

Both Miss Wang's plant and Mr. Song's factory emphasize worker congresses, which are meetings of worker representatives that are empowered to approve or disapprove the management's annual budget as well as its production and wages plans.

In other words, they act as a kind of legislature to which the management is responsible.

At the practical level, said Mr. Song, workers know that unless their enterprise increases production and profits there will be little to distribute in the way of bonuses or worker benefits. Furthermore, in China today, while wages are low, the pressure of population is so enormous that just to have a job in a factory is considered a tremendous privilege.

For instance, Mr. Song's factory has 1,400 workers. Cement is a commodity in short supply and the factory is profitable. Each worker has the privilege of naming a son or daughter to replace him or her when he or she retires.

Even so, said Mr. Song, there are 185 children of workers in his factory who have been unable to find employment, who are, as the euphemism here goes, ''youth waiting for jobs.''

This is a major concern of the workers, and the trade union therefore plays a role in job finding. It has started an enterprise making precast concrete slabs for use in construction.

Youths ''waiting for jobs'' can find temporary work here until a more desirable job turns up. Housing is of course a perennial preoccupation of all city-dwellers, and Mr. Song said housing allocations are always a lively topic of discussion at worker congresses. The trade union is encouraging workers to build their own houses, using loans from the state or from the enterprise.

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