Frontline medics in Hong Kong went on an unprecedented strike, marking a change of course in the movement towards unionisation, 7 February 2020. Photo courtesy of LSM.

‘I am willing to take a bullet for you. Are you willing to go on strike for me?’

The government won’t listen. The police keep cracking down. So Hong Kong protesters are trying a new tactic: They’re forming unions.

Originally published in The Nation. Republished with permission.

At the beginning of February, thousands of public hospital workers in Hong Kong staged a weeklong strike in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Led by the newly formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), the workers demanded that the local government ensure an adequate supply of masks, increase the number of isolation wards in hospitals, provide better support for doctors and nurses, and, perhaps most controversially, close the border with mainland China to contain the epidemic. More than 10 percent of the public health workforce voted in favor of strike action.

“We don’t want to go on strike, but the government has been ignoring the demands of the frontline medical workers,” said Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the HAEA at the strike’s announcement. “We have no choice.” The strike was called off after a week despite largely supportive public reactions, as the government continued to dismiss strikers’ demands.

The Hong Kong protest movement that started last June originally opposed a bill that would have allowed extradition to China. It has since expanded into a longer-term fight against police violence and for greater democracy and self-determination. The coronavirus outbreak took some sting out of the movement, but the networks of mutual aid and solidarity that formed have been essential to the public response to the epidemic, in what some say has started to look like a failed state. For example, civilians and charities are distributing hygiene kits to cleaners, who are on the frontline of the city’s defence against the outbreak but are not given adequate protective equipment by their employers.

A police cordon blocks off an alleyway in Causeway Bay, 4 August 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

At the end of February, protesters rallied outside a railway station that had been locked down by the police six months ago after what many suspected were murders by the police; they were again met with a police crackdown. Recently, the police have begun to conduct late-night raids, arresting pro-democracy protesters, politicians, and public figures. They have also continued their repression of journalists.

Even prior to the outbreak, protesters had begun to extend their fight on the streets to resistance on all fronts. From plastering the city’s facades with protest art, literature, and rallying messages, to writing songs, staging performances, and encouraging dining and shopping at pro-movement businesses, Hong Kongers have used a diverse and innovative range of tactics to make their voices heard.

And after months of protests and sometimes violent clashes with police, some are yet again trying new tactics to put pressure on the government: They’re forming unions.

The call to “unionize and resist” has been growing in Hong Kong since the end of last year. Nearly 50 new unions have been formed or have started the process of being registered in the last five months, including groups for hotel workers, freelancers, bartenders, and designers. Many of these new unions explicitly state their support for the protest movement: The Hong Kong Hotel Employees Union states that one of its key aims is to push the government to meet the protesters’ five demands. The Hong Kong Educators Alliance’s core principles include “defending the profession,” “protecting frontline students,” and “fighting for democracy and freedom.”

And according to the HK On Strike Telegram channel—one of the largest groups devoted to union organizing, with more than 80,000 subscribers—almost 30,000 people have registered to become trade union members as of mid-February.

Before the current protest movement, union membership in Hong Kong was relatively low. As of 2013, the Labour Department reported that only 800,000 people—23 percent of the workforce—were union members. This new push is being led by Hong Kongers who have decided that economic pressure is the only way to break the impasse with the government. The challenge lies in whether they’ll be able to reinvigorate organized labor as a site of political struggle, an avenue that has been sidelined since the 1960s. If they succeed, a mass labor movement could perhaps achieve enough numbers for a collective withdrawal of labor, bringing this hyper-capitalist city’s economy to its knees­—the government’s greatest fear.

“We tried peaceful protests, but the government refused to respond to our demands,” says Lorie Lai, the chairperson of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, a union on the front line of the movement that was founded last November. “The police regularly cut short legal rallies, arbitrarily arrest people on sight. Some protesters tried more militant tactics, but at the end of the day, the disparity in force between us and the police and government is simply too great. No matter what we do, the government ends up clamping down on us. We have to find ways to break the bottleneck.”

Social welfare sector workers read out their strike manifesto at the “We have hope only if we persist” rally, 20 December 2019. Photo from The General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists’ Facebook page.

Hong Kongers have been toying with the idea of a general strike since the beginning of the protests.

Last July, just a few weeks after the current movement began, a mob of men in white T-shirts besieged the Yuen Long train station and indiscriminately assaulted people who were on their way home from a protest. This event marked a turning point: Some suspected the police had colluded with triads to attack protesters. Others were alarmed by how the police had refused to respond to their emergency calls. Whatever they believed, the incident caused many to lose faith in the police and the government to uphold justice.

Soon after the attack, messages circulated on social media, asking people to resist the “new normal” through escalating protest action. Two weeks later, on August 5, more than 350,000 people participated in flash protests and “non-cooperative actions” across the city, blocking key roads and important transit hubs with the aim of paralyzing traffic and forcing a de facto general strike.

In early November, university student Alex Chow Tsz-Lok died after falling off a parking structure while fleeing police tear gas. Others had died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances since the movement began, but this was the first time a death was directly linked to police actions. As the movement was flooded with grief and anger, protesters started calling for a strike through Telegram to show the government that they would not let Chow die in vain and would keep fighting to have their demands met. Protesters renewed their attempts to blockade roads and force a “strike” by preventing people from reaching their workplaces. During this action, called Operation Dawn, a transport police officer shot a 21-year-old in the stomach with live ammunition. The student survived, but with severe injuries.

Protesters commemorate the passing of Alex Chow Tsz-Lok at a candlelight vigil, 8 November 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

“These were really important learning experiences for organizers,” says Lai. “We learned that after traumatizing events, lots of people are willing to come out to the streets and stand together for a general strike. But calling for a strike simply through emotional mobilization does not work. Without enough organization, people cannot prepare adequately for strike actions, and they will also be very difficult to sustain.”

JC is a student activist and one of the administrators of the Telegram group HK On Strike. He sees the move toward unionization and a general strike as not only a response to escalating police violence but also an example of the innovative quality of the ongoing protests. “The spirit of this movement is that we have to try everything,” he says. “There is no specified method of resistance; the movement welcomes any and all forms of protest.

“In June, we saw hundreds of anti-extradition bill petitions emerging from different schools, professional sectors, and social groups. There was not a single organization instructing them to do so; this was a truly spontaneous movement.”

The union push has also grown up alongside Hong Kong’s so-called “yellow economy,” which likewise aims to embed the protest movement in people’s everyday lives. Supporters of the movement are encouraged to dine and shop only at pro-democracy, or “yellow,” businesses and to boycott companies with perceived links to the Hong Kong government or China. The earliest examples of this practice were widespread boycotts and vandalism of companies such as Bank of China and Starbucks. Hong Kongers extensively crowdsource information about which businesses are supportive of the protests, and some yellow establishments have hired young protesters who were kicked out of their homes, offered help to those affected by tear gas, and provided water to people marching on the streets.

Calling for a strike simply through emotional mobilization does not work. Without enough organization, people cannot prepare adequately for strike actions, and they will also be very difficult to sustain.

Lorie Lai, Chairperson of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists

Like the crowdsourced maps listing yellow businesses, the HK On Strike group relies on its members to circulate information. It operates primarily as a space to share updates about different groups’ progress in establishing and registering their unions. Participants can also discuss strategies for recruitment, spread awareness of the benefits of union membership, and share left perspectives on Hong Kong society.

JC created the group after he and other activists saw growing interest in the concept of a general strike on LIHKG, Hong Kong’s version of Reddit and an anonymous, public forum for organizing protests. He noted that there had been an uptick in activity in the Telegram group after Operation Dawn ended in arrest and police violence in November, with the number of participants soaring from 10,000 to 60,000 people in a matter of days.

HK On Strike also organizes political education activities, such as street stalls and workshops in collaboration with established trade unions, on topics ranging from how to establish a strike fund to how to register with the Hong Kong Labour Department.

“Our ultimate aim is to prepare Hong Kongers for a real, sustained general strike that will push the government to listen to our demands,” says JC.

Hong Kong has a long history of trade union organizing and political strikes, dating back to the colonial era. One of the most significant actions was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922, which demanded wage parity between Chinese and British workers, and was brutally suppressed by the British colonial administration. In recent years, Hong Kong has seen multiple large-scale industrial actions. A metalworkers’ strike in 2007 and a dockworkers’ strike in 2013 both led to significant wage increases and called attention to the huge disparities between these industries’ respective skyrocketing profits and workers’ meager wages. The cleaners’ strike in 2017 also resulted in reforms to government policies on sub-contracting.

However, unions have generally been sidelined in mainstream political and social movements. Because of ideological fissures and the depoliticization of labor-related issues, Hong Kongers have rarely seen trade unions as a straightforward arena for political mobilization.

For one thing, there has been a split between trade unions with ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang in Taiwan, and more recently founded unions that are in the pro-democracy camp and support social movements. In 1967, the pro-CCP Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) staged a seven months-long riot against the British colonial government—heeding the example of the Cultural Revolution—that began as a labor dispute, and turned into call for a return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty.

In the course of the riots, 51 people died, including 15 who were killed by militant leftists who planted bombs across the city. More than 800 were injured by both the bombs and police brutality. A radio commentator and vocal critic of the protests named Lam Bun was murdered during the uproar: His car was doused in gasoline with him inside and set on fire. The violence alienated large swaths of Hong Kong society, and the riots were widely seen as a spillover from the Cultural Revolution, not rooted in local concerns. (The historian Gary Cheung noted in his book Hong Kong’s Watershed that the HKFTU had previously failed to support the Star Ferry riots, a hyperlocal movement that had been spurred by a rise in ferry fares the year before.)

Confrontation between the Hong Kong Police and militant protesters in Hong Kong, 1967. Photo from Flickr.

The 1967 riots conflated left-wing politics with the CCP in the public imagination. In sociologists Lui Tai-Lok and Stephen Chiu’s words, it “hollow[ed] out” grassroots groups and trade unions, stealing their momentum. People began to believe that the electoral realm is where real politics would happen, particularly when it came to deciding the future of the city after the handover to China in 1997. Issues of everyday life were relegated to the depoliticized arenas of welfare and social policy.

After the wave of political mobilization in the 1960s, the British colonial government attempted to defuse activism by strengthening social service provisions, including implementing free basic education, shorter working hours, and increasing the availability of public housing. Academic Agnes Ku notes that the government continually pointed to the example of the 1967 riots as an example of the threat of social upheaval, stressing instead the importance of state-directed efficiency, stability, and prosperity. This continued after the handover, with the government adopting policies prioritizing Hong Kong’s economic development and competitiveness, presenting them as a panacea to all social and distributive issues.

Article 27 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law—the territory’s mini-constitution—guarantees residents the right to form and join associations, including trade unions. The right to form a union is reserved for those who ordinarily reside in Hong Kong, which does include migrant workers. However, there are no provisions for collective bargaining, which means that negotiations between employers and trade unions are not protected by law. Furthermore, strikes are legally protected only when they pertain solely to labor disputes—which is why, for example, the Hospital Authority recently warned striking medics that they may face repercussions for their politicized strike action.

Striking medics demand a dialogue with the Hong Kong government as they push for border closure between Hong Kong and mainland China, 7 February 2020. Photo courtesy of LSM.

Carol Ng, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the largest pro-democracy union organization in Hong Kong, believes that many of the city’s unions have failed to reflect their members’ political views. “For example, there are seven unions representing railway workers in Hong Kong, but they are all pro-establishment, and disconnected from their members’ grievances,” she says. “It wasn’t until the formation of Railway Power [a pro-democracy union] last October that rank-and-file workers have a union actively supporting their demands.”

Despite that history, some longer-standing unions have been instrumental in mobilizing for the pro-democracy movement. When dozens of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon staff members were fired last year, flight attendant unions demanded explanations for what they saw as politically motivated dismissals, including through going on strike. One pilot was terminated after he made an announcement saying that the large-scale occupation at the Hong Kong airport was aimed at drawing international attention to the movement. The leader of the Cathay Dragon union was fired after management saw her social media posts expressing support for the protests. Many interpreted these firings as the start of a wider campaign of “white terror,” aimed at silencing people from expressing their views, and the unions were ultimately unable to bring Cathay to the negotiating table. Later, after social workers who attempted to mediate between protesters and the police were arrested, the General Union of Social Workers held numerous rallies and went on strike against police brutality.

Ng says that most Hong Kongers are not well-informed about the labor movement and the power of unions—including the successes of the metalworkers’ and dockworkers’ strikes. However, she believes that protesters’ eagerness to experiment with different tactics may yet renew labor organizing efforts, as a new wave of pro-democracy unions develops and strengthens over time.

For many new labor organizers, the recent wave of unionization is an opportunity to bridge labor issues with the broader social movement. They hope that workers will see how their workplace issues have root causes in poor policy-making and resource allocation and take action against them.

Lai, of the speech therapists’ union, drew an analogy between her profession and the policies of the Hong Kong government. “If a child can’t speak, we always try to look for the root causes, rather than just to teach the child to say this word or that sentence,” she says. “Applying this to the labor issues in the speech therapy and social work sectors, we can see how the underlying causes of these problems lie with the government, its lack of legitimacy, and failure to enact effective policy.”

She raised the example of the “lump-sum grant” system introduced in 2000 by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, back when Lam was the director of the Social Welfare Department. The government said the new system would bring about more cost-effective use of public funds, but it was effectively an austerity measure that prevented speech therapists and social workers from advancing up the salary ladder and demoralized senior staff members. It also limited already-stretched NGOs’ capacity to provide quality social services, forcing them to choose between expanding services or ensuring appropriate pay for their workers.

There is no specified method of resistance; the movement welcomes any and all forms of protest.

JC, student activist and an administrator of the ‘HK On Strike’ Telegram channel

Lai thinks that the failures of the “lump-sum grant” system point to the misallocation of resources—a deeper problem that concerns many in the speech therapy industry. “Some of our members told us that children who need pre-school rehabilitation often have to wait for a year or two before they can get an appointment with a speech therapist,” she says. “We hope to pressure the government to make changes by going on strike, so that Hong Kong’s resource distribution would be fairer. Instead of spending money on white elephant infrastructure projects, more resources can be used in health care and social welfare.”

Ng says that she believes if the unionization momentum carries on, it could put forward challengers for seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and force a change of guard in the Election Committee—the 1,200-member body that chooses Hong Kong’s chief executive—as well as the Labour Advisory Board, which advises the government on making labor laws.

Currently, 5 percent of the Election Committee members are union representatives. According to Ng, the majority of existing unions support the government, or are affiliated with the pro-CCP HKFTU. After the pro-democracy camp’s landslide victory in District Council elections last fall and the formation of nearly 50 new unions, Ng believes that pro-democracy unions are theoretically better placed than before to choose the chief executive. It’s not clear whether this would work, though: They would likely struggle to achieve a pro-democracy majority in the Legislative Council and would still be working within a fundamentally undemocratic system. The Hong Kong government has also taken to disqualifying pro-democracy lawmakers in recent years.

Hong Kongers queue up to vote in the District Council elections that eventually secured the pro-democracy camp 17 out of 18 districts, 24 November 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Ng points out that the radical potential of unions can only be achieved if the labor movement develops alongside the political movement. “Advocating for worker rights is the basic obligation of unions, without which it cannot bring people together. Electoral gains and the five demands should not be unions’ main objective,” she says. “We are all victims of the inequitable distribution of resources and power in our capitalist society, and unions should be using the power they can mobilize to overturn these things. Without a commitment to this, it is hard to see what social and political reform these unions can effect.”

Union organizing is also an exercise in democracy. Lai describes how she and her committee were voted into office during an extraordinary general meeting, with fair and proper procedures in which every members’ vote was counted equally, which enabled them to be legitimate representatives of their union.

For Ng, establishing democratic processes in unions is also conducive to better industrial actions. She believes that organizing actions with a notification period and democratically decided agendas gives members a greater feeling of ownership and involvement, and provides reassurance to those who fear reprisal from their employers.

We are all victims of the inequitable distribution of resources and power in our capitalist society, and unions should be using the power they can mobilize to overturn these things.

Carol Ng, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions

“The more secure members feel, the more people will participate, and the more likely the strike would be effective—there is strength in numbers,” said Ng.

“I am willing to take a bullet for you, are you willing to go on strike for me?” has become a popular slogan in the protest movement. Aside from the recent medical workers’ walkout, there have been strikes in the advertisingmusic, and aviation industries, among others. But without strong bargaining power and a critical mass of workers, a sustained general strike remains out of reach. Lai remains undeterred; she believes that unionizing and mobilizing for a general strike are her ways of contributing to the resistance.

“Different people assume different roles in our movement,” she says. “Militant front-liners brave bullets, while those with families to care for take on lower risk actions. Because of my age and relative financial stability, I can afford to go on strike. And I want our union to take the initiative.”