Taiwan: interview with Zhu Meixue and Lina Cheng

Zhu Meixue is the current Secretary General of Taiwan’s China Airlines Employees’ Union (CAEU). In 2018, he ran for mayor of Taoyuan as an independent against the candidates of both the KMT and the DPP, the two major bourgeois parties of Taiwan. In his campaign he called for the political independence of the working class from the two parties of the bosses, proposing policies from a working class perspective, with slogans such as “Workers don’t vote for the KMT or DPP!,” “The laboring millions come forward!,” and “Vote for yourselves!”

In a campaign rally, Zhu clarified that he hoped the momentum his campaign has built up can become a “forerunner of the future Labour Party.” After the election, having garnered 1.7% or 18,100 votes, Zhu’s campaign sent out a survey requesting all those who voted for him and supported him to provide their contact information for future communications.

On December 18th, 2018, In Defence of Marxism sat down with Zhu and his campaign chief of staff Lina Cheng, who is also the Secretary General of the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Professional Union, to discuss his campaigns and his views on a number of issues. CAEU’s president Tony Liu was also present listening in.

The interview illustrates important processes of how the advanced section of the Taiwanese working class is beginning to draw radical conclusions and experimenting with different tactics through experience. It also shows that the crisis of Taiwanese and world capitalism is visibly radicalizing the youth into joining the labor movement, hinting at increased confrontation against the capitalist system in the days ahead.

At this stage, the interview shows that these advanced workers are seeking an independent political voice, but have not yet drawn the conclusion that the ultimate objective of launching an independent workers’ party is to remove the capitalist system. They believe that a more equitable distribution of resources, the elimination of corruption and a system that listens to the grievances of workers are all possible within the framework of capitalism. We believe this is an illusion that will dissipate on the basis of the experience of the class struggle itself in Taiwan, and that these same worker and youth activists will be pushed into a more radical stance by the developments of events in the coming years.

The important thing here is that a process has begun which will provide the Taiwanese workers with a forum where they can hammer out the necessary programme the workers in Taiwan require. The Marxists will contribute to this debate and work shoulder to shoulder with the Taiwanese youth and workers, explaining the need for a socialist programme of nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and placing them under democratic workers’ control, as the only, ultimate, solution to the problems faced today.

In Defence of Marxism sat down with Zhu and his campaign chief of staff Lina Cheng to discuss his campaigns and his views on a number of issues Image Parson YoungIn Defence of Marxism sat down with Zhu and his campaign chief of staff Lina Cheng to discuss his campaigns and his views on a number of issues / Image: Parson Young

IDOM: Can you please introduce yourself to our international readers and explain how you got involved in the workers' movement?

Zhu Meixue: I was born and raised in Penghu, Taiwan. I grew up in an almshouse (similar to an orphanage). After finishing middle school, I came to Taoyuan to work and study by myself. After that, I started working in the aircraft maintenance hangar of China Airlines, [1] and also got married. I work with him (referring to Tony Liu, president of the CAEU) in the same factory. However, he is actually repairing the planes, and I work in logistical support.

More than a decade ago, China Airlines experienced several plane crashes. Up until a particular crash outside Penghu (referred to as the 611 Incident), I was assigned by the company to join a government-led safety improvement project. The government’s Civil Aviation Authority attached great importance to that incident and I participated in the project for three years. In the process, I found that the airline's top management did not really want to make genuine safety improvements, but just wanted to close the case for the government, and return to business as usual. I felt that this attitude was detrimental to the interests of the hangar workers. Right at that time, the union was holding its re-election of union representatives. I went to sign up for the election after the project ended.

Although China Airlines is a closed shop and so membership of our union is mandatory to all workers, if one really wants to be involved in the union’s affairs, they must be elected to positions to participate in union business. I didn't actually get involved in union affairs before the 611 Incident, but after signing up for the election I was elected because I knew a lot of people. Taiwanese workers tend to be mild and friendly, if you are willing to talk to them, then they would vote for you. Those who have more personal friends tend to be elected. The same is true for political elections. After I was elected as delegate, I became acquainted with Tony Liu, who became president of the CAEU after the latest delegate election.

Back then, Liu believed that the union should at least function like a real trade union. However, at that time, the CAEU was what the academics would call a “lackey union,” or what average folks would call a “castrated union.” But there is another type of union called "autonomous unions." At that time, the unions of state-owned enterprises and China Airlines were more like “lackey unions”, which were established by the employers and under the control of the KMT (during the authoritarian period). As long as the workers are obedient to the bosses, these unions reward them, if the workers disobey, these unions would be the first to suppress them. At that time, Tony Liu and I were only two delegates in the CAEU. We initially wanted to flip the situation in our union, but were unable to because we were outnumbered by the pro-management delegates. We were elected as delegates in the eighth election. By the time of the ninth election, some rank-and-file union members gradually became dissatisfied with how the union was run, and over time the proportion of pro-management and militant delegates became half and half. However, because the old union leaders still had advantages and received assistance from the employers, they held control over the union, and we remained at a disadvantage.

After a while, we heard that China Airlines had plans to carve out the repair hangar to make it an independent company. We were very concerned about this, as such a move would affect the job rights of more than 2,400 workers at the repair hangar. To prepare for this, we sought to set up another enterprise union. [2] Establishing this union required either the employer's business registration or factory registration. As we held the latter in the hangar, we went to the Taoyuan City Government to register for a new repair technicians’ union, but it was rejected by the then KMT city administration. We thus began to struggle for this. Later, when the China Airlines flight attendants began to prepare for a strike in 2016, we connected with them and took to the streets together. China Airlines thus accused me and Tony Liu of accepting media interviews to talk about this affair, which was a gross violation of our employment terms and planned on firing us. However, at that time, the KMT lost power to the DPP in the 2016 elections. Since our struggle became very well known, the newly-elected DPP government tried to manipulate the affairs to make itself look more enlightened than the KMT. Thus China Airlines later kept our jobs, instead citing us for major violations.

The China Airlines Flight Attendant Strikes of 2016 Image ScoutT7The China Airlines Flight Attendant Strikes of 2016 garnered widespread support and was victorious. It was a turning point in radicalising not only the CAEU but also the entire Taiwanese labor movement / Image: ScoutT7

After these incidents, we finally won the leadership of our union last year (2017) and began to move it towards becoming an autonomous union. After the management realized that they could not control us, they began to suppress us.

IDOM: Can you please trace back how your union decided to recommend you to run for the mayor of Taoyuan?

Zhu Meixue: After the DPP came to power, He Nuanxuan, the chairman of China Airlines, began to suppress the workers with great arrogance. We think it is because he is supported by the DPP government in this. In the past, we all thought that the DPP cared for workers, but after we voted for them, they actually turned back and suppressed us. We are certainly not happy about this. We tried pleading with them or protesting against them, to little effect. Within the union, discussions began on how to get out of this bind. Later, they cooked up a “trick” and asked me to stand for election.

Lina Cheng: The labor dispute within China Airlines is indeed the reason why the union put him out to run for mayor at first, but there is a deeper reason behind it. There is a Taoyuan Industrial Union (TIU) in Taoyuan, which has been around for fifteen years. Before the strike of the China Airlines flight attendants, there were already strikes by Uniplus Electronics workers, the Huajie Laundry Workers (which TIU participated in), and later strikes at the Pulitary Homebox and Miramar Golf Course. In addition, the government had recently begun to implement counter-reforms against workers’ rights earlier this year, including the counter-reforms on the Labor Standard Laws and the removal of seven national holidays. We all participated in actions to protest against these. For example, Zhu Meixue participated in demonstrations and hunger strikes, and others also went to occupy railway tracks.

Zhu Meixue: He (referring to Tony Liu) even charged into the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s Parliament) and was arrested by the police! (laughs)

Lina Cheng: We saw that in some ways workers were getting more and more united, but every time a demonstration was called, we would see only no more than a thousand people. We organised more than a hundred press conferences, but they didn’t seem to get any echo. Only a dozen people participated in direct actions like lying on train tracks. The government saw that we had such small resonance, and thus felt that they could ignore our voice. We therefore began to think about how to project the voice of grassroots workers to society and let the government know about our actual influence. We later felt that an election campaign was the quickest way.

Zhu Meixue’s election campaign is mainly supported by three major trade union forces. The first is his own CAEU, the second is the Taoyuan Flight Attendant Professional Union, and the third is all the grassroots trade unions under the TIU.

Zhu Meixue: In fact, in the early days the CAEU was very conservative. They did not contact the outside forces and would not take to the streets. But after we got touch with the TIU, we felt that they set an example for all unions. In the later period of the KMT Ma Ying-jeou administration, when the DPP was about to take power, the state had already said that it would cut seven holidays, counter-reform the Labor Standard Law, and change the labor insurance pension system. We thus joined the TIU in fighting these counter-reforms. Taoyuan’s labor movement is the more energetic layer within the general labour movement around Taiwan.

After the DPP took charge, although we staged hunger strikes and other struggles, they ignored us because they had an absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan. The DPP was formed out of  social movements of the past. They know that workers have families, and so workers could only deal with so much fighting before going back home to sleep, unlike students who don't have to take care of their families and can fight all day. Therefore, they tend to be more worried about students fighting and not worried about workers. As conditions have continued to decline, and government policies kept on being biased towards corporations, we discussed what was to be done.

In actual fact, I am a family man. I have to go home to cook after work, focusing on the family. So I did not participate in the early stages of discussions and analyses on this question. They believed that although the labor movement in Taoyuan is very advanced within Taiwan, the government still did not care. The question became: How to attract the attention of the government? The result of their discussion was to start with electoral politics and try to impact on the votes of the two major parties to see if they would attract the attention of the government. The TIU had always considered whether to run two people for city councillors, and the New Power Party even offered to nominate their people. But because of some hesitation during the discussion, the NPP decided to nominate others. Later, although they still believed that workers should take the road of entering politics, they still did not know how to go about this. The discussion lasted until May of 2018.

At the same time, The relationship between labor and management became tense at China Airlines. Management would arbitrarily punish the union’s cadres and start trouble. One day, they called me up and said that they wanted to come to my house for a discussion. When they got to my house, they explained that if I ran for mayor, this might create opportunities to change labor relations. My first reaction was: "No way! That’s crazy!" I never thought of standing for election in my life. Even on running for union delegate, I had not considered in my first 20 years working at China Airlines. It was only after witnessing the China Airlines higher-ups having no intention to make improvements after the 611 Plane Crash, did I start getting active in the union. However, they pointed out to me that now the employers have executive powers, and many of the union’s cadres are also punished to the point where they are about to be fired. If we could exert pressure on the ruling party through elections, it could prompt the government to push China Airlines ease their pressure on the union. Although I was persuaded, my wife did not agree to this at first. Later, I asked my wife: "You see, prices have been rising over the past few years, but the wages have gone backwards and the working conditions are getting worse. You want your children to live in a low-pay environment, even going abroad to become migrant workers, or do we want to fight for our own rights?" My wife thought about it for a while. although she was still unwilling, but also couldn’t disagree with the bad prospects I outlined, so she quietly accepted my decision.

After I decided to run for mayor, my union formally adopted the resolution to launch my campaign at a union congress. Originally, we planned to allocate NT$4.8 million from the “labor movement budget” within the union’s treasury to fund this campaign. However, after checking the "Political Contributions Law", we found out that a union or other non-profit organizations can only donate up to NT$500,000 to any candidate for office. Finally, the CAEU donated NT$500,000 yuan, and the Taoyuan Flight Attendant Professional Union also donated NT$500,000 yuan. The remaining $1.85 million came from other unions or small donations from the Internet. In the beginning, the CAEU gave me a task: If I could raise NT$2 million before the end of August, it would mean that there was enough public support, we would officially register for the election. If we couldn’t get it, then we would not run. In the end, we raised $2.2 million by August 29, handed over 2 million for the security deposit to register our candidacy, and the remaining $200,000 was our campaign fund to start with. Between September and November, through everyone on our team’s efforts to call for support on the Internet, we raised another NTD$650,000.

IDOM: Looking back on the past few months, where do you feel that you have succeeded in this election? In the face of various difficulties, what are the experiences or lessons that you can share with us?

Zhu Meixue: For a long time, Taiwan’s social struggles could be broadly divided into three categories: workers' movements, social movements, and environmental movements. The participants of these struggles tend not to be in touch with each other. In the past, no matter how hard we in the labor movement clashed with the system, we could only mobilize the people from inside the unions. This segmentation of the movement was the so-called "stratosphere" which we weren’t able to get out of. One of our great achievements in this election has been to break out of the stratosphere. We got in touch with and obtained support from people fighting for issues such as animal protection, environmental protection, social welfare and other issues.

Lina Cheng: We have also found new allies who we can work with. In the past, groups tended to be busy working on their own issues and rarely got in touch with one another. From the point of view of the labor movement, although our own unions are very radical and have launched many strikes, it also only garnered the attention and participation of a minority of people. For example, in the case of the Labor Standard Law counter-reforms, we also initiated a referendum against it, but in the end our petition only got around 90,000 signatures and did not pass the threshold of 300,000 needed for this referendum to officially launch. This means that the topic of "class" may not yet exist universally within the consciousness of the Taiwanese. We feel that by selecting an average rank-and-file worker like Zhu Meixue to run for mayor, we would send a shockwave to let everyone know about the existence of labor issues.

In addition to getting out of the stratosphere and making new allies, a related achievement is to let everyone know that workers can come up with policies from a class perspective. In the nine major policies we campaigned on, whether it was about transportation, housing or public childcare, we were not talking about creating more wealth, but about how we can care for the lives of rank-and-file people. In the past, we only talked about trade unions or the right to work. People may think: "You are only a few people who are fighting for your own interests." But by participating in the elections to express our political views, many grassroots people will find that our policies are very good, and very relevant to their lives. If we had more resources and time to go to the neighborhoods and markets to let the more people hear our ideas and policies, I believe we would have gotten more support.

Zhus campaign succeeded in reaching people whom the labor movement were not able to reach in the past Image Zhu Meixue official FacebookZhu's campaign succeeded in reaching people the labour movement was not able to reach in the past / Image: Zhu Meixue official Facebook

Zhu Meixue: There is one more thing. During the election, many people asked: "You have no experience in governance and no visibility. Why would you directly run for mayor instead of running for city councillor?" But we believed that, as the point was to let the government and the public know about our demands and our ideas, if not through a shockwave like a mayoral campaign, we would not be taken seriously. Just as Lina explained at our pre-election day rally, the only equal treatment given to every mayoral candidate was to have the same speaking time on live TV broadcasts during the candidates’ forum, as well as two questions from the citizenry and the summation time. We had a total of 24 minutes on TV to promote our ideas. Although I was not elected, having an opportunity to show everyone that workers can enter politics was worth it.

If we ran for city council, there were more than 100 people in Taoyuan competing for 63 city council seats. The televised forum of the city councillors was scarcely noticed, and many candidates simply did not go. Even if we were elected as councillors, we would be very weak in the city council. Going to other city councillors to co-sign for pro-labor bills would be extremely difficult, as most of them would not sign up to such bills because they are beholden to their corporate paymasters. This then would mean pro-labor bills wouldn’t even be tabled.

In Taiwan, elections are usually a game played out by the two major parties to make profits. Who else can afford to pay the two million dollar security deposit but those backed by the two big parties? If I hadn’t had the help of the unions and friends in raising funds and chipping in, I would have had to sell my house to run for election.

I am neither famous nor eloquent, so this campaign relied on nothing but everyone’s combined strengths. There are only three people at the core of our campaign team, but we ran a marvelous campaign. Towards the end, we clearly expressed our demands to the DPP government in this election.

To sum up, during the entire election process, we proved a number of things. First, that we can get out of the stratosphere. Second, we can connect with all vulnerable groups. Third, the unity of workers can make all impossibilities possible.

IDOM: At your pre-election night rally, you said you hoped to "become the forerunner of the future Labour Party." In your vision, what role will this Labour Party play in Taiwan society? What kind of structure will it have? How will you prepare to organize this Labour Party?

Lina Cheng: We immediately put out a survey after the election, hoping to find the supporters who voted for us. Now we are also preparing to contact and visit these supporters. We will first find our supporters and organize an association to promote the various issues that we highlighted during the election. Through this association, we can also reach out to people in the community who we did not reach during the election, so that they have the opportunity to understand the issues and policies we promote and to get to know our team. This is our current plan.

As for the 2020 legislative and presidential elections, or the local elections in four years time, our association concept can also be a warm up for future elections. In our 177-day campaign, our strategy can be divided into two main fields: "aerial" and "land." “Aerial warfare” refers to attracting supporters by promoting our policies on various issues through press conferences or online publicity. “Land warfare” refers to pushing out propaganda on the ground, in the streets. We spent a lot of energy on aerial battles and achieved results. For example, many volunteers involved in animal protection have voted for us, as well as those who care about environmental issues. But on land warfare, we still have a lot of room for development.

In Taiwan, any election is very dependent on the neighborhood or village chiefs [3] to mobilize votes. I think this is a bad habit. Many chiefs will contract a tour bus so people can go on tours for free, hand out free lunch boxes around the neighborhood, letting everyone know which candidate sponsored those goodies. A candidate that mobilizes votes in this way must have a lot of money. Where does the money come from? Who can afford it? All of this is very unfavorable to small parties or groups that have no resources, like us. We can't get into the traditional mobilization channels, so we hope to build an alternative network through this association to connect people from all walks of life who care about various issues. For example, all the people participating in the association can go to work as volunteers for stray animals, to go check on the water resources of Shimen Reservoir, and participate in the labor movement demonstrations to let more people know about us.

Zhu Meixue: We’ve never ran for office before, so in land warfare we don’t have bases like the networks of local relations owned by the two major parties. The reason why Han Kuo-yu, who was elected as the mayor of Kaohsiung, was able to mobilize there, was partly because of the KMT local clientele forces headed by Wang Jinping, [4] which is their advantage.

The reason why we want to organize this association is to develop our capabilities in land warfare.

This election also allowed us to see the influence of the Taiwanese corporations on the election in another way: when politicians in Taiwan are running for election, they usually buy billboards to advertise. A billboard advertisement would charge at least NTD$20,000 a month, and if the location is good, even up to $50,000 or $100,000. Taoyuan has 13 districts. If you put a billboard advertisement in each district, it would cost at least $260,000 per month. Of course, usually no one simply places just one ad in each district. Many people put two or thirty in one district. Such enormous expenses must be funded by corporations. Candidates who are backed by corporations will also take orders from them after being elected. However, what ordinary Taiwanese people see during the election is that they can get rice noodle lunch boxes, or go out on tours for free. In the end, the government only listens to the corporations, and the lives of the people are not taken care of. But it is useless to merely point this out to people. We hope that through this association, we will actively enter the grassroots (and offer an alternative).

The prohibitively high cost in campaign advertising effectively suppresses the voices of any candidates that are not backed by corporate interests in Taiwan Image Flickr 六都春秋 編輯室The prohibitively high cost in campaign advertising effectively suppresses the voices of any candidates that are not backed by corporate interests in Taiwan / Image: Flickr, 六都春秋 編輯室

When our association is built up to a certain degree in Taoyuan, we can run our own candidates in each district, so that there is really a chance to flip the situation. If we succeed in Taoyuan, we can copy this model to Hsinchu and Xinbei, and gradually build this up. If this model is successful in all of Taiwan, then we can connect the associations everywhere, and a new party will naturally be established. Therefore, we said on the night before the election that we hoped to become the forerunner of the Labor Party after the election, but this forerunner is not yet a real Labour Party, but is leveraging one of the existing organizational forms in Taiwan, with hard work, to build the structures of a Labour Party.

Many Taiwanese workers may be worried that if we keep on fighting the bosses, they may shut down the companies and move away, therefore struggles should be avoided. This is a very incorrect view, but if you try to recruit them as a tough, militant union, they may feel that we are extremists. But if we use this soft association method to slowly persuade and appeal, they will accept our ideas more easily. This may take up to two or three decades to develop. It takes time to change everyone's mind, which is not easy.

IDOM: You presented yourself as a "Worker Mayor" during your campaign. What would a government led by workers look like for you? Under such a government, how would the relationship between the working class and government apparatuses be different?

Zhu Meixue: To be honest, it doesn't matter who is the mayor; what is important is the governing official’s core values. As long as you set the direction for governance, the government officials will help you achieve it. But whether it is the KMT or the DPP, whether in the local or the central government, their administrations are biased towards the corporations, and workers are always at a disadvantage. Only during elections do they suddenly “save the softest spot in their hearts” for workers. If there is a mayor who wins elections without taking corporate money today, the corporations will then be unable to ask such a mayor for favors. If workers take charge of the government, as we envisages, we can achieve a balance between labor and capital. In the past few years, our economy has actually grown. If you say that a wage increase will cause the company to move offshore, then we would ask: how come, in the past, South Korea’s workers were paid less than we did, but then they were able to get wage increases over time to today being paid 2.7 times our wages, and their companies have not collapsed? It all depends on whether the corporations have passed the profits on to the workers. If they have done so, would workers fight like they are today? Workers are only working hard to raise their families, why would they want to argue with you all day? Is it because he has done so much, but you’ve kept all the benefits for yourself? A worker-led government, while taking into account the need for economic development, would also take into account the views of workers and know more about how to promote consensus among employers and employees.

IDOM: Do you agree that any elected officials should reduce their salaries to no more than the wages of an average skilled worker?

Zhu Meixue: The salaries of Taiwan’s regional heads of government are already higher than that of ordinary workers. They can also benefit from negotiating contracts with corporations. This is also the source of Taiwan’s political corruption and poor administrative efficiency.

Of course, there are also many exchanges of interests during elections. Cheng Wen-tsan spent more than NTD$58 million in the election campaign when he was elected mayor four years ago, but he only raised more than $10 million, and lost about $30 million. His salary for one year is $5 million. In the four-year term, he will receive a total of $20 million, so he still loses $10 million. Therefore, he still depends on the corporations’ funding after he takes office. This is also why the KMT and the DPP are biased towards the corporations.

Lina Cheng: Salary levels may be a secondary issue. We believe that Taiwan’s most serious problem lies in the tendency of political parties to favor corporations, and the kickbacks that come with it. Many of those who won elections use their high salaries to hire their own associates into high positions, propagating their own factions. For example, He Nuanxuan, the chairman of China Airlines, got his job as a political hiring. He belongs to Cheng Wen-tsan’s clique, with an annual salary  in the millions. A company such as China Airlines, where the state is the majority shareholder, is an example of what we call an "office cast in iron, where officials flow like water." When the CEOs come and go, none of them will understand the people at the rank and file, nor will they take care of workers at the frontline. They will only work in accordance with the politicians’ calculations. We believe that appointees to government posts should be hired based on a fair system of selection, instead of elected officials hiring nepotistically.

IDOM: Do you think that elected officials and representatives should be able to be immediately recalled?

Zhu Meixue: I agree. If there is no such mechanism, then I can still finish my term if I do it badly. Taiwan’s Constitution actually stipulates that the people have rights, which includes the right to recall. However, the two major parties set the threshold for recall way too high. If the bar is lower, the politicians would be more vigilant. I am not a god. It is impossible for everyone to like me, but as long as my policies are supported by the majority of the ordinary people, even if someone wants me recalled they wouldn’t be able to do so.

IDOM: Do you think that workers know how to operate the workplace better than their bosses do?

Zhu Meixue: I agree. Take China Airlines as an example. It doesn't matter who is the boss. In fact, back in the days China Airlines prioritized the promotion of experienced rank and file workers to management level. But over the years, people have been able to enter management through nepotism or sucking up. These people are not only incompetent, but also do not understand how things work. Often times if there are disputes with customers, the supervisors would hide, and the more experienced staff would have to take care of things.

IDOM: Socialists believe that all industries should not be used for profit but for social needs, what do you think about this?

Zhu Meixue: If an industry, such as China Airlines, is one that takes (funds) from society to serve society, I agree. If an industry is funded and operated by individuals, expropriation of it might require some discussion, but  instead we can push them to make positive contributions to the society around them.

IDOM: The results of the latest election saw a rebound of the KMT and the conservative, reactionary social forces. Where do you think Taiwan will go in the near term? How should the working class act in this next period in your opinion?

Zhu Meixue: In electoral politics in the near term, it should be alternating between the blue and green parties. In the case of gay marriage, the referendum for gay marriage was supported by the majority of young people, with enough petitions to launch a full referendum. However, the KMT being clearly on the side of “loving and defending the family”, while the DPP has never been very serious in supporting gay marriage. They want to both “protect the family” and support gay marriage, because they could profit from supporting gay marriage. In this year, many young people supported the referendum for gay marriage, but very few of them supported the referendum for workers’ rights. The reason is that wages for the youth are low, and no matter how hard they work they won’t be able to afford to buy a house, get married and start a family. Most of them can only take care of themselves. In face of this condition, if the government further curbs their freedom to love and express themselves, they would of course be incensed. But for the referendum on labor rights, young people know that even if the referendum is passed, their salary will not rise and the working environment will not improve.

How can we consolidate the consciousness of young people when it comes to workers’ rights? We call on them to "not vote for blue, nor green, but vote for themselves.". If in the next decade the sentiment against the two major party becomes strong enough, then we may see the emergence of European-style coalition governments (as politics would no longer be dominated by only two parties.)

Lina Cheng: In Taiwan, because of historical reasons, most of the people who entered the labor movement are now middle-aged or older. Therefore, the leadership of the labor movement tends to be middle-aged men. But in the past three or four years, more and more new people have joined the trade union movement. In particular, after the strike of the China Airlines flight attendants, many young workers began to form new trade unions. In fact, Zhu Meixue’s campaign represents the forces of young workers. Although he himself is older, the average age of his campaign staff is only about thirty-one. I am thirty-one, and the other two members of our team are twenty-four. The supporters we’ve won over through our slogans and proposed policies all tend to be very young. So we believe that our hope is for the young generation to find new ways forward in participating in politics. The Obasang Alliance, for example, although they claim to be Obasangs (middle-aged moms), are actually a youthful new force.

Looking into the future, we believe that although blue-green parties will still get most of the votes, we will also see more and more young people participating in the elections independently or through Third Force parties. [5] We feel that this direction is good. Taiwan needs more small party candidates to come out and gradually loosen the hold that the two parties have on Taiwan’s politics.

The youth will play a key role in challenging the existing political system in Taiwan Image RichyThe youth will play a key role in challenging the existing political system in Taiwan / Image: Richy

IDOM: The Taiwanese workers’ rate of trade union organisation is still very low, but the DPP government is already considering the third counter-reform against workers’ rights. How do you think the labor movement can encourage workers to start organizing?

Zhu Meixue: This is not easy. In the past, young people were relatively unfamiliar or indifferent to the issue of labor rights, or felt that it was useless to participate in labor rights struggles. This is also the reason we hope to use this association to connect with people who care about different issues, and to bring more people into the labor movement through this channel.

IDOM: You are an open and firm defender of gay rights. How do you think the labour movement can help promote the rights and interests of gay people in the following period?

Lina Cheng: We will continue to support the gay marriage campaign. However, in Taiwan, as most participants in the labour movement are male, many hold the stereotype that the labour movement must be a masculine one. In the past it also had been harder to bring gender issues into discussion within the movement. We are planning on publishing a booklet with the aid of cadres within the movement in promoting it. The booklet may include a questionnaire to explore the gender orientation within the labour movement, and may also include submissions from gay workers, either out or not out, to share their voices as gay people within the union. The purpose of this plan is to show that trade unions can also be a conduit for promoting LGBT rights and avoid letting union members ignore this issue. Although the gay marriage referendum passed the threshold, the “League for Our Next Generation’s Happiness” mobilized even more votes to counter it. This means that gay rights require support outside of undecided voters. We hope that the trade unions can become one of the channels for promoting the struggle of gay rights and changing the traditional thinking of the masses.

IDOM: Environmental issues, especially the protection of Guanxin Algae Reef, were also among the main issues you raised in your campaign. How do you think the labour movement can promote environmental protection and fight against corporations that pollute in the next period?

Zhu Meixue: Many people who do not live in areas that are being polluted may be less concerned about environmental pollution and focus more on economic development. Only residents living in the affected areas may be be alarmed. This creates a division in Taiwanese society on this issue. In fact, environmental protection and industrial development can coexist, and the balance between the two depends on the government’s decision-making. Such a beautiful ecological environment as the Guanxin Algae Reef is one the last remaining few in the world, and could be easily destroyed. It would be very hard to restore it after it’s been damaged. Since Taoyuan already has many industrial areas, why do you have to build a gas pipeline there? This shows that the existing industrial zones have not been effectively used. Secondly, underground sewage needs to be properly treated to effectively protect the environment. But in the past few years, the government has not funded this area of work, but has been spending money on other activities. This is because treating sewage will not attract more votes, but other activities can.

The government not only fails to effectively use existing industrial land, but also ignores professional environmental assessment, and promotes environmental destruction through administrative methods. Even if the final industrial zone is built in the Algae Reef Reserve, it will not necessarily bring more job opportunities and improve people's lives, perhaps it will go out of business after a few years.

As workers, we certainly hope to have the right to work and to support our families. But we should also think about whether there are alternatives to the plans proposed by the company. We have never opposed the construction of the third natural gas receiver station, but CPCT [6] is determined to build the campus in the algae ecological zone in order to reduce costs. CPCT already has made enough money every year. The Taoyuan City Government has not announced what measures it would take if the project causes environmental damage. It is too late at that stage anyway. In recent years, Taiwan’s population has been decreasing, new houses and factories are still being built. We have to ask: is it necessary to build them in places that can harm the environment?

At present, although we cannot change the state’s policies, we can change the mode of elections. If more and more workers or other rank and file people become awakened and challenge the two major parties, the government's policies will change. Like in the elections in Taoyuan City, the issue of algae reefs is solely advanced by us. Apollo Chen, the KMT challenger to mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, did not touch on this issue at all.

IDOM: You are also very vocal about the rights of migrant workers. Workers in various countries around Taiwan, such as China, South Korea, and the Philippines, have suffered severe exploitation and oppression. Do you think that the working class in Taiwan should actively connect with workers in neighboring countries and around the world? How do you think this can be achieved?

Zhu Meixue: The international outlook of Taiwanese workers is still not strong enough. Some workers are selfish and do not want to have the same base salary as migrant workers. Even some trade union groups believe that they must distance themselves from struggles for migrant workers’ rights. I believe everyone is born equal. One of our main slogans and policies was “to be born without class”, which means that anyone who works hard should get the fruits of their labor (without discrimination).

Taiwanese workers stood with the Hydis workers in South Korea who were laid off by Taiwanese capitalists Image Hydis Workers Solidarity Facebook PageTaiwanese workers stood with the Hydis workers in South Korea who were laid off by Taiwanese capitalists / Image: Hydis Workers Solidarity Facebook Page

It is very difficult for Taiwanese workers to connect with the world. Usually we would start connecting with other countries’ unions through the unions of state-owned or large enterprises. However, the trade unions of such enterprises are usually lackey unions and are more difficult to change. Therefore, we can only contact the trade unions of other countries through more militant unions of our own. Previously, the TIU actually stood with workers from South Korea’s Hydis corporation to struggle against their Taiwanese employer here.

Lina Cheng: Recently, the striking workers of Taiwan's Fuji Xerox also got in touch with the unions of their counterparts in Japan. The Japanese side took to the streets and flyered for us.

IDOM: Finally, as the working class around the world is facing similar challenges that the Taiwanese workers are facing. Do you have anything else to say to our readers from around the world?

Zhu Meixue: In recent years, the world’s economy has actually been growing, but the benefits of this growth have not been passed on to the workers. Events like the Yellow Vests in France have their root causes in the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer. If it is possible for everyone to benefit, then these things would not have happened. But now capitalism is at a stage where the prices are too high, and the average person can't make ends meet, resulting in inequality. To the readers around the world, I can only say: you have to fight for your own rights. It is impossible for your government, corporations or employers to automatically hand down benefits to you, because this is human nature. You don't need to worry about the profitability of the bosses, because they have taken good care of their own interests. It is up to you to fight for your own.


Notes

[1] China Airlines is a public-private joint venture airline company in Taiwan, not to be confused with Air China, which is owned by the Chinese state. The Taiwanese government is the majority shareholder of China Airlines and thus can appoint its senior management officials.

[2] In Taiwan there are three legally recognized types of union: company employee’s union, professional union, and industrial union.

[3] Neighborhood or village chiefs, or Li Zhang (里長), are community level elected officials supposed to oversee neighborhood affairs. In reality, most chiefs end up being the neighborhood level mobilizer and power brokers for the politicians, capitalists, and landlord families. This system was inherited by the KMT from the Baojia system established under Japanese Colonialism which served as neighborhood surveillance and labor mobilization network.

[4] Wang Jinping is an enormously powerful KMT politician who was the President of the Legislative Yuan from 1999 to 2012. His power rests in support from large gentry families in southern Taiwan.

[5] The “Third Force” is a broad term referring to political parties that emerged after the Sunflower Movement of 2014, most prominently the New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party.

[6] The Chinese Petroleum Corporation, Taiwan (CPCT) is a state-owned enterprise owned by the Taiwanese government. It is not to be confused with Sinopec which is owned by the Chinese government.