Academic journal article Development and Society

The Dialectic of Institutional and Extra-Institutional Tactics: Explaining the Trajectory of Taiwan's Labor Movement *

Academic journal article Development and Society

The Dialectic of Institutional and Extra-Institutional Tactics: Explaining the Trajectory of Taiwan's Labor Movement *

Article excerpt


Labor activism has been an accompanying phenomenon in the global wave of democratization since the mid-1970s (Adler and Webster 1995; Collier 1999). During the transition away from authoritarianism, workers not only struggled to improve their class situation, but also attempted to obtain political rights. In Brazil (Alexander 2003; Keck 1995; Parker 1994), South Africa (Seidman 1994; von Holdt 2002), and South Korea (Koo 2001), observers have identified a common variety of labor activism. "Social movement unionism" embraced a conception of workers as more than merely union members; as workers, but also community residents and citizens. As such, this activism allied with prodemocracy and other social movements in its promotion of labor's interest. In contrast to the labor unions in advanced countries, workers' pursuit of their own class interest aimed for progressive reforms.

Taiwan's march from one-party authoritarianism to electoral democracy witnessed a similar pattern of labor insurgency, although it was much less discussed in the English-language literature. In her global survey of labor movements in the late twentieth century Moody (1997, p. 218) noted that Taiwan's pattern shared many features of social movement unionism, but that the government's control remained stronger. However, while most scholarship focused on the emergence of labor movements in the late 1980s (Chu 2003; Chu 1996, 1998; Ho 2003; Hsiao 1992; Huang 2002; Sen and Koo 1992, p. 63), the development since the 1990s received much less attention. With some exceptions (Chiu 2011; Ho 2006a, 2006b; Lee 2006, 2011), the consequences of labor activism, especially its policy impact, were little analyzed.

This article seeks to fill the lacunae by providing a concise interpretation of Taiwan's labor movement over the past three decades. A continuum of activism with such a long history certainly deserves monograph-length treatment, but what I attempt here is to identify a particular tension that has structured the dynamic of Taiwan's labor movement. In order to change their subordinate position, Taiwan's workers face a tactical choice: they can either use institutionalized avenues, such as parliamentary lobbying and other formalized channels of policy participation; or extra-institutional methods, such as protests and strikes. Over the years, due to democratization and liberal reform of labor laws, Taiwan's labor movement gravitated toward the institutional course, thus gradually abandoning its earlier radicalism, a course which ultimately limited its policy influence. However, marginal workers (the laid-off workers, foreign workers, and part-time workers) who felt left out by the mainstream union leaders engaged in extra-institutional activism, which subsequently helped to secure certain policy gains which were not possible via institutionalized channels. In short, there is a dialectic between the institutionalized and the extra-institutional tendencies in Taiwan's labor movement.

Taiwan's case indicates that there is an essential tension between the social movement aspect (the extra-institutional) and the unionism aspect (the institutional). Although the term social movement unionism has inspired labor activists on a global scale, it remains a difficult challenge to actually combine these two tendencies in practice.

The Emergence of the Independent Labor Movement (1984-1989)

Taiwan's labor movement was cast in the crucible of democratic transition. The year 1984 was significant for labor politics in two aspects. First, the Kuomintang (KMT) government decided to improve the legal framework of labor protection because of the strong US criticism of Taiwan's trade surplus. It was thought that raising labor costs would make Taiwan's labor-intensive exports less competitive (Cheng 1985). The legislation of working hours, overtime and retirement payment, represented a considerable gain for Taiwan's working class, even though it was not a result of its own effort. …

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