Huge Labor Law Protests in Kaohsiung Threaten DPP Unity

Huge Labor Law Protests in Kaohsiung Threaten DPP Unity
Credit: China Times

What you need to know

As an estimated 30,000 take to the streets in the southern Taiwanese city over proposed changes to labor laws, pressure within the DPP threatens to rupture the party.

With reportedly more than 30,000 people taking to the streets yesterday in Kaohsiung in demonstration against planned changes to the Labor Standards Act, significantly larger than any protest in Taipei to date, pressure upon the DPP regarding planned changes will continue, increasing the likelihood of divides within the party. This may be a product of internal shifts following the Sunflower Movement, as well as due to competing political interest within the party. Indeed, it may indicate the significance of the issue to note that larger public responses have ensued from southern Taiwan, where the DPP traditionally has a stronger base, than in northern Taiwan.

Firstly, regarding growing anger from youth activists, it must be remembered that after the Sunflower Movement, a surprisingly large number of youth activists entered the DPP. It was not, in fact, the case that youth activists all entered Third Force parties, as is commonly thought by the media. Many of those who entered the DPP did so because they hoped to gain political experience within the party, in order to understand how the government system worked from within after a history of demonstrating against the government system from outside. Entering a Third Force party, which were new political forces entering into politics for the first time, would not have allowed for this experience of how the government system normally functions.

Likewise, there were those who may have felt that the DPP had gone astray in capitulating to big business and compromising on the progressive values it held in the past, but that the party could be brought back to its past progressive values. The messaging of Tsai Ying-wen's (蔡英文) administration during 2016 election campaigning was hopeful in this regard, signaling support of the causes that youth activists stood for.

Credit: UDN
Protests against amendments to the Labor Standards Act in Kaohsiung are on a far greater scale than anything yet seen in Taipei.

However, with the DPP intent on passing changes to the Labor Standards Act that would undo 30 years of labor reforms in Taiwan, anger has erupted among many grassroots DPP members who were formerly Sunflower Movement youth activists, with such individuals questioning their role within their party. Tsai has attempted to placate angry youth activists with claims that she, like them, is “quite left-wing”. But such claims ring hollow as, in the meantime, the DPP shrugs off demonstrations from labor unions and has proven willing to circumvent review measures for the bill in order to get around filibusters from the Third Force political party, the New Power Party, which emerged from the Sunflower Movement, as well as the Kuomintang, which has leapt onto the issue opportunistically as a way to criticize the DPP. Unsurprisingly, then, such comments have upset many youth activists.

It could be that a trigger event leads to further anger against the DPP from within. For example, if NPP chair Huang Kuo-Chang (黃國昌) were, in fact, to lose his legislative seat to a recall vote led by anti-gay marriage groups this Friday Dec. 15, this could lead to further anger from post-Sunflower Movement youth activists within the DPP. The DPP, after all, campaigned on a pledge by President Tsai to legalize marriage equality before DPP legislators proved hesitant to carry this out. If Huang loses his seat over the issue, with the DPP having shown little support despite backing the NPP in 2016 legislative elections, this could lead to further blowback from young activists that have since become DPP members for the reasons suggested above.

Large shows of public resistance such as the demonstration in Kaohsiung put the DPP in an increasingly difficult position.

On the other hand, the DPP legislative caucus is also divided in and of itself, and large shows of public resistance such as the demonstration in Kaohsiung put the DPP in an increasingly difficult position. DPP legislators are hesitant to directly comply with orders coming from Tsai Ing-Wen, William Lai (賴清德), and other executive branch representatives because they realize that they stand to be attacked on the issue of support for planned labor changes – particularly when such changes pass into law and begin to directly affect the lives of Taiwanese people. For much the same reasons, they are also hesitant to comply with orders from majority speaker Ker Chien-Ming (柯建銘), who is also calling for labor changes to be passed. DPP legislators are also the ones who directly face the anger of post-Sunflower Movement activists who are now part of the DPP, because they generally serve in legislative offices as aides or campaign workers.

When push comes to shove, DPP legislators are still willing to try and force planned changes to the Labor Standards Act into law. This is observed in that while DPP legislators were hesitant to appear during the committee meeting to review the bill on Nov. 23, after Ker stated that the bill had to be passed without fail, they eventually all appeared for the committee meeting on Dec. 4. DPP legislators such as Chiu Yi-ying (邱議瑩) have also been willing to take a hard line on the bill.

Yet if public anger continues, DPP legislators may become reluctant to continue to openly support the bill, leading to the possibility of Ker eventually deciding based on their reaction that supporting the bill is politically inopportune for the DPP caucus as a whole. This would require DPP legislators to first break with Ker and then Ker to break with Tsai and Lai, meaning that this would be difficult. But unlike other DPP legislators, Ker is in a position of political power that he could, in fact, break from the executive branch and the executive branch would have difficulty making him comply. This seems to be the most likely fault line upon which the DPP might fracture regarding planned changes to the Labor Standards Act.

We shall see, then, as to the future of the bill, and the possibility of future fractures within the DPP. Either way, public anger regarding planned changes to the Labor Standards Act seems set to continue, current lack of media attention notwithstanding. That 30,000 would demonstrate in Kaohsiung against planned changes was expected by few and, with demonstrations planned for later this month in Taipei, following the large demonstration in Kaohsiung, this means that the likelihood of a large demonstration in Taipei has also increased.

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on New Bloom here. New Bloom is an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific, founded in Taiwan in 2014 in wake of the Sunflower Movement.)

TNL Editor: David Green