FOUR years ago, unionist Lau Chin-shek took a major decision over his career. After more than two decades of street campaigning on labour rights, he decided to shift his battlefield to the colonial political structure by running for a seat in the Legislative Council, something that was in his grip because of his popularity. Over the past year, the flamboyant union leader has again contemplated his future; his four-year term is due to expire next summer. Mr Lau, one of the household names in the Democratic Party, was quietly seeking advice from his close friends on whether he should seek a second, though definitely short-lived, term. He might have thought there was still plenty of time for thorough consideration. His hopes, maybe an illusion, that he could take part in more political manoeurvres with the executive authorities to fight for his cause were dashed on Wednesday night. The second attempt by the union leader to make a further amendment to a government bill on labour benefits was blocked by the administration at the final stage of the legislative process at the Legco sitting. The Secretary for Education and Manpower Michael Leung Man-kin took an unusual, though lawful, step to withdraw the bill. Mr Lau resigned in protest - carrying through on his warning made during the course of the debate on the Employment (Amendment) Bill. The Christian Industrial Committee director was again at a crossroads in his career. If the past decade of his career in the labour movement was already marked with controversy, his latest move was even more explosive. Yesterday the news was the major talking point in political circles, radio phone-in programmes and Shamshuipo market. Critics said he was too emotional and argued that the Government has the right to withdraw the bill. Sympathisers wanted him to re-think his decision and blamed the Government for its failure to accept defeat. Supporters hailed his move as courageous, saying that it would send a resounding message to the administration that Legco should not be seen as a rubber stamp. For Mr Lau, the lesson to be learned from the Legco sitting on Wednesday was not merely the inevitability of the defeat of his bid to fight for a better deal on long service and severance payments. This lesson hinged on the more fundamental issue of whether it still made sense to work through the political system. Known for his militant and uncompromising style, Mr Lau has long been seen as a campaigner for the grass-roots and the under-privileged. He has always been in the frontline of the campaign against fare hikes for public utilities. He has been so deeply identified as a unionist that he has often been asked for advice on labour disputes while taking a meal in public. He has suffered no dearth of publicity. Only a few years ago he threatened to throw himself on the tracks of the Mass Transit Railway if the corporation did not cancel the additional fare for passengers during peak hours. Mr Lau, whose family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, was among the most active forces behind the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, formed in the heyday of the 1989 Tiananmen movement to condemn suppression and promote democracy on the mainland. He has been considered a source of trouble in Lower Albert Road and at the headquarters of Xinhua, China's de facto embassy here. After emigrating to the territory in 1962 when he was 17, Mr Lau lived as a squatter and earned $7 a day at a textile factory. He began his career in the labour movement in 1972 when he joined the Christian Industrial Committee. He was converted to Christianity three years later. His popularity surged in the 80s as the polity of the territory moved towards more openness and accountability. It was also the change in the rules of the game of politics that prompted the unionist to attempt to fight the system through the collective force of the Democratic Party in the legislative assembly. That has earned him praise and criticism. Supporters say he made the right move. Legco and the political structure at large - not work on the streets - should be the venue where political differences are settled. Mr Lau conceded that Legco should be part of a democratic system through which they should fight for their labour rights. Critics, including some in the labour circle, accused him of moving further away from the sweatshops. Some have pointed to his well-cut suits and middle-class lifestyle and cast doubts on whether he was now really part of the working class. Just a few weeks after he became a legislator, Mr Lau came to a deal with colleagues that they would give donations to charity whenever he wore a tie at the Legco sitting. A trivial matter it might be, but it has symbolised the quiet change of the street fighter, known in some media as Hong Kong's Lech Walesa. Many believe that he has become amenable to compromise. Few will fail to have noticed how he has often come to terms with the police on the procession of protesters on their routes to Xinhua headquarters and outside the building. By the same token, it is no secret that Mr Lau has maintained good personal relations with key business figures such as Henry Tang Ying-yen and had candid talks on many worker-employer matters. Mr Lau maintained that he has not forgotten the masses. The unionist remained as active as before, taking to the streets over bus fare hikes and the importation of overseas workers on airport projects at weekends and outside office hours. He believes that mass campaigns in the streets and parliamentary politics must go hand in hand if a society is to progress. Mr Lau decided to play a different role in 1991 by joining the legislative body. In spite of the differences with other Democrats, he is adamant that they have plenty in common inside and outside the chamber. Insiders close to the Democrats admitted that Mr Lau was more a self-styled unionist who always kept a distance from the core leadership of the party and often did not toe the party line. Speculation has been rife that he was no longer interested in keeping his seat as he has become 'out-grouped' in the Democratic Party. By resigning from Legco, Mr Lau is running the risk of having a weaker voice in his battle for the rights of workers. That will be the price he has to pay for going back to street politics.