|In common with other social groups, workers and their organisations
are facing an uncertain future as we approach the end of the 20th century.
In an era when, as Marx used to say: "all that is solid melts into air",
what were once articles of faith for the labour movement are now painful
dilemmas. My purpose here is to carry out a broad survey of these `new
times' insofar as they affect the way people work or cannot work across
the planet. It is necessary to examine also the various new theories, including
post modernism, which are seen to account for these changes and plot their
possible direction(s). Labour itself has not been silent in this regard,
and has thrown up certain alternatives to the old ways of economic and
political unionism, namely a social movement type of unionism. A final
section examines to what extent the `old bottles' of the trade unions and
other traditional labour organizations can accept the `new wine' of alternative
strategies. It is interesting to note, in this regard, the recent call
by that once secure bastion of orthodoxy, the British TUC (Trade Union
Congress) to learn from the `new unionism' for the 1880's. In mid 1996,
TUC leader John Monks declared that if the British unions were to break
out of a 17 year cycle of declining membership and influence they would
have to rekindle the spirit of the 1880's, the US civil rights movements,
and the mythical union organiser Joe Hill (The Guardian, 19/6/96). Targeting
part-time and female employment, small workplaces and service and professional-technical
jobs as the basis for union growth may not signal a `new model of unionism'
for the 1990s, but it does seem to mark a recognition of the crisis of
conventional unionism as examined in this volume. NEW TIMES
At the end of the 20th Century many are predicting the virtual "collapse
of work". In its different variants (Rifkin, 1995; Aronowitz and Di Fazio,
1994) this problematic predicts a continuous decline of the working population
and a consequent weakening, if not irrelevance, of trade unions. For Jeremy
Rifkin, workerless factories and virtual companies in the North are matched
by millions of redundancies in the South, which cannot compete with the
cost efficiency and speed of delivery of automated production. His conclusion
(Rifkin, 1995, p.5) is dramatic: "Throughout the world there is a sense
of momentous change taking place - change so vast in scale that we are
barely able to fathom its ultimate impact. "An oft quoted figure is 8 million
people unemployed or under-employed in the South, which gives us some idea
of the magnitude of the problem. In the North, the very meaning of work
has changed, as has the social cohesion and consciousness of workers, and
thus the possible role of trade unions. There is a general sense of loss
and disorientation, matched by a critique of what has been accepted practice
in the past. This is the case for labour movements worldwide, whether the
`god that failed' be social democracy, communism, military nationalism
or the discrete charms of the advanced industrial societies.
For more confident certainty on future prospects we need to turn to
the World Bank's (1996) report on `Workers in an Integrating World'. There
is here a welcome recognition that the lives of urban workers in different
parts of the world are increasingly intertwined. Their call is for increased
international trade and investment and less state intervention as the panacea
for all our ills. The World Bank (1995:6) recognises that "In the short
term, workers often feel the pain [of structural adjustment measures] as
real wages fall, unemployment rises, and employment shifts into informal
activities". The inequality between rich and poor nations and social classes
will grow but employment restructuring is seen as inevitable and its social
costs as manageable. Now, clearly the processes described do not occur
from some blind technological imperative but are driven by identifiable
social and political forces. Capital flight for example, is not "a fact
of life" (World Bank, 1995: 62) which neither workers or governments can
do anything about. International market regulation is both possible and
desirable. What the World Bank report on workers worldwide does reflect
is the absence of any coherent progressive alternative political economy
at a national, not to mention international, level.
Late capitalism has become centrally characterised by a concerted bid
at `de-regulation', that is to say driving back state intervention in economic
and social affairs. The transformation of workers lives has had both an
objective and subjective dimension. At a structural level, the worldwide
changes in capitalism which began to take off in the 1980's led to a growing
differentiation of the workforce. The nature of jobs became more heterogeneous
and there was a disaggregation of the working class. The perceived end
of Fordism - as a symbol of capitalism in its heyday - led to wide-ranging
changes in the way goods and services were produced, distributed and consumed.
The mass production approach of Ford is often contrasted to the `flexible
specialisation' approach of the Italian clothing firm Benneton, for example,
with its particular blend of new technology and the `old' putting-out system.
Of course we must beware of a simplistic Fordist/Post-Fordist divide, as
Karel Williams et al point out, a simple "opposition between mass production
and flexible specialisation is unworkable because empirical instances cannot
be identified; (this) meta-history is contradicted by the case of Ford
and suppresses the subsequent history of the assembly industries; (the)
analysis of market trends and new technology is unconvincing; and (the)
view of where flexible specialisation can take us is incurably romantic"
(Williams et al, 1987, p.438). The point at this stage is that, over and
above particular criticisms, the New Times writers have used the idea of
Post-Fordism as an imaginative way to conceptualize what the future might
hold for labour.
What `de-regulation' (of the market, because labour continues to be
regulated of course) means in practice is seen most clearly in a country
such as New Zealand, often presented as a `world model' for structural
adjustment (see Kelsey, 1996). Here the neo-liberal global agenda was implemented
with a vengeance and its social impact was immediate. The trade union movement
sought to mitigate the effects of economic liberalization but they could
not prevent a decline in union membership from 45 per cent of the workforce
in 1986 to 22 per cent in 1994. From powerful partner in corporatist arrangements
with the Labour Party prior to 1988 the trade unions slipped into the role
of a small pressure group. Global competitiveness spells social exclusion
at home. The state carrying out this liberal revolution has not faded into
the background as economic dogma preaches, but has become a strong, interventionist
state bent on `keeping labour in its place'.
A variant on the above themes is that of `Japanization' by which analysts
mean that supposedly unique (cf Dale, 1995) combination of `lean production',
`just in time' work methods and company ethos. This is sometimes elevated
into a universalistic analysis as with Kenney and Florida (1993) who see
Japanese firms creating a new work model based on `innovation- mediated
production' where the knowledge of all employees is mobilized for continuous
improvement of the production process. Other authors have, in contrast,
sought "to problematize both the extent of diffusion of this approach and
the evolving relationship between such innovations and the wider social
and economic contexts" (Elger and Smith, 1994, p.9). Indeed, far from bringing
some marvellously enlightened method, when Japanese firms came to Britain
they deliberately sought out regions of high unemployment with work cultures
that would not impinge on their drive for higher productivity. In Brazil,
the new `Japanese' management techniques have begun to be implemented,
but in piecemeal fashion and only in areas of weak union organisation.
Furthermore, it does not represent an enlightened management attitude but
simply the spur of international competition and has led to intensification
of work and labour discipline (Humphrey, 1994).
For employers, the new `Post-Fordist' era has meant, above all, a new
approach to industrial relations based on `flexibility'. By the mid 1980's,
according to Marino Regini (1992, p.7) "Employers became less interested
in patterns of industrial relations designed to deal with aggregate problems
and solutions". The work force itself had become more differentiated and
thus workers' interest and demands seemed less amenable to a collectivist
approach. Management, for its part, began to focus much more centrally
on the level of the firm seeking to enhance labour flexibility. The days
of collective centralised bargaining seemed numbered. The trade unions
had already been weakened by the economic and political transformation
of the 1970's, and employers sought to translate this into a decisive change
in the balance of forces in the workplace, under the watchword of labour
`flexibility'. Flexibility of labour, of course, takes many different forms.
According to the OECD (cited in Van Dijk, 1995, p.229) there are five main
1. External numerical flexibility - employers decide how many employees
they want at any given time;
2. Externalisation - various forms of sub-contracting or putting-out
3. Internal numerical flexibility - working hours and shifts, etc decided
according to employers' needs;
4. Functional flexibility - job assignment and rotation according to
5. Wage flexibility - wages adjusted according to `performance' and
All in all a formidable array of measures which capital abrogates to
itself to maintain the subjection of labour. If both the labour contract
and labour performance were to become more `flexible', the traditional
labour organisations such as the trade unions needed to be marginalized.
In some cases, the unions marginalized themselves by fighting the battle
with capital on an old terrain that had already shifted.
Alongside de-regulation and the bid for `flexible specialisation', went
the decisive feminization of the labour force. The traditional image of
a male-manual model worker lived on only in the trade union banners. As
Jill Rubery and Colette Fagan note: "the integration of women into the
economy is closely associated with new types of jobs and types of employment:
women have provided the main source of new labour for the growth of services
and part-time work" (Rubery and Fagan, 1994, p.162). While related to the
increased flexibilisation of the labour market noted above, the increased
participation of women is not a simple reflection of that tendency. Instead,
we need to take into account the overall nature of gender relations in
a given country or region. Women are now more than a `reserve labour pool',
coming in and out of the labour market according to demand, they are rather
a permanent feature of the labour landscape. It is women in the trade unions,
and in the wider women's organisations, which have, in particular, helped
change the agenda of many trade unions in the 1980s. Issues such as the
once sacrosanct (male) `family wage' are now on the table and the `macho'
way of waging industrial conflict is no longer `the only game in town'
in labour circles.
As the ILO (International Labour Organisation) notes: "The past decades
have seen a surge of women into the paid labour force of most countries
around the world, accompanied by fundamental societal change of unprecedented
scale and speed" (ILO, 1994, p.3). Yet this process is uneven in many ways,
insofar as in 1990 over half of the 828 million women in paid employment
worldwide were employed in Asia (35 percent in East Asia). Furthermore,
women are concentrated in the so-called `contingency' workforce doing temporary
and part-time work. Women workers are often under precarious contracts,
and subject to atrocious working conditions. Women, for example, make up
over 80 per cent of the total of home workers, working long and hazardous
hours for little reward. Overall, flexible labour practices and the drive
towards structural adjustment economic policies are threatening to undo
any gains made by women in recent decades. Furthermore, as Val Moghadan
notes, this situation limits "the capacity of governments, trade unions
and women's organisations to improve women's employment opportunities and
working and living conditions" (Moghadan, 1995, p.115). This is a general
point we will return to.
Finally, what occurred in the 1980's was the decisive internationalization
of production, consumption and distribution, leading for some to a `globalization'
of the working class, or at least an internationalization of proletarianization.
The various attempts to analyse the new, or changing, international division
of labour in the 1970's pointed clearly towards an increase in the proportion
of the global population dependent upon the sale of its labour power on
the market. There is also a growing inter-connectedness of national economies,
and a growing realization that the future of labour depends on processes
beyond the national boundaries (cf Belander, Edwards and Haiven, eds, 1994).
The globalisation of industrial production, and the increasing integration
of Third World workers, especially women, into the international productive
system, is having a widespread and ongoing impact. The workers of the `world-market
factories' are more than just a passive component of a global reserve army
of labour. Like women, the once excluded and peripheralized Third World
workers are now playing a key role in revitalizing the strategies of the
traditional Western model of trade unionism. Whether it is Brazil, the
Philippines or South Africa it is this `new' working class which is helping
develop adequate answers to the dilemmas posed by global capitalism in
In 1992, according to the United Nations, there were about 37,000 trans-national
corporations with about 200,000 foreign affiliates employing about 29 million
people outside their base nation, 17 million in the advanced industrial
societies and 12 million in the so-called developing countries (Simai,
1995, p.237). These giant companies are certainly expanding: since 1983
foreign direct investment has grown five times faster than world trade
and ten times faster than world output (The Economist, 1995, p.5). Yet
these companies are just part of the general trend towards internationalization
and general integration with the world capitalist market. The effect on
workers is enormous: whereas in the mid 1970's about two thirds of the
world's workforce lived in countries only weakly linked to international
markets (due to protectionism or central planning) by the year 2000 less
than one tenth of workers will be living in nations which are still in
part disconnected from the world market (World Bank, 1995, p.60). In that
process of shakedown and reconstruction of the world labour market over
half of the world's 2.5 billion workers, will carry the full brunt of transition
to an open world economy.
Faced with uncertainty, fluidity and even chaos, it is not surprising
that the labour and socialist traditions have turned to new theories to
chart a way forward. For some (eg Jameson, 1992) the post-modernist wave
is but the cultural logic of a late capitalism past its time. It can, indeed,
be seen as a luxury of a dominant order which, secure in its own position,
now wishes to deny to women and the post-colonial peoples their attempt
to affirm a missing subjectivity through a casual swipe of the hand which
declares the `death of the subject'. Tempting though this dismissal may
be it does not really help us deal with the challenges and dilemmas of
the 21st century. The post-modern (or, more precisely, post- structuralist)
approach bids us reject the broad interpretative schemes or metanarratives
of Marx and the socialist/labour icons which seek to provide us with the
`truth' of how everything under the sun is connected and why things are
the way they are (see Kumar, 1995 for an introduction). Instead of a `totalising'
account we are directed, rather, towards a `deconstruction' of narratives
and an understanding of the radical contingency of structures and events.
If the traditional labour/socialist projects of transformation are now
in crisis, we should perhaps turn to the `new' social movements and their
associated politics of reconstruction. These movements conventionally contrasted
to the `old' movements of labour or nationalism, are taken to include the
women's, peace, and human rights movements, as well as, in some conceptions,
a diversity of regional, local or community associations. These are seen
to represent a qualitatively different form of transformative politics
and, in embryo, a new societal paradigm. These movements stress their autonomy
from party politics and prioritise civil society over the state. In social
movement politics, power itself is redefined, no longer being seen as something
out there ready to be seized, but as a diffused and plural quality woven
into the very fabric of society. These social movements have, arguably,
helped to create a new political space where new identities have been developed,
new demands have been articulated and the dividing line between the public
and private domains has lost much of its meaning. The very notion of power
is, hereby, redefined, the limits of state politics exposed and a challenge
laid down to the atomization and alienation characteristic of contemporary
The main set of theoretical principles, explaining the strategies and
nature of the `new' social movements can be traced to the work of, amongst
others, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). This
work helps us understand the open and contingent nature of political identities
and political struggles. Against the privileged status of workers in traditional
labour/socialist discourse, they examine the plural nature of society and
the autonomy of the various oppressed groups. Radical politics, for them,
should abandon a narrow productivist logic, and adopt a broader strategy
aimed at articulating new democratic political identities across society.
Society is seen as open, unstable and contingent, being discursively constituted
through a process of articulation and negotiation. Once the traditional
idea of the working class, as central unifying feature in the socialist
strategies, is abandoned, the doors are opened on a new radical democratic
politics more attuned to the needs of the late 20th Century. This, more
pluralist, politics entails an engagement with the multiple identities
and diverse struggles of the new social movements.
Critics of Laclau and Mouffe have accused them of seeing history and
society as totally random. By undermining causality they are seen to lapse
into indeterminacy. Their politics has been accused of being an anarcho-voluntarist
fantasy, where every link of the political chain is equally weak and susceptible
to pressure. Laclau and Mouffe have also been accused of a eurocentric,
post-industrial bias (Escobar, 1992, p.39). Their proclamation of a radical
pluralist democracy seems restricted to "societies in which the democratic
revolution has crossed a certain threshold" (Laclau and Mouffe, 1995, p.166),
meaning the `advanced' countries. Thus the multiplicity of antagonisms
and identities in the `Third World' seems destined to a lower level national-popular
revolution. A general critique from Best and Kellner (1991, p.281) argues
that `their discourse theory lacks concrete analysis of the new social
movements which they champion". Nevertheless, their approach has found
a wide resonance amongst the intellectuals of the new social movements
which labour theorists ignore at their peril.
In terms of an over-arching theory seeking to explore the role of labour
in the current period we need to turn towards the work on `post Fordism'.
In the Fordist era we saw the `commodification' of all areas of life. Mass
production went hand in hand with mass consumption. Sometime in the 1970's,
this integrated system and `way of life', known as Fordism, entered into
crisis. In its stead we have seen a post-Fordism which is seen as consumption
rather than production-led. It is seen to be based on segmented niche markets
rather than the mass market. Within the realm of production, post-Fordism
has led to the development of the `flexible specialization' approach already
referred to above. New technology and computer-assisted production methods
have made possible the `just-in-time' approach to stock keeping which helped
Japanese industry establish its world lead. The mass of semi-skilled machine-minders
typical of the modern auto-plant gives way to a smaller, more diverse,
multiple skilled workforce participating in the labour process through
the likes of quality circles, for example. There have been many criticisms
of the concept of post-Fordism (see Amin, ed, 1994) but one of the main
ones is that it, like its predecessor, is applied in a somewhat blanket
form to a diversity of situations. In particular, we can question its approach
to the world's majority of workers living in what used to be called the
Third World, notwithstanding the attempt to develop a concept of `peripheral
Fordism' (e.g. Lipietz, 1988). Also, this school of analysis sometimes
tends to adopt a narrow national optic neglecting the relationship between
national economies and the processes of internationalization. While we
need to be aware of the analysis carried out into post-Fordism, and the
related approach to `disorganized capitalism', we might not wish them to
become new master narratives as debilitating as the old ones.
Post-Fordism is a fluid and ill-defined concept, however suggestive
some of the analysis of its forms might be. As with the concept of globalization,
tendencies have been confused with an actually achieved new mode of social
regulation. A flexible regime of accumulation may be a more common feature
in the advanced industrial societies, but it hardly affects more than a
few sectors in the so-called Third World. The breakdown of Fordism, and
the seemingly fatal weakening of Keynesian social regulation does not,
necessarily, lead to something called post-Fordism. Nor does the rise of
neo-liberalism appear to be the unstoppable tide it was a decade ago, as
its inherent contradictions and flaws become apparent. Flexible production
systems, and faith in the market, seem hardly adequate to solve the massive
social dislocation present and reproduced under global capitalism. Referring
to the systemic instability of the global system Tickell and Peck, (1995,
p.359) argue that: "Workable post-Fordist `solutions' at the national or
local scales, .... will not stabilize until a new institutional fix its
found on a global scale." Labour will, necessarily, intervene in this process,
which may be no more than a pale imitation of the old national-keynesian
`social compromise' or a more radical conceptions of global citizenship,
depending on the balance of forces.
In a striking phrase Scott Lash and John Urry refer to the `end of organized
capitalism' (Lash and Urry, 1987). National economies are losing control
as international financial flows assume greater importance. The transnational
corporations cause a growing fragmentation of the production process. The
working class as we know it is rooted in a spatial and cultural fix which
no longer exists. For Lash and Urry (1987, p.312): "The world of a `disorganized'
capitalism is one in which the `fixed, fast-frozen relations' of organized
capitalist relations have been swept away. Societies are being transformed
from above, from below, and from within. All that is solid about organized
capitalism, class, industry, cities, collectivity, nation-state, even the
world, melts into air". The fragmentation of working class cultures and
communities which this process has led to cannot be underestimated. The
mass homogeneous working class of the Fordist era has been replaced by
a core workforce which is skill flexible and a peripheral workforce which
is time flexible (Jessop et al., 1987, p.109). A reconstituted progressive
politics will not occur, in this context, by harking back to the past,
but by recognising the transformation which had taken place and boldly
intervening in them.
The concept of globalization has certainly "taken off" in the last few
years, producing a voluminous and multi-faced literature. It has gone far
beyond the academy to become common currency in international media and
business circles. Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson in a valuable survey
of the actual evidence for globalization conclude that "one effect of the
concept of globalization has been to paralyse radical reforming national
strategies, to see them as unviable in the face of the judgement and sanction
of international markets" (Hirst and Thompson, 1996, p1). There has indeed,
been a huge leap from the internationalisation of production to posit an
actual globalisation. Much mythology has been built around the transnational
corporations ignoring the very real weaknesses, dilemmas and vulnerabilities
of these organisations (Ramsay, 1996, p.1). In reality the famous "multinationals"
retain, on the whole a clear national base and are subject to national
laws. Indeed, lately there has been considerable attention (see Dicken,
P. et al., 1994) paid to the local `embededness' of transnational corporations,
not that this makes them dynamic agents of local development of course,
but it does counter the `footloose' image of these organisations. These
companies, according to the most recent data "are not becoming footloose
global capital" (Hirst and Thompson, 1996, p.17). The Economist goes as
far as to argue that "globalisation exposed the multinationals' weaknesses.
Deregulation and lower trade barriers have reduced the value of their carefully
cultivated relationships with governments..." (The Economist, 1995, p.6).
The transnationals are not an undifferentiated species and they are simply
not invulnerable to labour. It may be more fruitful in regards to the phenomenon
of globalisation to conceive it in terms of "the relationship between the
internationalisation of the state and the imposition of new forms of labour
discipline" (Burnham, 1996, p.4). We should see the state and the market
as distinct forms of the capitalist social relations of production. As
Burnham (1996, p.3) points out: "A new research agenda for labour studies
in the 1990s is to chart how changes in state form - what can be referred
to as the internationalisation of the state - are employed to restructure
Do the `new theories' on the `new times' provide a new, viable progressive
strategy to take labour forward into the 21st Century? I would like to
start with the assertion by Richard Hyman (1994, p.113) that: "Rather than
a crisis of trade unionism, what has occurred is a crisis of a specific,
narrowly based type of trade unionism". The purely nationally oriented
male manual manufacturing based type of trade unionism is, indeed, in crisis
for the reasons outlined above. But different voices, experiences and interests
are now coming to the fore and pointing us towards possible alternatives
for labour in the 21st Century.
Sometimes there is a stark counterposition between the `old' labour
movement and the `new' social movements around gender, race, ecological
or peace issues. Alan Scott (1991) has usefully summarised these assumed
differences in terms of the distinct location, aims, organisation and medium
of action of the workers' movement and the new social movements respectively.
Whereas the struggles of labour have increasingly been located within the
polity, the new social movements are usually assumed to operate within
civil society. As to the aims of labour they have usually focused around
securing economic rights for workers and the political integration of labour
within the dominant system. Conversely, the new social movements stress
the autonomy of civil society and often seek changes in social values or
life-styles. The organisational mode of labour has traditionally been formal
and has adopted a hierarchical aspect (the famous `iron law of oligarchy'
of Michels). For their part, the new social movements tend, at least during
their inception and in theory anyway, towards a networking and/or grass
roots type of organisation. Finally, whereas the worker's movement has
usually stressed political mobilization, the new social movements often
went for direct action and/or daring attempts at cultural innovations (witness
the dramatic tactics of Greenpeace). The above represents two ideal-types,
not always reflected in practice. But we can see in this general picture,
albeit tempered by empirical counter-examples, the challenge posed by the
new social movements to the old, or at least traditional, labour movements.
I think we need to take seriously the warning by Allen Hunter (1994,
p.6) that: "the harsh juxtaposition between the (bad) old politics and
the (good) new social movements is self-deceptive, misleading, and can
inhibit the kind of critical interrogation of current prospects for radical
change that is needed". For one thing, the international labour movement
has, in recent decades, explored innovative forms of actions. From the
`social movement unionism' of Brazil, South Africa or the Phillippines
to the `new realism' of Western Europe and elsewhere, labour has been seeking
ways out of the apparent impasse of the old tactics, organizational modes
and even objectives. Union leaders, as much as workers themselves, increasingly
realize that unions are no longer `representative' in the old way. Contemporary
trade union discourse is well attuned to the need to go beyond the traditional
demand for `more and more', to address the quality of life of workers today.
Australian union leaders came back from a fact finding mission in Europe
in 1986 recognising precisely this type of issue and waxing lyrical on
the need for a new type of `strategic unionism' (ACTU/JDC Mission of Western
Europe, 1989). This realization that the old way of doing things was producing
rapidly diminishing dividends was far from unique.
It is important to note, following, Marino Regini (1992, p.102) that
"some trade unions have undertaken a search for new, less defensive responses
to the current challenges...". The growing heterogeneity of the labour
force and the increasing impact of `flexible specialisation' can be, and
has been, seen as an opportunity for labour even while it is a constraint
on traditional strategies. As against a homogeneous working class we now
have a heterogeneous labour force. Union leaders presume less to speak
`on behalf' of a mythical working class, instead diverse identities find
their own voices and articulate their own strategies. Interest representation
in a simple one-to-one model gives way to the pluralism of identity politics.
As to `flexible specialisation' there is now the possibility, as Regini
(1992, p.106) notes that for workers "flexibility means viewing their working
time and work performance as less standardised, rigid and uniform". To
find Japanese auto workers speaking in these terms is, indeed, significant,
coming as it does from a trade union view supposedly characterised by life
time commitment (cf Kamata, 1984) albeit for men mainly, but now advocating
reduced working hours.
In South Africa, the trade union movement, coming out of the apartheid
era, took a pro-active stance towards industrial policy. COSATU (Congress
of South Africa Trade Unions) sponsored the Industrial Strategy Project
which began as early as 1992 to devise a new post-apartheid industrial
strategy in consultation with unions and employers. Its brief was to investigate
"the competitive status of 13 of South Africa's industrial sectors, assessing
not only their abilities to withstand global competition, but also their
potential for meeting basic needs" (Joffee et al, 1995, p.17). It addressed
the issues of raising productivity, creating employment, reviving investment
and improving trade performance. Significantly, this strategy advocated
a corporatist industrial relations framework to move "away from the conflictive
relations endemic to the apartheid era", and start a process of consensus
- building which is "only likely to be achieved in the context of tripartite
policy formulation" (Joffee et al, 1994, p.23). It is interesting that
it is Sam Gindin, an official of the Canadian Auto-Workers Union, who provided
one of the most explicit critiques of this perspective from a labour point
of view, exposing the dangers of the ideology, of `international competitiveness'
and the desperate need for a democratic counter-project based not on a
debilitating corporatism but on building the capabilities of labour and
the unions (Gindin, 1995).
As the old paradigms of labour structuring and organisation dissolve,
so new forms are developed. Women working worldwide have thrown up novel
and effective forms of struggle. Whether in the Free Trade Zones on the
Mexican border, homeworkers in India or African township traders, women
are imagining ways of resisting the neo-liberal capitalist onslaught. In
introducing a collection describing new forms of economic organising among
poor women in the Third World and the First, Sheila Rowbotham and Swasti
Mitter (1994, p.6) point out that "The experience gained by Third World
poor women, in developing forms of survival and resistance, are becoming
increasingly relevant to women of the First World." Organising outside
the trade unions in various ways linked into the community, these women
are often developing a synthesis of old and new forms of organisation of
great relevance. In a parallel move, some commentators are now pointing
to the potential of the `third sector' or social economy. Thus Rifkin (1995,
p.283) refers to how: "The third sector is emerging in every region of
the world. Its meteoric rise is attributable in part to the increasing
need to fill a political vacuum left by the retreat of both the private
and public sectors from the affairs of local communities".
We increasingly find trade unions worldwide moving beyond the factory
gates and breaking with a narrow, economistic conception of trade unionism.
As De Martino argues, in relation to the U.S, there was once a powerful
left workerist orthodoxy which "grants privileged status to workers in
an enterprise, they alone are empowered to determine when and how to struggle,
and for what" (De Martino, 1991, p.116). The broader community could express
its `solidarity' when called upon, but could not interfere with union `autonomy'.
Today it is widely recognised in labour circles that unions are not simply
about defending workers rights at the place of work, and the artificial
barriers between workplace and community are not so impregnable. After
all, workers are gendered, they are citizens and they are consumers too,
often unions become `populist' campaigning organizations, from South Africa,
to Poland to the US, with a fluid view of how to pursue their struggle
under contemporary capitalism. In introducing a collection discussing various
ways of mobilizing the community in the era of the `global city' Fisher
and Kling (1993, p.xiv) note that: "The old ways of thinking about social
movements are not commensurate with the realities of today's complex society,
and new ways of imagining the workings, forms and ends of collective struggle
have not yet been established or stabilized".
In the era of globalization many argue that trade unions must perforce
have an internationalist perspective as the national optic is no longer
adequate to its objectives (See Globalisation and the Unions 1995 and ICEM,
1996). This is seen as a realistic as well as a politically desirable goal.
As Brecher and Costello (1990, p.122) put it, the goal of this new labour
internationalism would be "to regulate the global economy to the interests
of working people, their communities and the environment". Trade unions,
following the new social movements, are finding their feet in the new global
order. In North America, the new free trade zone has forced Canadian, U.S
and Mexican workers to cooperate to eliminate if possible, labour as a
factor in capitalist competition. The Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW,
1994, p.9) has argued that: "While we do not see a role for formal international
bargaining, we do see a vital role in mobilizing, across borders, around
specific issues.... where local support is solid, international solidarity
and actions can be built". This seems to be a sophisticated understanding
of the local - global nexus in the new international political economy.
Internationalism does not entail forsaking the national terrain, as a mystical
understanding of globalization as the new terrain superseding all others
would have us believe.
NEW WINE IN OLD BOTTLES
A cursory glance at labour worldwide still shows trade unions to be
the dominant form of organization, notwithstanding their diverse manifestations
and political colourings. So, can the `new wine' we talk about above, fit
into the `old bottles' of the trade union form of organization?
For Alain Touraine (1988, p.153) the history of trade unionism takes
an organic or biological form: "Movements such as unionism have a life
history: infancy, youth, maturity, old age and death". Though not uncritical
of its application, Touraine works with a chronological model of trade-unionism:
a) business unionism or focus on purely economic objectives, b) a more
radical, class conscious phase, c) a turn towards economic or political
bargaining based on success, and d) a defensive current phase based on
the crisis of industrialization and the traditional working class. There
is something fundamentally flawed in such an evolutionist schema whatever
nuances are added. Just like capitalism, with its capacity for mutation,
regeneration and transformation, so trade unionism is capable of many more
lives before it is declared dead.
Labour has, in the past, been dismissed as obsolete, this is not the
first time in history it has happened. There even appears to be a cyclical
element of regeneration and decay in labour movement histories. We need
to understand the relationship between the past and the future better.
Firstly, we must counter the feeling that things are bad now compared to
a mythologized heroic past. The idea of the labour movement, breaking up
today because of the disaggregation of the working class, is counterposed
as Hyman (1994, p.159) puts it, to "a golden age when workers were spontaneously
collectivist, and labour organizations joined ranks behind a unifying class
project". However, in practice, solidarity has always been constructed,
it is not natural. If anything atomization, division and conflict is `natural'.
The second point that needs to be made is argued clearly by Allen Hunter
(1994, p.11) for whom: "a self-deceptive feature of the current celebration
of post-revolutionary politics is the view that rejecting past practices
and proclaiming fidelity to new values is sufficient to avoid problems
similar to those faced in past political struggles". Just as one example,
the danger of bureaucratic deformation is as relevant to the `new' social
movements as it was for the `old' labour movements.
There can be no simple or one-sided balance sheet of the state of international
trade unionism. For Henk Thomas (1995, p.235): "The finding that stands
out is the loss of power, in economic, social, and political terms, of
the trade union movement during the last decades". Undoubtedly this captures
part of the picture but not all as this introduction and the texts which
follow amply illustrate. We need to unpack the concept of `labour/ movement'.
It is far easier to agree with Frances Fox Piven (1991, p.19) that "even
economic hard times and conservative disarray do not lead me to think that
a revival of labour politics as we once knew it [emphasis added]
is likely". Indeed, labour parties may win elections by becoming `classless'
or pragmatically oriently towards the identity politics of gender and ecology.
While the classic labour party/trade union coalition on a Keynesian platform
seems obsolete indeed., we must not forget (cf Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein,
1989) that the social democratic project's demise may be in part due to
its very success in achieving its fundamental objectives in the post-war
We also need to recall that the trade unions, and the working class
more generally, were prime movers in promoting democratic politics across
the globe (cf. Rueschemeyer et al, 1992). Trade unions are still one of
the most important voices promoting the extension of the welfare state.
Trade unions across the globe are adapting to the new situation albeit
unevenly, and with considerable time gaps. This new unionism, as Julio
Godio (1993, p.165) writes for Latin America, cannot just jettison previous
trade union traditions but, rather, integrates them with new political
and organisational content to make them adequate to the new socio-political
matrix. It is also necessary to maintain some tension between the development
of the new identity politics and the `traditional' aspiration of the left
to speak for the people as a whole and to advance general solutions to
the crisis (cf Hobsbawn, 1996). Finally, in the false polarization between
a `realism' which spells retreat and a `utopianism' which spells immobility,
there has always been a revolutionary reformist transformative project
in various guises (cf Gorz, 1968; Kagarlitsky, 1990) which has been deployed
thoughtfully in many situations, for example in the new South Africa.
Trade unions, over and above their specific organizational form and
political orientation, exist as a means of collective representation of
workers. They are, indeed, old bottles, but the question arises as to whether
`new wine' can be poured into them. We have looked at the supposed differences
between the old and new social movements above. Many of these differences
seem to be a product of the particular environments of these new movements
and the early stage of these anti-systemic movements. One way to account
for the routinized character of many labour movements today is precisely
in terms of their relative success in achieving their basic demands. For
example, it is no use bemoaning that today South African trade unions appear
to be less `revolutionary' than they did in the mid 1980's. That would
be an abstract critique with little purchase amongst ordinary union members.
To launch the dreaded accusation of `co-option' has little meaning unless
we can show that there is some actual ill-effect in terms of results. It
is no coincidence that Brazilian trade unionists today have often forsaken
the language of class struggle to advocate a `trade unionism of results'.
This may just imply the famous `more' orientation as articulated by Samuel
Gompers, but not necessarily.
Throughout the existence of trade unionism there has been a tension
between the realism of everyday business and the utopianism of the `promised
land' where exploitation would cease. Listen to an Australian trade union
mission (ACTU/ADC Mission to Western Europe, 1989, p.297): "A `wish list'
of unattainable objectives or a series of `motherhood' statements is worse
than useless. A strategy must be practical, achievable and relevant if
it is to have any impact". So, today South African trade unions advance
coherent business plans for their sector rather than just demand. Japanese
trade unions do likewise. Yet the Australian trade union statement goes
on to say that a trade union strategy "should also challenge the union
movement". While utopianism needs to be tempered by realism, the contestatory
nature of trade unionism as anti-systemic movement needs to be extended
into the trade unions themselves. Trade unions worldwide face many problems
today. Muller-Jentsch (1989, p.177) has located three main axes: a) a crisis
of interest aggregation, due to the differentiation of labour and the trends
towards `flexibility', b) a crisis of workers' loyalty to the union, due
to the ideological onslaught of employers and the new right, and c) a crisis
of union representation, due to union's difficulty in organising the new
high-tech sectors, will need to be faced with imagination if `new wine'
is to be poured into the trade unions.
Trade unions have always displayed a blend of utopian (read token sometimes)
and practical attitudes towards internationalism. For example, in June
1996 the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) launched a successful,
international week of action against `flags of convenience' (see Lloyds
List, 1996). The FOC (Flags of Convenience) issue had focused effectively
on the main way in which international capitalists had been able to evade
labour and safety regulations. The ITF, with the help of the dockers unions
in many cases, were able to organise boycotts of ships which did not comply
with ITF labour and safety standards. The week's campaign, based on well
organised European ports, managed to secure crewing agreements on a substantial
number of ships. Dockers who supported the seafarers boycott can, in the
future, confidently expect seafarers to refuse to encroach on dockers'
jobs as the shipping companies are planning. Idealism and pragmatism are
not mutually opposed qualities. Over and beyond the particularities of
seafarers' unionism (see Lane, 1996) there may be general lessons here.
Also, early in 1996 leaders of the world's largest trade unions pledged
to fight any attempts to drive down workers' living standards while lobbying
the World Economic Forum in Davos. Bill Jordan, general secretary of the
ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) said his 127 million
members were being affected by world poverty, unemployment and social exclusion
in an unacceptable way. Even the United States government, at the World
Trade Organisation meeting of 1996, argued that trade should be linked
to basic labour standards. The reasons for this stance are hardly altruistic
- partly economic and partly due to domestic politics - but nevertheless
shows that globalisation is not a hermetic blanket on all forms of labour
resistance. Globalisation may be an important weapon for international
capital but it also opens up possibilities for labour. Diverse social and
political organisations worldwide are increasingly discussing the mechanisms
whereby we can move towards a global mixed economy, an internationalisation
of the concept of the welfare state, and an international democratic order
where all countries can participate equally in the new global decision
making process (cf Held, 1995).
Labour today, with the rest of society, faces the challenge of sustainable
development. Feminist writers (e.g. Mellor, 1992 or Mies and Shiva, 1993)
have for some time been developing an `eco-feminism' which develops the
`elective affinity' between women and nature. If the dangers of essentialism
are obvious (Molyneux and Steinberg, 1995) at least there is a political
effectiveness here. For the labour movement, on the other hand, there are
many contradictions when engaging with ecology. As Ulrich Beck, who developed
the concept of `risk society' to describe our ecologically threatened world,
points out "the switch to an ecological theme leads to profound shifts
in and threats to the power of labour and its organized interests" (Beck,
1995, p.151). Labour has historically dissociated itself from the product
of its labour and is ill placed to define ecological hazards. Furthermore,
while employers can change products fairly easily, the threat of ecological
devastation seems to further fragment the working classes pitting workers
as consumers or citizens against workers as producers of ecologically suspect
products. But more positively we have seen some serious moves internationally
to link up the themes of `Postfordist' transformations with those of ecology
and democracy in the search for a new economic order (see Lipietz, 1992).
It is the feminist vision which is providing some new perspectives for
trade unions internationally. Thus the Dutch trade unions in their New
Trade Union Perspectives statement of 1994 declared that "Trade unions
have much to gain when increasing numbers of women join their ranks: more
bargaining power, new policies, new female leadership, the mainstreaming
of reproductive needs, and a general revitalisation" (Women and Development
Project, 1994). That document goes on to discuss in well-informed detail
the `multiple identity' of workers, the need for `networking' and respecting
the autonomy of women's organisations. That this is not just an aberration
caused by Dutch liberalism or colonial guilt is clear from the once remote
ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) stance in their
1995 document `The Trade Union Vision' (ICFTU, 1995), which addresses the
need to change the world through equality, addressing problems of `sexism',
`oppression' and a `transformed world community', terms not usually associated
with the international trade union bureaucracy. Now, it would be easy to
take a cynical attitude towards these documents, putting them down to `window-dressing',
or, at best, a pragmatic bid to win new recruits by a declining if not
moribund, trade union movement. However, it might be wiser to reserve judgement
and encourage this `gendering' as well as `greening' of the trade union
movement. Feminist scholarship on labour worldwide and working women organising
has created new problems and new visions, it might just help revitalise
The advances and the limits of the institutionalised labour movement
are clear enough from a close reading of the 16th World Congress of the
ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) in 1996. As O'Brien
notes in his comments: "The Congress may be viewed as the date when class
struggles officially went global" (O'Brien, 1996, p1). Globalisation
was a constant theme in many speeches and most resolutions of the Congress.
Yet recognition of the processes and impact of globalisation does not lead
automatically to a new labour internationalism. Instead, the ICFTU welcomed
the Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) into their midst
and heard him call on the trade unions to assist in making globalisation
available to all. It seemed that the IMF wished to enlist the help of trade
unions in policing national government's policies. As to cooperation with
other groups in civil society the rhetoric may have had borrowed some tones
from social movement unionism but most delegates saw cooperation with other
social movements in a fairly hierarchical manner. In practice, the ICFTU
would see itself implementing social alliances by attending the Beijing
Women's Conference and the much vaunted 1995 UN World Summit for Social
Development where the ICFTU played a prominent role in drafting the Ten
Commitments including basic labour rights, which governments would supposedly
commit themselves to.
Finally, the 1996 ICFTU Congress saw the launching of the international
trade union body's Web site (http://www.icftu.org). Again we find a (belated)
recognition of radical themes, but this is hardly the start of a new electronic
based international labour communications network. Indeed, as some African
delegate pointed out, the Internet was of little use to those labour organisations
still using typewriters. It would seem that, in practice, while the official
international labour organisations are making some of the right poises
they are still not the priority forum for genuine democratic labour organisation
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