|When the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) met
at its 16th World Congress in 1996 the key document before delegates was
entitled `Globalisation - the greatest challenge for unions in the 21st
century’. Yet, some writers, in a reprise of the debates twenty years earlier
around the New International Division of Labour (NIDL) see in globalisation
the (`objective’) possibility for labour to renew its internationalist
perspective. This paper seeks to explore this dilemma through a summary
discussion of the problems and prospects facing labour in the era of globalisation.
The first section delves into the convoluted discursive terrain of globalisation,
to uncover its practical impact on labour, and its role as spearhead of
an ideological offensive against autonomous labour, or social, practices.
As the ICFTU 16th Congress resolutions put it succinctly: "The position
of workers has changed as a result of the globalization of the economy
and changes in the organization of production". Behind this bare statement
lies a huge structural transformation of the position of labour worldwide
over the last twenty years as analyzed by Castells, Touraine and others.
This section, which stresses the fluidity of the processes taking place
against all determinisms, sets the scene for the second section.
On labour’s response to globalisation, it is often said that the trade
unions should become more like social movements. Even the ICFTU, which
is seen to epitomise conventional (even conservative) trade union practice,
declared in 1996 that it would "seek wider co-operation and alliances with
other representative sectors of civil society who share with us the same
principles and objectives". The international trade union movement is thus,
perhaps, beginning to see itself as part of a broader social/political
democratic movement. Are trade unions, the quintessential `old’ social
movement for many, becoming a `new’ social movement? Influential observers
of the current scene such as Castells and Touraine seem to have written
off the trade unions as agents of social transformation. This paper argues
for a renewal of the understanding of labour as a social movement.
With these two building blocks in place, we can move towards a consideration
of labour as global social movement, an active participant in the globalisation
process. Even the ICFTU now argues that "one of the main purposes of the
international trade union movement is the international solidarity of workers..."
While in this formulation, internationalism seems to refer only to action
against the trans national corporations (TNC) there are broader processes
at work. This section considers , amongst other cases,the complex debates,
between and within Canadian, US and Mexican trade unionisms as they grappled
with the effects on labour of the North American Free Trade Association
The World Bank, in its influential 1995 report `Workers in an Integrated
World’, began with the truism that "the lives of urban workers in different
parts of the world are increasingly intertwined", and constructed a brave
new world, where labour could only dance to the tune of market forces from
now on out. It behoves the critical intellectual to explore possible alternatives
to this rather grim scenario.
Globalization: new terrain?
"The free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities
and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeois to the extreme
point. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, that I vote in favour of
free trade". Karl Marx (Brussels, 1848).
It would be very tempting to see globalization as simply the culmination
of trends for capitalism as diagnosed by Marx, and as a vindication of
the Marxist vision of a "pure" capitalism where international capital would
line up against the international proletariat in a "clean" fight. While
this is part of the story of globalization, it is also leading to a new
rise of particularisms, of ethnic conflict and nationalist reaction. It
is by now clear that there has been such a conceptual inflation around
the term `globalisation’ that it has become a very fluid concept difficult
to pin down. It has, as Louise Amoure and co-authors (Amoure et al., 1997
: 179) point out, become established as both epoch and epistemology. Not
only is globalisation being conceived as a `brave new world’ - whether
from a Panglossian or a demonization standpoint - but its guiding principles
(such as neo-liberalism) are being accepted as the new common sense for
the new era we are seen to be entering. Globalization is seen as obvious,
inexorable and basically "out there". Yet the concept is amorphous and
labile in the extreme ,as Kim Moody puts it, an "all-encompassing analytical
device that frequently concealed more than it explained" (Moody, 1997:
37). The temptation to reject the concept out of hand, and return to the
old trusted theories seems overwhelming.
For the ICFTU (International Congress of Free Trade Unions) globalization
is quite simply "the biggest challenge to the free trade union movement
in its long struggle on behalf of working women and men around the world"
(ICFU, 1997: 4). That is because of the cumulative effects of neo-liberal
economic policies, structural adjustment programmes and privatization,
financial deregulation and the growing mobility of the trans-national corporations.
The end of the Cold War is seen to offer a unique opportunity for the once
divided international trade union movement to develop common objectives
and joint action faced with a hostile climate for labour worldwide. One
of the largest ITS (International Trade Secretariats), now working more
closely with the ICFTU, the ICEM (International Federation of Chemical,
Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions) has also launched a new global
strategy, declaring that "Action has to be planned on an international
basis right from the start" (ICEM, 1996 : 55). The dramatically increased
level of internationalization over the last decade has created the conditions
and the need for a new international labour strategy. As Doreen Massey
has suggested , a new "global sense of place" (Massey, 1995: 58) has brought
home the very real points of inter-connection between people across the
globe. This goes far beyond the communications revolution - E mail making
contact between labour leaders and activists easier for example - to create
a new objective and subjective sense of commonality amongst workers worldwide
and, at least, the possibility of a global strategy for labour. Exploring
its current contours and possible prospects is the main purpose of this
There has now been a backlash against the early globalization theories
and now most talk is about its "limits" (e.g. Boyer and Drache, eds, 1995).
In some cases this revisionist case has led to a `business as usual’ attitude
prevailing. Paul Hirst and Graham Thompson (Hirst and Thompson, 1996) have
articulated this case most clearly and with the explicit political intent
of countering the idea that `there is no alternative’ to globalisation.
Their attempt to relativize the dominating role of the transnational corporations
(TNC) is well taken but there is a danger of quantitative reasoning obscuring
the qualitative changes which have undoubtedly occurred in the world economy
over recent decades. David Held has quite rightly, in my mind, reminded
us that "there is a fundamental difference between ... the development
of particular trade routes ... or even the global reach of nineteenth-century
empires, and, ... an international order involving... dense networks of
regional and global economic relations which stretch beyond the control
of any single state..." (Held, 1995: 20). There is, furthermore, a view
of globalization in Hirst and Thompson which is somewhat reductionist and
economistic and, seemingly, with little awareness, for example, of the
bourgeoing literature on cultural globalization (e.g. Featherstone, 1995
and Friedman, 1994). At times it seems that globalization acts as simple
surrogate for neo-liberalism in relation to which many of their analytical
points and political line make more sense. Ultimately, however useful it
may be to reject the Manichean view of globalisation as a deus-ex-machina,
the implicit political message of "business as usual" in the nation-state
leaves social groups such as labour ill-prepared to consider how the local,
the national and the global are today inter-related.
While maintaining all the caution that is due , it is still possible
to detect something different or distinct in this new phase of world history
we are calling `globalisation’. Jan Scholte takes up the sensible (for
me) stance that globalisation can "when developed with care, precision,
consistency and suitable qualifications - be more than intellectual gimmick"
(Scholte, 1997: 3-4). That is arguably now being done across a range of
disciplines and applied to a host of specific topics in a more concrete
manner than the first generation literature in globalisation. We do not
need to become either propagandists for globalizations or demonize it,
a binary opposition if ever there was one. Nor is dismissing it as simply
a new-fangled way of describing internationalization really adequate. One
of the simplifications to overcome is the early idea of the global as dynamic
and fluid as against the local as embedded, static and tradition -bound.
We could do worse than follow Ash Amin in interpreting globalization "
in relational terms as the interdependence and intermingling of
global, distant and local logics, resulting in the greater hybridization
and perforation of social, economic and political life" (Amin, 1997: 133).
There does seem to be a growing convergence in various disciplines around
the notion of hybridity and the blurring of traditional boundaries. This
would, logically point us in the direction of hybrid, open, fluid and multi-polar
solutions to the old/new social issues arising in the era of globalization.
A stronger case for the positive potential of globalisation comes from
James Agnew and Stuart Corbridge who argue, but do not really sustain,
the case that: "Globalisation is not only a synonym of disempowerment :
it creates certain conditions for democratization, de-centralization and
empowerment as well as for centralization and standardization. Globalization
opens as many doors as it shuts" (Agnew and Corbridge, 1995 : 219). This
last phrase deserves exploring at some length to take it beyond its allegorical
status. The end of the master-narrative, problematic for the orthodox marxist,
is liberating also in questioning the capitalist story. This is a story
which marxists have done much to propagate, conceiving of capitalism as
a unified and totalizing entity. Capitalist hegemony has thus been assumed
rather than problematized. The `economy’ is reified rather than being conceived
as a heterogeneous and fragmented formation which cannot be subsumed under
a single logic (Gibson-Graham, 1996). The discourse on globalization has
suffered from a similar operation with its `normalization’, in Foucaultian
terms, foreclosing the possibility of effective resistance or transformative
strategies. In a suggestive parallel with rape, Gibson-Graham call for
"rewriting the globalization script from within, denying the inevitability
and `reality’ of MNC (multi-national corporation) power over workers and
communities and exploring ways in which the hard and penetrating body of
the MNC can be seen as soft, fragile and vulnerable" (Gibson-Graham, 1996:
146). The myth of an omnipotent uni-directional globalization process,
led by the upstanding trans-national corporations , needs to be exploded
if labour and other social groups are to have a strategy.
With regards to the effect of globalisation on labour we could do worse
than begin with the World Bank’s authoritative 1995 report `Workers in
an Integrating World’ (World Bank, 1995). The World Bank notes, with undisguised
glee that by the year 2000 less than 10 per cent of the world’s workers
will not be fully integrated into the global capitalist economy, compared
to the one third of the global workforce which 20 years ago was told it
was building socialism. The driving forces of global integration are seen
as unstoppable by the Bank and the world’s workers have no option but to
submit. Or, in the Bank’s own words "Globalization is unavoidable - the
welfare of Joe, Maria and Xiao Zhin is now more closely linked than ever
before" (World Bank, 1995 : 54). These `representative’ workers are seen
to face risks but deeper international integration (globalization) is seen
to hold positive prospects "for those countries and groups of workers with
the capacity to respond" (World Bank, 1995: 188). Of course, the Bank acknowledges
that increasing international competition and "free-wheeling" capital will
not only cut jobs and wages but will, effectively, wipe whole nations and
regions off the economic map. It understands that the scenario of workers
fortunes worldwide to converge is less likely than growing divergence.
In brief, according to the World Bank "Globalization offers opportunities
but also exacerbates risks" (World Bank, 1995 : 124). This may well serve
as a watchword (and possibly epitaph) for a new era of global capitalist
expansion. The World Bank makes optimistic noises about workers’ fortunes
but, at the end of the day, holds out few prospects.
In his sweeping review of the new network society we are living in,
Manuel Castells argues that under global capitalism: "Workers do not disappear
in the space of flows, and down to earth, work is plentiful" (Castells,
1996: 474). Against apocalyptic prophecies on the dire effects of the new
information technology we actually see a massive incorporation of people
into the global work force. But while work, workers and the working class
expands the relationship between capital and labour is transformed radically.
For Castells, "networks converge towards a meta-network of capital that
integrates capitalist interests at the global level and across sectors
and realms of activity..." (Castells, 1996: 475). Meanwhile, "Labor is
disaggregated in its performance, fragmented in its organization, diversified
in its existence, divided in its collective action" (Castells, 1996: 475).
The overarching image in the brave new world of Castells’ network society
is that capital and labour live in different places and times. Capital
is global and it exists in the space of flows and lives in the instant
time of computerized networks. Labour is, on the whole, local, exists in
the space of places and lives the clock time of everyday life. In brief
capital lives in hyperspace while labour still has its feet on the ground.
This is a very powerful image and, undoubtedly, reflects part of what is
going on. It certainly reflects the fluidity and dynamic nature of the
current epoch. Yet it is perhaps only part of the picture, because uneven
development means much of the world is still living an `old’ capitalism
and non-capitalist relations are far from dead.
The globalization debates, if they have done nothing else, have forced
the social sciences to take on board the spatial dimension. If space is
where capital is constructing its brave new world it is in place that labour
lives and constructs its social relations. As Jamie Peck argues there is
a growing move towards reducing place to space: "Places to live seem increasingly
to be reduced to spaces in which to earn, or strive to earn a wage (Peck,1996:233).
Global competition, neo-liberalism and structural adjustment programmes
are constantly eroding labour’s bargaining strength. De-regulation, in
all its multiple facets, is exposing labour to this new capitalist onslaught.
The point however, as Peck stresses, is that "This does not mean that place
- as a theoretical category or as a political site - somehow matters less,
but is rather to insist on an appreciation of the local in the context
of (and in relation to) the global" (Peck, 1996: 233). Workers still live
in Buenos Aires, Bombay and Birmingham, they work in these places and their
aspirations are in relation to these places. Globalisation is not just
"out there" in cyber-space but exists, operates and is contested in these
local places. Globalization has prompted new identities, and new interests
within local, political processes. Local politics in the global era has
not been shut down, rather that it has been transformed and in many ways
reinvigorated by the multiple identities and fluid processes of the current
The problem with most of the literature on labour and globalisation
is that it tends to conceive of labour as passive victim of the new trends,
the malleable material from which globalisation will construct its new
world order. Capital is seen as an active, mobile, forward-looking player
in the globalization game while labour is seen as static, passive and basically
conservative. The game has changed and labour is seen to have few cards.
Only rarely will someone argue, as Andrew Herod does, "that labor’s structural
position is not always and necessarily that of the passive victim of globalization"
(Herod, 1997 : 169). The invisibility of labour seems most marked in radical
political economy writings keen to demonize globalization. The reality
is that labour has been back centre-stage since the mid-1990’s at least.
General strikes have occurred in many parts of Europe, in Latin America,
in Canada, in South Africa and, most crucially, in South Korea. The disorienting
changes within the labour movement in the first decade of globalisation
seem, at least in part, to have been overcome. Change was a slow but organic
process, often initiated by the middle ranks. As Kim Moody recounts, "The
unions took on new roles : as champions of the interests of the working
class as a whole, not just as representatives of their members, and as
political surrogates for failed parties of the left " (Moody, 1997 : 14).
I am not suggesting that this process is universal, it is clearly uneven,
nor that it is irreversible. However, we need to view the new-found interest
of the ICFTU in international labour solidarity in this light and not just
assume that it is a cynical exercise in political correctness.
The world of global capital is not unaware of the dangers that labour
poses to the ultimate success of the globalization project, if that is
what it is. Foreign Affairs, an influential organ of the US foreign
affairs establishment, carried in 1996 an unusual (for it) article on Workers
and the World Economy (Kapstein, 1996). It began with the basic statement
that "The global economy is leaving millions of disaffected workers in
its train" and ends by warning policy makers that if "like the German elite
in Weimar, they dismiss mounting worker dissatisfaction ... and the plight
of the unemployed and working poor as marginal" (Kapstein, 1996 : 14 and
37) they do so at their peril. Kapstein was telling the readers of Foreign
Affairs that labour could not be seen as infinitely pliable and that the
official ideology of neo-liberal globalisation was wearing a bit thin.
That this was not a call in the wilderness can be attested by the sober
yet dramatic warning by Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World
Economic Forum at Davos that present trends are "multiplying the human
and social costs of the globalization process to a level that tests the
social fabric of the democracies in an unprecedented way" (cited by Martin
and Schumann, 1997 : 231). Concerned that we are now entering a critical
phase of the globalization process and that a "disruptive backlash" is
emerging, Schwab calls for the global economic and political leaders to
show that the "new global capitalism" can function "to the benefit of the
majority and not only for corporate managers and investors" (ibid). At
once revealing of the true nature of globalization and pipe-dream about
its reforming potential, this statement does at least show that all is
not well in the capitalist garden.
Labour: social movement?
"Trade unionism was, at a given time, a social movement; it is now a
political force that is necessarily subordinated to political parties and
to governments... Gone is the link between unions and alternative images
of a reconstructed society" Alain Touraine (Touraine, 1986: 173).
It has been a commonplace for over a decade to speak of the `end’ of
the working class and the `death’ of the labour movement as social movement.
It might seem now that these reports are somewhat exaggerated. Touraine
operates with an organic image of the labour movement to diagnose its demise:
"Movements such as unionism have a life history: infancy, youth, maturity,
old age and death" (Touraine, 1986 : 153). Whatever provisos are put on
this scheme to avoid the charge of evolutionism, it does appear to be a
misplaced biological analogy. It would be more productive to examine certain
cycles of the labour movement in relation to economic and political processes
in society at large than to take this life cycle view of the labour movement.
It also suffers from the good past/bad present syndrome, positing a mythologized
golden era where labour was heroic against which the present seems lack
lustre and labour pedestrian. As with capitalism, labour would seem to
have a great ability to regenerate and transform itself, adapting to new
situations, mutating organizational forms and strategies, and living to
fight another day.
Another more recent dismissal of the labour movement comes in Manuel
Castells’ broad overview of contemporary society (Castells, 1997). In a
sweeping review of contemporary social movements from the Zapatistas to
the American Militia and from the women’s movement to Aum Shinrikyo, Castells
finds no room for labour. :"Torn by internationalization of finance and
production, unable to adapt to networking of firms and individualization
of work, and challenged by the degendering of employment, the labour movement
fades away as a major source of social cohesion and workers’ representation"
(Castells, 1997: 354). This may be seen as a sensible, if somewhat pessimistic,
review of the current situation of labour. But Castells goes on to make
the more apocalyptic statement that "the labor movement seems to be historically
superseded" (Castells, 1997: 360). Structural transformations of the world
of work - globalisation, neo-liberalism, flexibilization etc. - are seen
to foreclose any possibility of labour generating a transformative project
identity ever again. As with Touraine, Castells seems to reduce trade unions
to more or less influential political actors but denies them any legitimacy
as a site for social movements. What is extraordinary is that such a dismissal
of the labour movement occurs in a sparse couple of paragraphs in a book
which is over 450 pages long. Certainly labour is facing a huge challenge,
but these peremptory statements by Touraine, Castells and others neglect
any attempt to seek out what is changing in the global labour movement,
ironic in authors who seem mesmerized by the `newness’ of the social movements.
From the workerless world of the globalization and (some) new social
movements discourses we can tun to very definite signs of renewed labour
activity across the globe. Nor is all this activity confined to desperate
rearguard actions against neo-liberalism as was, in the main the case a
decade ago. The first reaction of fear and insecurity in the face of the
forces unleashed by globalization have given way to a new more settled
and even confident mood. While still weakened by the ravages of the last
20 years, the international labour movement has begun a process of recomposition
in most of its key sectors. Giovanni Arrighi makes the useful point that
there has always been a considerable time lag in terms of labour’s response
to capital restructuring (Arrighi, 1996). Looking back to the previous
period of global financial expansion in the late 19th Century, Arrighi
finds that there were 25 years of organizational instability with more
defeats than victories, and then it took another 25 years "before the ideological
and organizational contours of the world labour movement began to crystallize
and be discernible, and yet another 25 before the movement became powerful
enough to impose some of its objectives on world capitalism" (Arighi, 1996
: 348). Now, we can expect that due to the current condition of "time-space
compression" that the labour revival this time round will not take 50 years
to materialize. Indeed, the signs of this revival are there to be seen,
it is more a question of when and how, not whether it will take place.
What is also clear is that this new labour movement will be much influenced
by the example of the `new’ social movements which have come to the fore
over the last 20 years.
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 next Century. This, more pluralist,
politics clearly entails an engagement with the multiple identities and
diverse struggles of the new social movements.Faced with uncertainty, fluidity
and even chaos it is not surprising to see radical thought and new approaches.
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. 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
Sometimes, however, there is too stark a counterposition drawn 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 only two ideal-types,
which are 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
I think we need to take seriously the warning by Allan Hunter 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" (Hunter, 1994 : 6). 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 South Korea
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.
It is important to acknowledge, following, Marino Regini that "some trade
unions have undertaken a search for new, less defensive responses to the
current challenges..." (Regini, 1992 : 102). 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 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 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" (Rowbotham and Mitter, 1994 : 6).
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 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 (Rifkin, 1995 : 283).
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 : 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.
It is heartening to see Kim Moody’s recent comprehensive study of current
labour relations worldwide (Moody, 1997) renewing the call for a `social
movement unionism’ first mooted some ten years ago by Peter Waterman (Waterman,
) and myself (Munck, 1988). This approach rejects equally the economism
of `business unionism’ and the `political bargaining’ approach. It has
been manifest in the working class struggles of the 1980’s in Brazil and
South Africa (see Seidman, 1994) and, more recently, in South Korea. It
is also, perhaps surprisingly, emerging in some struggles in the United
States. Social movement unionism is an active, community orientated, strategy
which works with a broad conception of who the working people are. It breaks
down the binary oppositions between workplace and community, economic and
political struggles , and between formal sector workers and the working
poor. When workers adopt this orientation they often find allies amongst
the `new’ social movements and, in particular, with NGOs (Non-Governmental
Organizations). The ICFTU campaign against child labour with its broad
alliance strategy including active collaboration with relevant NGO’s, is
in its own way a reflection of the growing power of social movement unionism
in the trade union imaginary. The clearly perceived diminishing returns
on `business as usual’ strategies leads even sectarian and bureaucratic
trade union leaderships in the direction of social movement unionism. It
is no magic wand, but in the words of Sam Gindin of the Canadian Auto Workers
"it means making the union into a vehicle through which its members can
not only address their bargaining demands but actively lead the fight for
everything that affects working people in their communities and the country"
(Gindin, 1995 : 268).
Reconsidering now whether labour does, or can, constitute a social movement
we need to clarify some points. In the first instance, the `newness’ of
the `new’ social movements to which labour is counterposed is a dubious
proposition. None better to demonstrate this than Alberto Melucci who did
so much to popularize the term in sociological debates (see Melucci, 1994).
This newness can only be relative and its useful function just one of counterposing
as ideal types two forms of social phenomena as we did above. But, as Melucci
points out, "if analysis and research fail to specify the distinctive features
of the `new movements’, we are trapped in an arid debate between the supporters
and critics of `newness’" (Melucci, 1996 : 5). The labour movement has,
to some extent, acted as a negative other to those keen to stress the `newness’
of whatever social movement they were examining. Thus the conservative,
bureaucratic, ritualised and reactive nature of trade unions has been stressed
and their capacity to adapt to new circumstances or their inherently contradictory
nature (within and against the labour relation at the same time) denied
or downplayed. With the gendering and greening of many trade unions and
some labour movements it seems increasingly anachronistic to counterpose
the labour movement to its `new’ relations. Perhaps no social movement
can, or should, articulate a project identity "by itself and from itself"
(Castells, 1997 : 360), a failing which Castells uses to dismiss trade
unions as a transformative force in the new (post-capitalist?) Information
Another point of clarification is in relation to the counterposed analysis
of social movements in terms of resource mobilization theory and the `European’
identity politics approach. Again labour is seen as a mechanical aggregation
of material interests whereas the `new’ movements are seen to articulate
essential identities. Yet as Melucci points out "a radical form of `identity
politics’ is not only dangerous for society in its intolerant fundamentalism,
it is self-defeating" (Melucci, 1996 : 190). Collective action for transformative
change can only occur in our complex societies through establishing common
ground and forging a new democratic imaginary. In terms of analysis, it
seems wrong to counterpose resource mobilization issues to identity politics
when most social movements engage in both. In terms of politics we should
consider carefully David Harvey’s argument that "In part this romantic
turn to the marginalized "other" for political salvation derives from a
certain frustration at the inability of traditional movements (such as
those of the working class) to foment radical change" (Harvey, 1996 : 100).
If our hypothesis that working class organization and militancy cycles
are part of the `long waves’ of capitalism is correct then this frustration
is possibly premature. Anyway, as previous searches for "alternative" revolutionary
subjects have shown this is not a particularly fruitful endeavour. An anti-modernist
movement or orientation will not take working people into a "post-modern"
future but, probably inevitably, into a cul-de-sac which leaves
the capitalist juggernaut free to carry on down the highway.
Internationalism: imagined community?
"International solidarity must become a natural reflex throughout the
union movement". Bill Jordan (General Secretary, ICFTU, 1997).
When the new leader of the International Congress of Free Trade Unions,
the cautious ex-leader of the British engineering workers’ union , proclaims
that international labour solidarity must now be the order of the day something
new is happening. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy and
Mine Workers’ Union (ICEM) now advocates to its 20,000,000 members that
"Action has to be planned on an international basis from the start" (ICEM,
1996 : 55). Fire-fighting, or wheeling in the international dimension when
local action has failed, is no longer seen as good enough. This line represents
a sea-change in attitudes amongst trade union leaders. International labour
activity is now becoming quite normal as it were. Forty five years ago
Lewis Lorwin, in his history of the international labour movement, wrote
that: "The inner logic of trade unions is to concern themselves more and
more with questions of national policy, since these impinge directly or
indirectly on the basic trade union function of improving working and living
conditions" (Lorwin, 1953 : 334). If we substitute Lorwin’s "national policy"
with "international policy" this phrase would make perfect sense today.
It is a measure of the great transformation which has taken place in the
international labour movement that such a radical shift could be possible.
However, not so long ago the consensus was that labour did not have
much of a future as an international, let alone global, social actor or
movement, After a considered review of the relationship between workers
and MNEs (multinational enterprises) Peter Enderwick concluded that "effective
labour responses to the MNE are unlikely to develop in the near future,
at an international level" (Enderwick, 1985: 170). Not only has the internationalisation
of capital severely weakened labour, but workers were simply not playing
by the same rules as capital. One was mobile, footloose and fancy-free,
the other was fixed in place with the only sanction at its disposal were
absence (the strike). Stress was placed on the asymmetry of capital and
labour and on the fact that there was no reason why the internationalisation
of one would have similar effects on the other (Haworth and Ramsay,1984
). Carolyn Vogler with a different approach to British trade union’s foreign
policy also concluded in a negative vein that "so far at least, there are
no indications of the proletariat emerging as a transnational class actor"
(Vogler, 1985 : xiii). Rather all the evidence seemed to point towards
British (by extension metropolitan) trade unions becoming increasingly
national and sectional in their outlook and in their actions. Even when
this type of union did project itself onto the international scene it only
tended to reproduce its national characteristics leading to at best a syndicalist
internationalism and, at worst, an international business unionism at the
service of the nation-state, the infamous trade union imperialism (see
Thompson and Larson, 1978).
The question now arises as to whether things have changed so dramatically
over the last decade or so or whether this negative stance was unjustified.
A careful reconstruction of the debate around labour and the NIDL (new
international division of labour) would show its many problems from its
economism to its tendency to generalize from specific areas (see Schoenberg,
1939). Arguments against glib, voluntaristic views on the `objective’ tendencies
towards a new internationalism were, probably justified. However, I believe
we can argue that we are now in a qualitatively new situation and that
many of these old arguments are not quite so relevant. It is interesting
to note a discussion by Zsuzsa Hegedus on the new social movements, and
how analysis fell behind changing reality. Hegedus notes that "No period
in the post-war era has witnessed such a massive and unexpected emergence
of new movements on a global scale as has the eighties. And rarely has
the discrepancy between the practices and analysis of new social movements
been so acute" (Hegedus, 1989 : 19). It would seem that this undue `pessimism
of the will’ was due to applying 1970s paradigms (and moods) to 1980s phenomena.
I think it would be important to note this problem of analysis having to
`catch up’ with changing reality and not seek to examine the international
labour movement of the 1990s through the grey-tinted spectacles of the
1980s. The `old’ labour movement is catching up with the `new’ which in
the 1980s began to "directly address planetary issues and challenge the
dominant problem-solving process at a global level (Hegedus, 1989 : 33).
The very nature of international labour `solidarity’ (a labile term
if ever there was one) has changed significantly over the last decade.
Dan Gallin, General Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied
Workers (IUF) argued recently that "There can no longer be any effective
trade union policy, even at a national level, that is not global in concept
and international in organization" (Gallin, 1994 : 124). More interestingly
he provided an insider’s account of what passed previously as internationalism:
"For many [trade union leaders], international activity was recreational
and diplomatic, at best, charitable and declarative " (Gallin, 1994 : 125).
Denis McShane has referred, in a similar vein, to the need "to go beyond
the rhetoric of labour internationalism, fraternal tourism, or neocolonial
sponsorships" (McShane, 1993 : 203). It would certainly be naive to think
that these labour practices are all now a thing of the past. However, there
is at least a paradigm of a new labour internationalism which can act as
an alternative. Peter Waterman has collated some of its characteristics
into something of an ideal-type new labour internationalism:
* a move from leadership contacts to grass-roots relations between
* a move from bureaucratic organisational models to decentralized flexible
* a move from an `aid’ model to a `solidarity’ model;
* a generalised solidarity ethic embracing national, gender, racial
and religious discrimination;
* a move from workerism to a broader conception of democratic internationalism;
* a recognition that solidarity is not a one way process but involves
workers from the South as well as the North (Waterman, forthcoming, p.
Whether this idealised notion of the new labour internationalism materializes
in this form is by no means certain . However, it does seem to point towards
a transcending of earlier categorisation of trade unions as always simply
`sectional economic groups’ (Wiletts, 1982 : 2) in terms of the types of
international pressure groups which exist. Labour could just as well be
seen as an NGO(Non-Governmental Organisation) campaigning, lobbying and
networking along with the best of them at international fora. In reducing
its sights the international trade union movement has probably become more
effective. A good example is in relation to the campaign against child
labour where the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions)
campaigned effectively alongside various more activist type organisations
(see White, 1996). Finally, it would be worth drawing attention to the
distinction drawn by Rebecca Johns in her research on the efforts by U.S.
trade unionists to develop international solidarity activity with workers
in Central America (Johns, fothcoming). Johns distinguishes between an
`accommodative solidarity’ where workers in economically developed countries
seek to prevent capital flight to other locations where wages are lower
and a `transformative solidarity’ in which workers unite across space to
jointly challenge the power of capital and seek to transform the prevailing
relation of production and consumption. While in practice the distinction
may be blurred it is a useful conceptual marker to frame our discussion
of some examples of international labour solidarity.
There are various levels at which labour has responded to, adapted to
or contested globalisation. The `highest’ level has been around the increasingly
important movement to get the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to accept
a `social clause’. There is a growing momentum behind the ICFTU campaign
to establish some social control over globalisation through this mechanism.
Though modest in appearance - a commitment to respect the main ILO (International
Labour Organization) conventions such as freedom of association, the abolition
of forced-labour - its implementation would have far-reaching effects.
The campaign even pays lip-service to neo-liberalism and rejects the label
of protectionism. Yet it is still novel to even discuss the relationship
between free trade and internationally recognized core labour standards.
I believe this issue reflects the dictum of Bob Deacon that "the other
side of the coin of the globalization of social policy is the socialization
of global politics" (Deacon, 1979 : 3). The ICFTU would thus be absolutely
correct in perceiving a growing tendency of international capitalist organisations
to acknowledge the crucial social component of their interventions. Of
course, it is not surprising that many NGO’s and non-advanced industrial
society unions opposed the core standards campaign as yet another anti-South
move. The interesting point of this complex of issues is, as Robert O’Brien
outlines, that "In northern labour’s attempt to respond to globalization
of neoliberal industrial relations, their own strategy may undergo radicalization.
Although northern workers organizations are still financially superior
to those in the South, their need for Southern cooperation is far greater
than in the past" (O’Brien, 1997 : 43).
Labour has also reacted to globalisation at the regional level, a good
example being the North American trade union campaign around and against
NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association). The conflictual but ultimately
productive interaction between U.S., Mexican and Canadian trade unions
over NAFTA may yet prove to be a watershed in terms of international labour
solidarity or, to be more precise, labour transnationalism . Nationalist
responses by the three labour movements moved, albeit partially and hesitantly,
towards a common position in relation to this major move towards capitalist
rationalization. Establishing a community of interests amongst the workers
of North America were not easy and it did not do away with particular national
interests. The US union orientation towards "upward harmonization" of labour
rights and standards in the region was by no means unambiguously welcome
in Mexico where different priorities might prevail. However, it is also
noticeable that the Canadian unions, which previously knew little about
labour conditions in Mexico, developed a remarkably sophisticated and sensitive
policy towards transnational cooperation with Mexican workers and unions.
Careful study of this whole experience can help move us beyond the sterile
counterposition between the globalisation blues and an abstract internationalism.
Some of the ambiguity (and hopefulness) of the new transnational labour
discourse can be discerned in the statement by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland
that: "You can’t be a trade unionist unless you are an internationalist.
You can’t be a real trade unionist unless you think of workers wherever
they happen to be, and unless you realize that substandard conditions and
poverty anywhere in the world is a threat to good conditions and comparatively
good standards anywhere in the world" (cited in French J. et al., 1994
Finally, labour has increasingly projected local struggles to the global
level, a good example being the long-running struggle of the Liverpool
dockers. A quite distinctive aspect of the 1995-96 Liverpool docks dispute
has been its international projection. This began, as so often before,
because the national terrain was not too fertile for labour. As the account
of the dispute by Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy recalls: "The creation
of an international strategy was seen by the shop stewards committee as
essential for the success of the dispute. As the months have progressed
it has taken centre stage in their pursuit of victory and has been the
major focus of the dockers’ energies and activities" (Lavalette and Kennedy,
1996 : 113). Small delegations were dispatched to friendly ports where
previous contacts existed such as Bilbao in Spain, and to uncharted territory
such as Canada. This international activity was undoubtedly successful
in, for example, forcing a major U.S. user of Liverpool (American Container
Line) to leave the port under threat of `blacking’ of their ships by US
longshoremen. Just as significantly their global outreach tactics took
the Liverpool dockers through new experiences and created a new internationalist
consciousness. The depth and intensity of the solidarity displayed towards
what was considered as a `lost’ dispute at home was remarkable. The conclusion
of the Liverpool dockers is of more global significance: "With so many
things in common between workers such as the jobs we perform ... common
employers such as the big shipping companies ... (and) ... the global problems
of casualisation and privatisation, international solidarity between dock
workers of the world, should really be our first course of action and not
our last" (cited in Lavalette and Kennedy, 1996 : 115).
As labour’s new global role is a recent one our conclusions can only
be partial and provisional. One issue which emerges is that the national
and international actions of labour are not incompatible. Labour has always
had a national base/role/orientation (see, e.g. Wils, 1996) and it still
does. Labour needs to have an international orientation and practice too.
It would be wrong, however, to establish a hierarchy between these two
levels or see them as good/bad. Nor do trade unions have the option to
turn their backs on their national base or simply move towards `international
social movement unionism’ as though it was simply a matter of choice. While
unions need to confront these issues to survive in the new global labour
market they cannot be expected to just shift their scarce resources to
organising the unorganised while reflecting their present base (Borgers,
1996 : 70). Another related conclusion is that `rank and file’ action can
sometimes be elevated to a principle which becomes divisive. Thus some
commentators complained that the Liverpool dockers’ international work
sometimes passed through the dreaded `trade union officials’. This abstract
critique (based on spurious notions of their `social position’) ignores
the fact that for most social movements the key layer for organizing/mobilizing
is precisely `middle management’.Whether it is within the labour movement,
or in linking the global level and local struggles, it is crucial to develop
the mediating structures, thinking and personnel to link up and energize
the base/local with the leadership/global.
If there was one final point I would like to make it is that it is now
time to invert the `old’ slogan `Think globally, act locally’. The Liverpool
dockers were, it would seem thinking quite explicitly, in terms of `Think
locally, act globally’, and that will increasingly be the case. This does
not mean a move towards an abstract internationalism as though there was
a pure global ether far removed from the hurly burly of local places. Globalization
only exists through the concrete and complex socio-economic-cultural processes
in specific localities. Unfortunately in the past, as David Harvey argues,
"internationalist working-class politics often abstracted from the material
world of experience in particular places" (Harvey, 1997 : 314). What we
are witnessing now is a revalorization of the local understood fully as
part of globalisation and not a "place apart". In the local/international
responses to the social and spatial effects of globalisation we see how
"local efforts to accommodate the work of globalization are contributing
to political practices ... that challenge our current theoretical approaches
" (Clarke and Gaile, 1997 : 40). In breaking down the old local/global
dualist thinking these new (theoretical) practices are renewing the possibility
of international solidarity. John Dunn’s categorical rejection of internationalism
as an `unimagined (unimaginable?) community’ just over ten years ago (Dunn,
1985) looks less persuasive now, especially his argument that "in the absence
of a plausible medium for fair exchange or any clear and rational basis
for mutual trust to expect (human beings) to appreciate this enforced (international)
fellowship is wholly unreasonable" (Dunn, 1985 : 115-116). Is it?
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