The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Globalisation and Trade Unions: different challenges and a variety of responses.

Globalisation has put national labour movements under severe pressure due to the increasing transnationalisation of production and informalisation of the economy. In a new edited collection, labour academics, trade union researchers and social movement activists analyse concrete instances of successful as well as failed strategies to draw out possibilities of, but also obstacles to, transnational labour solidarity in times of global restructuring.

Bieler, Andreas and Ingemar Lindberg (eds.) (2010) Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-58083-0. 

Historically, capitalism emerged within an already existing international states system. Unsurprisingly, labour movements developed in defence of workers’ rights at the national level. During the 20th century, in industrialised countries they managed well to fulfil their traditional task of preventing the competition between workers for jobs through wage concessions. Although this occurred in different ways and institutional settings in different countries, trade unions were able to ensure that wages were not part of capitalist competition. Processes of global restructuring since the early 1970s have drastically changed the structural conditions for trade unions’ role in the economy. First, the increasing transnationalisation of production has allowed capital to play out different national labour movements against each other. Organised within the state, trade unions have not been able to prevent the competition between different labour movements through wage concessions in production processes organized across borders. The transnationalisation of production went hand in hand with a move towards outsourcing of parts of production to sub-contractors. A multiplicity of companies has made it even more difficult for trade unions to organize the production process. Outsourcing often also means informalisation. As a result, informal work without contract and basic workers’ rights has increasingly become the norm within the global economy. Workers in the informal economy are often out of trade unions’ reach and remain, therefore, unorganized.

Nevertheless, workers and trade unions as their representatives are not necessarily only victims. There are potential power resources available to them and positive examples exist, indicating potentially successful counter-strategies by trade unions. Transnational manufacturing is often singled out as the paradigmatic case of globalisation. In response to the organization of production across borders, it is argued, trade unions should follow and also organize transnationally in order to close the ‘globalisation gap’. Already existing Global Union Federations organizing national sectoral trade unions and being affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation are frequently considered to be the right institutional framework. Importantly, however, while new transnational trade union structures may be useful in this area, the conditions resulting from transnational manufacturing must not be generalized. Large construction sites such as the building of Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant in Finland, for example, represent rather different challenges. This building site involves 1500 contractors from 28 different countries. Out of the 3400 workers, a third are Finnish, while the rest come from over fifty different countries. Here, transnational trade union structures would be of little help. Rather, the challenge is for Finnish trade unions to ensure that all workers on this site are organized so that the main contractor is unable to create a situation of workers employed by different subcontractors being played out against each other. The restructuring of the public sector presents yet another challenge, but also opportunity. Privatisation of public companies regularly implies less good working conditions for employees as well as an end to the universal provision of these services to the wider society. Here, it is often the co-operation with other social movements, organizing the users of these services, which may be a good way forward. When EMCALI, the public provider of water, electricity and telecommunications in the Colombian city of Cali, was supposed to be privatised, the trade union organising the workers within this company could rely on the strong support of the local community in its resistance to privatisation. Of course, such co-operation is not automatic. Trade unions have to recognise wider social interests beyond the workplace in order to encourage support. For example, in Cali EMCALI employees had given up one of their weekends in order to repair infrastructure in deprived areas of the city. This had already established close links between the workers and the wider community, before the attempt at privatisation started. Finally, when it comes to the organization of informal workers, traditional trade unions may not be the right organization to do this. Street vendors, for example, who generally live and work in a rather precarious situation, which is clearly different from the situation of factory workers, are such a group of informal workers. Here, StreetNet International provides a positive example. It brings together organizations from around the world such as the Indian Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which organize and represent informal workers. Rather than trying to organize these workers themselves, closer co-operation with StreetNet International may be the best way forward for trade unions.

In sum, while globalization has undermined the power of national labour movements, workers and trade unions are not necessarily only victims of restructuring processes. There remain a host of available strategies, different ones to be sure in different industrial sectors, which can be employed to continue the successful defence of the interests of workers around the world. Labour agency continues to matter.