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, 15 January 2013

Transnational Labour Solidarity in times of Globalisation?

The increasing transnationalisation of production and informalisation of labour relations has undermined the traditional power resources of national labour movements (see Bieler, Lindberg and Sauerborn 2010). And yet, globalisation has not left workers without weapons. In his book Solidarity Transformed: Labor Responses to Globalization and Crisis in Latin America (Cornell University Press, 2011) Mark Anner investigates how labour movements in Latin America have developed new power resources. In this blog post, I will provide a critical appraisal of this remarkable book and add some theoretical considerations on how to conceptualise trade unions’ agency within the changing structures of globalisation.

‘One of labour’s most crucial and historic dilemmas has been whether to engage capital narrowly as a group of employees or more broadly as a social class. This dilemma is particularly salient in debates between national and international strategies. Within the heart of labor beat the conflicting forces or parochialism and nationalism, class solidarity and internationalism’ (P.166).

The main focus of this book is on changing forms of labour solidarity in global manufacturing. Anner identifies two different types of so-called global value chains, large production networks organised across countries. In buyer-driven value chains it is often a large retailer such as Wal-mart or Nike, which controls the production process through its power to award and withdraw production contracts. The apparel sector and labour movements in El Salvador and Honduras are Anner’s case studies in this respect. In producer-driven chains, on the contrary, control rests with production headquarters such the car manufacturer VW in Wolfsburg/Germany. Here, Annar investigates trade unions’ strategies in Argentina and Brazil. Anner’s main argument is that the type of value chain has crucial implications for trade unions’ potential strategies. The fact that it is often large retail companies, which dominate buyer-driven chains implies that labour can form alliances with consumer groups in pressuring these retailers into enforcing good working conditions and living wages in their suppliers. The result are transnational activist campaigns (TACs), in which left labour unionists in developing countries co-operate closely with activist groups including women’s groups, human and labor rights organizations, and student organizations, groups ‘that have legitimacy and can maximize the shaming mechanism as they pressure leading apparel firms through consumer-oriented campaigns’ (P.16). In producer-driven chains, on the other hand, Anner argues that the main focus of transnational labour solidarity rests on co-operation between the trade unions in the various production sites of a company. This results in often more stable union-to-union relationships or so-called transnational labour networks (TLNs). 

However, trade unions are not automatically engaging in transnational campaigns in order to defend workers’ rights. In both sectors, Anner also shows how trade unions with a more nationalist outlook focus on closer co-operation with the local employer and state institutions. Described as a radical flank mechanism, ‘moderate’ trade unions offer themselves to employers as the less radical alternative to internationalist left unions. ‘As left unions gained strength through transnational activism and plant-level militancy, a new opportunity emerged for moderate unions. Factory owners had learned that one way to block left unionization was to allow the moderate unions to represent the workforce’ (P.87). A more domestic strategy for labour is also more likely in those countries, where state institutions and industrial relations are more favourable to labour. Microcorporatist worker-employer pacts may be preferable to transnational solidarity. Hence, there are stronger incentives for national strategies in Argentina than Brazil and in Honduras than in El Salvador.

This is undoubtedly an impressive volume, theoretically innovative and empirically rich, which makes a convincing argument that labour is not completely powerless in times of globalisation. On the basis of a detailed investigation of the transformation of the apparel and automobile sectors, Anner presents a large number of fascinating case studies of individual union campaigns. My only point of criticism is in relation to Anner’s empirical pluralist conceptualisation. He identifies three explanatory variables for the explanation of labour’s responses to globalisation: (1) the type of transnational production structure, buyer-driven or producer-driven chains, (2) the ideological outlook/identity of trade unions, the division between a left worldview built on class-based identity and a moderate orientation with its emphasis on various forms of class collaboration, as well as (3) the type of state form, whether it facilitates trade union activity at the national level or is of a more repressive nature. Such a conceptualisation overlooks the internal relation between these three factors and the way of how trade unions’ ideological outlook and the state forms are directly produced and reproduced by class struggle, which in itself is shaped by the way production is organised.

In more detail, from a historical materialist point of view, the social relations of production and the class forces they engender are the starting-point of investigation. Of course, there are different ideological outlooks amongst trade unions, which in turn impact on the type of strategies these unions pursue. To understand such ideological outlooks, however, as separate ‘explanatory variables’ overlooks that these ideological outlooks themselves have been formed and are being transformed in processes of class struggle. Anner himself provides excellent examples in this respect. In response to the crisis in the apparel sector in the early 2000s and the related struggle to protect employment, the CGT’s Export Processing Zone organising committee in Honduras drastically changed its ideological outlook and related strategy. ‘Not only did the CGT EPZ group abandon its nationalist strategy for transnationalism, it became perhaps the single most important Central American ally of the international anti-sweatshop movement’ (P.93). In El Salvador, ‘the once radical union federation, FENASTRAS, now spearheaded nationalist unionism and clientelistic pacts with employers’ (P.97). Labour identities are never fixed but constantly contested. In short, the key here is a focus on the dynamics of class struggle to delineate particular labour identities and trace their formation and transformation.

Equally, state institutions are ultimately the result of class struggle. Of course, in the present such institutions often confront labour as objective structures within which and through which they need to develop their strategies. Ultimately, however, these institutions have been formed in earlier processes of class struggle and, therefore, can also be transformed through these struggles. As Anner outlines, the more advantageous state institutions in Argentina from labour’s point of view are the result of the populist era of Juan Peron 1943-1955) when trade unions were incorporated into the state through the governing party. ‘Peron’s 1945 Law of Professional Associations allowed for one union per economic activity, one central union confederation, and automatic payroll deduction of union dues’ (P.10). Thus, class struggle unfolded through a process of co-opting labour into the state form resulting in institutional structures, which continue to impact on trade union strategies today.

In short, class struggle is the moment when agency meets structure, when labour meets the structural contradictions of the capitalist social relations of production. Class struggle is the process in which labour identities are formed and transformed. It is the moment when structural constraints are being confirmed or changed. Hence, it is through the prism of class struggle that we can analyse best trade unions’ responses to global restructuring. The choice of conceptual approach is crucial. Empirical pluralism, because it does not analyse the internal relations between the various dimensions, ultimately stays within the existing order of capitalist social relations. As a result, the analytical discussion inevitably will be be focused on improvements for workers within the system, i.e. increase in wages and improvements in working conditions, but not question the system itself. A historical materialist approach, by contrast, will also investigate the possibilities of transformation beyond capitalism, since the focus on class struggle opens up the possibility of wider transformations of identities and structures.

Overall, however, this point of critical engagement should not distract from the high quality and importance of the book. This is a must read for activists and labour academics alike interested in curtailing capitalist exploitation. 

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:
15 January 2013

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