On 24 and 25 June, I participated in the first meeting of the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights’ (SIGTUR) Futures Commission. The meeting was hosted by Eddie Webster in the Chris Hani Institute in Johannesburg/South Africa and supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. A group of left-wing intellectuals and trade union representatives was entrusted with the task to undertake the first steps towards developing concrete alternatives to neo-liberal globalisation. In this post, I will reflect on some of the key discussions during the two days.
Colonialism and the question of capitalism
It became clear early on that the location of the workshop and the background of the participants mattered. SIGTUR is an initiative of trade unions in the Global South including Australian, South Korean, Indian, Brazilian and Argentinian trade unions in addition to COSATU from South Africa. One of the key aspects they have in common, with the exception of Australian unions, is their joint history of colonialism and liberation struggles. Unsurprisingly, neo-liberal globalisation is not simply regarded as the latest epoch of capitalism. It is viewed as a continuation of colonial policies, characterised by the extraction of minerals and agricultural goods for the industries of developed countries as well as the destruction of home grown industries. These policies continued in the 1950s and 1960s as part of national development projects, devised by the core for countries in the periphery of the global economy, and have been further intensified since the 1970s with the onset of globalisation and the related general deregulation and liberalisation of national policy space. Inevitably, in contrast to similar workshops organised in industrialised countries, frequent demands were made for proposals, which do not only reform capitalism, but provide a transformative path towards socialism in the 21st century.
|Photo by Egui_|
Of course, Marikana is a key example of how the capitalist crisis also fragments workers and induces disunity within the labour movement. While Marikana is specific to South Africa, similar tensions can be noted elsewhere and mass mobilisation against neo-liberal economics was identified as the only possible way forward towards overcoming economic and social inequality as well as fragmentation.
Collective bargaining as a way of transformation?
Collective bargaining is currently under attack in Europe (see How European pressure is destroying national collective bargaining systems). Unsurprisingly, when European trade unionists and labour academics discuss collective bargaining, it is a defensive move. Generally, I am sceptical about this as it fails to recognise that collective bargaining is covering fewer and fewer workers and has already become less relevant as a result. More importantly, in Europe too we should focus on how to organise the increasing informal sector of the economy.
The Global South including South Africa has always been characterised by a large informal sector. Hence my surprise, when Neil Coleman from COSATU introduced a revived system of sectoral collective bargaining as a transformative way forward. He outlined the Brazilian experience, where the state had been successful at boosting domestic demand levels through an emphasis on collective bargaining combined with a national minimum wage policy. Undoubtedly, millions of Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty as a result of state policies. Whether these policies including collective bargaining are, however, transformative or simply reform based was left open. In my view, it is difficult to see how collective bargaining would improve the livelihood of mostly black people living in the sprawling townships around Johannesburg and working in the informal economy.
|Photo by RachelIF2SEA|
‘Embedded free trade’ or ‘fair trade’?
Against the background of capitalism’s uneven and combined development, it is not surprising that there are tensions over ‘free trade’ policy in the international labour movement. While unions in the North often support free trade agreements (FTAs), as they consider them to secure the jobs of their members, labour movements in the Global South are critical as it leads to deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs (see Trade unions, free trade and the problem of transnational solidarity).
An interesting discussion ensued over how to label an alternative trade regime. While I argued in favour of ‘embedded free trade’ in order to facilitate an engagement with Northern trade unions, which generally view ‘free trade’ positively, colleagues from Southern trade unions opted for ‘fair trade’ in order to indicate a more radical break from current trade policies.
|Photo by Alejandra H. Covarrubias|
Climate Change and the future of Green Capitalism
Jacklyn Cock from the SWOP Institute made clear that the current focus by capital on the green economy was ‘the wolf in sheep clothing’. The trading in carbon emissions will simply lead to a financialisation and further commodification of the environment. The expansion of the market into all aspects of nature would not protect, but further destroy the environment. On the other hand, the change to a low carbon economy could be change towards a real alternative to neo-liberalism. Here, the immediate task would be the formation of alliances with other movements including especially environmental groups. The immediate request should be for food and energy sovereignty, linking justice to sustainability by empowering people to decide for themselves what to grow and what type of energy to use.
|Photo by GovernmentZA|
The key challenge of moving into this direction was, according to Rob Lambert, the co-ordinator of SIGTUR, to find a solution to the question of how to connect trade unions in the workplace with movements of the dispossessed. He identified the limits to liberal representative democracy and demanded that trade unions urgently needed to restructure themselves from hierarchical, bureaucratic organisations into agents, which welcome diversity, direct democracy and independent initiatives by its members. If this is combined with a focus on issues beyond the workplace, as in the case of Numsa and its participation in a campaign for land reform, then the kind of forces may be available, which are needed to push successfully for transformation.
The development of alternatives through experiments in concrete struggles
Hence, perhaps the next step in the search for alternatives could be a focus on concrete experiments of establishing a non-capitalist economy? In the area of ‘free trade’, for example, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) is already one practical example in this respect. At its beginning in 2004 was a treaty between Venezuela and Cuba with the former providing petroleum to the latter at very favourable prices in exchange for doctors and teachers from Cuba, working in some of Venezuela’s poorest states. Direct negotiations between the two countries had replaced a reliance on prices set by the market. A more in-depth analysis of this and other alternative economy examples may be the way forward in the search for alternatives by the Futures Commission.
2 July 2013
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net