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.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Southern Insurgency?

Are we experiencing new dynamics of revolutionary change coming from the Global South? In his fascinating new book Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class (Pluto Press, 2015) Immanuel Ness looks more closely at the labour movements in India, China and South Africa and their potential of resistance to exploitation. In this post, I will give a brief glimpse at the book based on a presentation given by Ness at the Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham/UK on 5 November.

Divisions in the global labour movement

There is a paradox in the global labour movement. On the one hand, trade unions in the Global North have clearly lost influence. Against the background of a change in the balance of power in society due to the increasing transnationalisation and informalisation of production, trade unions are no longer in a strong position to impact on policy-making. The most recent attack on labour rights in the UK, where the Conservative government attempts to undermine trade union power by limiting the right to strike in its Trade Union Bill, is just one of the examples, which indicate labour’s weakness. If trade unions were strong, no government could even consider attempting such an attack.

And yet, despite this weakness of trade unions in the Global North, these unions still think they can tell labour movements from the Global South how to organise and how to interact with employers and the state. They still think that it is their right to have the leading positions in international trade union organisations such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Unsurprisingly, labour movements in the Global South are tired of what they perceive to be a continuation of imperialist, colonial policy with white Europeans and North Americans telling them what to do. Considering that labour movements in the Global South have always had to organise under conditions of precarious labour markets, perhaps it is time for trade unions from the Global North to learn from their brothers and sisters from the Global South?

India and the brutal authority of the state

Since the 1990s, India has liberalised its economy. Workers are divided between elite workers in privileged positions, potentially members of trade unions, and a large informal sector of contract workers amounting to 90 per cent of the whole workforce. The labour insurgency at the Maruti Suzuki car manufacturing plant is the best known case of workers’ struggles against exploitation including occupations of the factory. In the end, it was only violence sponsored by the employer and government, which could break the strike and defeat the independent union. As committed as the resistance by workers at Maruti Suzuki and elsewhere in India is, however, the main objective of workers is to gain the right to strike. In itself, this is not a revolutionary, transformative demand, Ness asserted.

Labour struggles in China

In China too, labour militancy is on the rise. Working under conditions of super-exploitation in companies such as Foxconn, young Chinese migrant workers are no longer satisfied with their situation and increasingly resort to industrial action. In order to maintain a smooth production process, the government often intervenes asking employers to make concessions in order to pacify workers. The situation in China clearly illustrates that workers can make gains through class struggle especially in times of labour shortages. At the same time, as Immanuel Ness made clear, workers’ demands are not of a revolutionary, transformative nature. They neither demand political change, nor a change in the capitalist market economy. What they want is the right to free association, the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining with the aim to improve their economic situation and to gain the opportunity of settling permanently in the cities where they work.

Photo by Edwin Lee

Strike action in the South African mining sector

Major strikes have taken place in the South African mining sector since 2006. Frustratingly, the mining workers’ union NUM has opposed independent workers strikes for better conditions and pay and the AMCU formed as an independent union outside the main confederation COSATU as a result. In a way, this split mirrors the general split inside COSATU with the metalworkers’ union NUMSA having broken away. Implicated in neo-liberal economic policies in its alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, COSATU is increasingly losing credibility amongst especially black South African workers.

And yet, the split in the labour movement has not dampened workers’ willingness to engage in radical action. In 2009/2010, Ness reported, the Platinum belt was on fire as a result of wildcat strikes organised by non-recognised unions. The massacre of striking mine workers by South African police at Marikana in 2012 (see also The Dance of theUndead) has to be understood against the background of these developments. In 2014, 70000 workers were again on strike from January to June in the mining sector, this time victorious with an increase in the pay of the lowest-paid, entry-level workers. NUMSA too was involved in successful strikes in the same year.

Photo by Chris Beckett

Overall, the situation in South Africa is clearly volatile. It is here, Ness concluded his presentation, that we may see a more transformative dynamic at this point in time, rather than in India or China. What is clear, however, is that it is the determination of these workers in the Global South, from which workers in the Global North can learn. It may well be a time for a change in who is teaching whom about what to do. 

Prof. Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

8 November 2015

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