Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Labour and transnational action in times of crisis!

With the repercussions of the economic crisis still reverberating through the global system, what are the possibilities of labour movements to form relationships of transnational solidarity in resistance to the exploitative and destructive dynamics of global capitalism? This question was at the heart of the two-day international workshop Labour and transnational action in times of crisis: from case studies to theory, organised by the Transnational Labour project in Oslo on 27 and 28 February 2014. In this post, I will discuss some of the key themes, which emerged from the various presentations and debates.

Importantly, as Tamara Kay made clear, just because there is economic restructuring at the international level as in the case of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), this does not automatically lead to transnational solidarity between different national labour movements. Hence, some discussions at the workshop revolved around the obstacles to transnational solidarity.

Obstacles to transnational solidarity

Economic restructuring, rather than facilitating transnational solidarity, may actually be an obstacle in itself. Capitalism is subject to periodic crises. In order to overcome crises, there is a constant tendency towards outward expansion to integrate or re-integrate in novel forms peripheral spaces into capitalist development. This development, however, occurs along uneven and combined lines. It is combined in that peripheral development is driven by dynamics in the core and it is uneven in that the difference in development between core and periphery constantly increases. As a result, different national labour movements find themselves in rather different locations in the global economy leading to potentially different interests.

The savage attacks by capital against the background of high unemployment and economic crisis are a further obstacle to solidarity. Peter Turnbull outlined how low cost airlines in Europe and here in particular Ryanair are engaged in a dramatic attack on wage levels and working conditions in the airline industry. Jane Hardy and Sabina Stan, in turn, outlined the ways in which large private corporations increasingly pick up the profitable parts of national health care systems in Europe, thereby undermining both working conditions and wages in the sector as well as the principle of universal access to health care. At the European level itself, as Roland Erne made clear, the new European economic governance structures around the so-called six pack enshrine austerity policies further constituting also, following Anne Dufresne’s paper, an attack on national wage bargaining systems across the European Union (EU).

Photo by Bread for the World

Nevertheless, it is not only structural constraints and employers, who undermine the possibilities of transnational solidarity. Workers themselves often have different interests. As Cristina Brovia discussed in relation to alliances between seasonal agricultural workers in Italy and local support groups and Ines Wager outlined for posted workers in the German meat industry and their respective support groups, the workers themselves were mainly interested in better working conditions, proper wages and decent accommodation, while the support groups had been hoping for a more drastic challenge to the system of informal labour through their collaboration. At times, some groups of workers may even demand privileges on the basis of non-class identities at the expense of other fellow workers.

Trade unions as representatives of workers too are often working against solidarity rather than for.  Darragh Golden highlighted the role of the American Federation of Labour during the Cold War in dividing national labour movements into different trade unions, which in turn resulted in hostilities over which trade union was allowed to affiliate with which international trade union organisation. Antonina Gentile showed how these tensions have still repercussions today for organising transnational action. Some participants argued further that the role German trade unions played in the lowering of German labour costs had damaged transnational solidarity in the Eurozone crisis, though Steffen Lehndorf made clear that German workers and trade unions had been the biggest pre-crisis losers and that it is only now that wage levels are increasing again. One should also not forget that the IG Metall’s lost strike in 2003 had severely weakened the union and limited its possibilities in wage bargaining vis-à-vis capital. 

Photo by drp

And yet, these obstacles do not imply that transnational solidarity is impossible. In his paper on the successful defeat of the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA), Bruno Dobrusin demonstrated how trade unions from North and Latin America worked closely together against the background of negative experiences with NAFTA. Clearly, transnational solidarity is neither automatic nor impossible.

The Making of the European and Global working class?

Organisationally, the international labour movement is weak. While the global working class has increased dramatically since India and China entered the global economy in the 1990s and is now 2 billion strong in some estimates, international trade unions have not succeeded in organising these workers, Marcel van der Linden pointed out. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has about 230 million members, but there are doubts whether it can be considered a ‘proper’ trade union, as it is closely related to the communist party state. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in turn, has about 166 million members, 10 million less than a decade ago.

And yet, labour movements, understood broadly, are more than the official trade unions at national and international level. Right at the beginning of the workshop, Ingo Schmidt reminded colleagues of the important work of E.P. Thompson on the Making of the English Working Class. The formation of class consciousness and the development of a class-for-themselves is never automatic, but the result of concrete struggles in which people come to recognise their common problems and interests and start to translate them into collective action. What are the possibilities for the making of a European and global working class?

Some participants reported on first signs of such a making of the European working class. Idar Helle emphasised the importance of 14 November 2012 and the first European-wide strike. Some doubts were voiced about whether this action had actually been successful – see papers by Heiner Dribbusch and Markos Vogiatzoglou – but Idar Helle outlined how this day constituted a proper European level action due to the joint outrage against European level induced austerity policies. Markos Vogiatzoglou, in turn, pointed to successful occupations of factories in Greece and Italy, following the example of Argentine workers in 2001 and exchanging information and learning from each other in the process. It is this kind of actions, which for Thompson were crucial for the making of a working class. And they do not only occur in Europe. Jörg Nowak presented interesting examples of large-scale strike action in the Indian automobile, the Brazilian construction and the South African mining sectors. While these strikes have not yet developed transnational dimensions, they make clear that workers in the so-called BRICS countries are also not prepared to accept the ever more exploitative dynamics of global capitalism.

The opportunities of globalisation

Importantly, several participants made clear that globalisation and related international developments themselves are offering new opportunities for transnational action. The currently negotiated Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA), Tamara Kay argued, because it is such a threat to the working and living conditions to the people on both sides of the Atlantic, would offer a good opportunity for joint resistance and transnational solidarity. Sacha Dierckx, in turn, suggested that it may be time to re-politicise transnational capital itself with the goal to bring capital back to the national level through regulation. Politicising the new European governance structure and its attack on people’s livelihood in Europe, Roland Erne pointed out, is a further potential target for joint resistance.

Moreover, papers by Eddie Webster, Marissa Brookes and Jamie McCallum all dealt with potential new power resources available to workers as a result of global restructuring. In discussions it became clear that while it is possible to name and identify all kinds of different power sources including societal power, institutional power, logistical power, moral power etc., what is also important is actually the ability to use these sources especially considering that their suitability is context dependent. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that globalisation simply disempowers labour movements.

Possible ways of how to further transnational solidarity were also discussed. Bianca Föhrer looked at the potential of labour education programmes to effect more dramatic change, while Jenny Junghülsing pointed out that migrant workers, bringing already a transnational dimension with them, might be the source of establishing links of solidarity across borders. Analysing workers’ resistance in the Vietnamese apparel sector, Mark Anner emphasised the importance of labour control regimes in shaping the form this resistance would take. Tight state control in Vietnam, for example, is more likely to result in wildcat strikes rather than more institutionally organised forms of resistance. Equally, not every form of labour internationalism is the same. Importantly, however, when identifying six different forms, Robert O’Brien emphasised that these differences are not mutually exclusive. Different labour movements pursuing different forms of labour internationalism may nonetheless be able to co-operate in activities of transnational solidarity. In any case it would be important for successful mass mobilisations, Jane Hardy pointed out, that individual workers’ local experiences of austerity and cuts are linked to the wider national and transnational dynamics of neo-liberal restructuring.

The open-endedness of class struggle

In 1932, the US labour movement was declared to be doomed, Eddie Webster told the workshop participants. And yet, this turned out to be the beginning of the largest and most successful mobilisation drive in the history of US trade unions. Clearly, the future of class struggle is open-ended. Who could predict the revolutionary dynamics of 1968 or foresee the Arab uprisings? We may face years of defensive struggles, but an explosive eruption of protests across European and/or the world could equally be just around the corner.  

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

5 March 2014

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