You may have seen that item on television the other day about the world’s largest strike, ever.

No, me neither. Pardon the leaden irony.

The event happened – there’s no doubt about that – but it didn’t warrant mainstream coverage. 100 million workers were passed over for a Gainesville preacher who had threatened to burn a Koran.

In a country where full-time jobs are a rare exception, India’s workers came together on September 7th across cultural, sectoral, religious, traditional and political divides. Their union federations displayed a unity that has never been seen before. Compared to this, France in May 1968 (with 11 million workers on strike) was a right old fizzer.

Speaking of France, you’ll have heard about the millions that have been involved in a wave of strikes and protests there. Much better media coverage. At the same time, however, China is experiencing its largest-ever wave of industrial action. For all kinds of reasons, we just aren’t hearing about it.

Spain just had its largest ever strike too, involving 10 million workers (about 70% of the workforce). So did Portugal. In fact a surprising number of countries have experienced their largest-ever strikes in the past few years. The list includes the USA, UK, China, South Africa, Greece, Nigeria, Tunisia, Spain, Egypt, Colombia, Libya, Turkey, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Portugal, Nepal and Cambodia. This sent members of the network into research mode. By our reckoning, it seems that two thirds of the largest strikes in history have occurred in the last 10 years. See the table below for our latest data.

Could it be that our mainstream media — and our own union media — is missing something?

The world’s largest strikes*
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.
19.
20.
21.
22.
23.
24.
25.
26.
27.
28.
29.
30.
31.
32.
33.
34.
35.
2010
2003
2005
1981
1968
1968
1989
2002
2010
2002
1988
1934
1926
2010
1994
2010
2006
2010
2008
2010
2007
2004
1905
1988
2003
1986
2011
2010
1976
2006
2009
2006
2002
2002
2010
India
India
India
Poland
Italy
France
Romania
Italy
Spain
India
Spain
France
United Kingdom
Portugal
Italy
France
United States
Greece
South Africa
Turkey
Nigeria
Nigeria
Russia
South Africa
France
South Africa
United Kingdom
South Africa
Canada
United Kingdom
France
South Africa
Madagascar
Italy
Italy
100,000,000
50,000,000
50,000,000
13,000,000
12,000,000
11,000,000
11,000,000
10,000,000
10,000,000
10,000,000
8,000,000
4,500,000
4,000,000
3,000,000
2,500,000
2,500,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
2,000,000
1,500,000
1,500,000
1,300,000
1,000,000
1,000,000
1,000,000
1,000,000
1,000,000
1,000,000
1,000,000
* This list is in development; we’d appreciate your help (email strikedata@newunionism.net). We will add any strike with a participation rate exceeding 1 million. Also, please see the note of caution above left. In cases where there have been a series of huge strikes in any one year (as in France 2010), we have included only the largest.
** We are still looking for data on the huge strikes in India in the mid ’70s, along with Bangladesh’s national strikes of 2002, 2007 and 2010, and 1995-6 France; 1983 Brazil; 1996 South Korea; 1980 Sri Lanka; 2007 Israel; 2002 Venezuela; 2010 Romania; Burkina Faso 2008; 1943 Netherlands; 1974 and 1975 Japan.
***We have not included the students’ strike that followed the Kent State murders in the USA in 1968 (4,000,000 students).

We are not just talking about union members when we cite these numbers. By far the majority of those on strike in many of these countries are not members, or, in some cases, are striking irrespective of their official unions. (eg: India, France, Spain in the first instance; and China, Egypt and Cambodia in the second).

A word of caution!

Strike numbers are almost always hotly disputed. Typically, estimates vary by a factor of three or more. Nor does the truth become clearer over time. In fact, sometimes it is not even a case of conflicting data, so much as no real data at all.

Fort his reason, the table to the right is based on a range of approximations. It could not be otherwise. Wherever possible we have used recognised authorities or established news sources. However, in three of the cases cited, the figures represent little more than educated guesswork.

For this reason and others, one should avoid making any kind of comparison across strikes! A strike in feudal Russia in 1905 cannot be meaningfully compared with a MayDay walk off by immigrant workers and their supporters in the USA in 2006. In fact, some have tried to argue that the latter — “a boycott of work and stores” — was not even a strike. Other cases mentioned at right might be described as a concurrent series of separate actions which were collectively dubbed a “strike”.

Furthermore, a cynic might argue that any increase in industrial action is only to be expected. After all, the world’s working class is now much bigger than it ever was. Firstly, it grew as countries industrialized, employing more women and own-account workers in production than ever before. Then came ‘the great doubling’ as rich countries “offshored” manufacturing into the hands of workers in China, Russia, India, Indonesia and Brazil etc.

So what’s our point?

It is one that we have made before, in looking at union membership numbers since 2000. The dominant narrative of union decline is false. It is an ideological position – a portrait of the world the way some would wish it to be. The facts tell a different story, and so the facts are being ignored or distorted to suit. It’s the same old song with a different beat.

Of course, there is union decline in some countries. There was an artifical situation after WWII which led to phenomenal union growth in some countries. This changed. When it did, the membership numbers in those countries fell away again. This is the distorted angle that the media has built its narrative around.

Since then, labour, distribution and production have been globalising. Economics, itself, has gone global. We need to stop thinking of unionism as a nation-based phenomenon. And we especially need to stop thinking of unionism in terms of what has happened in the US and UK.

The New Unionism Network has gathered comparable data on union membership post-2000 for 81 countries. Between them, these cover by far the majority of the world’s workers. Of these 81 countries, 52 have experienced union growth over the period measured. 23 have experienced union decline, and 6 experienced either stability (plus or minus 1% change), or had no union movement at all. Our homepage (www.newunionism.net) presents this data in more depth.

There is a related point that needs to be made, although it does not reflect well on the labour movement.

Isn’t our acceptance of the dominant narrative tacitly racist, or at least narrowly nationalistic?

WHY is a strike of 100,000,000 in India not news? Why do we hear nothing from China’s unions (official and otherwise)? Is it enough just to blame the mainstream media, when our own union media are not providing an alternative narrative?

As we continue to repeat the mantra of union decline, aren’t we tacitly relegating these workers to some kind of “Other” status? After all, “they” make the goods “we” used to make. Are we effectively saying that “they” — as producers — don’t figure in the same sense that “we” — as producers — used to do? (ie before manufacturing was shipped offshore).

Within the union movement, “us and them” makes little sense anymore. Perhaps it never did. One of the central lessons of the first wave of new unionism, around the beginning of last century, was that skilled and unskilled labour needed to stand together. Unskilled workers rejuvenated the union movement, and rewired it profoundly.

The simple fact is that many of us now live in poor countries. Others of us live closer by, but do not fit into the standard work template.

These arguments are all playing out in practice, as well as theory. Unions are experimenting with new global organizing forms, and different modes of representation. In the meantime, this new wave of industrial action continues to gather steam. In some places, unions have been left to play catch up.

It would be great to have more solid data on the current strike wave. Unfortunately, venerable bodies such as the ILO have long since resiled from any such role (try looking at this, their best shot at global data: http://laborsta.ilo.org/STP/guest).

We will be extending and updating the table above with the help of members of the New Unionism Network and UnionBook. We will also be trying to compile global data on industrial action since 2000. Following this, within 12 months, we will publish a reassessment of the situation. At that point we hope to know for sure whether ‘the return of the strike’ is a bona fide phenomenon or just a statistical blip.

In the meantime, don’t believe everything you think!


by Peter Hall-Jones, October 2010

Notes:

* It should be noted that the All India General Strike of 7th September could have been bigger. 100 million represents a small minority of India’s workers. However (and this is critical) it DOES represent significantly more than the entire unionised section of India’s working class (2.4% ILO, 2005). Union membership numbers are notoriously difficult to obtain in India, but it certainly seems clear that the movement is growing and uniting.

* With regards our ‘return of the strike’ theme, we make no claim regarding the frequency or total strike days lost of these industrial actions. As reference to the ILO data in the link provided will show, recent facts are just not available. Still, this is not a carte blanche for ideologues to continue running their narrative of decline. We will be doing our best to compile comparable data in this area as well.

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