In the era of globalisation, marked by mobile transnational capital flows and recurrent economic restructuring, what options do trade unions have to fight back? This is the underlying question facing all the contributors to this collection of essays overseen by Ursula Huws (London 2008). As her introduction notes, both national industrial relations systems and the national regulation of economic life have been severely weakened in recent decades, leaving trade unions without their traditional means of influence – especially their tripartite relationships with national governments and employers. Equally radical shifts in the direction of informal and precarious working patterns and relations have simultaneously disrupted the once familiar stable working environments, constituencies and identities unions operated within and upon.
This book offers no one solution to ‘What is to be Done’. Instead it acts rather as a compendium of ideas and examples drawn from across today’s global economy. In his overarching piece on union strategic responses to globalisation, Ronaldo Munck suggest we are in a “complex, shifting and transitional phase” (p19), moving towards a new internationalism where no one approach predominates. There are however two major trends currently evident. One is the emergence of global unions and federations, looking to challenge the power of TNC s and international financial institutions through such means as international framework agreements, establishing core labour standards and new regional structures (within the EU and Latin America’s MERCOSUL). For Munck this is an expanded form of ‘social partnership’ now acting at supra-national level. More promising are those new forms of internationalism resting upon closer links between organised labour and social movements/ global justice organisations, which can at least begin to address today’s complex social relations.
Beyond these generalities the collection takes up a number of specific themes, three of which we can briefly consider here. Economic restructuring in the rapidly expanding communications ands knowledge industries, where powerful trends towards corporate convergence and offshoring are at work, is one of these.
Vincent Mosco considers two distinct labour movement responses to such developments in the North American theatre. Within the mainstream, a parallel convergence of unions representing previously distinct workforces in telecoms, broadcasting, journalism and electronics has placed now expanded organs like the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and their Canadian equivalent (the CEP), in the frontline, attempting to exert their enhanced powers within interconnected labour processes, with some success.
A different response has seen the emergence of new workers associations that have successfully reached out to hitherto unorganised ‘knowledge workers’ – high-tech employees, part-timers, agency staff and freelancers – to secure increased pay and benefits, without however establishing any collective bargaining rights.
Best known of these is Wash Tech, originally an alliance of Seattle high-tech workers, whose story is related by one of its members Michelle Roldino-Colocino. She argues that its emergence reflects the harsh labour conditions found in the IT ‘technomadic’ labour market where overwork and intermittent precarious employment contracts coexist with powerful offshoring tendencies, all designed to drive down labour costs. Wash Tech’s disparate membership of web designers, programmers, system analysts and engineers has grown as it has taken up many issues facing its ‘precarious workforce’, including challenging the offshoring plans of government and employers. Through its links to CWA, Wash Tech has also supported the organisation of IT workers in receiving countries like India, adding a necessary transnational dimension to its approach.
Their efforts are in sharp contrast to those of the European white-collar unions reported on by Ramoul and de Bruyn, who have opted for a more traditional ‘partnership’ approach to offshoring, attempting to make it more ‘sustainable’ at both ends of the chain. As Huws’ introduction points out, union responses to globalisation in general vary significantly between these poles of partnership and opposition.
Trade union relations with external organisations, within and beyond the labour and anti-globalisation movements form a second area of investigation.
Bruce Robinson’s critical survey of the prospects for cybersolidarity and internet campaigning as new forms of labour internationalism looks at the work of Labour Start in depth. Examining its underlying forms of social organisation and information flows he points out the advantages it brings, in terms of ease of action, the rapid and continuous transmission of distant struggles, opening up new horizons of labour solidarity. However the structure of this cyberactivism leaves the subjects of any dispute with little actual involvement in the whole process – it is “action by proxy” (p161) heavily dependent upon individual participation in activist networks. As such, cybernet solidarity can only be a supplement to traditional ‘place based’ labour action.
For Develtere and Huybrechs union participation in ‘transnational network movements’ (TNMs) offer a more promising option. Their case study of the movement to abolish child labour describes how a loose alliance of unions, civil society, governmental and corporate organisations successfully forced this issue onto the international agenda and achieved “the most rapidly ratified ILO convention ever” (p178) in under two decades (the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999). Through a raft of ad hoc campaigns, consumer boycotts, fairtrade/anti-sweatshop projects and pressure on international forums, unions participated in this TNM alongside other labour and social movement organisations across the globe. The authors believe this form of action is crucial in the new social architecture of the ‘network society’. Without entering that sociological debate, what we can see here is that unions can enhance their power and effectiveness in alliance with other progressive forces. Indeed this was part of the promise of ‘social movement unionism’ as a new alternative future for unions popularised by the likes of Kim Moody – though one definitely not including alliances with corporate bodies!!
Moody and others took their cue in large part from the new forms of union practice developing in the Global South, especially those of Brazil’s CUT and COSATU in South Africa. These federations feature heavily in a third theme of the Huws collection, the response of ‘Third World’ unions to globalisation.
The trajectory of COSATU as relayed by Bassett and Clarke is a dispiriting tale. Its expansive social movement style approach forged in the struggle against apartheid all too rapidly gave way to a familiar tripartitism and support for the ANC’s reconstruction strategy of ‘progressive competitiveness’, the co-management of capitalism.
This in turn underwent further slippage and an accommodation to the neo-liberal global agenda by the late 1990s. COSATU commitments to job creation, social protection – not to mention goals of transformation – were swept away in these shifts. The costs of economic contraction, proliferating insecure and informal forms of employment, and attacks on wages and union rights, were borne by its working class constituency. Partnership and progress did not go together here, note the authors, pinning their hopes on COSATU’s more recent turn back towards its original ideals.
In Brazil financially led globalisation sidelined previous strategies of national development as well as diminishing union powers to shape the national economy. Facing footloose capital, industrial restructuring and the wholesale substitution of informal for formal employment, even the most advanced union, the CUT, has found it difficult to respond. As Marco Aurelio Santana records, there has been some effective union resistance to automobile production relocation on greenfield sites beyond the militant CUT strongholds of Sao Paulo’s industrial belt. The efforts of firms like VW to lower labour costs and isolate its new workforce at Resende from external influence have been effectively countered by the local metalworkers union. Breaking with its conservative federation, this union has established its own factory committees and connections with VW counterparts elsewhere in Brazil and abroad, moving closer to the CUT and delivering gains for its workforce.
Such union global networks operating at company level are one of the two major forms of internationalism Brazilian unions have adopted according top Leonardo Mello e Silva. Their grassroots character and strong support within the CUT are having positive effects in securing core standards within automobile and pharmaceutical sectors. The alternative strategy – participation in the regional bloc of unions in MERCOSUL to socially shape regional economic development – is a turn towards a tripartitism increasingly seen as redundant elsewhere.
Summing up, the pioneers of social movement unionism may have run into difficulties confronting the global dynamics of capital today. However as the contributors to this collection have demonstrated, their original tactics of grassroots mobilisation, across national borders, broad social agendas and alliances with other labour and social movements provide the best prospects for genuine trade union renewal. For an on-going effort to practice these goals, not covered in this volume, the UE –FAT alliance is worth consideration.