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Mass Strikes and social movement unionism

by Eddie Webster on July 4, 2019

At the height of apartheid in 1972 veteran sociologist Heribert Adam published a book where he predicted strikes were not possible in South Africa. Never had the predictive powers of sociology  been more cruelly tested when in January 1973, six months after the book was published, mass strikes broke out in the coastal city of Durban, breaking a decade of industrial acquiescence.

Social theory, dominated as it was at the time by functionalism, had left sociologists conceptually crippled, unable to explain adequately mass strikes in the Global South. Classical Marxists, insisting that labour struggles are essentially economistic and can only be transcended by a vanguard political party, were left searching for the hidden Prince. Neo-Marxists offered a version of dependency theory which focused on the claim that imperialism blocked national development. This conception of change relegated labour, at best, to a secondary position. At worst, workers were identified, with little in the way of evidence or argument, as a privileged ‘labour aristocracy’, aligned to metropolitan capital.

In this timely and important study, Jörg Nowak convincingly challenges the dominant Eurocentric approach to labour conflict and calls for a new theory of strikes.  He stresses the need to engage in a wider perspective that includes social reproduction, neighbourhood mobilisation, and the specific political traditions of struggles in the Global South. Through the lens of labour geography, the book investigates mass strikes and social movements in India and Brazil, focusing on the forms of organisation and cross-movement cooperation that erupted between the period between 2010 and 2014.

Nowak rejects the traditional notion of trade unions that focuses on their role in improving wages and conditions of work through collective bargaining. He calls this model, corporate trade unionism. He argues that only a theory of strikes that goes beyond a focus on trade unions and the workplace will be able to understand the forms of popular mobilisation and coordination that occur in what he calls the non-core countries. The focus of the book is on the new forms of organisation that workers found and created in these strikes. Nowak takes us beyond the workers and the workplace to include non-class relations and social relations beyond the workplace.

The innovation in the book lies in the use of Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of the mass strike. Mass strikes, Luxemburg argued, have two distinctive features. First, mass strikes extend over a larger territory without any central coordination, that is, the spread of a mass strike is due to the initiative of the workers themselves. Second, mass strikes effect the political life of a whole country, characterised by widespread discussion in the media, by politicians and in the public as a whole. On the basis of this framework, Nowak proposes three categories of mass strikes; demonstrative mass strikes, centrally coordinated fighting mass strikes, and worker-led fighting mass strikes. It is the latter category that is at the centre of the book. “Worker-led fighting mass strikes do not,” Nowak argues,” go back to the initiative of a trade union and evolve by diffusion, without any clear organising centre, although trade unions might get involved at some point or to some extent”.

At the empirical heart of the book are four cases studies of mass strikes, two are examples in the automobile sector in India and two in the Brazilian construction sector. In the first example strikes are analysed in 2011 and 2012 at Maruti Suzuki, India’s market leader in car passenger production. The trade union is not the central focus of the strike and it spreads beyond the workplace. The second example, in 2017, is in Bajaj Auto, a leader in motorcycles, which was a fifty day long strike. The strikes spread to the region and a settlement was reached that widened the gap between the permanent and the contract workers.   

What emerges in Chapter Five is that the role of unions in strikes was more limited in the Brazilian construction industry. In Belo Monte workers seem to have been radicalised by the anti-dam movement and indigenous opposition to the dam’s construction, leading to a revolt in 2012. But the chapter also foregrounds the brutal police repression of activists, including assassinations and the resulting arson, property destruction and blocking access of employers to the workplace.

Nowak draws three broad conclusions from these carefully analysed case studies. First, the trade union form is in transformation, but the difference between the forms that are emerging is too large to allow for the identification of a coherent trend. Second, the trade union form was successful when it was combined with other forms of organisation , primarily informal workplace organisation, “that had a large amount of autonomy in the Brazilian construction sites, but was also essential for the strikes in India”. Third, the workers described in the volume acted as a vanguard, not in the sense of a political elite, but rather as pioneers in a creative and innovative movement.

Mass Strikes and Social movements in Brazil and India is a path-breaking contribution to the emerging field of global labour studies. By engaging critically with the literature on strikes and labour conflicts in India and Brazil , Nowak has provided the conceptual  foundations for a new interpretation  of global workers struggles.  

In the 1980s unions in South Africa went beyond collective bargaining to respond to demands in the townships and in the broader struggles for economic, social and political rights by black South Africans. As Nowak describes, similar patterns of labour conflict emerged elsewhere  in the Global South, in Brazil, in South Korea and in the Philippines. We called this form of unionism social movement unionism. While responses in the North shared certain characteristics with the ‘southern model’, the southern context is quite different. As Gay Seidman demonstrated in her comparison of workers’ struggles  in Brazil and South Africa, social movement unionism in the Global South consisted of struggles  over wages and working conditions but it also involved struggles over living conditions in working-class areas- over housing and social services , such as health care, education, transport, and running water. She goes on to argue that “Strikes over factory issues receive strong community support; conversely community campaigns for improved social services and full citizenship are supported by factory organisations as labour movements redefine their constituencies to include the broader working class”.

But Nowak leaves us with an unsolved enigma. These mass strikes, he writes, are the first global strike wave that has not witnessed the rise of a new generation of trade union organisation. Nowak is quite right to draw this conclusion from his research but there are a number of recent studies that identify new forms of organisation and sources of power that are emerging in the Global South. The focus of these studies has not been the institutional setting of labour relations or the overall impact of major trends like globalisation on labour, but rather the strategic choice in responding to new challenges and changing contexts.

In India, a country characterised by a high level of informality, the associational power of street vendors has not been built in the form of a conventional trade union but through associations for informal workers. In this context, the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) was formed as an association of trade unions, community-based organisations, NGOs and individual members, to successfully advocate for street vendors’ rights and policy changes.

Similarly, in Uganda the structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s fostered the informalisation of the transport industry. The Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (ATGWU) built informal transport workers’ associational power through the affiliation of mass-membership associations of informal workers, notably representing minibus taxi workers and motorcycle taxi riders. This strategy of building a hybrid organisation has assisted the union in bridging the divide between formal and informal workers, to achieve substantial gains for informal workers and to reduce their vulnerability. Taken together, informal self-employed workers with low structural power tend to create new forms of associational power, which diverge from traditional trade unions.

Whether we are witnessing ‘a new generation of trade union organisation’ that will be sustainable over time remains to be seen. What is clear is that labour worldwide is at the crossroads and this book is an indispensable source for understanding what its future could be.

Eddie Webster
Edward Webster is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Southern Centre for Inequality and founder and associate of the Society, Work and Development Institute Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1995/1996. He was the first Ela Bhatt Professor at the International Centre for Development and Decent Work (ICDD) at Kassel University in Germany in 2009/2010 . His research interests lie in the world of work, labour movements and social policy. In 2009 his co-authored book, Grounding Globalisation: Labour in the Age of Insecurity was awarded the prestigious American Sociological Association award for the best scholarly monograph published on labour. In 2017 he co-edited two volumes, the Unresolved National Question: left thought under apartheid and Crossing the Divide; Precarious Work and the future of Labour.

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