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Mass Strikes in the Global Crisis

by Alexander Gallas on October 10, 2016
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This contribution is written jointly by Alexander Gallas and Jörg Nowak.* Despite the fact that there have been spectacular strikes in many parts of the world since the inception of the global economic crisis in 2007-8, the news media and the academic public have focused their attention on street demonstrations and occupations of squares. In the view of myself and Jörg Nowak, the negligence of strikes in accounts and analyses of the current cycle of protest is the flipside of a focus on middle-class mobilisations, which betrays the class bias of journalists and scholars alike.

Moving beyond the silence on conflicts around work, we are charting, in a special issue of the journal Workers of the World, the manifold forms of strikes that are occurring around the globe in a conjuncture of crisis. We contend that even if there is no evidence for an increase in strikes on a global scale, there are novel economic and political dynamics triggered by them that merit our attention.

Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few political commentators and social scientists who infer from declining strike incidence in the global north that conflicts around work are a dying form of social confrontation. Labour scholars have responded to this claim in various ways. Gregor Gall emphasises that workers nowadays often air their grievances with actions other than strikes, for example overtime bans or work-to-rule. It follows that the decline in strike incidence in the global north cannot be equated with a decline in labour conflict, and that labour scholarship should not be focused exclusively on the strike weapon. Beverly Silver, in contrast, looks at the shifting geographical patterns of capital accumulation. She suggests that the shifts have led to a relocation of conflict from the old capitalist centres to “emerging” and newly industrialised economies, arguing that “where capital goes, labour-capital conflict shortly follows. This suggests that we should examine the question of labour conflict from a global perspective, which calls into question whether the assumption of a decline holds beyond the old centres.

Both observations are correct; however, it is also important to stress that the strike weapon is not an instrument of the past even in countries where strike incidence has declined markedly. In fact, large-scale strikes have been occurring around the globe in the wake of the global financial and economic crisis – not just in the “emerging” economies and the newly industrialising countries, but also in the old capitalist centres. Accordingly, the aim of our special issue is (a) to show that workers across the globe continue to resort to large-scale strikes – and, in so doing, cause significant economic and political upheaval, (b) to explore the motivations behind their decision to down tools, and (c) analyse the political-economic contexts in which strikes take place and the effects that strikes have on these contexts.ww

In line with our global orientation, this special issue contains three contributions looking in-depth at the global north and, more specifically, the Eurozone, and three that deal with “emerging” economies. It concludes with a comparative analysis of strikes in the global north and south.

The articles on the Eurozone cover France, Germany, Portugal and Spain. They converge insofar as they argue that the labour movements in these countries find themselves in a defensive position vis-à-vis the ruling blocs that exercise political and economic control. In a situation of deep crisis, workers try to defend themselves against onslaughts on their jobs, wages and working conditions as well as their social and political rights. At the same time, it becomes clear that the conditions of struggle vary greatly across the national borders inside the Eurozone.

Along these lines, Hugo Dias and Lídia Fernandes highlight in their contribution that the Portuguese governments and the EU responded to the Eurozone crisis by imposing austerity on the country, to which the unions reacted with defensive political strikes. In this situation, a shift in political opportunity structures took place, which was reflected, first, in the rapprochement of the unions and the social movements invested in the struggle against cuts and, second, in the transnationalisation of stoppages: there was a strike against austerity affecting the entire Iberian peninsula on 14 November 2012.

Similarly, Maria Gorosarri and Luciole Sauviat analyse the strikes in recent years against the dominant government strategies of crisis management in France and Spain. They argue that there is a marked difference in the dynamics of the strikes in these two countries: whereas the stoppages in Spain came close to a mass strike in a Luxemburgian sense with new forms of working class consciousness and organisation emerging, the same cannot be said of France.

Looking at Germany, Stefanie Hürtgen argues that the recent strike wave in the railway sector can be seen as a reflection of a deep-seated social crisis in the country. This crisis was born out of the deregulation and fragmentation of labour relations, and is reflected in the privatisation and marketisation of the German railway system. The “small” train drivers’ union GdL successfully led the opposition against the changes and did so by using the strike weapon. When the Merkel government responded by cracking down on the right to strike for smaller unions with a new law, the GdL managed to bypass this crackdown.

In the emerging economies, strike waves also occurred in recent years that had significant economic and political effects. In many cases, they follow more closely the pattern of traditional industrial action in the sense that they are confrontations with private employers and aim at improving wages and working conditions. Nevertheless, they have important political implications because they address the configurations of labour relations and the structures of domination in the countries in question.

Correspondingly, Jörg Nowak compares strikes and their links to political protest movements in Brazil and India. He highlights the fact that large strike waves in the automobile industry (India) and the construction and public sectors (Brazil) preceded the emergence of political protest movements with significant middle-class involvement. These movements were directed against corruption and also, in the Brazilian case, against public transport fare hikes, the state of the public sector and the government in general. A key difference was that workers in India were more politicised than workers in Brazil; however, for the street protests, the reverse was true: Whereas the Indian activists just lambasted corruption, the Brazilian movement had a broader political agenda.

Luis Campos and Bruno Dobrusin analyse the development of labour conflict under the Kirchner and Dilma governments in Argentina and Brazil in recent years. They suggest that there were implicit arrangements between labour and capital and alliances between centre-left governments and trade unions in the run-up to the crisis. However, the precarious balance between the neo-developmentalist and neoliberal economic policies, which was installed by governments in both countries, could no longer be sustained once the countries faced economic difficulties from 2012 onwards. In turn, strike incidence surged and the pre-crisis arrangements and alliances eroded.

Looking at China, Tim Pringle also observes indications for growing worker militancy and strike incidence. In his view, this development has two effects: on the one hand, the Chinese union federation ACFTU is stepping up efforts to sustain its claim to represent workers; on the other hand, a layer of independent worker representatives is emerging that is supported by NGOs.

The contribution of Hermes Augusto Costa and Hugo Dias concludes the special issue. They take up the theme of the “general strike”, which is discussed in several of the other articles, and do so by engaging in a comparison across the North/South divide that focuses on Portugal and India. In their view, the general strike is a defensive form of struggle in the neoliberal age chosen because other means of influencing political decision-making are absent. In the Portuguese case, the strikes took place against the backdrop of the imposition of austerity through governments and the troika; in the Indian case, the background was the liberalisation of the economy and the insensitivity of governments to union demands in a situation of general economic insecurity. All in all, Costa and Dias say that unions in the north have much to learn from unions in the south in the sense that they have to reach out to marginalised and precarious sectors of the population.

In the editorial, we give an overview of current trends and changes in the form of strikes. These concern the political context of strikes, the actors involved, the tactics and strategies chosen, and the overall dynamics triggered. We find five noteworthy patterns:

(1) Geographical expansion: Various strikes in recent years expanded beyond their initial sectoral or geographical extension; individual strikes were perceived as being linked, which transformed them into strike waves. In ‘emerging’ and newly industrialised economies such as Egypt, China, Brazil and South Africa, there was a rapid and uncontrolled geographical diffusion of strikes at the national level.

(2) Constituency: The people on strike often were not part of what is often conceived of as the classical union constituency of permanently employed industrial workers. In some cases, the overlap was in fact very limited. In Europe as well as in Brazil, South Africa and India, significant public sector strikes took place. If the strikes occurred in more traditional, industrial sectors, precarious and contract workers were often the protagonists, for example automobile workers in India, miners in South Africa, and migrant workers employed in the industrial sector in China.

(3) Relations of representation: The shift in the constituency of strikes was accompanied, in various countries, by tensions between the established trade union bureaucracy and the strikers, who called into question the legitimacy of existing unions and their claim to represent workers.

(4) Repression: Violent crackdowns have always been part and parcel of the repertoire with which state authorities have tried to deal with stoppages, but there seems to be an escalation in recent years, both in terms of the ways in which repressive state apparatuses have intervened in strikes, and in terms of recent development at the legal and policy level concerning the right to strike.

(5) Political context: The political conditions under which strikes take place have changed significantly. In an environment of repression, strikes take on a political dimension almost by default because they defy the authorities; if they happen in the public sector, this is also the case because the government is the employer or controls the employer directly.

All in all, the editors contend that what we are witnessing is a return of the ‘mass strike’ broadly in line with Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding of the term. Apart from mass participation, she argued that mass strikes veer between economic and political goals and have a discernible impact on the political scene; that they have a mobilising character for the working class as a whole; and that they are not controlled by union bureaucracies and spread beyond their geographical starting point or the sector where a strike was called. In a nutshell, a mass strike lays bare the class antagonism and the class domination inherent in any capitalist social formation by creating a situation of polarisation between labour and capital.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it: “What results is a huge, colourful image of a general confrontation between labour and capital, which reflects (…) the variegation of the social whole in its entirety”.

*Jörg Nowak is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies in the City University of Hong Kong, and one of the editors of the Asian Labour Review. He currently works on strikes and social movements in Brazil and India, Chinese overseas investments, Labour Geography and Althusserian Marxism.

Alexander Gallas
Alexander Gallas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Kassel, and one of the editors of the Global Labour Journal. He has a PhD and an MA in Sociology, both from the University of Lancaster, and a Magister Artium in Philosophy from FU Berlin. In his monograph The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Brill, 2015), he analyses the reorganisation of class relations under the Conservative governments in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.

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