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Re-energising global labour studies with mass strikes and social movements

by Ronaldo Munck on June 4, 2019

The main problem with much of the mainstream literature on labour and globalization is that it tends to conceive of labour as a passive victim of the new capitalist trends, the malleable material from which globalization will construct its new world order. Capital is seen as an active, mobile, forward-looking player in the globalization game, while labour is seen as static, passive and basically reactive. The game has changed, and labour seems to have few cards. Only rarely will someone point out that workers and unions have been actively involved in shaping the processes of globalization by constraining its action and also in prompting many changes in the first instance such as outsourcing and immigration. The reality is that labour has been back centre-stage since the turn of century. Unions have taken on new roles as champions of the working classes more generally and as standard bearers of the left project.

But in the vast production of knowledge and debate around globalization and its contestation since 2000 there has been very little focus on workers and their organisations. The emphasis was placed on what seemed new in terms of counter-globalization protests for example. And labour was seen as an old movement, peripheral at best in the new era, its members bought off by the state and the trade unions hopelessly weakened and past their sell by date. But for all the new identity or place-based protests a major feature of the era has been a continuous attack by capital on workers whether they are working in factories, fields or offices. The new global capitalism has an over-determining objective of suppressing workers’ wages and preventing the (re)emergence of a powerful labour movement, which might constrain its ability to maximise profits. The World Bank in its 2019 World Development Report has recognised the problem posed by resurgent labour to the untrammelled rule of capital and calls for fewer regulations protecting workers to allow for easier hiring and firing especially in the Global South, while promoting the informal employment model beyond the reach of state regulation.

With his new book Mass Strikes and Social Movements in Brazil and India: Popular Mobilisation in the Long Depression, Jörg Nowak helps us fill that gap. The focus and leading research question of this book are the new forms of organisation that workers create during mass strikes.  The objective is to take us ‘beyond a narrow focus on workers as the subjects of change or the workplace as the central place of conflict’ and recognize that some forms of popular organization are often invisible. These new types of organization typically engage workers who do not organize in traditional union forms. Nowak refers to his focus as being ‘the dialectics of the specific type of action connected to the workplace (the strike) and its power resources (to block or impede production and profitmaking) with actors or social forms of organisation that emerge beyond the workplace’. This to me is very welcome but quite similar to the social movement unionism tradition going back to the early 1980s. Nowak does mention this literature but fairly briefly, his main emphasis seems to be engagement with the industrial relations (IR) paradigm. My sense is that there would be much to be gained by taking up some of these earlier approaches that did really break with the hegemonic IR tradition and, most certainly initiated the non-Northern centric approach that Nowak advocates.

Nowak goes on in Chapter 2 to lay out what he sees as a new theory of strikes that will develop ‘a broader perspective that goes beyond the workplace and the trade union as the central ‘places’ of mobilisation and organisation of workers’. Again the mainstream IR approach is the interlocutor as is its focus on employers, unions and the state. Nowak goes through the standard criticisms from within IR and seems surprised the tradition survived but, of course, this theory or paradigm was embedded in state and trade union practices and could this survive what were ultimately academic critiques. As an alternative, this book makes ‘reference to Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of mass strikes, a line of research that broke with Eurocentrism already in 1906’ from which a new radical approach can be developed. Far be it from me to question the value of Luxemburg’s inspirational writings on the mass strike but I do not see this as providing an overarching theory of strikes from a non ‘Eurocentric’ perspective. It was a radical European perspective at a certain stage of capitalist development but I cannot see it providing what Nowak is looking for, it looks just like a radical left gloss to some extent. More promising, perhaps is the analysis in terms of space/place and its relation to the global/local dimension of labour struggles and all that lies ‘in between’.

There is a further introductory chapter that examines the ‘patterns of strike waves across the history of capitalism and its connection with Kondratieff cycles in order to locate the recent global strike wave between 2010 and 2014 in long-term tendencies’. I do not doubt that there are still serious debates around the relevance of Kondratieff waves but I am not sure if they can just be dropped into the narrative as a given here. Nor do I follow why ‘the last global strike wave occurred at the end of a Kondratieff cycle. The enigma that this is the first global strike wave that does not witness the rise of a new generation of trade union organisations remains to be solved’.  I am not sure there is a real ‘enigma’ here nor quite sure that we can tie in strike waves (was there one 2010-2014?) and the level of trade union organization in this way. Unionisation has been increasing, albeit unevenly, and there is considerable debate around the future of trade unionism as part of a global social counter-movement.*

The main part of the book is dedicated to case studies of strikes in Brazil (construction sector) and India (car sector) which are based on close research, interviews and observation. These chapters contribute hugely to our understanding of current working class levels of organization in both countries and, perhaps, to how the BRICS differ from both the industrialised countries and the ‘developing’ world. They thus add to the now flourishing Chinese labour studies to provide a broad comparative panorama. They demonstrate how complex the world of labour and labour organizing is and how workers find new ways to resist. What I did not find in the Brazilian case study is an example of workers reaching beyond the workplace into the community as discussed in the overall framework. In the construction sector the ‘community’ issues described seemed more like regular workplace issues to me. Thus there is a bit of a mismatch between the theory frame and the empirical studies which is quite hard to avoid to be honest.

My sense is that this is a book that is trying to relaunch the new international labour studies as a grounded global labour studies. This is, of course, to be welcomed. There is too much grand theorizing without a close appreciation of what is happening ‘on the ground’. There are problems associated with ‘outsider’ research such as this but I believe the author is cognizant of them. There are issues around a quite orthodox Marxism that is seldom interrogated and taken as a given. There are, however, many ideas that can be taken forward and debated from this book. It deserves close critical reading. I think Nowak is incorrect to argue that social movement analysts do not discuss labour, they do at least in Latin America. That will be another engagement that might produce interesting new angles and insights. I think we might scale down the ambition of this text – ‘new’ theory of strikes, new approach to labour as not just workers in a factory and ‘new’ non Eurocentric approach – and use it to re-energise global labour studies.

*see Munck, R ( 2018 ) Rethinking Global Labour: after neoliberalism (Agenda Publishing) for a general review and for a  debate with others on the prospects for trade unionism today see  https://www.greattransition.org/publication/workers-of-the-world-unite

Ronaldo Munck
Ronaldo Munck is Head of Civic Engagement at Dublin City University and a Visiting Professor of International Development at the University of Liverpool and the University of Buenos Aires. He has written widely on Latin American social movements and the impact of globalisation on labour.
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  • June 15, 2019 at 2:49 am

    One of the labor movements that Professor Munck refers to, but doesn’t discusss, in his reference to the debate on “social movement unionism,” is the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Labor Center of the Philippines. I published a book, titled KMU: BUILDING GENUINE TRADE UNIONISM IN THE PHILIPPINES, 1980-1994 back in 1996 (and have continued to publish on this since then), and I argue (and continue to argue) that KMU is one of the finest labor organizations in the world and that we can learn a lot from them. (My book is the only nation-wide study of the KMU to date.) One of the things that Filipino activists created was the welga ng bayan or “people’s strike.” This starts with a general strike, but includes shutting down all transportation, closing all businesses, shutting government offices and even the fishing folks don’t go out to fish! They pulled off two of these, two nation-wide, in the 1980s, but the repression (both legal and illegal) has kept them from repeating this. Still, there’s a lot to be learned from KMU. (If you’d like to learn more, my writings on the KMU–many with links to original articles–is at https://faculty.pnw.edu/kim-scipes/publications/#September21 .) You might also be interested–in making international links–in my 2016 edited collection, BUILDING GLOBAL LABOR SOLIDARITY IN A TIME OF ACCELERATING GLOBALIZATION (Chicago: Haymarket Books).

    • June 15, 2019 at 8:18 am

      Great feedback Kim! How about writing a contribution to the PPE pages pulling together the contribution your book and wider research makes to social movement unionism? Drop me an email if you are interested at the institutional affiliation in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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