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Shifting the theoretical terrain of workers’ power

by Tom Barnes on May 28, 2019

Review of: Jörg Nowak, Mass Strikes and Social Movements in Brazil and India: Popular Mobilisation in the Long Depression (Palgrave, 2019).

Jörg Nowak’s book represents an outstanding contribution to international labour studies, particularly for those interested in the ‘non-core’ countries of Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. Importantly, it contends that researchers have neglected Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of the ‘mass strike’. The six chapters skillfully combine radical theory with finely-detailed accounts of workers’ struggle. After beginning with an outline of the book’s main strengths, this review will outline three main criticisms. These concern problems of political-economic theory, regional divergence and collective agency and power. However, these criticisms should be considered in the context of the book’s overall line of argument which, in my view, is quite correct.

The book argues that the concept of mass strikes helps to inform a ‘theory of strikes that goes beyond a focus on trade unions and the workplace’ (p. 3). In doing so, it offers a major comparative international study which explores two sectors in two countries (construction in Brazil and automotive manufacturing in India). It intersperses data from 54 interviews in India and 70 interviews in Brazil with detailed analysis from documentary reports and secondary sources. For observers of India, the book’s analysis of strike action at Bajaj Auto is the first detailed scholarly account of automotive struggles in Pune district, which represents one of the three largest auto-producing clusters in the country.

The book argues that trade unions are not necessarily the main actors in strikes, that there is no necessary distinction between organised and spontaneous action, and argues that workplaces need not be the main locus of mobilisation. Labour research outside the affluent core suggests that each of these assumptions of ‘corporate trade unionism’ is wrong. Chapter 2 argues that criticisms of this conservative model, including well-known works by Richard Hyman, Michael Burawoy and others, do not go far enough and that Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis from 1906 provides the missing antidote. According to the book’s reading of this Marxist classic, a mass strike spreads between firms through workers’ own actions—there is little central coordination—and it becomes ‘a “political event”, characterised by widespread discussion in the media, by politicians and in the public as a whole’ (p. 46). The book’s empirical cases represent examples of ‘worker-led mass strikes’ which spread within a single sector as ‘sectoral copycat strikes’. These are relatively offensive mass strikes which, in my view, resonate with Silver’s (2003) concept of ‘Marx-type’ labour struggles in the non-core countries which she contrasted with more defensive ‘Polanyi-type’ struggles in the core.

Such a comprehensive book inevitably invites critical questions. Unfortunately, I felt that the theoretical material on Kondratieff waves and unequal exchange did not add much in terms of explanations for mass strikes—that is, I don’t think that their inclusion or omission would’ve changed the book’s main argument significantly. For example, the claim that the book’s empirical cases involve deviations from an ‘ideal type’ of unequal exchange (p. 103) makes one wonder why it was necessary to include this theory.

Second, the book could have drawn firmer conclusions about the extent of variegation between regions or localities within countries. At the local scale in India, the book shows that conditions for unionism in the state of Maharashtra are considerably less hostile than in the state of Haryana. In Haryana, employers and regional state institutions have colluded to make unionisation extremely difficult and, on many previous occasions, impossible.

For Brazil, my (non-expert) reading of Chapter 5 is also that there is a considerable divergence between labour politics in Ceará and Pará states. In the latter case, the book foregrounds the brutal repression of activists, including assassinations, beatings and harassment by police. It also seems that the state institutional apparatus implemented to control dissent in both places was partially broken by workers in the Belo Monte dam case. These workers were radicalised by environmental and indigenous opposition to the dam’s construction as well as by inter-union rivalry.

My point is that these regional differences often appear to be as important as national or global trends in shaping the outcomes of strikes. The idea that there are different regional or local ‘labour control regimes’ provides a way to frame this variegation. The book mentions Andy Jonas’ work but could have gone further in articulating the operation of different regimes in different regions. (Among other scholars, one could also look at Burawoy (1985) and Anner (2015) for insights.)

A specific issue that arises in regional comparison is the different outcome in the Maruti Suzuki case. I would characterise this outcome as qualified defeat for workers. As the book notes, around 1800 contract workers and 546 permanent workers lost their jobs as a consequence of the violent clash in July 2012—and dozens became long-term prisoners. This cannot be described as anything other than a major defeat, although qualified by the fact that new workers hired at Maruti benefited from much higher wages and, for some, union recognition. Therefore, I think that Jörg is a bit optimistic, in this particular case, to conclude that the ‘activities of a large number of different actors thus created a larger perspective on Indian capitalism that went way beyond a focus on workplace issues’ (p. 149). Maruti is the one case in his research in which the cost of significant improvements in wages and conditions for future workers was the decimation of the company workforce. That said, he is correct to note that ‘the overall model of employment has not changed’ in India (p. 155)—that is, the contract labour system which creates major divisions between permanent and insecure workers.

My final comment concerns the book’s handling of theoretical questions over workers’ collective agency and power. In my reading, the strikes had different outcomes for different groups of workers, reflecting social and economic divisions among them. This is particularly true for India where there are major divisions between permanent workers and temporary/contract workers, as the book notes. The MSEU at Maruti had a paternalistic attitude towards contract workers in which unionists claimed to act in their best interests yet did not necessarily treat them equally or inclusively. The VKKS at Bajaj Auto, too, was focused on permanent workers. This problem typifies unionism in Indian auto manufacturing.

In relation to the debates about worker agency within labour geography, which the book discusses, we might therefore say that workers leverage collective power differentially depending, to a significant extent, upon divisions such as these. Some of these divisions reflect different occupational groups or different terms of employment, as Andrew Warren’s recent work shows. Others are social or cultural, including some of the ‘non-class collective identities’ mentioned in Chapter 2. There are many cases when the divisions between auto workers in India reflect regional, linguistic and caste divisions, especially in the supply chain where most workers are employed.

The importance of these economic and social divisions among workers means that a theory of strikes may benefit from stronger theorisation of differentiated power, agency and interests. That is why I think it is too simplistic to characterise parallel sociological discussions about resource mobilisation as ‘rational choice’, as Jörg does. The ‘power resources approach’ can, in some contexts, help us to distinguish these divisions in order to explain why some groups of workers benefit from struggles more than others. I agree that some scholars have wrongly deployed a rational choice approach but the implication that all scholars within this tradition deploy similar assumptions (e.g., p. 65) is unreasonable. Rational choice denotes assumptions of utilitarianism, methodological individualism and blandly-positivistic research which the vast majority of critical labour scholars would reject.

These and other possible criticisms aside, the book is a major achievement and deserves to be read as widely as possible. It makes important conclusions about common problems of resurgent political authoritarianism and political crisis on the left. On the first point, authoritarian neoliberalism now seems to be a common feature. In both countries, the left’s marginalisation is related to ‘the lack of a political project and a coherent narrative’ which ‘limited the effectivity of the strikes beyond the economic realm’ (p. 295). Thus, the ‘strikes broke out into an ideological vacuum’ (p. 297). This critical problem distinguishes this global strike wave from previous epochs, including the worker-led political upheavals in Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and the Philippines in the 1980s, and reflects the contradictions and the decline of the PT in Brazil and the communist left in India. Thus, this book helps us to understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of strike waves in recent times.

Tom Barnes
Tom Barnes is an economic sociologist and ARC DECRA fellow at Australian Catholic University (ACU). His research primarily focuses on insecure, precarious and informal work in Asia (especially India) and Australia. He is involved in two current ARC-funded projects which focus on the demise of Australian automotive manufacturing and the impact on workers and communities in closure-affected regions. He completed his PhD in political economy at the University of Sydney in 2011. He has written two books, Informal Labour in Urban India: Three Cities, Three Journeys (Routledge, 2015) and Making Cars in the New India: Industry, Precarity & Informality (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is currently formulating a new project on labour movements and global warehousing/logistics.

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