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A theory of strikes? Or strikes as actions in building workers’ power?

by Maurizio Atzeni on June 20, 2019

Mass strikes and social movements in Brazil and India, by Jörg Nowak is a very timely and important book, which I think can help to reflect on the forms of organisation and action of the working class in the global context, redefining the theoretical assumptions that have dominated the field. The book’s main aspiration is in fact to provide a new theory of strikes that can move beyond Eurocentric perspectives based on institutionally established trade unions (called corporatist trade unions in the book) and workplaces, as a focus of organisation and action, toward a spatially engaged conceptualisation of labour conflict. The author supports this theoretical perspective with an empirical qualitative based analysis of two contemporary cases of mass strikes that occurred between 2010 and 2014 in two non-core countries, India and Brazil, in the automotive and construction sector respectively. 

The book is opened by an introduction in which very clearly the author poses a set of questions around which the book is organised, in view of setting “a new theory of strikes that goes beyond a focus on trade unions and the workplace” (p.3) and the social democratic Eurocentric model that has dominated the field: which organisational forms emerged in the mass strikes that are studied in this book? which social constellations and problems find their expression in those organisational forms? what was the significance of the spatial dimension for the trajectory of the strikes and the forms of organisations? (p.3). The second chapter presents a critical overview of existing theoretical frameworks in ‘strikes analysis’, highlighting limitations and insights from three main lines of research: trade unions-focused industrial relations studies; non-workplace based conceptualisations of strikes and organisations; and labour geography spatial patterns and their influence on studies of conflict and organisation. The chapter goes deep into the critical discussion of each line of research pondering their perspective relevance for the non- core country cases presented later and is very rich in terms of potential insights for broader discussions on workers and class organisations. The list of authors/issues discussed is impressive. Just to name a few: Richard Hyman’s sociology of trade unionism, Michael Burawoy’s and Paul Edwards’ studies of conflict and the labour process, Rosa Luxemburg’s mass strike conceptualisation; social movement studies and social movement unionism debates (Eddie Webster, Ronaldo Munck, Peter Waterman); and Andrew Herod’s spatial agency of workers. However, I think that this ‘encyclopaedic’ theoretical presentation, though in general justified in the context of the book (apart from the sections on social movement literature and the 1950s and 1960s studies on the institutionalisation of conflict which I didn’t find very relevant), could have been better organised in separate chapters following the three main lines of discussion.

Chapter 3 locates the cases in global political economy trends and dynamics. Here, I think the discussion of informality/precariousness and of the role of transnational capital in producing similar dynamics of exploitation across different geographical locations, is key to informing and justifying the case comparison. This comparison is based methodologically on the idea of the ‘incorporated comparison’ proposed by Philip McMichael that considers systemic phenomena that can be comparatively explained using ‘parts as moments in the self-forming whole’.   

Chapter 4 and 5 are dedicated to the detailed analysis of four cases of strikes, mobilisation and workers organisation that occurred in the construction industry in Brazil (the Belo Monte dam construction and the Pecem thermoelectric power plant) and in the India automotive industry (Maruti Suzuki in New Delhi and the Pune industrial area and Bajaj Auto in the same industrial area). The cases and the mass strikes described can be seen as part of a global working class reaction to global trends of increasing exploitation and precarisation of work and more generally to the ever present reactivity of workers to changes in the form of capitalist exploitation. But I think it would be difficult to “conceive of these strikes as a rather early phase of a new formation of the working classes in the emerging economies” (p.25). Are these new working classes forming around which kind of production/consumption pattern? Does this pattern repeat itself across countries? Can we establish a departure from the Fordist industrial model that provided the ground for the emergence of the early trade unions movement?  In my view what the cases clearly show are not early processes of class formation but rather the use of similar methods of action, struggle and organisation by industrial workers in different contexts, workplaces, sectors of activities and political/cultural traditions that put into question the centrality of the workplace and the post-Second World War social democratic model of trade unions as form of class organisation. This is an already an important departure point in thinking about new forms of working class action and organisation 

I am particularly sympathetic with the author’s critique of existing labour studies for the limited Eurocentric focus and I have taken a similar position in previous publications (see: http://futureswewant.net/maurizio-atzeni-precarious-work), arguing most recently in Work, Employment and Society for the existence of a trade union fetishism in studies of workers organisation. Nowak’s book clearly demonstrates how workers have framed their grievances building on both workplace and non-workplace issues and how processes of self-organisation constantly bring new life to existing trade unions institutions. Thus there is certainly a need to move theoretically and methodologically toward new conceptualisations that can help us to frame workers’ action and organisation in a changed context both in core and non-core countries.

The author argues that the book’s main aim is to contribute to these theoretical advances by providing a “new theory of strikes in which trade unions are not the central type of organisation” (p. 34). I was left a bit puzzled by the decision to focus on strikes rather than on forms of class and workers’ organisation and at various points in the book, like in the quotation above, in the three questions posed at the beginning or in statement that “the theory of strikes that will be constructed in this chapter focuses on the forms of organisation that facilitate strikes and emerge from them” (p.25). Here, the author himself seems to implicitly deviate from strikes.  

There are two issues that I think can be misleading when talking about a “theory of strikes”. The first is that strikes, even in their variant as mass strikes, have historically been associated with that part of the working class deriving its collective power from the possibility of withdrawing from work. In this sense the form of action that more directly builds on the Marxian labour capital opposition in the sphere of production. The cases presented in the book are from industrial sectors which are archetypical of this opposition in the sphere of production comprising groups of workers with a real power of disruption. I wonder about the general applicability of a theory of strikes for those groups of workers representing the majority of working class people who have considerably less strategic power or are not employed in growth led business sectors. The second issue is more methodological but not less important. Strikes are the result, the ex-post of workers’ independent organising, which is in turn rooted in the exploitation and solidarity generated by the capitalist labour process. Strikes can help build power and organisation, especially when non workplace issues are framed in and when the strikes reach the national political level, and can as well provide fertile soil for the consolidation of new informal groups challenging and revitalising existing trade unions. However, strikes represent one of the factors that can explain a general theory about workers’ power and working class formation rather than a theory in itself.

There’s a long tradition of workplace ethnographic and historical studies of the working class that have looked at strikes, events of mobilisation and labour conflict and at the dynamics of workers’ organisational forms from a Marxist perspective. The book reframes classic theoretical concerns of the left on how to understand the working class and its forms of action and organisation in novel ways, broadening the theoretical and geographical focus of the investigation.

Are mass strikes and the organisational models associated with these as described in the cases a possible pattern of working class action in other emerging economies? Answers to this question will be the scope of new research but this book has certainly provided a solid terrain to build on.

Maurizio Atzeni
Maurizio Atzeni is a researcher based in Buenos Aires at the Center for Labour Relations, National Research Council of Argentina. He has written extensively on work and labour issues in articles and books published internationally. Among his recent publications is the book Workers and Labour in a Globalised Capitalism: theoretical themes and contemporary issues (Palgrave, 2013), in which work is analysed from the broader perspective of political economy.

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