Temporary migrant workers in Australian agriculture
Logistics as violence

Workers of the Globalising World

by Verity Burgmann on February 25, 2020

Since the 1970s, increase in capital’s bargaining power vis-à-vis labour has caused immense difficulties for labour movements. Workforces have responded by developing different ways to protect themselves. As new expressions of working-class organisation and mobilisation emerge to better battle with capitalist globalisation, aging and less agile trade union forms decline and even disappear. In this blog post I provide a set of reflections on this topic, which my new book Globalization and Labour in the Twenty-First Century addresses in more detail.

Corporations benefit from postulations that globalisation, like the weather, must be endured. Helpful, then, in assessing working-class resistance to globalisation are currents within Western Marxism that critique economic determinism and its corollary, fatalism, for example the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, E.P. Thompson and Antonio Negri. My book identifies eight interconnected features of globalization that seriously challenge labour movements and presents case studies of workers’ reactions from around the world, to evaluate the emergence of new ways of opposing capital.

1. Confronting post-Fordist production

Workers’ novel methods to disrupt post-Fordist ‘lean production’ include exploiting corporations’ reliance on Just-in-Time production, which renders them peculiarly vulnerable to industrial disruption. Workers in one small part of vertically integrated supply chains can halt production of entire chains to press their demands, for example in automobile manufacturing in the USA in the 1990s and in China in mid-2010, when strike action at Honda’s Nanhai parts plant in Foshan triggered a strike-wave that secured significant industrial gains. The growth of smaller, decentralised, casualised workplaces has been confronted by faster and more flexible forms of mobilisation than traditional union-building, such as the nationally coordinated walkouts of staff at Walmart stores and fast-food outlets in the USA, generating publicity that pressures employers to improve wages.

2. Reversing decline by going online?

Computer-mediated communication has facilitated new ways of mobilising collective action, for example, cyber-unionism as a cost-effective way to organise post-Fordist workforces, and YouTube videos to rally support during industrial disputes. The interactivity of Web 2.0 has been utilised effectively by unions, even to the point of virtual industrial action, for instance the mass picket in ‘Second Life’ to support workers at IBM Italy on 27 September 2007, organised by Rappresentenza Sindicale Unitaria and Union Network International.

 3. Subverting the shift in production

Militant new labour movements are emerging in lower-wage economies to which capital has relocated. China, especially the Pearl River Delta, is a major site of workers’ struggles. The Delhi industrial belt is another focal point of working-class composition, indicated by significant disputes at Maruti Suzuki and ASTI Electronics in Gurgaon. In sweatshops in developing economies, workers have allied with civil-society actors to name and shame corporations, because workers in horizontally integrated supply chains such as clothing cannot exercise industrial power as effectively as in vertically integrated supply chains.

4. Countering Capital Mobility

The capital mobility that makes labour transnationalism necessary also encourages it. Workers’ organisations in developed economies have united with those in developing countries to overcome the corporate divide-and-rule strategy of capital flight or threatened capital flight, which puts downward pressures on wages everywhere. Transnational corporate structures have helped foster novel forms of transnational labour mobilisation: injury to vulnerable workers can be resisted by stronger workers elsewhere. Global Unions now present a more coherent united front to improve wages and conditions internationally; and less formal transnational labour operations have proliferated, aided by computer-mediated communication.

5. Confounding workforce fragmentation

Workforces have become even more heterogeneous as globalisation draws subsistence farmers and unpaid domestic labourers into waged labour, and encourages migration within and between nations. While capital is highly mobile, labour is restricted and often vilified if it migrates. Traditional unions have frequently failed to represent such workers, for instance Asian workers in Eastern Europe. However, many unions are counteracting increased workforce fragmentation by collective strategies and solidarity actions, focusing on organisation of marginalised workers, as shown in examples from Japan, Germany, the USA, UK, continental Europe, Australia, Mexico and Nicaragua.

6. Opposing unemployment and precarity

Precarity, underemployment and unemployment are crucial features of globalisation, adversely affecting employed workers, who fear job loss so accept lower pay and intolerable overtime. In Japan, unions are concerned with ‘karōshi’ (death from overwork), but their responses differ. Where unions fail to represent the precariat or ignore unemployed workers, new organizations have emerged to organize and mobilize. For example, at the Chung Hong Electronics factory in the Wroclaw-Kobierzyce Special Employment Zone in Poland, temporary workers’ struggles have been led by left-wing group Inicjatywna Pracownicza, because the established union declined this role. At FaSinPat in Argentina and elsewhere, workers threatened with factory closure have occupied and recuperated workplaces.

7. Protecting the public

Incessant marketisation characterises globalisation. Constant pillaging of the public realm and erosion of the commons adversely affect increasing numbers of citizens. Communities therefore become a terrain for struggle; class confrontation extends beyond the workplace. Unions around the world have used their resources to lead broad coalitions against privatizations and public-sector cuts. Significant battles include the ‘water wars’ in Bolivia and Ireland, Iraq oilworkers’ campaigns to protect national control of Iraqi oil, and South Korean railway workers’ strikes 2013-2014 to prevent railway privatization.

8. Raging against the Rich

Transnational agencies of globalising capitalism have inflicted regimes of austerity to manufacture crisis conditions that aid redistribution from labour to capital, commencing with Structural Adjustment Programs in Africa and South America late last century. Since the Global Financial Crisis, austerity has been imposed in many countries; and labour movements have often led opposition to such policies. In Greece since 2008, workers have offered resistance by establishing new ‘base’ unions when mainstream unions failed to articulate popular hostility to austerity.

Conclusion: Striking Back Against Empire

Workers have acted imaginatively in the encounter with globalization. Where existing unions have been unable or unwilling to defend workers’ interests, workers have often formed new organizations, sometimes inspired by anarchism and syndicalism. The forces of globalisation that have caused workers grief both encourage and enable them to develop creative responses. Resistance to globalization is far from futile, because globalizing capital needs labour for its reproduction, hence the continuing capacity of labour to contest the power of capital and influence its development. And, unlike capital, which needs labour, labour can exist independently of capital. This makes cooperative forms of production achievable, though difficult, within capitalism, as workers’ control episodes indicate; and points to possible transformation beyond capitalism.

Verity Burgmann
Verity Burgmann is an honorary Adjunct Professor of Politics in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University and Director of the Reason in Revolt Project, an online database at www.reasoninrevolt.net.au of primary source documents of Australian radicalism from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. In 2013 she was Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack Professor at the Free University in Berlin. From 1981 to 2012 she taught at the University of Melbourne and became its first female Professor of Political Science in 2003. She was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1999. Her publications focus on labour movements, environmental movements, anti-corporate movements, protest movements, radical ideologies and utopianism.

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