Labour and Globalisation

Nasir Tyabji

Ronaldo Munck (Ed). Labour and Globalisation: Results and Prospects (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press: 2004) pp. xv+254, pb, price not stated.

The processes of liberalisation, of both the internal functioning of national economies and their external economic relations, together with the privatisation of public assets have affected the working class movement very severely. Indeed, the logic of the processes seems in some cases (Thatcherite Britain comes immediately to mind) to be as much oriented to breaking the inherited institutions of working class solidarity as to following the doctrines of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. This particular form of globalisation, noticeably conditioned by the unilateral play of interests of imperialism, has accompanied the collapse of the socialist system. While international solidarity has been visible around issues such as opposition to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the institutionalisation of the World Social Forum, these have been demonstrations of joint working class and middle class action on political and social issues rather than of direct working class opposition to the functioning of the key institutions of imperialism, the transnational corporations (TNCs), the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organisation.

The main institutional forms of international working class solidarity are the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and the International Federation of Free Trade Unions (IFTU). With the breakaway of the trade unions of the imperialist countries from the WFTU in the later 1940s and the subsequent formation of IFTU, internationally, the former became closely aligned to the socialist bloc while the latter was substantially a labour wing of imperialist interests. Since the collapse of the socialist world, both federations have changed their orientations somewhat, but the IFTU remains dominated by the trade unions of the imperialist countries. Within the WFTU, there is a much greater representation of some, at least, of the trade union federations of the third world countries. It is significant in this context that the only article in this book that refers to the WFTU discusses the question of international solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid.

In fact, the article in question raises the point that immediately arises in the reader’s mind when the predominance of discussion of the IFTU becomes apparent from a scrutiny of the book. The question is: with the collapse of the WFTU, can the IFTU be transformed into an effective and democratic body genuinely representative of the global worker? (p.146). There would appear to be two steps necessary for this to happen. The first is the actual inclusion of trade union federations from the third world within the IFTU and the second is the reflection of workers’ interests (as opposed to those of imperialism or of national capitals of various kinds) in the positions that the IFTU takes up. The question of ‘core’labour standards or of child labour (both discussed in this book) show that it is difficult to disentangle the opposition to measures proposed against child labour, for instance, voiced by third world trade unions, from the interests of those sections of national capital represented by the globalised handicrafts industries.

The book consists of an Introduction by the editor and twelve papers, divided into three sections: Global Dimensions, Spatial Dimensions and Social Dimensions. From a political economy point of view these might be better characterised as papers that deal with the (IFTU) response to changes in the world economy, those that deal with trade union response to pan national organisations (the European Union and NAFTA), those dealing with specific situations of conflict (the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the Liverpool dockers’ strike, international action against Rio Tinto and within the civil aviation industry), and the disputes over imperialist intervention in areas such as core labour standards and child labour. Finally, there are three articles examining trade union strategies in more general terms, a couple of them rather imbued with petty bourgeois idealism.

The most interesting articles are certainly the ones dealing with the South African case and with Rio Tinto. The first brings out the relationship successfully forged by a wing of the trade union movement led by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) between militant struggles for workers’ rights and the movement against the apartheid regime. What is of interest is the fact that although SACTU was not communist dominated, it affiliated with WFTU, because the latter took up an explicit position against apartheid. Although the other South African Federations, affiliated to IFTU, were also opposed to racialism, they remained dominated by white workers and took up workplace issues of immediate importance to their members. In the more recent period, SACTU has joined other South African Federations by joining IFTU. This decision was taken despite opposition from some Asian Federations (noticeably that of the Philippines) who felt that SACTU’s inherited prestige should be used wrest concessions from IFTU in terms of organisational changes which would strengthen the voice of third world federations. The authors of the article hold the view that this was a correct decision on the part of SACTU, in that IFTU incorporates the experiences of many years of engagement on workers’ demands, however narrow its perspective. The trade union movement cannot afford, in their view, to ignore this legacy and build an international trade union structure afresh.

While the South African case discusses the question of the appropriate institutional arrangement for international coordination of the trade union movement, the Rio Tinto case examines international worker solidarity against the actions of an individual TNC. Rio Tinto had been, traditionally, a corporation that opposed unions and in this it had been encouraged by the neo liberal Howard government in Australia. The campaign was led by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM). The ICEM, founded in 1995, drew together national trade unions from the mining, chemical and energy sectors. Unlike nationally centred federations and international confederations of trade unions, international trade secretariats such as ICEM provide a sectoral base that can be focused on an industry association or even on a single TNC. ICEM’s objective was to isolate Rio Tinto internationally, targeting the attack at the Annual General Meetings following the lead taken by environmentalists and indigenous people’s groups. With the withdrawal of the state from critical areas of regulation, TNCs are now vulnerable only to the perception of their investors. The ICEM was able to disassociate its campaign from one narrowly focusing on issues concerning workers in the more affluent countries where Rio Tinto operated. By taking up a broad based programme, it was able to demonstrate working class leadership on issues concerning the middle class and even smaller sections of finance capital.

This book has been published at a time when scholarly interest in the working class movement is in decline, itself a reflection of the way academic fashions mirror the material changes in the international political economy. By bringing together a series of articles dealing with the specifics of trade union organisation, both reformist and that which is ideologically guided in the struggle for a more humane social order, the book is an important source of documentary material.

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