People out of Place: Globalization, Human Rights, and the Citizenship Gap

By Alison Brysk; Gershon Shafir | Go to book overview
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7

Deflated Citizenship

Labor Rights in a Global Era

GAY W. SEIDMAN

The tensions among globalization, national states, and the protection of individuals are perhaps nowhere more evident than in struggles to protect workers in developing countries. For the past century, labor rights have been defined through workers' localized struggles, in conflicts that have almost invariably been resolved through state regulation at the workplace. True, labor rights are increasingly discussed in universalistic terms: at the tail end of the twentieth century, there was broad international agreement about a core set of labor rights-freedom of association, freedom from bonded and child labor, freedom from discrimination-but the actual protection of those rights has been through mechanisms linked to citizenship, with more limited scope. In recent decades, however, globalization seems to have undermined the ability of national states to protect those rights, and weakened organized labor; many unions, especially in developing countries, seek new strategies to deal with newly mobile capital, in ways that highlight potential tensions between a language of universal rights and citizenship claims within the nation-state.

Since the industrial revolution, political citizenship has proved an essential component of workers' gains. Although militant labor movements generally focus on employers, for the past century labor's organizing strategies have almost invariably also targeted the state. Repeatedly, labor has used members' political clout to push democratic states to create social security nets, but even authoritarian states have sometimes regulated working conditions (Przeworski 1985; Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens 1992). While unions certainly negotiate with business, most labor movements have long viewed the political arena as crucial: national states set ground rules for collective bargaining, and state intervention is a critical factor in workplace conflicts. Around the world, militant labor movements have used the language of citizenship, often citing T. H. Marshall, to argue that full inclusion requires that states set a floor under citizens' living and working conditions, and to demand that states regulate the workplace in ways that grant greater dignity to workers and their families (Seidman 1994; Koo 2000).

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