'Unions Have No Future If They Do Not Become Truly Global Institutions'

By Guille, Howard | Social Alternatives, First Quarter 2009 | Go to article overview

'Unions Have No Future If They Do Not Become Truly Global Institutions'


Guille, Howard, Social Alternatives


The global labour movement is presented with new challenges as global capitalism continues to reform in the face of the crisis of neoliberal globalisation. To date this movement has been limited by a range of factors including sectional interests and over-reliance on procedural rights for labour protections. A new approach to protecting global labour from the market is needed, that transcends the current trend to apply social democratic/liberal approaches on an international scale, is inclusive of all those who undertake labour around the world, and propagates international standards that apply to all. Organised unions remain the main organisational base in the global labour movement and thus have a crucial role in this new approach.

'Wall Street built a wooden house, stuffed it with flammable material, set it on fire, and then poured gasoline on the blaze' (Gross 2009). This is Slate Magazine attributing blame for the financial crisis. But, despite their best efforts, financiers are not the gravediggers of capitalism. Neoliberal globalisation might be collapsing but at the cost of immense pain and hardship for workers, producers and communities across the world. Moreover, since crises are the chance to get rid of superfluous assets and ideas, there is little wonder that some voices at World Economic Forum (WEF) in early 2009 welcomed the opportunity to create a 'better globalisation' (WEF 2009). My concern is whether reformed global capitalism will be more gentle towards labour and my overall question is what labour organisations should be trying to do about globalisation.

The question bears careful thought because labour unions in the developed economies of the North have been unable to alter the trajectory of neoliberal globalisation and have been further weakened by it even during the boom of the 2000s. There has been a shift in the shares of global income from labour to capital, rising inequality and a complex relocation and reorganisation of the production of goods and services. The global labour force has effectively doubled and a casual, informal and contingent 'flexible' work-force created.

The organisation of the article is straightforward. I begin with a sketch of the global position of 'labour' using this term in an expansive way to include all who are involved in the production of goods and services. The key to improving the lot of workers is to keep 'labour out of the market' and I examine some prospects in the final sections. I write as a committed unionist but with sufficient realism to accept that unions have too often favoured sectional and national interests. I also accept that some unions in the North, including in Australia and the United States, regard international action primarily as a means of protecting their members in the North. They are also over-reliant on international approaches, including the International Labour Organisation and what can be termed labour diplomacy or even labour 'tourism'. This leaves me pessimistic about whether existing labour organisation and thinking is equipped to build a new solidarity that can regain the political and industrial initiative from globalised capital. Against this, unions are the largest and probably best resourced progressive force in the world with around 175 million members and a presence in all parts of the globe. Accordingly, I will conclude with a short list of practical measures through which Australians could contribute to building labour solidarity in the immediate Asia-Pacific.

Wither Labour in Globalisation

The key feature of globalisation is that the labour force available to capital has been doubled with the entry of China, India and the former Soviet regimes into the world economy (Freeman 2004). The locus of manufacturing as a whole has moved from the North to the South although northern economies, especially US, Japan and EU, continue to dominate high technology manufacturing. Even so, the sheer size of Chinese manufacturing, the use of global supply chains with multiple sources for components and the expansion of cross border service have ratcheted competition upwards in all sectors. …

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