Academic journal article Development and Society

Labor Solidarity in the Era of Neoliberal Globalization

Academic journal article Development and Society

Labor Solidarity in the Era of Neoliberal Globalization

Article excerpt

Under the context of neoliberal globalization, governments have pursued marketdriven economic reform policies and large firms have adopted the business model of shortterm profit maximization. In this context, intensification of labor polarization has produced growing concerns over the solidarity crisis faced by the labor movement in Korea, which reveals serious weaknesses in internal and external solidarity requiring rectification in order to overcome labor polarization. Internal solidarity of the labor movement in Korea has been weakened by union members' attitude of self-interest toward job security and economic gain, by fragmented co-worker relations, and by intensified competition among activist factions for political power within unions. The most crucial factor constraining external solidarity of the Korean labor movement is the legacy of enterprise unionism, which has produced differentiated interest structures between organized and unorganized workers, while hindering the two worker groups from fostering a common ground of union activities and political vision. Reflexive leadership of labor movement, substantiation of industrial unionism, and fostering of communitarian activism are recommended for revitalizing labor solidarity.

Keywords: Labor Movement, Solidarity, Neoliberalism, Globalization, Labor Polarization


The world of working people has become gloomier than ever. In contrast to the optimistic speculation of futurists, mega trends such as globalization, information society, and service economy have made the majority of working people around the globe experience worsening of employment conditions and sustained decline of decent jobs. In particular, neoliberal globalization, which has had a dominant influence on developed and developing economies over the past 30 years, has produced increasing discrepancy in wage income and decreased social protection for the working poor. To make matters worse, the global economic depression at present, triggered by the financial crisis of the U.S. economy, makes jobs and lives of the working people everywhere more vulnerable.

Here, neoliberal globalization denotes that the globalizing tendency of integrating socio-economic activities across national territories has primarily been shaped by the discourse of market-driven deregulation policy originating from "the disembedded market liberalism" of the U.S. and the U.K. in the early 1980s. The neoliberal policy paradigm, coming to the fore against the background of the "inefficiency crisis" in the welfare states, became widespread through the conservative governments' economic reforms in developed countries, and later diffused to developing economies under external pressure from international institutions (i.e., IMF and the World Bank). As Harvey (2005) and Bourdieu (1998) indicate, neoliberal globalization has forged "capital accumulation by dispossession" through the promotion of market-driven flexibility and dismantling of the institutionalized regime of social solidarity. As a consequence, it has intensified the inequality of economic earnings and segmentation of working life across and within countries.

Republic of Korea (hereafter Korea), which is a success model of "compressed industrialization" among developing countries, has shown an exemplar trajectory over the past 10 years of socio-economic transformation influenced by neoliberal globalization. The 1997 economic crisis imposed IMF-driven neoliberal reforms, including flexibilization of the labor market as well as full-scale opening of product and capital markets throughout Korea. Furthermore, Korea's labor regime was greatly impacted by extensive restructuring and massive downsizing in the public and private sectors. Despite the economic recovery after 1999, Korea has ever since been confronted with the crucial problem of labor polarization as clearly evinced by a sharp increase in non-regular workforce and the widening disparity of employment conditions between regular (male) employees working for large firms and the remainder of the workforce. …

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