Union Strategies in the Sri Lankan Tea Plantations: Rediscovering the Movement Dimension

By Biyanwila, Janaka | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Union Strategies in the Sri Lankan Tea Plantations: Rediscovering the Movement Dimension


Biyanwila, Janaka, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


Introduction

With the emergence of the latest phase of intemationalisation of capital, trade unions across the global economy are faced with new challenges. These new challenges relate to the enhanced mobility of capital and state strategies promoting Export Oriented Industrialisation (EOI), integrating and fragmenting workers in different regulation regimes. Advocated by the global institutions of economic governance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), state strategies of privatisation and labour market deregulation have expanded the 'casualisation' jobs, shrinking the core of secure, permanent, full-time jobs. This coincides with the 'feminisation' of labour markets, illustrated by the increasing entry of women into wage labour and mostly into casualised jobs. The EOI strategies are grounded in restraining representative politics of unions, by dismantling corporatist mechanisms that nurtured dominant trade union strategies.

Amidst the spectrum of trade union strategies responding to EOI in Sri Lanka are tendencies characterising what is described as Social Movement Unionism (SMU). This paper focuses on a tea plantation union, particularly describing its potential towards developing a SMU strategic orientation. The paper is divided into three main sections. The first section describes the SMU perspective, particularly in relation to dominant union strategies of political unionism. The second section looks at union strategies in terms of changing politics of production under privatisation. The third section describes the plantation union, National Union of Workers (NUW), and its tendencies towards developing a SMU strategic orientation. With representative politics of unions increasingly restrained by narrow party politics, the SMU approach highlights the need to transform both internal and external union relations when trying to assert the movement dimension within unions. This is especially in deepening internal democracy, encouraging forms of participatory democracy while reinforcing alliances with counter-hegemonic movements.

1. Social Movement Unionism

In distilling the spectrum of trade union strategies into some essential features, three main forms of unionism emerge. Certainly, these union forms change over time, and are interrelated, and can be described as economic, political, and social movement unionism. Economic unionism (business, "best practice", or company unionism) situates trade unions primarily as labour market actors, dominated by employer interests and narrowed to workplace issues. The World Bank and the IMF promote this neo-classical economic approach to unions, in a discourse of 'partnerships'.

Political unionism situates trade unions as economic as well as political actors, particularly as working class organisations, emphasising rep resentative politics and the state. Both economic and political unionism characterise the dominant union forms that emerged with the influence of post-second world war geo-political alliances. These dominant union strategies were socialised in closed national economies and trade union internationalism represented by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Consequently, these unions are embedded in nation-state oriented strategies based on male biased bureaucratic modes of organising workers.

Social movement unionism (SMU) perspectives emerged in the early 1970s, in response to changes in the international division of labour that accompanied state strategies undermining worker solidarity and trade unions. Taking into account globally flexible structures of production inducing a new international division of labour, the SMU perspectives highlighted the inadequacies of entrenched union strategies based on bureaucratic modes of organising workers in the formal sector.

The emergence of new approaches to trade unions was based on labour movement strategies resisting authoritarian state forms, in "semiperipheral" areas or "late industrialising" economies of South Africa and Brazil in the 1970s, and South Korea and Philippines in the 1980's (Moody, 1997; Seidman, 1994). …

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