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Trade unions, free trade and the problem of transnational solidarity

In December 2011, Labour academics, trade union researchers and social movement activists came together at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) to assess the obstacles to – and possibilities for – transnational labour solidarity. The various contributions to the workshop can be accessed here.

As a result of uneven and combined development, different national trade unions are in different positions within the global capitalist social relations of production. Unsurprisingly, transnational solidarity between national labour movements in relation to free trade policies is anything but automatic.

At the workshop, it was made clear that in order to understand divisions between different national labour movements over free trade policies, the historical dynamics of capitalist accumulation need to be conceptualised. This includes an understanding of notions of uneven and combined development characterising the outward expansion of capitalism, the related polarisation between countries in the core and countries in the periphery as well as processes of unequal exchange and imperialism, which continue to maintain unevenness in the global economy.

Free trade is only one component in the process of uneven and combined development. And yet, especially after the expansion of the trade agenda during the GATT Uruguay Round and the WTO Doha negotiations into areas of intellectual property rights, trade in services and investment, free trade has taken up an ever more central position in the current attempt to continue the accumulation of surplus value on a global scale. In a way, the expanded free trade agenda is a mechanism of reconstituting the exploitative relationship between the core and periphery afresh.

This expanded free trade agenda has led to tensions within the global labour movement. On the one hand, trade unions in the North especially in manufacturing have supported free trade agreements. They hope that new export markets for products in their sectors will preserve jobs. On the other, trade unions in the Global South as well as social movements more generally oppose these free trade agreements, since they often imply deindustrialisation and the related loss of jobs for them. Unsurprisingly, transnational solidarity is difficult if not impossible to achieve as a result.

When discussing possibilities for transnational solidarity, participants at the workshop pointed out that – ultimately – the only winner of the expanded free trade agenda is capital. For trade unions, the opponents are the employers, not other national labour movements. In this struggle with capital, however, it has to be realized that the Northern union model with its bureaucratic structures, its focus on formal employment and workers within industrial production is outdated.

Trade unions are in crisis.

To overcome this crisis, there is a need for a broader understanding of class struggle, and thus also labour. In order to be part of wider alliances, trade unions need to accept that resistance to all forms of exploitation can be understood as class struggle and that workers in the informal economy including domestic workers are also workers, which need to be organized and whose interests need to be defended. Additionally, it was made clear that the exhaustion of the environment as well as trade unions’ positions on agriculture have to be analysed too within the wider assessment of the multiple dimensions of the global crisis.

Nevertheless, there are alternatives.

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), for example, represents a different way of how free trade can be organized. Rob Lambert presented the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR) as a new form of trade union organization, able to meet the challenges of the global economic crisis. Shaped by a common experience of colonialism, this initiative brings together trade unions from the Global South fighting for the interests of informal workers in the periphery.

Samir Amin, the keynote speaker at the workshop, made clear that de-linking from the global economy was really required in order to move into alternative directions. The state may play an important role in this process, but one has to remember that even a developmentalist state is still a capitalist state. Whatever alternative strategies are chosen, there was a general consensus at the workshop that a period of prolonged intense struggle lays ahead.

Andreas Bieler

Published inUncategorized

One Comment

  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Interesting choice of illustration to this article.

    It suggests both that labour solidarity is the preserve of the white male and that there is a barrier between the leader and the led.

    Wonderful thing, the subconscious 😆

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