The prospects of the “working class” as an agent of social change has been debated for well over a century and a half. In recent years, part of this discussion involves the weakening of the labor movement in the United States and other industrialized countries. There’s certainly no question that there has been union decline in many countries in the past several decades, with the United States seeing a fairly drastic fall in union density, which currently stands at 11 percent. This is related to another strand of the discussion — the loss of jobs in former union industry strongholds such as manufacturing. Furthermore, a more combative employer class makes organizing new workers difficult and has thrown the labor movement on the defensive. Meanwhile, there’s another discussion in more techno-futurist circles that speculates about the “end of work,” where the future post-industrial economy will require fewer jobs and workers as the production of more goods and services are increasingly automated. Thus — in the Global North — it may seem to some that there are fewer industrial jobs, and those that remain are increasingly non-union, calling into question the notions of traditional working class identity and its agency as a revolutionary force.
However, for now, stuff still needs to be made, and raw materials still need to be dug up. But this is increasingly happening in other places. The jobs lost in the Global North often don’t really disappear, they may reappear in different forms in the Global South due to continuous corporate restructuring, outsourcing and foreign direct investment in developing countries. As an example, a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute estimates that over 3 million manufacturing jobs have been outsourced from the United States to China, based on the volume of manufacturing imports.
As these jobs move from north to south, worker organizing often follows. Indeed, Beverly Silver in her book “Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870” showed convincingly that for over a century — in several industries such as textiles and automobile assembly — as capital moved production from country to country, labor unrest soon followed. The labor turmoil may then instigate further moves by capital, spurring further labor organizing at the newer production sites. In this way capital and labor are in a perpetual dance as employers seek lower costs and newer workers revolt against the subsequent poor working conditions.
In his new book “Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class,” City University of New York Professor Immanuel Ness focuses on the labor movement of the Global South. He rejects the idea that the working class is shrinking — in fact, he sees growth, movement and transformation. He reminds us that the global proletariat is at its largest size in history, currently around 3 billion workers, and that the Global South has 84 percent of the industrial workers and 74 percent of the service workers. As unions have declined in the north, the major labor struggles are now being waged by southern workers, and it is there that the future of the working class may be determined.
Ness focuses on three labor case studies in India, China and South Africa in an effort to better understand how southern workers are organizing. As these cases occur in three of the BRICS countries (the designation for five of the major developing and influential economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), what happens in the labor movement there is of global importance. He uses these specific examples to highlight a trend toward growing worker militancy in the form of direct action and autonomous workers’ organizations. This book is a clear successor to previous books edited by Ness such as “New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism” and “Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present,” which present examples of autonomous worker organizing and worker self-management.
The case studies
The three case studies have a number of factors in common. They take place in major countries that over the past several decades have become integrated into the global economy within the neoliberal framework. They include organizing among migrant workers (traveling from distant rural to industrial areas) and/or contracted workers. Traditional unions were not responsive to the workers’ needs, and there has been state repression against the workers organizing efforts. Ness sees three general directions these workers have taken, which include holding worker assemblies, the formation of independent unions and the pressuring of traditional unions.
Throughout the book Ness adopts a critical perspective on neoliberal “globalization” as the latest phase of northern capitalist imperialism, and he highlights concepts such as the global reserve army of labor which is used to depress wages. He is also extremely critical of mainstream unions, which are often closely tied to ruling political parties and are frequently unable to represent workers as economies have moved further toward a finance dominated, “free-trade” framework.
The case of India deals with the automobile production sector, which has grown rapidly since the implementation of neoliberal economic policies in the early 1990s. Along with this growth has been the weakening of unions and the increase in contracted labor arrangements. The focus is on the Maruti Suzuki auto company, the largest car producer in India, owned by the Japanese company Suzuki. Ness’s “New Forms” book also included a chapter on this campaign.
The labor dispute at Maruti Suzuki was part of a wave of strikes at auto plants throughout India over the past number of years. Workers had been organizing at the company for over a decade, but the latest labor dispute occurred in 2011-2012 and centered on a new modern plant that had recently opened in an industrial zone near New Delhi. About 75 percent of the workers were employed on an informal basis, earning a fraction of what the full-time workers made. A series of tumultuous events occurred involving the formation of the independent Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, with a series of strikes, lockouts and plant occupations.
The campaign culminated with the company bringing in hired thugs to attack the workers, which was a pretext for the state to conduct a mass arrest of hundreds of workers for rioting. The brutality and repression the workers were subjected to is appalling, with many being tortured. Thousands of workers were fired.
A delegation from the International Commission for Labor Rights conducted a fact-finding visit and released a highly critical report “Merchants of Menace” in 2013. The report found that the workers had consistently raised the issues of intense production speeds, lack of rest times, unfair wage structure, unpaid overtime and their precarious job status. Management responded with violations of labor law, the government failed to enforce the law consistent with International Labor Organization conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the police interfered inappropriately in an industrial dispute. The trial of 147 of the workers for the murder of a plant manager during the labor dispute is ongoing.
The case study on China focuses on the major manufacturing region of the Pearl River Delta and Guangdong Province in southeast China and particularly the large shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen. The decline of state-owned enterprises over the past few decades along with the dramatic increase of foreign investment for the production of export commodities is a familiar story, as is the mass migration of hundreds of millions of rural workers to urban manufacturing areas. This tremendous growth has produced in recent years a surge in labor disputes. The labor rights group China Labor Bulletin maps the growing wave of strikes in China.
Ness focuses on a labor dispute in 2014 at Yue Yuen, the largest shoe manufacturer in the world with 20 percent of global production. The strike was mainly over the company’s underpayment for social security benefits, a serious issue for the growing numbers of older workers in the region’s manufacturing plants. Over 30,000 workers shut down the company for almost two weeks in what is considered the largest strike at a private enterprise in China’s history. The police attacked the workers, but the government moved soon after to recognize the legitimacy of the workers’ demands and mediate a settlement.
What’s particularly interesting is the relationship between the workers’ activity and the official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, or ACFTU. As Ness makes clear, the ACFTU, which is the only official legal union in China, has moved to enroll tens of millions of workers from private sector, foreign-owned factories. However, it maintains a distant presence on the shop floor which gives workers room to maneuver with their own direct action tactics. This helps explain the large number of labor disputes — since the ACFTU has an underdeveloped grievance processing system, the workers have to resort to their own organizing and disruption. To some extent this is tolerated by the government, as long as the disputes remain isolated at the factory level and don’t grow to form an independent organization that can challenge the authority of the ACFTU or the Communist Party.
Ness sees some advantages to this kind of dual labor system, pointing out the irony that “while most labor advocates and non-governmental organizations advocate and support the formation of independent unions recognized by the state, like those in the West, all the evidence demonstrates that Chinese workers may in fact have greater power through direct action without the existence of the restrictive labor laws that inevitably accompany recognition of Western-style unions.”
This dynamic of a distant ACFTU coupled with growing direct action efforts on the shop floor is fascinating. It remains to be seen how long this trend will be tolerated by the state and how the workers’ movement will evolve. Indeed, the 2008 Labor Contract Law was largely in response to worker unrest and it’s likely that the Chinese government will continue to react with a combination of concessions and repression. Recently, in December 2015 prominent labor rights activists were arrested in the region.
The chapter on South Africa focuses on the strategic “platinum belt” in the North West province of the country, which accounts for 80 percent of world production, and was where the wave of strikes that led to the infamous Marikana massacre in 2012 occurred — in which 34 workers were killed and dozens more injured. This tragedy led to a governmental Marikana Commission of Inquiry and has been documented by the excellent film “Miners Shot Down.” Ness’s “New Forms” book also has a chapter on this incident.
As background, it’s important to keep in mind the country’s labor politics. As apartheid was ending in the 1990s, the country’s principle labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, formed the Tripartite Alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. This partnership means labor has been close to the government, but always as the junior partner. Indeed, as Ness points out, labor rights and economic equality were essentially abandoned in favor of formal political rights as the country turned toward a neoliberal framework under the direction of the International Monetary Fund.
A wave of wildcat strikes throughout the mining sector started in 2009 by migrant and contract workers seeking a substantial raise. Many of these workers were rock drillers, who labored under appalling conditions for poverty wages. The principal union, the National Union of Mineworkers, only represented a small part of the mining workforce and was consistently opposed to these actions. It lost the trust of the workers in favor of a newer and more militant independent union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, or AMCU. The labor unrest included workers at mines owned by the Lonmin Company and resulted in the Marikana massacre, the largest killing of Africans by South African police since the Soweto uprising in 1976.
This wave of militancy did win the workers a significant 22 percent wage increase, and the workers have held more recent strikes that have also won more increases. According to Ness, these gains appear to have contributed to a modern turning point in the South African labor movement. The important National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa became more militant and after criticism of COSATU’s policies was expelled from the federation. We’ll have to see if this, as well as the growth of AMCU, presage a significant restructuring of the labor movement in the country.
The autonomous organizing trend
There’s both something familiar and something new in these case studies. There are, of course, countless examples throughout labor history of tough organizing campaigns with management opposition, repression, firings, arrests, beatings and occasionally murders. Workers may make some gains or be left with little to nothing. These examples indeed follow that pattern and occur in sectors and countries that appear to be on the raw edge of the global class struggle.
What’s newer, however, according to Ness, is the relationship between established unions and the new workers movement. The systematic failure of mainstream unions to respond to changes in the evolving global economy and represent workers effectively has led workers to adopt more autonomous and militant forms of organizing. As mainstream unions have grown weaker and more defensive, struggling to hold onto what they have, space has opened up for workers to organize themselves in other ways, what Ness calls “operating within the interstices of existing trade union structures.” We have certainly seen a version of this in the United States with the rise of worker centers, the revitalization of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, and the growth of the so-called “alt-labor” movement.
Ness’s main claim of a growing militant, autonomous form of worker organizing is intriguing but will need to be supported by more than a few case studies, though his previous work has documented other examples as well. He’s clearly sympathetic to this trend, as are many folks on the labor-left. If it is a growing movement, it remains to be seen how mainstream unions and the state will ultimately respond. If this autonomous organizing is successful in continuing to wring concessions from employers, unions may react to the competition by becoming more aggressive in organizing and defending workers. Moreover, there will likely be the usual attempts by the state to domesticate the autonomous worker groups and bring them into the system with labor law “reforms,” contracts, grievance procedures and regulations.
Furthermore this brings up a paradox regarding how these inchoate workers’ organizations will change over time. If they are unlike mainstream unions in that their anarchic, direct action-oriented style is what poses a challenge to the state and capital, then can these groups maintain this form for long? Ness sees an eventual maturation process, when “the worker mobilization that is taking place both inside and outside established structures will cohere into disciplined organizations.” Perhaps that’s true, but then this kind of institutionalization process may turn them into something like the existing mainstream unions and the militancy may be lost. How can this be avoided? And if it can’t, perhaps workers may then begin again with something new.
As history has shown, the working class will continuously develop and reinvent various ways of organizing to meet their real needs at work, and these examples of direct and militant organizing demonstrate the continuing resiliency and courage of the working class under tremendous challenges. The autonomous wing of the global labor movement is an exciting development, and it will be fascinating to see how it evolves in years to come.
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