New Movements for the Global Emancipation of Labour

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  • Special Issue: For the global emancipation of labour: new movements and struggles around work, workers

and precarity. Ed. by Peter Waterman, Alice Mattoni et al. Interface: a journal for and about social movements. Volume 4 (2): 1 - 14 (November 2012)

URL = (editorial)


From the editorial:

"If at the level of formal organisation trade unions remain unchallenged as the leading actors of the labour movement, today we see many other movement forms emerging from the bases and the margins of labour, often with far more active participation. The relationship between “old” and “new” labour movements varies hugely from country to country and industry to industry; here what we want to stress is that a simple identification of “the labour movement” with “trade unions” is both politically and intellectually unhelpful.

Firstly, from the bases we find movements of workers, often in alliance with local communities or other social movements. They are to be found not only in advanced industrial and “postindustrial” economies, but also — more dramatically — at the capitalist periphery. Labour movements were important in the recent Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings (2010-2011). In the world’s second biggest economy, China, labour has been flexing its muscles in the most repressive of circumstances. Labour struggle has also begun to revive in the United States, and in the most dramatic fashion with the occupation of the legislature in Wisconsin (2011) and the strikes of Chicago teachers (2012).

Secondly, we see those who are situated at the margins of labour markets and who experience continuous uncertainty. Increasingly addressed as the “precariat”, this includes both high- and low-skilled workers in the old metropoles of the global North as well as in the slums and fields of the global South. The precarious are often younger people, women and migrants, but increasingly those previously full-time workers whose rights and conditions are under attack due to the current economic crisis.

The margins also include the un- and under-employed. Since the end of the long boom, orthodox economics accepts a higher rate of unemployment in the global North as “full” employment. Meanwhile, the reserve army of labour in the majority world also lays the basis for precarious and marginal work. As Shaikh puts it,

Finally, as capitalism develops, so too does its level of mechanisation, so that it is progressively less able to absorb labour. In the developed countries, this manifests itself as a growing mass of unemployed people at any given “natural” rate of unemployment. In the Third World, as the incursion of capitalist relations lays waste to earlier social forms, the mechanised processes which replace then are able to pick up only a fraction of the huge numbers previously “set free”. Thus the rising productivity of capitalist production is accompanied by a growing pool of redundant labour all across the globe. The presence of starving masses in the Third World, as well as of floating populations of unemployed in the developed capitalist world, are bitter reminders of these inherent tendencies. (1990: 77)

New movements are taking place at the local, national and transnational level, signalling the ongoing transformation of workers’ struggle all over the world. As capitalism reorganises, expands and reinvents, so too does resistance to its exploitation and subjugation. Some trade unions are struggling to organise amongst workers who do not conform to the model of the full-time, male, family-wage-earning worker, and are seeking new ways of mobilizing and organising. This appears to be the case with “informal” workers in Ghana and Zambia, as with “undocumented” or “excluded” labour in California. Yet both trade unions and the labour movements at the bases and at the margins of the labour realms, women, men and youth are experimenting with radical new forms of struggle, new demands, new places / spaces of articulation, and perhaps re-discovering or re-inventing a global movement for “the emancipation of labour”.

In this issue of Interface: a journal for and about social movements, we aim to reflect both this immense richness of experiences linked to workers’ movements and to articulate what has been learned in one place in ways that may be useful for activists elsewhere. The articles in the special section provide a wide range of perspectives on workers’ struggles across the globe. In doing this, they reveal the complex patterns of political organization and political resistance that show the geography of labour struggles in the 21st century, from the local mobilizations of precarious workers who engage in the autonomous organization of conflict to the transnational coalitions in which trade unions engage in international advocacy actions.

A related question, when looking at the role of trade unions in international labour struggle, is their role at the global - or at least transnational - level. The recent coordinated strikes, protests and general strikes against austerity measures in 23 European countries (14 November 2012), show that after years of economic crisis national trade unions are taking a first shy step towards the construction of common struggles at the European level. But this is not the only way in which trade unions position themselves in the international space of labour struggle.

The voices in this issue are as varied as the shapes and trajectories of current workers’ movements. Our perspectives, and those of the authors who contributed to this issue, are multiple ones but all in different ways shaped by our new context. Some authors are active trade unionists of long standing; others are researchers on or in labour movements of different kinds. Some voices represent the discontents of “actually-existing” unions and the struggle to break the stranglehold of social partnership; others speak from newer organizing processes and the world of precarity. Others again, as participants in other movements, are coming to recognise the importance of “work” as a major site of alienation, of workers as agents of emancipatory movements, and of new or renewed labour movements as partners and allies in the global struggle for human liberation. Taken together, the voices to be heard in this special issue of Interface help us to consider some crucial questions when it comes to workers movements in the 21st century.


(selection only)

"Focussing on the childcare service sector in Quebec, Martine D’Amours, Guy Bellamare and Louise Briand illustrate how changes in the nature of work within contemporary societies contribute to the development of a unionism that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of the single factory (and the single company), ceases to represent only the traditional unionized workforce, and leads to alliances with political and social actors usually outside the sphere of unionist activities. The authors show that when unions embrace these transformations they shift the logic of action to demands and claims addressing identity issues and the whole lives of workers, also outside their working place.

Considering the case of Italy, Annalisa Murgia and Giulia Selmi discuss two recent struggles of precarious workers that did not involve the presence of traditional trade unions as agents of bargaining in the workplace: firstly the “network of precarious editors”, a group of precarious editors working in different publishing houses and secondly the “SEA girls”, a group of precarious hostesses working in the main airport of Milan. The two case studies highlight the ability of self-organization and self-advocacy of precarious workers beyond traditional trade unions. Murgia and Selmi, in fact, argue that the problem is not really the impossibility of organizing precarious workers. The real challenge seems to be to imagine and then bring into existence unions with structures that take into consideration the peculiarities of the living and working conditions of precarious workers.

On a similar vein, Alberto Arribas Lozano discusses the concept of “social unionism” through the experience of the Oficinas de Derechos Sociales, a loose network of activist groups spread in different Spanish cities. First organized in 2004-2005, the Oficinas de Derechos Sociales elaborated a political praxis rooted in the daily lives of precarious workers, going beyond the “politics of the [protest] events”, to produce and circulate critical knowledge on precarity. In particular, Arribas discusses one of the main aim of the Oficinas de Derechos Sociales: the production of connections between migrant and non-migrant precarious workers in the attempt to construct common collective struggles.

Elise Thorburn’s article discusses the changing composition of the working class and proposes that the assembly is distinguishing itself as an emergent mode of organising in recent struggles, by comparison with party and bureaucratic union models. She argues that this may open the possibility of a “politics of the common”, not mediated by the state or capital. Thorburn explores the theoretical and historical lineages of autonomist discussions, using the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly as an example of an effective process of rethinking working class organising pointing towards the creation of a new world.

Tristan Partridge’s action note looks at the organization of everyday life in an indigenous village in Ecuador. He shows how community-based collective projects aim to counter the negative effects of precarity and temporary labour migration in remaking a dignified and sustainable way of life." (