Trade unions and the onslaught of globalisation
All over the world workers have turned to their trade union organisations to resist the effects of capitalist globalisation.
Despite constant attempts by the capitalist class to dismiss them as outmoded, to restrict their activities through repressive laws and to persecute their leaders and activists, trade unions refuse to disappear.
The reason is simple – everywhere capital forces workers to combine against their employers to defend their pay and conditions of work. It is here that broad layers of the working class first gain experience of struggle. For this reason trade unions remain, in the words of Frederick Engels, “schools for socialism”.
Nevertheless, over the last two decades the trade unions were unable to resist the global onslaught of capital. Once powerful unions were humbled and destroyed – whole industries were savaged. In the USA and Europe demoralisation spread as globalisation was used to intimidate workers, their union leaders and political parties.
By the 1990s, governments and employers only had to mention “globalisation” to secure the submission of many unions to the needs of corporate capital. Whole industries were moved to low wage countries where workers’ rights were few or non-existent. Moreover, a huge increase in the “permanent” reserve army of labour occurred. In the advanced capitalist countries, unemployment stands at 38 million and globally more than 1 billion are out work.
The impact on the private sector was severe. For the great majority of private sector workers, real wages have fallen, including in the USA. Even where pay remained stable – as in Europe – work has intensified and has become far less secure. In the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s levels of union representation, workplace organisation and strike action fell dramatically.
In the public sector, privatisation and spending cuts have led to closures of services and mass sackings. Wages have stagnated and conditions of employment have worsened dramatically, especially for those workers ‘outsourced’ – essentially sold off to private employers. Nevertheless, in many countries, public sector workers have formed the backbone of working class resistance and of national trade union movements.
At the same time, the working class has grown in new sectors of the economy and in many countries of the third world. This has given rise to a vast unorganised sector of the international working class. Mainly young, often female, often immigrant workers work with minimal job security, the lowest wages, poor or non-existent sick pay, an almost complete absence of meaningful health and safety protection.
As with the unemployed, these insecure low paid workers have been used to undermine the bargaining position of unionised labour. And yet, perversely, in country after country, the unions have done next to nothing to help the new layers of workers or the unemployed workers fight back, often refusing to organise them or even to allow them into the unions.
The capitalists have given a new name to these low paid workers and the unemployed, one that expresses both contempt and fear: “the underclass”. But this “underclass” is beginning to organise, as in Argentina, with its piqueteros movement and popular assemblies.
The oppression that these workers suffer makes it impossible to organise them by traditional, tired, class collaborationist, bureaucratic methods. Wherever in the last two decades workers have effectively struggled against the bosses’ attacks, they have done it with new methods, new leaders and sometimes new trade unions. Confrontations with employers, militant tactics, mass pickets, occupations, strikes and international solidarity are all necessary. These methods have been made illegal in most countries – “democratic” or dictatorial – for the simple reason that they are uniquely effective.
It falls to the rank and file trade unionists to bring life into these methods for one simple reason: routinist and legalist trade union leaders will oppose any disturbance of their cosy relations with the employers and their state.