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On the conditions and challenges of transnational workers’ solidarity



David Mayer,

ITF unterstützt Arbeitskampf bei Ryanair
Die «International Transport Workers' Federation» (ITF) freut sich über die Anerkennung von ver.di als Vertreterin aller in Deutschland ansässigen Flugbegleiter*innen von Ryanair.

A wealth of literature has been published on the topic of “globalization” since the 1990s – however, for a long time labour and trade unions did not play a central role. While the relocation of production sites and the emergence of transnational supply chains have been topics of intense debate, the actual work processes, the workers themselves and their organization received far less attention. This seems congruent with the fact that, while globalization has significantly extended the options for capital, the instruments of power held by trade unions have diminished considerably. Despite the celebration of the “teamsters and turtles” alliance of trade unionists and environmentalists that emerged during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, trade unions and other forms of workers’ organizations have played a subordinate role in the anti-globalization movements that have taken place since the late 1990s.

Although this may sound pessimistic, some observers point to a series of more recent examples and practices that demonstrate the possible avenues for defending and strengthening workers’ rights (Harrod/O’Brien 2002, Greven 2011, Bieler/Lindberg 2011, Bieler et al. 2015, Nowak 2016). These often include militant workers’ struggles in countries of the Global South (in particular, in regions where new industries have emerged over the past 30 years, such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa, as well as North Africa before and during the Arab Spring); the emergence of trade union federations with a global dimension that push for legally enforceable agreements; cross-border campaigns at the intersection of workforces, trade unions and NGOs (which are often organized along supply chains and know how to exploit the brand sensitivity of the corporations in question); and intra-sectoral networks committed to obtaining collective agreements and minimum social standards for specific interest groups. An example for the latter is the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s Flags of Convenience (FOC) Campaign for seafarers.

Cross-border struggles and transnational ties between workers are not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, international solidarity or internationalism has historically been a core aspiration of workers’ movements and the political left in general. This demand has always stood in delicate balance with national frameworks of political action. In order to understand the demands, dimensions and challenges facing cross-border workers’ collaboration, a brief examination of the historical cycles this relationship has undergone can prove useful.

Trade union solidarity is fundamentally rooted in mutual support against the structural hegemony of capital and its proprietors. Following a famous distinction by sociologist Émile Durkheim, this “mechanical solidarity” is characterized by homogeneous living conditions and common interests between members of society. This type of uniformity can also be seen in international solidarity, for example in the specific skill set of highly qualified specialists that are in high demand by a score of similar companies across the globe. More often than not, however, the geographical distance and respective prevailing historical, economic, political and cultural circumstances create differing degrees of inequality between the very actors that international solidarity aims to unite. Despite all convergence trends in the wake of the global expansion of capitalism, a uniform global class of workers has yet to emerge. Durkheim describes such a solidary form of action between unequal partners as “organic solidarity”, which constitutes a far more complex and significantly more challenging goal than mechanical solidarity.

This raises the question of who exactly is included in such a solidary practice. Critical interpretations of the history of workers’ movements point out how, at their peak, such movements were limited to specific sectors of the workforce – namely mostly to white males under formal labour relations in the countries of the North. In trade union solidarity, informal or precarious employment, unfree labour, unpaid work (in particular domestic work), female or migrant labour received little to no mention. As today’s transnational supply chains and networks of production are often characterised by a combination of widely differing forms of labour, this trend directly concerns the current possibilities of transnational solidarity.

Transnational Solidarity Out of Self-Interest?

Cross-border workers’ solidarity addresses different actors and fields of action. Acts of international solidarity were, and are still, practised “from below”, that is, by the workers themselves. In some cases, these are mediated by institutionalized organizations; in other cases, the workers take completely independent action following a local point-to-point structure. Historically, the latter type of international solidarity has been the flagship of syndicalist unionists. However, employee representatives also established direct contact with their colleagues abroad at later stages in history. The list of examples also includes politically motivated, union-backed solidarity movements. The transition between activist grassroots practices and their institutional mediation remains fluid: initiated by a trade union apparatus, campaigns on international issues can attract and mobilise union members as well as the broader public.

The higher one climbs within political hierarchies, the more the international work of trade unions seems to become institutionalized and determined by specialists and functionaries. However, this is not always the case. Over the past few years, various international trade union federations have explicitly taken a more global stance, using several campaigns to demonstrate how institutions can cooperate with national organizations and local workforces. Formalised in 2008, the Coca-Cola Alliance was able to register a series of successes by linking several such fields of action (Nowak 2016).

What are the motives for such internationalist practices? Commonly, emphasis is placed on political and ideological rationales, and international solidarity appears to fit into the realm of ideologies and values. Indeed, such motives have always played an important role, as seen in the committed opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Meanwhile, the historian Marcel van der Linden insists that internationalist practices can also obey economic motives. According to van der Linden, successful international solidarity ultimately arises from self-interest.

These self-interested internationalist practices include cross-border mergers to prevent companies from recruiting competing workers, trade union representations of mostly highly specialised, highly mobile occupational groups, or transport workers who facilitate cross-border jobs, organise workers’ exchanges and establish common working conditions. The IFT’s campaign against flagging-out, flags of convenience and secondary registers is an example of the latter. The list also includes any measures towards reducing the intra-sectoral competition between workers in different countries, the exchange of information and data on companies or working conditions abroad, as well as the defence of common interests within multinational corporations (van der Linden 2009: 261-265).

National/International – A Cyclical Relationship

In the history of workers’ movements, cross-border interventions have been treated with different levels of importance. In some contexts international solidarity has retreated into a niche existence, while in others it has largely defined the thrust of the overall movement. The following phases can be defined: firstly, there were the “early forms of cross-border solidarity up until 1890”; secondly, the “internationalism under the nation-state” of the 1890s to 1970s; and thirdly, the “crisis and defence of labour, waves of globalisation and the need for a new internationalism”, which have occurred since the 1970s.

Since when has there been a “working class” that protects its common interests though joint action? In their study The Many-Headed Hydra, historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker describe a multidimensional 16th to 18th century early proletariat in the North Atlantic region: an assemblage of seafarers, soldiers, slaves, dock workers, contract workers, and prostitutes who mingled on ships and in ports. In the face of an expanding capitalism that rose from the plantation economy and the aforementioned Atlantic maritime services, often forcing the majority of workers into coerced labour with brute force, the affected parties repeatedly formed alliances irrespective of their different languages, origins, gender and skin colour, thus developing common forms of protest (Linebaugh/Rediker 2008).

In the early trade union and workers’ organizations of the mid-19th century, the establishment of cross-border contacts and development of transnational practices was also widespread. Excluded from parliamentary representation, deemed unworthy by the rulers of the nation-states and originating within the milieu of highly qualified and often extremely mobile skilled workers, these organizations (composed almost exclusively of men at the time) sensed that a direct alignment of interests with their colleagues lay elsewhere. The activities of the First International (1864–1872) therefore included strike pay and the obstruction of strike breakers.

It was only in the 1890s that many countries started to see a relationship develop between trade unions, workers’ parties, and nation-states, that would later come to define the 20th century and lead to a number of social advancements and victories for workers’ rights. Of course, not everything was limited to the national framework. At the turn of the century, due to the impact of the first wave of globalization that preceded World War I, trade and professional groups founded a series of international Trade Union Associations' Secretariats.

Moreover, particular challenges were faced by those state entities that harboured different ethnic and national groups. This included Tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungary, as well as countries with high levels of immigration such as the US and Argentina.

In industrialized nations, the question of colonies and colonial dependencies remained an important issue for the labour movement until the 1960s. This shows the ambivalent effects of the nationalization of the labour movement post-1890. While these movements repeatedly criticised the violent oppression associated with colonial rule, they rarely questioned the reality that their own motherland was, in fact, a colonial power. Indeed, it was only with the October Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the Communist International that a gradual shift in perspective was initiated.

Thinking Only Nationally? Cross-Border Solidarity in the Second Half of the 20th Century

Starting in the 1940s, the establishment of a new political arrangement recast the labour movements of leading capitalist countries as central political actors. Although these strongly institutionalized, labour-friendly regimes (Silver/Arrighi 2001) varied significantly, the nation-state emerged as the most important level of action. However, this did not lead to the disappearance of cross-border factors and practices, although these now gained an increasingly political character: they included the ideological and geopolitical confrontation between East and West, the wave of decolonization and its repercussions in major cities, the struggle for different manners and forms of socialism, the struggles against neo-imperial interventions and the formation of large, international associations that claimed to represent workers’ interests. The latter group includes the allegedly Western-oriented International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Federation of Trade Unions, which has been heavily Communist-leaning since 1948.

The end of the historically singular post-war boom in the early 1970s not only brought about an increase in social conflicts, but also kick-started the internationalization of capital which would, in the 1990s, lead to the phenomenon known as “globalization”. This period also saw the first attempts to implement cross-border employee council bodies within corporations. In the early 1980s, a radical departure from the “labour-friendly international regime” transformed the crisis of capitalism into a crisis of industry workers and their forms of organisation – a crisis that remains unresolved to this day. This broad outline easily glosses over the extraordinary examples of political solidarity “from below” that repeatedly occurred throughout these decades. In fact, employee or trade union grassroots structures were often involved in these activities, and the mostly overlooked “proletarian 1968" was largely characterized by the adoption of external practices and ideas (Gehrke/Horn 2007).

In the 1980s, the social movement unionism developing in countries such as Brazil, South Africa and South Korea marked a new type of trade union with a stronger grassroots movement that sought proximity to other social movements. To this day, these are often cited as model examples (Grote/Wagemann 2018).

Globalisation – Bold Statements, Feeble Replies?

Since the 1990s, trade unions and other groups committed to protecting workers’ interests have reacted to the challenges of globalization and the increasing undermining of their strategic power in manifold ways. In this context, priority was often given to defending what remained of the formerly stable arrangement, which often came at the cost of the continued exclusion of those groups whose work fell outside of the protected spheres, namely migrants, women or the precariously employed. This included local alliances with the state and enterprises (Standortbündnisse), which were formed in order to respond to growing international competition.

In some regions, the organising and campaigning models developed by US trade unions to counteract their own marginalisation were wholly or partially adopted. Targeting groups of workers who lacked organizational structure, these strategies ultimately led to new and extended cross-border trade union alliances. This led to the former International Trade Secretariats being transformed into Global Union Federations. In 2012, the industriALL Global Union was founded as a merger between the various international federations of metal, chemical and textile workers. As early as 2000, a global federation of service providers was formed under the name UNI Global Union.

Beyond Borders – but with Limitations

Although there can be no talk of a new era of “transnational internationalism” in the world of labour – a painful anomaly given the progressing transnationalization of capital and the increasingly international migration movements – many cross-border forms of organization and labour struggles have been developed over the past 30 years (Fairbrother et al. 2011). The group works councils formed back in the 1970s have dashed rather than fulfilled the hopes placed in them. This is not only due to their leanings towards business corporatism, but also to changes in corporate structures, which have transformed into non-transparent and multi-tiered networks of production, investment and speculation. Until today, the most comparable form of transnational action – workers’ strikes within a transnational company – remains a rare event. However, the Euro Strike that was held across several Renault production sites in 1997 sparked similar protests at other automotive manufacturers at the turn of the century, and recently Amazon employees have stepped forward with similar transnational action (Boewe/Schulten 2015).

At the same time, a series of initiatives has successfully targeted transnational corporations where they are most vulnerable. The precisely synchronised, geographically dispersed, individual steps of just-in-time production can be significantly disrupted or even brought to a standstill by applying aggressive measures at specific points. Additionally, brands that spend huge amounts on corporate advertising are extremely vulnerable to public campaigns. In the global fashion industry, for instance, the international Clean Clothes Campaign serves as an impressive example. Labour conditions in the agricultural sector and food production also regularly succeed in achieving media attention (see the Sezonieri campaign for the rights of agricultural workers in Austria, 2016). As logistics has become a central component of complex production networks, rather than an external factor, workers now have greater means at their disposal to weaken the threat of precarization and globally enforce certain minimum social and labour standards, as recently achieved by the ITF’s FOC Campaign for seafarers.

These examples tell us two things: on the one hand, transnational workers’ struggles are real and cross-border solidarity is possible. On the other hand, however, these practices still defy any form of generalization. To date, the aforementioned efforts could not achieve any noticeable shift in the power dynamics across any sector. This powerlessness is also reflected in the fact that even in the rich industrialised countries, trade union organizations have not yet been able to develop an adequate cross-border response to the crisis that has been unfolding since 2008.

Are Political Factors at Play?

What, then, is the current situation of the “Workers of the World”? Held in the German city of Hanover in June 2017, a major international conference with the same title showed that even among today’s research on the situation facing workers, there is a clash of pessimistic and optimistic views (Mayer 2017). While some refer to the sharp global increase in wage-dependent workers and to the often militant struggles in countries of the Global South, predicting the emergence of a global working class (Ness 2016), others see a secular crisis of trade unions and workers' parties in the context of a capitalism that is both geographically and politically unchained (van der Linden 2016). The main point argued by many conference participants was that the heterogeneity of workers’ living conditions acts as an obstacle to achieving the necessary solidarity and uniformity between workers on a global scale. In contrast to these macro-analyses of the status quo, however, other studies documented differentiated forms of resistance with micro-perspectives and pointed out existing practices of transfer and mediation between geographically remote locations.

These practices are diverse in nature and involve different actors at all levels of political action. They seem to be successful wherever these levels can be mediated between workforces, activists, trade union organizations, social movements, NGOs and transnational associations. The "going along" with the organizational structures of the respective supply chains, with all their processes and weaknesses, also appears to be an effective strategy. At the same time, it becomes evident that the existing structural connection between the different worlds of labour does not automatically lead to common cross-border practices among workers.

Even if self-interest has proven to be an effective goal for the championing of transnational cross-border solidarity, it cannot unleash any real efficacy without a broader political desire for change. This requires an organic solidarity, which in turn arises through politicization. Here, Global Social Rights – even if their demands seem more modest in comparison to previous ambitions, such as "revolution", "liberation", "anti-colonialism" and "new world economic order" – offer a potential path for such politicization to unfold.

David Mayer is a historian and lecturer at the University of Vienna as well as a Fellow at the International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam). This article is a shortened and edited version of: Mayer, David (2013): ‘Grenzen der Grenzenlosigkeit? Zu Vergangenheit und Gegenwart internationaler Solidarität’, in Brigitte Pellar (ed.), Wissenschaft über Gewerkschaft. Analyse und Perspektiven, Vienna. pp. 277–307. Translation and Proofreading: Joanna Mitchell and Nivene Rafaat for lingua•trans•fair

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