The audio recordings of a number of the conference presentations are now available – see the Talks section of this website; also available via the abstracts.
A reflection on the relevance today of two personal projects from the not-so-distant past: ‘Social Movement Unionism/The New Social Unionism’ and a ‘Global Labour Charter’. The reflections are coloured by 1) both the new wave of labour protest globally and of academic work on such, 2) their general containment within a ‘Globalized and Informatized Cage of Capitalism and Bureaucracy’ and 3) the conference presentations. The provisional conclusion is that a new global social unionism has yet to emerge, either in place or in (cyber)space. And that the Chernyshevsky Question (Shto delyat’/What is to be Done?) remains to be responded to – also by participants in this conference?
The strike wave which led to the collapse of Hazem Beblawi’s government earlier this year reveals a deeper crisis of organisation in the Egyptian workers’ movement. Around 250,000 workers took part in strike action focussed on a single demand – the implementation of the national minimum wage – against one enemy, Beblawi’s government. Yet such the coordination and solidarity as did exist between different disputes was limited and did not unite them completely. Independent unions at a workplace level did lead a number of these strikes effectively, but there was no-one capable of directing this wave of action as a united movement. An obvious contradiction appeared between the huge size of the workers’ movement and its limited impact, as a consequence of its lack of political organisation or effective trade union organisation beyond individual workplaces. For although Beblawi’s government resigned, subsequent governments have shown even greater commitment to the implementation of neo-liberal policies and an austerity programme. The independent unions have not yet been able to take up a role directing the movement, and competition between their leaders has increased bureaucratisation and fragmentation. In this paper I will examine the prospects for future waves of workers’ collective action under the current regime, in the light of the experience of the last ten years, and argue that unless the organisational crisis is resolved, future waves of workers’ protests are likely face the same problems as that of February 2014.
Mostafa Bassiouny (Labour journalist, Egypt)
The paper addresses the waves of urban demonstrations taking place in Rio de Janeiro in 2013-2014 along three main theoretical dimensions. First, it looks at the relation between political activism and economic structures, including class relations, in which struggles are embedded. Second, it looks at the spatial dimension of the struggle, especially in relation to the big sports events, which are taking place in the city, its gentrification and tradition of police violence. Thirdly, it addresses the organizational dynamic of protest, with particular the dialectic of horizontalism and verticalism. The paper is specially concerned with looking at the current debate on contemporary class formations and urban struggles through a combination of labour theory and ethnographic analysis.
Mao Mollona (Anthropology Department, Goldsmiths College, University of London)
In recent years, Latin America has witnessed a wave of socialist and social democratic electoral successes. Since the late Hugo Chávez’ 1998 landslide victory in Venezuela, one country after another has turned left. Roughly 400 million of Latin America’s 520 million citizens live under a government that broadly supports what Chávez called “socialism for the 21st century” – the creation of a new, more equitable global economy based on social and economic justice. Guatemala is not one of those countries.
Guatemala is now the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. A 36-year armed struggle in Guatemala that ended in 1996 has left a legacy of violence, impunity, corruption and lawlessness that still characterises every level of society. Although Guatemala is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which means it is committed to uphold and respect freedom of association, union activists are regularly sacked illegally, threatened, attacked and even murdered, while the perpetrators of these crimes never face justice. In March 2013 the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the International Labour Organisation to investigate and prosecute crimes against trade union members.
However, days after the mission left the country three trade unionists were murdered. Carlos Hernández, an executive member of the National Trade Union of Health Workers, was shot dead by two men on a motorbike in his home in the town of Chiquimula. He had previously received death threats while campaigning for better rights for workers and indigenous land owners.
International trade deals are often promulgated and pushed as a way to improve the economic and social environment labour activists operate in. The DR-CAFTA, a trade deal aimed at promoting regional economic “integration,” includes a labour Chapter that theoretically affords abused workers a legal route to attain justice. But if previous agreements are anything to go by, activists are right to be sceptical that external pressure will lead to internal accountability. Trade deals have historically proven more of an impediment to progress than an impetus. In several neoliberal accords brokered by the US, e.g. trade pacts with Mexico and Colombia, trade union activists have rightly described the labour provisions as toothless and, in light of the persistence of rights abuses under “free trade,” far too weak to encourage meaningful reform.
At work, women are discriminated against. They are paid less than their male counterparts and are harassed and sexually assaulted. At home, the violence continues. Indigenous, rural, migrant and domestic workers are also victimised, and the government continues to ignore widespread violations of child labour laws.
It’s no secret that Central America is a dangerous region. According to the ITUC, between 2009 and 2012, at least 38 trade unionists were killed in Guatemala. The time has never been more propitious to end the systematic slaughter of trade unionists in Guatemala.
Enrico Tortolano (Trade Union Industrial Officer, PCS – personal capacity)
Struggles for economic justice have been central to the so-called “leftwards turn” that has been underway in Latin America for the last decade and a half. Many of the leftist governments who have come to power since the turn of the century owe their political successes to links with social movements who took militant action against structural adjustment and IMF-imposed austerity. During the popular disturbances known as el caracazo in 1989, Venezuela was perhaps the first country to witness widespread resistance to neoliberalism. Since then, the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have continually positioned themselves as representatives of that collective resistance, heralding their “Bolivarian Revolution” as an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist project driven by the people (el pueblo).
This paper will focus on the experiences of working-class community leaders who have been key local-level actors in the Bolivarian project. In particular, it will examine how political subjectivities and reputations have evolved among those who, having begun as grassroots neighbourhood organisers, have gone on to become state employees, party brokers and successful local politicians. It will ask how such individuals deal with individual success in terms of new careers, relative financial security and political power as collective struggles for economic justice continue around them. To what extent do these figures maintain links with the grassroots community organisations they founded? How does employment in local government or election to public office change local perceptions of them? Does the pursuit of individual aspirations undermine such leaders’ attempts to mobilise those who have benefitted less from the Bolivarian era? The paper will draw on ethnographic research carried out between 2009 and 2012 in order to answer these questions.
Matt Wilde (Research Fellow in Anthropology, ILAS, London)
In this paper, I focus on the making of the Unemployment Movements in Argentina, one of the most important social actors within the protest and popular mobilizations that opposed neoliberalism in 2001. Thousands of people occupied bridges, roads, squares and public offices in order to demand for food and jobs. To most social researchers, activists and journalists, these protests showed the shaping of a new subject, or new social movement, which emerged in response to the crisis of traditional actors –notably labor unions and political parties-. In contrast, I contend that members of trade unions and leaders of grassroots associations, in their fought for access to urban land in the 1980s, were active in the organization of unemployed people, eventually contributing to their shaping as a political movement. First, I analyze the role of labor-based and urban poor people’s associations in the making of collective demands for food and jobs as well as popular mobilizations. Members of public- sector trade unions (teachers, nurses and doctors), most of them affiliated to Peronism or Maoism, paved the way for the initial grouping of the unemployed once that unemployment and poverty levels began to rise due to structural adjustments in the early 1990s. Second, I explain how the unemployment movement paradoxically became a central actor in its connection with the neoliberal state, which transformed the unemployed into the subject of neoliberal public policies. However, these policies were severely criticized because they didn’t represent sources of “genuine work”. Finally, the trade unions and the grassroots associations articulated the unemployment Movement with patterns of neoliberal power. In a dialectical way, they confronted neoliberal economic and social reforms and, at the same time, they helped expand neoliberal forms of government over the unemployed. In this paradoxical way, the unemployment movement contributed to the political finale of the neoliberal government and created a new context for popular policies of income redistribution in Argentina.
Virginia Manzano (Universidad de Buenos Aires, CONICET-Argentina)
The labour and trade union movement in Lebanon, particularly during the period which followed the Civil War (1975 – 1990) can generally be characterised by its slow adoption of methods of struggle raising economic and sectoral demands, while rejecting political demands even criticism of the ruling regime. Over time, this has led to the weakening of the workers’ movement, and its organisational infrastructure, as well as the fragmentation and retreat of trade union consciousness and class consciousness in the face of the spread of sectarian and clientelist discourses among members of the working class. My presentation will shed light on the practices which led to the shrinking of a space for politics within trade unionism, in particular focussing on sectarianism, racism and gender discrimination. Such practices were either excused by the trade union bureaucracy, or this language was in many cases adopted by the bureaucracy itself towards both male and female Lebanese and foreign workers. In addition to this I will examine the problematic relationship between rank-and-file workers’ struggles and the bureaucratic formations at the top of the union hierarchy. I will discuss the impact of this relationship in limiting the forms and building of trade union and workers’ struggles, its impact on the development of class consciousness, and on the expansion of the workers’ movement and its ability to win new men and women workers. In the light of the revolutionary transformations which have taken place across the region, I will ask what are the possible strategies for rebuilding renewing the momentum of the workers’ movement and the trade union struggle, with the aim of winning not only direct rights for workers but also to begin to moved towards a trade union and labour movement which is democratic and revolutionary, capable of confronting the ruling regime on every level, as well as confronting the ideas which dominate the working class such as sectarianism, racism and sexism. What can Lebanese and foreign workers (who constitute about 30% of the working class in Lebanon) do to unite in a workers movement which is capable of challenging the bourgeois regime currently in power?
Walid Daou (Socialist Forum, Lebanon)
During the protest at Rio’s central station on 6 February 2014, street vendor Tasman Amaral Accioly was killed by a bus while fleeing flash bombs and tear gas thrown by police. His death went unreported by the main media outlets. In this paper, this desperately tragic incident is used as a starting point to interrogate the impact of protest in Brazil on the relationship between street vendors and the state. It draws from interviews with vendors in Rio and Recife and engages with the theoretical framework of ‘unruly politics’, in which protests and otherwise ‘unruly’ citizen action are considered as a kind of ‘development practice’.
Street vendors are excluded from traditional union activism as well as from most services provided by the welfare state. Their right to the city is continually contested by private and state actors. In Brazil’s recent protests, street vendors have occupied the streets as participants and organisers as well as vendors. Their experiences of protest can therefore be used to explore the participation of an ostracised group in popular mobilisation, and the specific power dynamics at work on the streets.
The paper first outlines the political and economic rights gained by vendors through protest. It looks both at vendors’ spontaneous participation in mass protest and at the more organised campaigns by vendor unions. It then examines the hierarchies of participation in protest, particularly due to the threat to vendors’ lives and livelihoods and the cooption of protest by resource-rich actors. It argues that despite the transformatory power of recent mobilisations, as narrated by vendors, their experience of protest and its outcomes is shaped by the vulnerable space they occupy as citizens. This must be taken seriously in any evaluation of the role of protest in struggles for economic justice, or of protest as ‘development practice’.
Lucy McMahon (Development Studies, Cambridge)
Mary Compton (Past President, National Union of Teachers, UK)