by Enrique de la Garza, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City
Edward Webster addresses a classic yet timely question: whether, alongside the globalization of capital, a globalization of labor as social movement is possible, and in this connection what is the significance of the constitution of other identities and solidarities?
Although Webster focuses on the ‘South,’ I believe his analysis extends beyond the old development-underdevelopment dichotomies, and not just because developed countries, such as Australia, also exist in the South, but because Northern countries contain within them features of the South. Still, the basic issue correctly focuses on how to overcome the fragmentations among workers, fragmentation originating from differences of ethnicity, religion, nationality and, above all, from differences in types of occupations (formal versus informal; wage earners versus non-wage earners; workers in global chains versus those in micro-enterprises; core workers versus subcontracted workers, etc.). In this sense, Webster is correct that strong global pressures on companies to reduce costs and be competitive result in feelings of impotence and resignation among workers, leading them to accept the loss of rights and protections as a strategy of survival. This strategy may also result from the fragmentation of identities.
However, some lessons may still be learned from history:
1. The thesis of the fragmentation of identities, be it due to the new heterogeneity of occupations (Claus Offe) or to divergent labor trajectories (Zygmunt Bauman), ends up being superficial because there has always been heterogeneity in occupations, companies, branches, as well as regional, national or international divisions. (Were the affiliates of the First International any more homogeneous in their occupations? Were the Popular Fronts of the past, occasionally led by unions, examples of occupational homogeneity?) The process of constitution of identities, collective actions and social movements does not depend solely on the positions of actors in occupational structures. To be sure social structures do give rise to the collective construction of differences, but social identities also derive from social interactions, social movements, culture and embedded subjectivities.
2. From the standpoint of the workers, international links in the material sense already exist in the global value chains, including current conflicts involving subcontracting and in particular off-shoring. Nevertheless, this material link does not guarantee solidarity either, although positive examples do exist.
3. An enormous number of workers exist outside the global value chains: formal and informal, wage earners and non-wage earners, and traditional as well as non-traditional workers. It is necessary to ask whether a global movement can be created out of a shared identity of exclusion.
In the case of Latin America, the problems are similar to the ones noted by Webster. In every case, it is necessary to specify the importance of the informal sector, which is not generally subject to labor regulations. According to the new definition of the International Labour Organization, the percentage of workers in Latin American countries occupied in informal occupations or lacking labour protections in formal companies ranges from 40 to 70% of the labor force. The informal sector includes large companies as well as small ones, but it is especially prominent among companies with fewer than five workers. Such micro-entities constitute the majority of companies in all the countries of Latin America. In this sector part of the workforce is wage-earning, but many are self-employed or work without pay in family companies. Employees paid via commission should also be included in this sector. At this moment, the struggles for labor regulation in this sector are very important. The position of workers in international value chains is also an issue, posing the question of the relation between core workers and groups of subcontracted workers.
As well as occupational differences, labor legislation and the policies of workers’ organization vary by country. With regard to labor legislation, the region can be divided between those countries that continue to apply an orthodox neoliberal model (Mexico and Colombia are noteworthy examples) and those where alternative state-led policies are attempted (for example, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil.) The decline of union strength and workers’ rights are notable in the first set. In the second set, there is some revitalization of unions and protections for workers. During the 1990s, when a hard neoliberalism was consolidated in almost the entire subcontinent, workers suffered notable losses in protection. However, with the dawn of the new century, their luck began to change in a positive direction in many parts of the region. Nevertheless, while some national labor legislation allows unionization rights of non-wage earners, in others it does not.
Something similar occurs with union policies. While some unions offer no significant resistance to neoliberal policies, other are quite belligerent in their opposition. Furthermore, some unions are very committed to a narrow definition of labor, limiting it to wage labor, while others are open to a much broader definition. The most important, although incipient, expressions of international solidarity are through the large global confederations, through branch secretariats, through specific agreements between confederations of different countries, through campaigns on specific problems, and using some inter-governmental agreements such as those of the ILO or those connected to trade agreements.
In other words, the already existing forms of international-type solidarity mentioned by Webster are important: the humanitarian, production and regulatory approaches. However, it is possible that the most important impact of the ‘liquification’ of collective actions and identities needs not be sought in the structure of the occupations or in the fluid labor trajectories, or even strictly in the global market pressures, but rather in the loss of worker utopias. Those communist, socialist, anarchist, or even social-democratic utopias, which existed alongside certain material conditions and fostered the commitment to alternatives to capitalist society, have generally not been renewed or replaced by others.
At the most, feasible reforms may have appeared within the same neoliberal system, as in Webster’s three forms of solidarity. They are limited, for example, to the regulation of the financial system, or to an anachronistic projection of the Benefactor State onto the global level, such as the World Social Forum. It would appear that there is still not the confluence of feeling and thinking that translates into global projects, neither of an intellectual character nor on the material plane.