Class warfare intensifies as labor rights violated around the world

As bad as conditions have traditionally been for labor worldwide, 2020 has seen conditions deteriorate even more. As in past years, there is not a single country on Earth that fully protects workers’ rights. And although every country continues to violate labor rights, the extent of those violations grows, continuing a sad pattern of class warfare.

The International Trade Union Confederation has issued its annual Global Rights Index, and only 12 countries managed to be listed in the Index’s top ranking, the countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. But those countries are hardly paradises (this is capitalism, after all). One of those dozen, the Netherlands, had no less than seven of its corporations listed among companies violating workers’ rights. Those were not necessarily isolated instances. The report said, “In the Netherlands, unions observed an increasing trend to shift from sectoral agreements to company agreements with the intent of minimising labour costs in return for employability. Companies often used the competitiveness and employability argument with their employees to incite them to accept lower conditions of work at the enterprise level. In addition, companies, including Ryanair, Transavia, Jumbo Supermarkets, Gall & Gall, Action and Lidl supermarkets, tended to circumvent collective bargaining with representative unions.”

If that represents the “best” of conditions for working people, the world is a mighty unfair place. Which it obviously is, given the ever more intense pressure bearing down on working people as the neoliberal era continues to make capitalism ever more miserable for those whose work produces the profits swelling the pockets of industrialists and financiers.

As in past years, the Global Rights Index report divides the world’s countries into five categories with increasing levels of rights violations. They are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries including Germany, Ireland, Norway and Uruguay (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Canada, France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 24 countries including Argentina, Australia, Britain and South Africa (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 41 countries including Chile, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 32 countries including Brazil, China, Colombia and Turkey (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

Hypocritical finger-wagging

Consistent with past years of the Global Rights Index, the United States, which loves to hold itself up as an exemplar of democracy and civil rights, is among the lowest-ranking countries — the U.S. has consistently had a ranking of 4 for “systemic” violations. The International Trade Union Confederation, in supplemental materials discussing U.S. violations, noted that the National Labor Relations Board has made a series of anti-union rulings, including allowing retaliation against striking Wal-Mart workers, while U.S. law permits anti-union discrimination, restricts workers’ rights to form unions of their own choosing, and places severe barriers against union organizing. 

The United Kingdom, second only to the U.S. in regular scolding of other countries, is ranked in the middle of the pack, same as a year ago. The report’s discussion of Britain reported “the number of people employed on a stand-by basis, ‘zero-hour contracts,’ at between 200,000 to 250,000 which demonstrates the prevalence of underemployment in the UK. Under these contracts employees have to be available for work but are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours. These contracts create income insecurity for workers and also undermine family life.” Additionally, the report noted multiple barriers to British union organizing.

Canada, although ranked higher than Britain or the U.S., is no paradise despite the image its governments like to project. The report noted that in Canada there are many categories of workers, ranging from domestics to professionals, barred from organizing, and there are severe legal restrictions limiting the right to strike.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Globally, the report states that violations of workers’ rights are at a seven-year high. Direct attacks on unions highlight the degradation:

“The trends by governments and employers to restrict the rights of workers through violations of collective bargaining and the right to strike, and excluding workers from unions, have been made worse in 2020 by an increase in the number of countries which impede the registration of unions — denying workers both representation and rights. … A new trend identified in 2020 shows a number of scandals over government surveillance of trade union leaders, in an attempt to instil fear and put pressure on independent unions and their members.”

The global pandemic has only made conditions worse:

“These threats to workers, our economies and democracy were endemic in workplaces and countries before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted lives and livelihoods. In many countries, the existing repression of unions and the refusal of governments to respect rights and engage in social dialogue has exposed workers to illness and death and left countries unable to fight the pandemic effectively.”

Class warfare goes on and on and on

Some of the sobering statistics gathered by the International Trade Union Confederation tell a grim story:

  • 85 percent of countries violated the right to strike.
  • 80 percent of countries violated the right to collectively bargain.
  • Workers were arrested and detained in 61 countries.
  • Workers experienced violence in 51 countries.

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 332 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. Those 97 standards pertain to civil liberties, the right to establish or join unions, trade union activities, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.

The Confederation’s report is one more illustration of the race to the bottom. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 470 million people worldwide were unemployed, underemployed or “marginally attached to the workforce” in a report issued in January 2020, with 2 billion people (61 percent of the global workforce!) informally employed. That report was issued just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, triggering a dramatic economic crash that had been overdue, thanks to the instability of capitalism that regularly causes downturns. Inequality and lower pay are endemic around the world, and the costs of housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, rises far faster than incomes. The continual imposition of austerity on working people contrasts dramatically with the trillions of dollars thrown at financiers and industrialists since the pandemic began.

Capitalism promises nothing but more one-sided class warfare. We’re long past due to try something different.

Capitalism’s triumph: Labor rights violated in every country on Earth

In what country are labor rights fully respected? The sad answer is: none.

Labor rights are routinely violated around the world, and the trend is only getting worse. The International Trade Union Confederation has again issued its annual Global Rights Index and the result is no better than in past years. It’s worse. For example, the number of countries that exclude workers from the right to establish or join a union increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019. Even in Europe, the region with the (relatively) best conditions for working people, half the countries exclude at least some groups of workers from freely associating by allowing “non-standard” forms of work such as zero-hour contracts, temp work or misclassifying people working through online platforms as “self-employed.”

Corporations ever on the lookout for ways to extract more from their workforce and, with government complicity, continue to press down. The Confederation, in its report, said:

Worldwide, new technology has allowed employers to use various mechanisms to avoid paying minimum entitlements and exclude workers from labour laws. Recent technological leaps in the ways that work can be allocated and accessed has resulted in increased incidences of workers being denied rights under the guise of flexibility and as platform workers. Decent work is being affected and rights are being denied by companies avoiding rules and regulations. … More and more governments are complicit in facilitating labour exploitation or allowing the rule of law to be avoided because workers are forced to work in the informal sector of the economy.”

Rapid advances in technology, because they are controlled by corporations and repressive governments, are enabling continuing deterioration in working conditions. Not only does technology enable production to be moved to locations with ever lower wages and regulations, but it enables the weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

In its report, the International Trade Union Confederation ranks countries from one to five, with one the least repressive and five the most. Only 12 countries — Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden and Uruguay — are ranked as one. These are countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. So there are no countries on Earth that do not violate labor rights. (There are several countries not given a rating, shown in gray in the map below.)

The International Trade Union Confederation labor rights rankings

Interestingly, the two countries most prone to wagging fingers at the rest of the world, Britain and the United States, once again fared poorly. Britain was ranked as a three, representing a country that has “regular violations of rights.” The U.S. was rated as a four, among countries determined to condone “systematic violations of rights.” There is nothing new here; the U.S. has consistently been scored as a four in these reports over the years. As recently as 2017, Britain was also ranked as a four.

In a country rated as a four, “The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under threat.”

So much for the so-called land of freedom.

The report’s rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries as noted above (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 24 countries including France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia, Canada and Spain (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 39 countries including Argentina, Chile and Mexico (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, China, Greece and India (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 331 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. “The methodology is grounded in standards of fundamental rights at work, in particular the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike,” the Confederation wrote in its report.

During the six years that the Confederation has issued its yearly reports, conditions have steadily deteriorated. Since the initial report in 2014, every region of the world has seen scores worsen. Summarizing this trend, the report says:

“In 2019, strikes have been severely restricted or banned in 123 out of 145 countries. In a significant number of these countries, industrial actions were brutally repressed by the authorities and workers exercising their right to strike often faced criminal prosecution and summary dismissals. Three regions — Africa, the Americas and [Middle East/North Africa] — all had an increase in the number of countries that violated the right to strike from last year.”

And thus it is no surprise that inequality is rising around the world, unemployment is endemic and far higher than official government statistics would have us believe and corporate tax dodging facilitated by government policies is widespread. The world’s working people continue to be on the losing side of one of the most one-sided wars in human history.

No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights

There is no country on Earth in which violations of labor rights do not occur. The best rating is for those which are merely “irregular violators of rights,” and only 12 countries managed that.

The International Trade Union Confederation, in its annual Global Rights Index report on the state of labor around the world, has once again provided sobering news. Sixty percent of countries exclude whole categories of workers from labor law, the ITUC report says, indicative that “corporate interests are being put ahead of the interests of working people in the global economy.” The ITUC’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said:

“Denying workers protection under labour laws creates a hidden workforce, where governments and companies refuse to take responsibility, especially for migrant workers, domestic workers and those on short term contracts. In too many countries, fundamental democratic rights are being undermined by corporate interests.”

Among the key findings of the report:

  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike.
  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining,
  • Eighty-four countries exclude groups of workers from labor law.
  • The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased to 59 countries from 52 a year earlier.
  • Unionists were murdered in 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela.

International labor standards

To assess the state of global labor, the International Trade Union Confederation, “a confederation” of national trade unions, sends questionnaires to its affiliates in 161 countries and territories representing 176 million workers, with the intention of covering as many aspects of the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike as possible. The information collected is then used to assess whether a given country meets standards set by the International Labour Organization.

These standards are examined by answering “yes” or “no” to 97 indicators arranged in five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. The reason for a binary “yes” or “no” rather than a gradated scale is because “this method reduces the normative subjectivity of the analyst who carries out the coding,” the ITUC said. Further, because each of the 97 indicators is based on “universally binding obligations,” companies and government are required to meet them in full.

When the ITUC first carried out this survey, in 2014, the highest score attained was 43, meaning that no country had even half of its questions answered with a “yes.” In other words, every country in the world flunked.

For the 2017 report, the ITUC did not indicate the range of country scores, but followed its previous format of grouping countries into five tiers. The top tier, in which countries merely “irregular violate” labor rights, consists of 12 countries, which are marked in green on the map below. Eleven are found in Europe, and one in Latin America, Uruguay. (Yellow represents the second tier, followed by progressively darker shades of orange and red, the worst violators.)

ITUC map of labor rights. Green represents the highest-ranking countries; red the lowest.

The rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Irregular violations of rights: 12 countries including France, Germany and Sweden.
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 21 countries including Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia and Chile.
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, Britain and the United States.
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including India, Mexico and the Philippines.
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 11 countries including Burundi, Palestine and Syria.

U.S., Britain systematic violators of labor rights

The United States was also rated a “four” in 2014, while Britain has slipped from being ranked a “three” then. Once again, that means the U.S. and U.K. commit “systematic violations” of labor rights — so much for those governments’ endless attempts to assert moral authority over the rest of the world. The Trump and May governments are not likely to improve upon these rankings. In regards to U.S. deficiencies, the ITUC report says:

“Far from consulting with unions regarding labour law and policy, some states and U.S. politicians have taken deliberate steps to roll back workers’ collective bargaining rights. … The National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) and judicial decisions interpreting the law prohibit workers from engaging in sitdown strikes, partial strikes and secondary boycotts, and impose other restrictions on organisational or recognitional strikes.”

Embarrassingly for a country governed by a party calling itself a “Coalition of the Radical Left,” Greece is among the countries with a ranking of “five.” This ranking is due to harsh restrictions on collective bargaining that were implemented beginning in 2010 through several laws on orders of the “troika” — the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which led to “a significant erosion” of labor rights.

Ironically, the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, says that collective bargaining is a “best practice” of the European Union, but the EU continues to block any attempt by the Syriza government to restore labor protections. A proposed law to re-establish collective bargaining was not submitted to the Greek parliament because of troika disapproval.

A sobering reminder of what capitalism offers working people: A race to the bottom and more exploitation. Surely, the world can do better.

Verizon sticks it to its workers because $45 billion isn’t enough

Does a company that racked up $45 billion in profits over the past five years really need to stick it to its employees? The answer depends on who’s asking. From any ordinary human standpoint, clearly no. From the perspective of Wall Street and corporate board rooms, the answer is always an enthusiastic yes.

Class warfare is on display in stark terms at Verizon Communications, and although such direct terms are avoided by the corporate media, there is much talk of the strike against Verizon by the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as “labor’s last stand.” That might be a little hyperbolic, or it might be wishful thinking, as such talk of last stands is often intertwined with juxtaposing unionized older sectors with non-unionized sectors that are promoted as “new” and “vibrant.”

We've seen this before: Three unions protest outside Verizon headquarters in Philadelphia in August 2009 (photo by Liz McElroy, for the aflcio2008)

We’ve seen this before: Three unions protest outside Verizon headquarters in Philadelphia in August 2009 (photo by Liz McElroy, for the aflcio2008)

Typical of the corporate media is this report from NBC News, referring to Verizon’s non-unionized wireless operations:

“ ‘The question is, is there going to be a unionized presence in this advanced, technologically innovative kind of industry?’ said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Labor, Work, and Democracy at the University of California — Santa Barbara. The likely answer doesn’t bode well for unions.”

Perhaps an unconscious nod to the technology sector’s old-fashioned exploitation of workers despite its carefully calculated image of modernity, online media has been as responsive to corporate power as has the traditional corporate media. A study of four prominent outlets conducted by Fair & Accuracy In Reporting found 31 direct quotes, either via interviews or press releases, by management during the first days of the Verizon strike versus 13 by workers. The FAIR report said:

“Corporate media coverage of this strike illustrated the fundamental asymmetry of power that still exists between multi-billion-dollar corporations and comparatively small unions. (A union like Communications Workers of America has an annual budget roughly 1/500th of Verizon’s annual revenues of $131 billion.) An analysis of coverage in two major ‘old media’ outlets (New York Times and Washington Post) and two ‘new media’ outlets (Buzzfeed and Vox) exposes a consistent pattern of prioritizing management’s voice over that of the workers or their representatives, to the tune of roughly 2-to-1.”

More is never enough at the top

About 40,000 Verizon workers walked out on April 13, and Verizon continues to take a hard line against its employees. Despite the $45.3 billion in net income the company has reported for the past five years, its notorious tax dodging (more on that below) and the $350 million in compensation ladled out to its top five executives during a recent five-year period, Verizon’s line is — guess what! — the workers are greedy. (Incidentally, Verizon laid off 39,000 workers during that five-year period.) They are portrayed as greedy because they believe they should be paid a living wage and shouldn’t have to relocate for months at a time, away from their families and communities.

Among the complaints of the strikers are Verizon’s moving of call-center jobs overseas; closing of U.S. call centers; outsourcing other work, including installing and maintaining phone lines, to low-wage, non-unionized contractors; and being forced to work far away, sometimes hundreds of miles away, for months at a time. Working conditions are also an issue, as a Communications Workers of America strike update notes:

“Verizon management has created a sweatshop environment with its excessive monitoring and unreasonable overtime assignments. Employees are monitored in call centers by the electronic recording of every call. Outside technicians are monitored with a Global Positioning System tracking every aspect of movement of the company vehicles. The mismanagement of these monitoring tools has created high levels of stress affecting employee productivity and morale. Call center management routinely assign overtime to employees and then without any concern for the employee’s quality of life cancel assignments less than 10 minutes before the scheduled overtime while directing calls to contract vendors. Outside technicians have been forced to work overtime to the point of exhaustion because the Company has not hired enough technicians to keep up with the workload. Members deserve better treatment than this.”

A classic example, not only of the inhuman treatment often meted out by corporate managements, but of technology, in the hands of capitalists, being a tool of repression rather than “liberatory.” This parallels the supposed “innovation” of technology companies that misclassify their employees as “independent contractors” to exploit them more ruthlessly, thus putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping. Nor is there anything new about corporations making hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per employee and crying they don’t make enough.

A leader at tax dodging

Dodging taxes is yet another capitalist “innovation.” Although far from alone in this, Verizon is flatly lying when it claims it pays the standard 35 percent corporate tax rate of the U.S. In fact, Verizon enjoyed a tax rate of minus two percent for the period of 2008 through 2013. Yep, despite racking up $42 billion in profits during those six years, it paid no federal taxes. For the years 2008 to 2012, Verizon received a composite $535 million in tax rebates. Although the company did pay taxes the past two years, it paid at a rate lower than what its employees pay.

Then there are corporate subsidies — Verizon pocketed $60 million in subsidies over the past decade from the New Jersey state government alone, yet far from hiring new workers, it laid off more than 300 in that state. The corrupt administration of Governor Chris Christie, which has handed out billions of dollars in corporate giveaways, did not ask for the money back from Verizon despite the failure to create jobs.

Once again, Verizon is not unique. Tax dodging by multi-national corporations costs the U.S. about $111 billion per year, according to an Oxfam report.

As an added insult, Verizon spent $110 million on lobbying for the years 2008 to 2014, and holds $1.3 billion in cash in offshore accounts — money that is hidden so as to not be not taxed.

That such behavior is the corporate norm does not excuse Verizon. A company that reports billions of dollars in annual profits, pays millions to its executives and dodges taxes by the billions can afford to pay its workers a living wage and treat them with dignity. Underlying this battle is Verizon’s wish to concentrate more of its workforce to its non-unionized subsidiaries. Workers in the company’s Verizon Wireless unit are not represented by a union and make far less; Verizon is far more interested in investing in this portion of its business than its legacy landline and cable businesses.

Neoliberalism and the promotion of jealousy

A New Yorker article that was not sympathetic to the strikers nonetheless pointed out the big differences in wages that unionized workers are defending:

“When Verizon workers walked off the job in 2000, there were eighty-five thousand workers striking, and they represented the main part of Verizon’s business. In sixteen years, the number of unionized workers has fallen by more than half. And it’s worth noting that a customer-service agent who makes north of sixty thousand at Verizon would make closer to thirty-six thousand on the company’s wireless side, according to the job site Glassdoor.”

Neoliberal ideology aims to generate jealousy that someone else has a good wage with benefits and some measure of security, lest too many people get the idea that they ought to have those wages and benefits, too. Recall the public-relations battle over the removal of collective-bargaining rights from Wisconsin public workers in 2012. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the corporate powers that animate him waged their war on working people through careful framing.

Conservative ideology insists the question should be “Why does someone have something you don’t have” (such as a pension), instead of “Why do you not have something that you should be entitled to but don’t have.” Once the question was framed that way in Wisconsin, and anti-government rhetoric was wrapped around it, there was a short path to making pensions indistinguishable from excessive government spending.

In that case, government workers were specifically made scapegoats for tactical reasons, but unionized workers are more generally the target of scapegoating, and Verizon flacks have made sure to inflate the actual size of strikers’ wages so as to portray them as “greedy.” It remains to be seen if this tactic will work if the strike become lengthy. It also remains to what extent union leaders will cuddle up to the Democratic Party, and thus dampen rank-and-file militancy. Democrats are openly supporting the strikers right now — it is an election year after all — but the decades-long tactic of unions throwing support to Democrats without asking for anything in return has played its part in the decline of unions and increase in inequality.

When you guarantee unconditional support, when you keep your mouth shut when you are forgotten after the election, when you desperately suppress any independent mass movement, when you are so comfortable in your bubble that you can’t conceive of doing anything different, when you are unable to differentiate between a crumb and a loaf, you will lose. And you will keep losing. It’s long past time for working people to build our own organizations independent of corporate parties and to end illusions that the system that creates a Verizon can be reformed and made “nice.”

A global working class in formation

With the rise of a working class rooted in the global South comes worker militancy in the same geographies. This is militancy that has yet to attract much notice in the advanced capitalist countries of the North.

One reason lies in the withering of labor movements across the North, and a belief in some circles, flowing from that withering, that the working class is shrinking and perhaps ceasing to be an instrument of social change. In part such viewpoints are due to a failure to see office workers in “white-collar” professions to be part of the working class. (Surplus value is extracted from them just the same.) In another part it is myopia — believing labor acquiescence in the North to be universally representative while failing to appreciate the rise of militancy on the part of super-exploited workers in the developing world.

Workers in the South, however, are developing new forms of resistance, and are now an integral part of a global working class, under-appreciated developments brought to vivid life in Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class* by Immanuel Ness. The industrial working class has not disappeared, but rather has been reconstituted in the South and in larger in numbers than ever before, in contrast to scholars on the right and left who “declared the working class dead.” In his book, Professor Ness argues:

“While the right wing declared the working class dead and a false construct, leftist scholars were also challenging the legitimacy of the working class as a force for social equality and transformation. Yet, more than 40 years after the onslaught of the economic, political, and intellectual offensive against organized labor throughout the world, the working class has a heartbeat and is stronger than ever before despite the dramatic decline in organized labor. … While it may be the case that the labor movements in Europe and North America are a spent force, it is their very defeats that have marginalized their existing supine and bureaucratic order and regenerated a fierce workers’ movement in the early 21st century.” [page 3]

Southern Insurgency coverThe percentage of formal-sector workers holding industrial employment in the South has grown from about 50 percent of the global total in 1980 to 80 percent. This increase is of course central to corporate strategy in the neoliberal era — as organized labor achieved successes, capital responded by moving production. This process has repeated, as Northern multi-national capital continually seeks out lower-wage Southern labor to exploit. That Northern capital has intensified its exploitation is demonstrated by the fact that profits being taken out of the South are rising faster than the inflow there of investment capital.

Southern traditional unions lost whatever militancy they may have once had through their co-optation into state and capitalist institutions. But in contrast to working people in much of the North, workers of the South have begun to build new types of organizations. Professor Ness writes:

“In more and more industries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, this new proletariat is forming bonds of solidarity through independent organizations demanding improved conditions for all workers, pushing existing unions to represent members and non-members, and forming alliances within communities to improve the quality of life for all impoverished workers. The workplace and community demands that are now made by the new industrial proletariat reveal the motivations of workers rooted in solidarity, and a fundamental opposition to neoliberal capital, inequality, and poverty.” [page 58]

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable, and suffer particularly unsafe and exploitative working conditions and pay. Liberal theories of migration ignore the structural reasons for migration, Professor Ness notes — neoliberalism creates unemployment and inequality, forcing involuntary movements; forced displacement in turns leads to slums, poverty and exploitation. Capital needs these migrations, and immigration, to increase competition for jobs and thus make work more precarious. Guest workers tend to earn barely enough to ensure their own survival and don’t contribute to their home economies, in contrast to World Bank and International Monetary Fund propaganda.

Precarious labor in India

The core of Southern Insurgency are case studies of three of the largest Southern economies: India, China and South Africa. The intensity of exploitation in each of these countries is high and resistance ongoing despite the use of force on the part of both capital and government. The first of these case studies, India, represents “a leading example of neoliberal imperialism,” Professor Ness argues:

“The actions of the Indian state have been decisive for multinational capital and its local agents by facilitating foreign investment in new manufacturing industries, safeguarding foreign investments, and commonly using legal rulings against workers and unions and unions fighting for democratic representation at the workplace. Moreover, state police are readily available to intervene on behalf of multinational investors seeking to thwart labor organizations. In India, the state police and the criminal justice system are not impartial intermediaries but partisans in support of corporations against the working class as it seeks equity and humane conditions in the workplace.” [pages 105-106]

Only about one-quarter of Indian workers enjoy regular employment and are eligible to be in a state-recognized union; three-quarters of workers are “contract workers” who have no security, are prohibited from unionizing and are paid 25 to 50 percent of the low wages of regular workers, barely enough to eat and pay rent. Although Indian law has permitted unions since independence, labor law has been flouted since the early 1990s by the state, capital and sometimes even unions. With traditional Indian unions, who are aligned with weakening political parties, failing to defend workers, a new independent formation, the National Trade Union Initiative, is attempting to organize non-union and informal workers, although the government refuses to recognize it.

Splitting the working class is at the core of multi-national capital’s strategy in India, actively encouraged by the state. One example is a fierce fightback at a Suzuki auto plant in 1991. Workers there used hunger strikes and two-hour “tool-downs” to press their demands, which included an end to the contract system. Management responded with a lockout, enforced by a police blockade, and a demand that workers sign a draconian “good conduct” letter to be allowed to return. Ultimately, Suzuki restarted production with scabs, enthusiastically backed by the state.

When Suzuki opened a second plant, the same scenario repeated, but this time the company hired goons who instigated violence, leaving more than 100 injured but only worker leaders jailed. Organized resistance continues in India despite continued repression, Professor Ness writes, and organized fight-backs, which consistently include demands for equal pay and conditions, are building needed class consciousness.

Organizing beyond unions in China

Although Chinese workers face the strongest state among the three case-study countries, they are also making the biggest strides. The very weakness of the Chinese union federation, Southern Insurgency argues, may give workers there more space to act collectively outside the constraints imposed by union bureaucracies and labor law. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been the sole national federation since 1949, and because good benefits and security were the norm during the Mao Zedong era, member unions have little experience in negotiating. Local branches don’t function as active organizations but respond only to rank-and-file disruptions of production. Unions are subservient to capital and negotiate without member input, but this makes them little different from Western unions, Professor Ness argues:

“Most existing union models throughout the world do not want competition from independent unions, so why should the [All-China Federation]? Labor unions in liberal democracies that fail to represent members’ interests are thus a poor model for the Chinese working class.” [page 126]

Labor law is largely not enforced in China; in part this is due to enforcement being devolved to the city level. Struggles tend to be ignited by failures to pay wages and thus tend to be spontaneous single-factory actions. Ironically, because workers are circumscribed by an inability to revolt regionally, nationally or across industries, the number of local revolts is higher than it would be otherwise. Younger workers are becoming more assertive in demanding better pay and retirement benefits, and privatizations and layoffs at state-owned enterprises are also behind a rising number of strikes.

Workers in the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta region, sometimes led by floor supervisors, have forced companies to pay back owed wages and retirement benefits. Police repression has been deployed outside plants but the state has also pressured companies to pay what they owe their workers. Throughout, workers have relied on self-organization as they have received no help from their unions.

Wildcat strikes are the standard model of Chinese workplace bargaining, Professor Ness writes, a “class struggle” unionism outside official channels. A future Chinese labor movement may be emerging from these battles.

State and capital vs. South African labor

Parallel to the contract-labor system of India and the hukou migrant-labor system of China, South Africa extensively uses contract and migrant labor at the behest of multi-national capital. Neoliberalism has an added bitter component there because harsh labor policies are enforced by the African National Congress (ANC), which granted political rights to the country’s oppressed Black majority but left economic relations untouched.

The largest South African labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), formed as an ANC affiliate during the 1980s but became a “distinctly junior partner” to the ANC and the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party and began to lose credibility in the 2010s as it failed to oppose the harsh neoliberalism dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Working conditions are particularly poor for miners — mining is controlled by multi-national capital and is by far the country’s biggest industry.

COSATU and its National Union of Mineworkers affiliate have supported an increase in the use of informal labor because they can hold a dominant position by representing only regular workers and thus without the support of the majority of the workforce. When a wave of strikes nonetheless began in 2009, the unions declared the strikes “illegal” and backed management. In at least one case, the union called for a harsher punishment than management did!

Workers organized themselves, and asked a new union unaffiliated with COSATU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, to negotiate on their behalf, which in turn won much greater pay raises. The National Union of Mineworkers reached a new low in 2012, however, after striking workers left that union and joined the Association during a strike. When management obtained a court order against the strikers, the National Mineworkers sided with management and sent goons to join with company goons to impose a violent denouement; 34 were killed and scores injured in what became known as the Marikana Massacre.

A fresh wave of strikes commenced in 2014, with Association negotiators obtaining significant wage increases. In parallel, a metal workers union has called for more militancy and for nationalizations; in response, COSATU expelled it. Worker militancy continues to rise and with the fracturing of the union movement, a realignment seems to be coming. Professor Ness writes:

“While the future configuration of the unions remains to be determined, it is clear that rank-and-file workers are helping to build oppositional unions that are shaping a struggle against economic imperialism, insisting on ending the system of exploitation and inequality that remains a fixture in the post-apartheid era.” [page 178]

Strength in worker radicalism

Southern Insurgency concludes by asking if existing labor unions can contain the development of independent working-class organizations. The actions of Indian, Chinese and South African industrial workers are reshaping traditional unions, and workers can’t rely on bureaucratic unions leaders to defend themselves, the book argues:

“It is the development of worker radicalism that will shape the form and survival of decaying traditional unions. … [T]he results of these rank-and-file struggles are mixed, but the evidence … demonstrates that these movements are gaining traction, and achieving real wage gains and improvement in conditions.” [page 189]

This latest book by Immanuel Ness is a needed corrective to the false idea that resignation to neoliberalism is universal, and the examples of militancy that he presents are not simply a necessary corrective but demonstrate that improvements are only possible with organized, self-directed actions. In a world more globalized then ever, workers of the world truly do need to unite — a global working class can only liberate itself through a global struggle.

Immanuel Ness, Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class [Pluto Press, London 2016]

Remembering the Marikana massacre on the third anniversary

Activists gathered across South Africa, and in London, New York and Oakland, to commemorate the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the deadliest South African massacre since Soweto.

A deadly massacre under an African National Congress government. And not the only shooting of workers, merely the worst under the harsh neoliberal assault overseen by the ANC.

South Africa’s apartheid system was overthrown in a negotiated process forced by a massive international popular movement backing the ANC, but the party has turned its back on popular forces. (This and the next two paragraphs based in part on The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.) During the long years of struggle by the ANC and pitiless repression by the National Party, the apartheid-era rulers in South Africa, the guiding document of the ANC was its “Freedom Charter.” The charter, adopted after democratic consultations in 1955, calls for the right to work; to decent housing; freedom of thought; nationalization of mines, banks and “monopoly industry”; and land distribution so that all South Africans can share in the wealth of their country.

Marikana DayAlthough the ANC had the moral authority to carry out its program, its negotiators tragically (and unwittingly) gave up all economic control, forfeiting their ability to carry out any aspect of their program, with the result that, two decades later, the economy is firmly in the hands of its numerically minuscule White business elite (which is tied to international markets). The country’s eyes were on the political talks between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, in which the ANC decisively was the victor against the National Party’s attempts to dilute its loss of government control.

But in the parallel economic talks, which drew little attention, the ANC gave away everything. The central bank would be independent of government (as financiers demanded), National Party government finance officials would remain in office and the ANC government would sign on to everything demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all international trade agreements. Having done so, the ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further discipline by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them. From pleasing markets and giving financiers repeated assurances, it proved a short path to President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, imposing austerity — a 180-degree turn from the Freedom Charter.

Workers face attacks by management and unions

Mining is a critical component of the South African economy, and the foreign multi-national corporations that own South Africa’s mines mistreat local workers with impunity. (This and the next paragraphs are based on Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class by Immanuel Ness.) Workers are often housed in substandard housing that lacks water and electricity, and an increasing number of miners are hired as contingent workers. Not only do mine workers not receive support from the National Union of Mineworkers, the NUM actively joins with managements in oppressing its rank and file.

Nor do they receive support from the country’s largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) — in February 2012, NUM and COSATU declared a strike by mineworkers illegal and actually took a harder line against the workers than the mine owner did! Mineworkers continued to bypass the union, or organize through an independent grassroots organization, Amcu, as mineworkers pressed to raise their monthly minimum wage from about US$400 to US$1,150. Two workers were shot by snipers on August 11, and the next day, fearful of returning to the mine, workers gathered on a nearby hill.

The management of the company that owned the mine, Lonmin PLC, called in the police. Lonmin sought to have the strike declared illegal and demanded workers surrender the crude weapons that had fashioned to defend themselves. NUM drove a vehicle equipped with a loudspeaker through the nearby settlements, declaring the strike illegal. Workers gathered on the hill again the morning of August 16 and were encircled by armed police. At 4 p.m., police opened fire, killing 16 workers as television cameras recorded and another 18 were executed off camera after fleeing the initial killings. Another 78 were injured.

An investigation headed by Judge Ian Farlam, appointed by President Jacob Zuma, found that police anticipated the killings hours earlier. Professor Ness, in Southern Insurgency (to be published by Pluto Books in October) provided this summary of the preparation:

“On the morning of August 16, more than eight hours in advance of the police shootings, aware the dozens of workers might be killed in a police assault, Colonels Klassen and Madoda of the [South African Police Service] ordered four mortuary vehicles to the scene from the health department, each with a capacity to carry eight bodies. The report also implicated senior government officials, including ANC and former NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder and director of Lonmin as the events leading up to the Marikana massacre were unfolding. … [A]n email from Ramaphosa to Albert Jamieson, Lonmin’s chief commercial officer, written one day before the massacre and concluding the strike was not a labor dispute but a ‘criminal’ action that required ‘concomitant action.’: ‘The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They pare plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. There needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.’ ”

Nonetheless, the commission pinned the blame for the massacre on the workers:

“[T]he tragic events that occurred during the period 12 to 16 August 2012 originated from the decision and conduct of the strikers in embarking on an unprotected strike and in enforcing the strike by violence and intimidation, using dangerous weapons for the purpose.”

Pushing back against government whitewash

The Marikana Support Committee, in rejecting that conclusion, declares:

“This statement is offered as a fact that we have to accept. But it is an opinion. There is no evidence to back it up. The Marikana Support Campaign considers this finding as a gross defamation of the miners. At the same time, despite a run of evidence to the contrary, Farlam and his Commissioners exonerate Ramaphosa and other government ministers. Lonmin is substantially exonerated.”

The Support Committee is calling for a new probe, “a civil society-led inquiry based on the evidence.”

The National Union of Metalworkers of South African (NUMSA), a union expelled from the COSATU trade-union federation after challenging the federation to break with the ANC and the ANC’s neoliberal policies, also sided with the mineworkers. In a statement issued for the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the metalworkers union said:

“The Marikana Massacre in 2012 signified the degeneration of our country into a Police State, as evidenced by the continued usage of police and excessive force to undermine popular dissent from below. … The mining industry, like many other key sectors of our economy for many years have been heavily dependent on Black and African working class cheap labour, for its profit maximisation and wealth accumulation strategy. … It is our view that the Marikana Report that was released to the public by President Jacob Zuma was a spit on the face of Marikana’s widows and victims’ families, since it was a whitewash and was intended to make the fast fading ANC-government look caring in the eyes of the working class.”

After two decades of ANC governance, South Africa is the most unequal country on Earth. The country’s gini co-efficient, the most common measure of inequality, was the world’s highest at 0.65 in 2011, according to World Bank statistics, and that the number has not likely improved since. About 57 percent of South Africans live in poverty, and unemployment is 26.4 percent at the same time that only 80 percent of industrial capacity is being utilized.

It is not only divisions along racial, national and gender lines that divide us and block necessary solidarity, it is also the North-South division. An injury to one is an injury to all, regardless of where.

Building workplace organizations anew

Workplace solidarity in the face of the neoliberal onslaught is as crucial as ever, yet present-day unions become ever more fearful. How do we build solidarity in an era when the tools of the past have lost their effectiveness?

New types of organizations are not only necessary, it is essential to look at past upsurges in union activity, particularly those of the 1930s, with clear eyes rather than romanticization, argues Staughton Lynd in Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below.* A new re-issue and updating of a classic work, the book has lost none of its timeliness. Critical to understanding how unions lost their way, becoming too cozy with the corporate managements they are supposed to challenge, is the stifling of rank-and-file activity, particularly of militant tactics, by Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) unions in the 1930s.

Self-activity from below in the mid-1930s catalyzed a big upsurge in union membership; solidarity through striking was a critical component. When the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was moving toward enactment in the 1930s, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) opposed it because they foresaw the National Labor Relations Board that would be formed to arbitrate disputes would hinder the right to strike. The board would inevitably aid capital, not labor, they believed.

Solidarity Unionism coverThe Wagner Act was passed, the board came to be, and although specific decisions have favored one side or the other at different times, those fears have come to pass. Mr. Lynd argues that the CIO opposed and suppressed rank-and-file and independent activity, opposed an independent labor political party and agreed to no-strike clauses that would be in force the entirely of contracts, thereby handing all power to company management. And although Mr. Lynd doesn’t discuss it, many of the gains that were achieved in the Wagner Act were taken back a decade later with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which further restricted union activity, including prohibiting sympathy strikes, a serious blow to solidarity.

In U.S. labor mythology, the CIO is the “radical” union umbrella organization, infusing new life into Great Depression organizing after the slow pace of unionization under the guidance of American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions. But CIO contracts ceded decision-making to management in all aspects of operations from the start, while union leaders promoted themselves as guarantors of labor peace. Going back to the CIO of 1936 or 1945 is useless, Mr. Lynd argues, because it set out to suppress independent activity from the start.

Democracy is the essential ingredient

Interestingly, he also argues that the dues-checkoff system is another factor contributing to the undemocratic and collaborationist tendencies of unions, because it makes union leaderships unaccountable to the rank-and-file. New worker organizations must be democratic to have any chance of being effective. Building new labor organizations of a different kind, that demonstrate their usefulness in responding to problems, is the way forward. Mr. Lynd writes that democracy is the starting point:

“Trade unions are among the most undemocratic institutions in the United States. Far from prefiguring a new society, they are institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace. … Democracy means, at a minimum, the freedom to criticize frankly and fully. Union bureaucrats have a tendency to view criticism as treason. But rank-and-file members must be able to criticize, not just the policies of incumbent union officers, but the structural shortcomings of the labor movement. For instance, CIO contracts have always contained no-strike and management-prerogative clauses, but if we think (as I do) that these clauses are wrong and should be abolished, we should be free to say so.” [page 21]

From such democracy arise the conditions to begin moving toward a better world, instead of the defensive retreats of recent decades.

“Working people believe in solidarity, not because they are better than other people, but because the power of the boss forces workers to reach out to each other for help. Because of the vision and practice of solidarity, the labor movement with all its shortcomings does prefigure a new kind of society within the shell of the old. And by building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.” [page 24]

The author gives three local examples from the area around Youngstown, Ohio. One was a solidarity club consisting of workers from several unions that organized united actions in defense of strikers and other workers facing layoffs or other unfair labor practices; one was a group of retirees that defended pension benefits, especially since, as retirees, they were not allowed to vote on contract changes; and the third organized in defense of workers suffering health problems due to working with toxic chemicals.

Solidarity, not bureaucracy

Although each of these three groups won victories, the author acknowledges that they did not have far-reaching impacts. They did, however, demonstrate what is possible with different kinds of labor organizations that are democratic and based on direct action. Mr. Lynd writes:

“I want to suggest that trade unions as they now exist in the United States are structurally incapable of changing the corporate economy, so that simply electing new officers to head these organizations will not solve our problems. I argue that the internationalization of capital, far from proving that such centralized unions are needed more than ever, has, on the contrary, demonstrated their impotence and the need for something qualitatively new.” [page 47]

Putting life into the concept of “an injury to one is an injury to all” by striking on behalf of workers in other enterprises in one form of this necessary solidarity. Shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to their union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries, are two alternative forms the author advocates. As an example, he recounts a 1916 incident where the 2,000 workers of a factory walked out when an organizer was dismissed; within a couple of days, 36,000 workers across the region walked out in an organized show of strength.

Militancy is what is needed:

“The critical analytical error … of established unions about their current crisis is the assumption that labor and management have the same or mutually consistent interests. … It is the assumption that underlies business unionism, because it induces trade unions to leave investment decisions to management while directing their own attention to wages, hours, and working conditions, and to surrender the right to strike (for the duration of the collective bargaining agreements) in the belief that workers no longer need the strike to protect their day-to-day interests.” [page 78]

By ceding all decision-making to capitalists, negotiating over wages, hours and working conditions will always be defensive because unions are bargaining the extent of their members’ exploitation and can do nothing more. Staughton Lynd has given us a concise guide to thinking about workplace organization differently. (At barely a hundred pages in compact form, I was able to read Solidarity Unionism in a single evening.)

And once we realize we don’t need capitalists to make decisions for us, and learn to organize collective self-defense, getting rid of bosses and running enterprises ourselves enters our imagination.

* Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below [PM Press, Oakland, California, USA 2015]