The Fall & Rise of Labour?

How the current state of the world’s trade movement looks from the perspective of different regions and contexts



Presentation Slides

Vasco Pedrina, GLI Geneva / UNIA, Switzerland

Hui Xu, Migrant Workers Service Centre, China


7th July, 2015 / Anna Basten / guest blogger

The Fall and Rise of Labour – what is the current state of the world’s labour movement? Which are the key trends in trade union organisation?

Assaf Adiv [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Assaf Adiv
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
These very big questions were the topic of discussion during session two of the GLI International Summer School 2015. Unsurprisingly, identifying common trends across the world has proven to be rather challenging as even within continents and regions the situation of the labour movement differs widely.This became very clear in the four presentations on the state of the labour movement in four different countries/regions of the world: Israel, Europe, China and Africa.

If there is one common trend across the world though, it seems to be the awareness that the labour movement is faced with huge challenges responding to globalised capitalism. However, despite these challenges, the presentations and discussions also highlighted positive developments, successful campaigns and inspiring examples of workers’ solidarity.

Vasco Pedrina [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Vasco Pedrina
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

In the case of Israel, Assaf Adiv described the work of the independent workers’ advice centre WAC-MAAN, which brings together Arab and Jewish workers to fight for labour rights, social justice and equality. Founded in the 1990s, when the effects of neoliberal policies had weakened the trade unions, WAC-MAAN was created with the vision of creating a new labour movement that was open to co-operation with different actors, whilst being thoroughly committed to the principle that workers can collectively bring about change.

Vasco Pedrina of UNIA, Switzerland was also concerned with bringing about change – specifically in Europe. Here too, trade unions have seen a decline in membership and strength over the past decades. However, Vasco pointed out that there are different sources of union strength such as the capacity to mobilise and run political campaigns. And due to offensive organising and strike actions, there are also positive developments in some, mostly Central European countries.

At the same time though, he identified a rather problematic trend towards national isolationism of trade unions in Europe, which makes it difficult to build effective strategies of solidarity within Europe and internationally. He thus suggested to the participants in the room that they promote an international spirit and good practices through international co-operation and solidarity campaigns. He highlighted the ongoing campaigns against the anti-democratic and socially destructive trade agreements TTIP, TTP and TISA as positive examples of effective and politically engaged international cooperation.

Looking at the situation of labour in China, Hui Xu provided an insight into the struggles of Chinese workers over the last few years. Despite a difficult

Hui Xu [Photo: Judit Dobák]
Hui Xu
[Photo: Judit Dobák]
situation for workers – no independent trade unions and no legally enshrined right to strike – workers were engaged in over 2,000 strike actions between 2011 and 2014, and are continuing this trend, with 1,200 strikes in the first half of 2015 alone.

Last but not least, Baba Aye (Medical and Health Workers’ Union Nigeria) provided a snapshot of the situation of labour in different African countries, stating that “Africa is both simple and complex”. Despite the great differences between countries and regions in Africa, Baba made a case for the exchange of knowledge, ideas and experiences through pan-continental networks such as the Africa Labour Research Network, which has, for example, conducted important cross-country research on Chinese investments in Africa (see report here).

Baba Aye [Photo: Judit Dobák]
Baba Aye
[Photo: Judit Dobák]

In the end, the presentations and contributions from participants showed two things: one, the state of the world’s labour movement is… diverse. At first sight it may seem that the only obvious trend is a feeling of being faced with great challenges while lacking consistent strategies to address them. At closer sight however, this is not quite true: for, two, the session also showed that workers can be successful in their struggles.

There are many positive examples of good campaigns and effective actions. Maybe the key trend is simply this: the labour movement is alive and workers are fighting for better conditions everywhere in the world, albeit in different ways. The question now is: how can we support and amplify the successes on the local and national levels through international actions? As, of course, there still is a need for international solidarity and co-operation.

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