February 27, 2012, by Adrian Mateo

Struggle against free trade, prospects for transnational solidarity

The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), the University of Nottingham hosted a two day workshop on ‘Trade Unions, Free Trade and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity’ on the 2nd and 3rd of December 2011. The workshop was timely to debate alternatives to free trade among labour within the context of current economic crisis. As Samir Amin indicated, actors on the defensive have to act and it is vital to understand existing challenges in developing strategies of struggle. Workshop aimed not only to unravel position of trade unions in the North and Global South vis-a-vis free trade but also to provide insights to re-think alternatives in challenging free trade agenda and understanding prospects for and obstacles behind transnational solidarity. The programme contained participants from a diverse background, academia, trade unions and social movements, that in return provided a lively debate. The participants raised theoretical questions situating free trade within the background of capitalism and imperialism and shared knowledge and experience based on empirical case studies from established trade unions in the North and labour movement from Global South. The atmosphere of the workshop per se constituted an example of solidarity in itself based on an enthusiasm to develop common understanding (access the Workshop papers here).

How can transnational solidarity be built across national borders and diverse geographical positions among global working class in challenging free trade? The crux of the issue, as Ingemar Lindberg elucidated, is to address conflicts of interests among workers in order to forge cooperation strategically for transnational solidarity. Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton read free trade within the context of uneven development of capitalism as expanded free trade agenda locks countries into situations of unequal exchange and sustains surplus extraction from periphery. Embarking on an analysis of social relations of production, they explicate conflicts of interests among workers of the North and Global South with uneven development. From such a vantage, understanding positions of trade unions situated at the core and periphery of capitalist structure is vital in debating prospects for transnational solidarity.

Trade unions in the North conceive free trade in relation to economic growth and employment. In fact, in tandem with dependence of European Union economies to exports, trade unions in the North develop a defensive strategy by subscribing policies to open up markets to free trade in the Global South on the condition that social standards are inserted. Roland Spant, embarking on Swedish case, acknowledged support provided by Swedish trade unions to Europe’s Global Strategy. Yet, free trade, according to Roland, does not denote `mean trade` as Swedish trade unions put reserves to provide compensation and to support International Labour Organization’s Conventions in the South. However, for John Hilary, this reveals the contradiction between international solidarity and national self-interest driven by export-oriented European trade unions that give consent to ‘aggressive’ Global Europe Strategy. This defensive position of trade unions is related with an equally important debate on challenges posed by globalisation. Globalisation engenders de-unionisation and precarious employment, eroding social basis of trade unions in representing working class and constraining trade unionism within established trade unions that endorse the idea of social partnership.

Notably, trade unions in the Global South campaign against free trade agenda. The negative effects of opening up markets in the Global South such as de-industrialization, rising unemployment and job losses were highlighted. Yet, dwelling on Brazilian case, Amanda Latimer explicated crisis of labour in relation to informal economy in the Global South. Latimer suggested re-thinking the concept of industrial reserve army that has to be interpreted extensively to incorporate informal labour. Similarly, Salimah Valiani touched upon the issue of rising exploitation and obstacles behind unionisation among temporary migrant workers with her case study on migrant nurses. Yet, there are new platforms of transnational solidarity as instances of labour internationalism from below. Rob Lambert cogently summarized resistance to free trade within Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR) that organizes trade unions from twenty-four countries across four continents. In debating alternatives to free trade agenda, it is questioned to what extent regionalism and/or developmentalist state provide answers to current challenges. Yet, as Barry Gills reminded us, developmentalist state is not an answer to the extent that it is a form of capitalist state as well.

The workshop was concluded with hope and particular pointers for future regarding transnational solidarity. Ingemar Lindberg delivered the message of the need to develop mutual self-interest and dialogue by mutual understanding. The need for joint action among trade unions and social movements is highlighted. John Hilary, from War on Want, emphasized probable role of social movement cooperation to remind trade unions in the North, that there is a need to transcend national-self interest and defensive stance based on ‘social partnership’, and rather to develop a larger agenda on international solidarity. Aziz Choudry suggested thinking creatively in developing `movement relevant theory` for a joint strategy. Bruno Ciccaglione pointed out that it is not trade but free trade that has to be challenged. Alexandra Strickner highlighted the need to question whole European model around the concept of ‘dignified life’ based on basic human needs rather than jobs per se in devising an alternative. The need to re-think relation between imperialism and capitalism in debating alternatives and devising transnational solidarity among labour situated in the core and periphery was acknowledged. Ultimately, this echoed the message delivered by Samir Amin that neither calls for true social democracy at the core nor national-populist struggles in the periphery embedded within the idea of catch-up provide answers. Rather, for Amin, there is a need for an `audacious programme` for the radical left to come up with an alternative.

Elif Uzgören (PhD candidate, University of Nottingham Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice)

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