The world is going through significant changes and facing new challenges, especially in the economic and labour areas. Global restructuring, trans-national production, new trade agreements that could change production, working conditions and consumption; competition among workers, low wages and precariousness; and constant migration flows are some of the subjects practically every day on the news.
We decided to take a deeper look into these matters and for that we interviewed Andreas Bieler, Professor of Political Economy at Nottingham University.
Bieler is also Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice in the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University.
His general expertise is in the area of International Relations/International Political Economy theories and the analysis of European integration as well as resistance to neo-liberal globalisation with a particular emphasis on the possible role of trade unions.
– Last year, the UK voted to leave the EU. Being now a few months after that, let’s start by talking about Brexit. What is happening with it and what are the implications and challenges for the labour movement?
AB: Well, there have been some people on the left, also trade unions like the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), who were in favour of Brexit. The argument was at first that it would bring democracy back to the UK and to the British people. In my opinion that’s a naive point of view, but it was one of the positions taken. The other position was that if we were outside the European Union, it would be easier to have alternative economic policies to austerity. And again, I think it’s very difficult how that would be brought about within the purely national setting against the background of an integrated global economy.
But ok, I think there were forces on the left supporting Brexit. Predominantly however, those forces in favour of Brexit were from the xenophobic, nationalist right across the UK, and I think that from that point of view – although we can of course criticize the E.U. for a whole range of different reasons, as for example their treatment of Greece – Brexit as such, because of the support by the xenophobic right was through and through a regressive project. There’s nothing progressive in Brexit, and if we look at discussions over how to bring Brexit about now, it’s mainly around arguments against foreigners, against migration. Left forces supporting Brexit are hardly visible in these discussions at this point in time.
Now what does that mean for workers? Britain has been characterized – already before 2008, but especially since the global financial crisis and first the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010 and then the current government now – by increasing austerity policies and that resulted in enormous levels of inequality. And very often capital uses this kind of situations to fragment a working class and it puts British workers against migrant workers, although the fact that the situation is so poor for many British workers is not the result of E.U. policy primarily, is not the result of migrant workers, but is the result of austerity policies imposed by the British government. So I think for workers now, the question is how to overcome this fragmentation and how to organize against austerity policies.
– How are unions facing this challenge in the UK?
AB: I think the unions are facing the challenge, especially this movement around Jeremy Corbyn, who was re-elected as leader of the Labour Party. He has strong support by the key trade unions, that is Unite and its General Secretary Len McCluskey, but is also Unison. So the two biggest unions are in support of Jeremy Corbyn. And at the party congress he was very clear that the problems are not migrants or migration, but the problems are employers who use the migrant workforce in order to undercut official wages. And that is a very strong powerful message, not shared by everyone within the Labour Party, but nonetheless, I think that is the right way to try and go about overcoming the fragmentation between British and migrant workers.
– In the face of new kind of international trade agreements such as the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), what would be, in your opinion, the role of trade unions?
AB: These new sets of trade agreements of which the Transpacific Partnership Agreement is one example, but there is also the TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or CETA, the agreement between Canada and the European Union, they are clearly a danger.
They are a danger for national sovereignty, because it includes these investors-state dispute settlement mechanisms which allow transnational corporations the power to sue individual countries directly for losses suffered in their jurisdictions as a result of public policy decisions for example.
They’re also highly problematic for consumers because they undermine food standard and health and safety regulations, so people are very worried about these trade agreements. Of course they’re highly problematic because they’re not just about trade in manufactured goods, but they are also about trade in services, public procurement, finance, and that would, for example, completely undermine any kind of possibilities for states to organize themselves, their public sector, their health services, their education. It’s a push towards privatising these services.
For quite some time at the global level, during the 2000s, there was no cooperation between trade unions over free trade, because especially manufacturing trade unions in the North always felt that actually trade agreements would be good for them, because it would secure exports for their companies, secure the jobs of their members.
Optimistically, that has now changed and what we have seen here in relation to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is that trade unions across the board including the powerful German metal workers’ union IG Metall, including trade union confederations such as the British TUC, have come out against this kind of trade agreements. TTIP between the E.U. and the U.S. is basically dead, is not going forward, and even the Canada-E.U. free trade agreement has stalled for now.
So, while it’s clearly a danger for workers around the world, this new set of trade agreements, I think here from our European perspective we can be more optimistic at the moment, as it has been possible to have a broad alliance of trade unions and social movements against these treaties. And with the TPP the dangers are of course the same, but the struggles are still ongoing too.
– Do you think that trade unions play a key role in raising awareness about what these agreements mean to society?
I think in general trade unions have the potential to play a key role in creating awareness and in mobilizing against these free trade agreements. Whether trade unions do that, is not automatic. As I said, in the past trade unions supported free trade agreements as long as free trade was mentioned. In Europe we have the Swedish metalworkers’ trade union which still supports TTIP, so there’s not one solid position. What we have in Europe is that the vast majority of trade unions across the economy are now opposed to these trade agreements and we have huge mobilizations on the ground that includes trade unions in a leading capacity.
– How would you describe the current “global restructuring” and in that sense, how would trans-national solidarity be like for trade unions?
AB: So, the key dynamics are of course the increasing transnationalization of production, which means the organization of production across borders. This process has been, initially and still is, very much dominated by transnational corporations, but more recently there has been an increasing tendency towards that these corporations don’t own all the production facilities along the global value chains, but that they actually subcontract part of their work to companies in other countries, for example cheap labour locations such as China. And so we have an increasing amount of transnational production structures dominated and controlled by transnational corporations, but often in the form of subcontracted companies, establishing so-called global value chains.
And in a way of course that puts workers directly in competition with each other. Some people speak about the “China price”, in reference to the fact that Chinese workers are so super exploited, and this affects not only Chinese workers, but it also puts downward pressure on workers elsewhere in the world, and that is a massive problem.
Now this transnationalization of production goes hand in hand with an increasing informalization. There’s more and more precarious labour, working without proper contracts, without holiday entitlements, without sick pay. All this kind of things, which especially workers in the Global North, considered normal – it was never normal in the Global South – is no longer part of it. We have increasing precarity of course in the Global South, but we also have that in the Global North now.
And, there is of course a dramatic change in the global economy that puts workers under pressure and it puts trade unions under pressure, which used to be very strong at a national level, but find it difficult to coordinate at the international level.
– Given this situation, what would be, in your opinion, trade unions’ main challenges?
AB: The main purpose of trade unions has always been to avoid that workers compete with other workers over wages, and that has been successfully done at the national level, but is increasingly difficult to achieve at the international level, because labour movements are organized at a national level.
But I think, as difficult as it is, one should not overlook the possibilities of labour movements, even if these global value chains allow capital to play workers against other workers, to focus on cheap labour and put downward pressure on working conditions. Nonetheless, these global value chains are also highly vulnerable to any kind of industrial action along the value chain. You can see when you interrupt one process in the middle, then the whole value chain can no longer function properly. So I would say in general, workers have opportunities.
If we look at what trade unions have done, and what they can achieve, I think we need to distinguish perhaps from sector to sector.
So transnational manufacturing is often an area where one would say ‘oh well, workers work all in the same sector, therefore, it should be easy for them to cooperate’. But of course they’re also put into competition with each other, as a result of this process. So it’s a tricky sector. On the other hand, internationally-coordinated resistance against privatization pressures in the public sector might be easier, because, for example, here hospital workers in the UK, don’t compete with hospital workers in France, or with hospital workers in Germany. They have this common goal of making sure that they avoid privatization. And in that sense, I think it’s also been interesting how these people were able to form links of transnational solidarity across borders in the resistance to TTIP, for example, and it might be easier to organize than in transnational manufacturing.
– How do you see the role of international organizations like the International Labour Organization?
AB: The ILO is often seen as the workers’ international organization. But I think we need to remember it’s a tripartite body consisting of government representatives, employer representatives and trade union representatives.
I think from the workers’ perspective it has been doing excellent work in limiting damage at a global level by defending, for example, the right to strike, and the ILO also supports the Global Labour University, which organizes a global program for trade union education, so, it has been very important.
But being a tripartite body has often also meant being involved in reformist steps. So rather than opposing free trade agreements, the ILO only demands that they should include a social clause. But we know that the social clause can only apply in the formal economy, and the informal sectors aren’t affected by it. Or, the ILO asks for decent work for all, that’s fine, but within the current global capitalist system, we can’t have this kind of typical decent work for all. Some people would argue that this very high moment of worker gains in the West, in industrialized countries, in the post-war period, was also built on the exploitation of the Global South.
So it is questionable, within a global economy characterized by uneven and combined development, whether you can have this kind of decent work for all. In sum, the International Labour Organization is definitely important, but I think it is also limited in its possibilities.
– You have studied the European Citizens’ Initiative “Water is a human right”, here in Argentina the Luz y Fuerza de Mar del Plata trade union sustains that energy is also a human right and should be treated as such, and not as a commodity. What are your thoughts on this matter?
AB: I think it’s a very important point. I mean, water in a way is really the success story of resistance to neoliberal restructuring. Is not just in Europe, where you had re-municipalization of water (in Paris in 2010, Berlin 2013, ongoing resistance in Greece, in Italy, the successful European citizens’ initiative for “water is a human right”, at a European level), but it’s also in other areas, such as Jakarta, where water was re-municipalized in 2015, that water attracts widespread support. Even people of center, or center-right parties, would argue against the idea that you can own water and make a profit with it. Everybody should have access as a basic condition for a decent life.
I followed a bit more closely the water movement in Italy, and there are people who have said ‘well, we need to understand water as a commons to be jointly owned and jointly enjoyed, and we need to expand this idea of the commons to issues such as public transport, energy, education, health.’ I think there are efforts to do so, and I would agree that energy is also a human right, energy should also be commonly governed and enjoyed, but I think people find it more difficult to mobilize around that. Somebody would say, ‘yes of course, water, it comes from the ground, it comes from the sky, it is for everyone.’ Energy, they would say it is created, there are those who work, and therefore, it needs to be sold. But I personally agree, I think this is the way to go, but it might be more difficult than in the case of water.
– Is there anything else you would like to add?
AB: Yes, perhaps that one thing we always need to remember is that very often we assess the international situations in a very negative way, and there could always be moments when you think that the forces against workers are all powerful, and of course it is difficult to remain optimistic, but I think, if one looks around, workers are not just victims, they are also agents. We have the experience for example from Argentina with the occupied factories; we see that now partly also in Greece, and I think there are numerous examples of successful resistance by workers. So I think that’s also important to remember that we are not just victims we are also agents, and that there are always possibilities to resist.