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As International Capitalism Changes, So Do Workers' Responses

30 Jun 2022
By Professor Emeritus David Peetz
Source: Pamela Drew, Flickr,

Despite the decline of unions, there are many signs of worker resistance. This is related to rising inequality, union inroads into seemingly impenetrable occupations and industries, the development by unions of international links and digital tools, and the inevitable pressure for labour reform.

Unions have been in decline for about four decades now, and much of this can be attributed to changes in capitalism itself. Companies and governments have pursued anti-union practices and legislation side-by-side. Under financial scrutiny, corporations place more emphasis on cost-cutting and governments have encouraged market reforms intensifying that pattern. Firms have established feeder factories in developing countries with anti-union governments and closed down unionised workplaces in developed countries. This has coincided with the creation of new forms of employment that fragment workers and make unionisation difficult, and the exponential expansion of high-tech occupations with no history of unionism. Across the OECD, average union membership has fallen from 37 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 16 percent in 2019.

Yet in the midst of this we have seen a spate of union organising, with workers in parts of companies like Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks pursuing unionisation. Is this the last gasp of the union movement, or something else entirely?

In fact, several things are going on. First, as within-country inequalities have intensified, worker resistance has grown. Conditions for some eventually became so difficult that, even in hostile environments ‒ and that includes many OECD countries like the USA and Australia ‒ workers will find a way to mobilise. That is one of the reasons why workers in many cafes owned by Starbucks, a firm that ironically referred to its employees as “partners,” voted to unionise. Unusually, the small size of Starbucks’ dispersed workplaces probably helped unions, making it harder for the company to monitor and react to worker dissent in every location.

Second, although most of the hi-tech sector previously was thought of as untouchable, due to the ideology of the workforce and the antipathy of owners like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, worker collectives have made inroads. This is not just a matter of unionising some Apple stores (though that is a notable achievement) or some Amazon warehouses (where the control and surveillance of workers might preclude unionisation, yet that environment itself promotes worker antipathy).

Tens of thousands of workers walked off the job at Google in late 2018, protesting against sexual harassment and poor management. The “Google Walkout For Real Change” wouldn’t call itself a union, a term that most IT workers avoid, but it did behave like one. Disaffection grows, and collectivisation in hi-tech areas takes many different forms.

Meanwhile, in much of this hi-tech sector, the supply chains are built around very old-style immiseration of labour. In the Asian factories that make components for Apple and other high-tech firms, conditions are often grim and, in one large factory complex, netting was erected at the dormitory to stop workers leaping to their death.

Third, unions and, in the Global South, labour-friendly non-government organisations, have been organising informal workers or other non-employees, whose employment status made many think they were impossible to unionise. In the North, most unions and most labour laws centre around employees. In the South, many workers are not employees. All up, there were some 527 incidents of labour unrest in food delivery recorded around the world in the three and a half years from January 2017. Last year there was a series of actions by delivery riders in Indonesia. Even in the Global North, such things are not unheard of. Uber drivers, classed as contractors not employees, struck in the UK in 2018 and later staged global protests over pay and conditions, while actions have been undertaken by others ranging from Deliveroo workers in France to Uber Eats workers in Britain. Indeed, the NSW Transport Workers Union has been organising contractors in the form of owner-drivers of trucks for a century. As the gig economy moves into road transport, so will unionism. Just because workers are self-employed and imagine themselves as some form of entrepreneur, does not mean that they don’t feel entitled to a basic level of rights and benefits. New unions and union structures, such as SI Cobas in Italy, have emerged to represent marginalised groups like migrant workers.

Fourth, unions have built international links that enable them to cooperate and coordinate action across borders. Probably the best example of this over the past decade was the Bangladesh Accord, which was established in response to the deadly collapse of the factories comprising the Rana Plaza, in which over 1100 workers died. Local activists and global union federations effectively forced major clothing retailers based in the North (especially Europe) to require decent and auditable health and safety standards from supplier factories in Bangladesh. There are other examples of international co-ordinated action as well. While the global union federations are probably several decades behind multinational corporations in the tightness of coordination across countries, and many impediments remain, they are learning the benefits of such coordination. Global federations are also learning how to use grievance mechanisms in multilateral trade regulation.

Fifth, unions have started using digital tools themselves, including even artificial intelligence (AI). In the USA, the largest retailer, Wal-Mart, had been impossible to unionise for decades. The company had an anti-union “toolbox,” would dismiss workers who organised, and even closed stores if staff voted to unionise. So, the union established a social media site, and then an app built from it, and became the go-to place for many worried or dissatisfied workers. The app relied on AI to respond to worker concerns and help identify when a matter needed to be escalated. Higher wages and better parental leave resulted from direct action. This is not a unique case: Australian unions are amongst the many who have been trialling a bespoke version of this approach, complete with an AI interface, or they have been using other digital innovations. Chinese workers use platform technology to organise, despite the risk.

Sixth, governments will have to adapt to the demands of a restive workforce. Many firms are supplied by factories in southern China, where official unions may be just a “transmission belt” of ideas from the Communist Party to the workers. Unofficial union organisers can be arrested. Yet over the period 2013-17 the China Labor Bulletin Strike Map documented nearly 8700 unofficial strikes, and this accounts for only a minority (maybe as little as five to ten percent) of strikes. Eventually, it will likely be necessary to normalise industrial relations if China is to spread the benefits of economic growth to its workforce, which is especially important given the high and rising rate of inequality there (though wealth inequality in China is similar to that in the USA). Spreading the wealth may be the biggest challenge China faces in the 21st century, and a more neutral industrial relations system is a key element in that.

While events at Apple and Amazon may have grabbed the headlines, in a sense they are not as close to the cutting edge as some other developments in international industrial relations. The trends we have seen are likely to spread. Industrial relations pays less attention to national borders than it once did, and digitalisation allows for better spread of ideas and techniques. While corporation will always have some advantage over labour in the speed and discipline with which it could coordinate action and spread ideology, that gap could be narrowing.

David Peetz is Professor Emeritus of Employment Relations at Griffith University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.