“Strikes have not died out in the 21st century, they are being transformed”

Workers and trade unionists demonstrating outside the European Parliament in Brussels in 1989 for a “Social Europe”. (Communautés Européennes )

[This article was first published on May 1st, 2018.]

At the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization) they are very busy organising International Labour Day. This national centre, the biggest in the United States and Canada, has not forgotten 1 May 1886. Two years of intense organising culminated on this day in a strike by 350,000 workers – from more than 5,000 factories – in Chicago, New York, Detroit and Cincinnati. Headlines in the local press reporting on the historic day read “For eight hours” or “The great day for Labor”.

Many things have changed since then in this country which has 126 million full-time workers. Only 11.9 per cent are unionised and the number of strikes has plummeted since 1981 to the point where they are considered merely symbolic. What started this? Ronald Reagan’s government “with its anti-worker policies”, “the attacks and changes in labour laws and regulations” and “the obstacles to trade union organising at the workplace and collective bargaining,” Gonzalo Salvador, AFL-CIO spokesperson, tells Equal Times. The fast-food industry “where each franchise is considered independent” instead of part of a sector, is just one example.

Job classification is another hurdle. For example, those who work from home or in the gig economy are considered “independent contractors”. These workers already represent 32 per cent of the labour force in the US, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics itself recognises their lack of social cover and set working hours.

Another key factor that Salvador highlights is that administrators, supervisors and managers cannot vote for a union in elections: “If during a union campaign in a company of 100 employees the employer thinks that 53 of them will vote for the union, she or he will promote five of them to become supervisors to ensure that there isn’t a majority for the union.”

Labour disputes are also on the decline in Europe. This can be seen in a graphic created by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). Strikes are virtually non-existent in eastern Europe and there is no data for the most recent years. In countries with austerity policies the trend has been uneven; in Ireland and Spain there has been a drastic reduction in the number of strikes; while in Greece (including before the crisis) and in Cyprus (after it) there has been a sharp rise. In the United Kingdom, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the fall in the number of strikes is politically driven, says the researcher and Emeritus Professor of Social and Labour History at Manchester Metropolitan University, Neville Kirk.

“Thatcher agreed with Ronald Reagan that she would protect the ‘right to work’ as against trade union ‘tyranny’. When the time was right, Thatcher decided to take on and smash the National Union of Miners, the most powerful and militant union. Once Thatcher had used the full force of the state to defeat the miners in 1984-5 the trade union movement was placed on the defensive,” he says. “Thereafter individualism was lauded by the Conservatives and increasingly by New Labour over collectivism.”

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In contrast, strikes are on the rise in the African continent, particularly in South Africa, the latest country to join the group of emerging economies known the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

“Most African countries inherited colonial economies and they were never transformed or restructured. This has perpetuated a very low wage regime and minimum wages are new in the continent,” says Swizwe Pamla, spokesperson for South Africa’s largest national trade union centre, COSATU. “What we are also seeing is a situation where many workers are only now really are starting to enjoy their rights under democratic regimes. The South African economy was a victim of a special type of colonialism and this has complicated labour relations,” he adds.

“New forms of conducting labour disputes are emerging”

“What we are seeing less of is ‘classic’ strikes, linked to an industrial model that now carries less weight in the world economy,” notes Luz Rodríquez, a labour law professor at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain. According to the World Bank, industry’s contribution to global GDP fell by 4 per cent between 1995 and 2016: countries such as Denmark, Australia and France are amongst the where it has fallen the most, while in China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, for example, it still makes an above average contribution.

To make disputes more visible to the public “there has been a rise in new forms of conducting disputes, alternative forms better suited to the new production models, such as crashing the server for a computer app,” says Rodríguez.

“If on the employer’s side technology can be used to coordinate diverse activities across the world, why can it not also be used to coordinate the collective interests of workers?” she asks.

“New technologies are giving rise to new forms of struggle, while supposedly fatalistic and resigned workers are showing the capacity to fight for their rights across the globe. These range from fast-food workers at MacDonalds and elsewhere to migrant women cleaners in universities. So yes, strikes have not died out; they have been transformed,” Kirk agrees.

Riders for the British online food delivery company Deliveroo – which operates in 12 countries – are a good example. “More than effectiveness, we sought to exert pressure. We have damaged their image badly in the media and on social networks,” Carlos Iglesias, a former delivery rider for the company in Valencia, tells Equal Times. Iglesias took part in one of the two ‘strikes’ organised by Riders for Rights. “During the summer of 2017, on the 27th of each month, a strike or an international action took place in 70 cities. We took our inspiration from that,” he recounts. “It is supposed that each of us is like a little one-person enterprise and that dealings with the company are one-on-one, but it is not like that,” he points out. “Every two weeks they changed our rates, and we had no negotiating power, which is why we decided to go on strike.”

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Precariousness and isolation

One of the characteristics of the gig economy, as Rodriguez notes, is that “tasks and workers are dispersed, which makes it difficult to organise collective action”. “Deliveroo helped create the so-called centroids, the meeting points for the riders. And that allowed for contact,” recalls Iglesias. “They eliminated them. Making us wait for calls there was both a sign that we were labour, and was illegal. They also tried to isolate us. When we are divided we are defeated, because then we are not colleagues we are competition,” he says.

A giant of e-commerce and cloud computing can also suffer from an old-fashioned strike. First in France, Italy and Germany and now in Spain, the dispute between Amazon and its employees led to a two day strike. “It was successful. Not a single order went out. If a worker does not produce, nothing can be done,” Douglas Harper from the Amazon works council told Equal Times. Even so, the dispute continues.

“We are proposing a European strike on Prime Day [editor’s note: a day of one-day-only exclusive offers which creates a spike in sales] involving the Germans, Italians, French, Poles and Czechs, although nothing has been decided yet,” he adds. His union, the CCOO in Spain, spent two years setting up a European Works Council in the company.

“Technology is progressing faster than the legislation and it doesn’t go along with the right to strike. We are also gradually losing our trade union culture – in Spain – and our labour culture: people are joining the labour market without knowing how to read a pay slip,” he says.

Precariousness and a reduction in labour disputes go hand-in-hand. “When the link between a worker and the labour market is atypical and vulnerable, their situation in face of a dispute is also vulnerable. And so they are more reluctant to support one,” explains Rodríguez. There is also fear of reprisals. The Deliveroo worker who announced the creation of Riders for Rights at a press briefing was dismissed.

Temporary workers who supported the strike at Amazon Spain did not have their contracts renewed. Furthermore, “the rise of greater insecurity and isolation at work – the precariat – have not been conducive to mass industrial action,” adds Kirk. “Today it is difficult to ensure enough support for a strike,” admits Iglesias. “But they still serve a purpose, very much so,” he says.

“The working population and its interests are changing and the technological revolution is multiplying that by five,” says Professor Rodríguez. “Collective action in the defence of workers’ interests is not in question, but trade unions have to revise the way they organise and behave,” she adds, highlighting the example of the German union IG Metall which “is developing a different kind of trade unionism, without breaking its links to classic unionism”.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

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