Trade unions are crucial to economic transformation

Inclusive Economy30 May 2013David Cichon

Trade unions are crucial in transforming the economy since they fight for the democratic inclusion of all participants.

Development practitioners and academics often shy away from addressing the role of trade and labour unions. Often because discussions around class and exploitation are uncomfortable but also because in a pro-growth, neoliberal development paradigm organised labour has no role. Work is not seen as part of the day to day life of every individual and integral to their wellbeing and livelihood, but rather as an input into a wider process of growth which in turn will provide them with the financial rewards to create a livelihood and enhance their wellbeing. The conditions at the workplace and the type of work that is done become irrelevant.

Unions have survived twenty years of neoliberalism, countless civil wars, deaths squads, co-option and political persecution. They have already brought us the 8-hour day, social security systems and minimum labour standards and have come out of it in many different colours and shapes.

Trade and labour unions take on different forms across the globe and it can be difficult to generalise the role they play within their societies. However the fact that they are largely a) democratic, b) labours only institutional interest representatives and, c) often have an internationalist outlook puts them at the centre of the discussions on economic transitions. It is possible to see how these characteristics can directly address the questions on how to transform the economy, what hinders it and how to structurally incorporate the transformations into policy at a local, national and global level.

Democratising not just national politics but local, national and global economic structures must be a fundamental aspect of any economic transformation. Unions are an example of grassroots democratic organising that can transform workplaces and communities. If we accept that an inclusive economy is a genuine democratic one where the market is neither free nor state controlled, but organised democratically by the people it affects, then tapping into the experiences of organised labour is one way the transformation can be achieved.

Many structural characteristics of the contemporary political and economic system can be blamed for hindering inclusiveness in the global economy but possibly the most important one is the underlying economic logic that assumes growth and the accumulation of profit are fundamental to global prosperity and the wellbeing of all. This logic of capital creates and continuously recreates barriers preventing inclusion in order to promote steeper growth curves. And we can see that in the face of billions of people excluded from the benefits and exploited in its name the argument does not hold.

Although trade and labour unions are not the interest representatives of all those excluded by contemporary capitalism, they are the only organised representatives of those most exploited. As such they are the institutional counterpart to this logic of capital that hinders economic transformations. It is often labour unions that are at the forefront of attempting to change the logic of the contemporary economy, whether through attempting to negotiate collective bargaining agreements in the Export Processing Zones of El Salvador, negotiating a living wage across the UK or confronting the World Trade Organisation as part of a transnational network in the streets of Seattle.

Seattle showed that labour is an internationalist movement based on solidarity and support with one foot firmly placed within international institutions, national, regional and international confederations as well as political parties, and one foot in with local and international NGO’s campaigning for human and labour rights. It is in many ways acting on the local, national and global level and although not always in perfect harmony it can impact the policy process at all levels through civil society campaigns and formal negotiations simultaneously.

The effects that broad labour movements can have are particularly striking in Latin America where unions played a large role in mobilising against neoliberal economic realities. Union mobilisation more often than not turned into electoral success for left-leaning opposition parties. And although trade unions within the developed world are often in better institutional and legal positions than many unions in Latin America and beyond, they struggle to harness the anger and disappointment created by the global financial crisis.

Why is this? And what can Unions across the rest of the world do now to become the transformative force that they are in theory? As a response to declining unionisation in much of Europe and North America, the union movement often became reactive, attempting to recruit dues-paying members by portraying themselves as a form of insurance for individual workers rather than a collective organisation. In order to become a transformative force, the labour movement needs to (re)define itself as a collective movement. A movement that is addressing not only the symptoms of exclusion and exploitation, but more fundamentally the logic of capital and creating an alternative vision inside the vacuum left by political parties. And much like in Seattle this will need to include the mobilisation of a much broader base. Students and young people, the unemployed, indigenous and environmental social movements, for example, all have a stake in a more inclusive economy.

Trade Unions are by far not the only actor and most likely not even the most effective actor in bringing about, securing and maintaining inclusive economic transformation but they are, due to their democratic, institutional and internationalist characteristics, crucial to the process. It seems that the discourse on economic transformation needs to incorporate the labour movement. Even if discussions on exploitation and class struggle seem so unpopular in much of development studies and praxis.