Labour and the Challenges of Globalization

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Eds: Andreas Bieler, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pillay, Pluto Press, £19.99

Modern capitalist agriculture employs a few tens of millions, while 3 billion peasants still make up about half the world's population. A peasant's productivity is a fraction of 1 percent of that of a "modern" farm worker. The neoliberal drive to force poor countries to open their markets to "free" competition in food production means depriving these peasants of their livelihoods, driving them into the cities.

Economic growth in some of the global south's mega-cities (even in China and India) is insufficient to absorb the influx of rural migrants into full employment. The deregulation of labour markets and absence or destruction of welfare states help the bosses to exploit high unemployment through a rapid expansion in "precarious" or "informal" employment such as temporary, illegal, self-employed or part-time work without employment rights.

Others are forced to migrate to richer countries to make a living, often outside formal employment. In the south permanent jobs are a minority, while richer countries are seeing trends in the same direction.

This book draws together reports by authors from various countries, looking at how workers and their organisations are responding to the growing working class and the changes in its composition.

A key function of collective union organisation is to prevent undercutting pay and conditions by workers competing for jobs. Unions dealing nationally with transnational corporations encouraging workers to compete in the race to the bottom are struggling to achieve this. International coordination of bargaining and solidarity has delivered some results, but is underdeveloped.

Global union membership is now concentrated in the public sector and among regular employees of larger companies - a shrinking proportion of the global working class. Representing only a relatively secure, privileged layer would reduce unions' legitimacy to speak for the whole working class, reducing political influence.

This book isn't an easy read. Some chapters are dry and academic in style, while still annoyingly vague. It doesn't claim to provide all the answers, and there's much you could take issue with, but it is airing many issues the labour movement urgently needs to address (and which can't be covered here).

To win change, the global working class must unite despite real divisions. The book argues that unions should be more of a global social movement - challenging neoliberalism, making alliances with organisations of "precarious" workers and with other social movements, rather than being "social partners" with the international organisations which promote neoliberalism.