We would like to invite you to the first meeting of the University Seminar on Labor and Popular Struggles in the Global Political Economy. There is a strong intellectual and political rationale for the seminar, given the intense debates around the extent and character of changes in the global economy of recent decades. The aim of the seminar will be to analyze and, hopefully, to contribute to clarifying these debates, both through monthly seminar meetings and the preparation of a volume speaking to both academic and practitioner audiences on the topic of labor and popular politics in the global economy.
For at least a century, the labor movement has been a central participant in the international political economy. The particular forms and position of labor organizations have varied enormously by regions of the world, national political and economic context, particular industrial sectors, particular firms, and phases of the global economy. At one extreme, organized labor was a key partner in the social democratic regimes and inclusionary Fordist production systems of northern Europe in the decades following the Second World War until the 1980s--and, despite important changes in the political and economic arrangements of these countries, organized labor remains powerful, densely organized, and active. At the other extreme, in other industrialized capitalist countries (notably the U.S. and southern Europe) as well as in many of the semi-industrialized developing countries of Latin America and Asia, labor organizations were never as strong in the political or workplace arenas, and more recently have been divided and beleaguered.
One needs to clarify the boundaries of what might be broadly understood as labor politics and the labor movement. We intend to cast our conceptual net widely. Although labor unions represent a core segment of the labor movement and a major protagonist of labor politics, we plan to avoid strategic errors committed by many labor unions by not including within the potential or actual constituency of the labor movement social and economic categories that are unrepresented or at least underrepresented by virtually all labor unions, notably women, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, the unemployed, and the service and informal sectors of the economy. Similarly, we will focus on labor actions and issues whose central protagonists may not be labor unions, which may in fact center on unions more as “problem” than as “solution,” and/or may not even be considered by many analyses to be labor struggles. Important examples include the politics of working time and unemployment, wildcat worker movements in the workplace, the politics of social policy, and what we term issues in popular politics--extra-workplace disputes (over housing, transportation, health care, the environment, etc.) in which work, workers, and the economy are centrally implicated.
We want to problematize the conception of the labor movement by including in the purview of the seminar broader issues in popular politics as well as forms of popular action that often are now identified by such alternative labels as “social movements” or “contentious” politics. By so doing, we intend to challenge a scholarly division of labor, in which labor scholars analyze labor markets, trade unions, collective bargaining, strikes, and the like--neglecting community-based struggles--while students of social movements study a host of issues in grassroots politics and the “politics of consumption,” but ignore labor politics and the “politics of production.”
The seminar will also challenge another common scholarly failing: the tendency to focus on labor movements as they are structured at the levels of nation-states and particular national industries or sectors lying within their boundaries, while ignoring or underplaying both the global, regional, and local contexts in which labor politics occur, and the cross-national labor institutions that engage them. In the past several decades, it has become increasingly clear that national boundaries are--while far from irrelevant--not impermeable. As production, finance, capital movements, and workers themselves cross national borders, students of the labor movement need to highlight the salience of globalization. This leaves open important questions, which are currently the object of intense and fruitful debates, concerning the extent and diverse components of globalization, the degree to which processes of globalization have accelerated in recent years, the impact of globalization on public policy, and whether globalization is a cause or effect of political shifts. At the same time, and quite paradoxically, globalization also is intimately interlinked with the replacement of Fordist mass production by new “lean” or “flexible” production systems as well as other tendencies that increase the salience of place and location and “disorganize” formerly internally homogenous national sectors. Hence, some observers now speak of a curious mixture of globalization and localism (or “glocalism”) when referring to such phenomena as clusters or districts of small- and medium-sized enterprises and local and regional nodes of global commodity chains built on extensive sourcing of inputs and other exchanges of goods and services between firms. Labor as well as broader politics at the community, regional or national levels increasingly must take account of these new intra-firm and inter-firm dynamics, and their connections with the new global-local economies, if they are to successfully "embed" them in the life, culture, and values of community.
In tandem with moves toward market-oriented national economic policies and the political decline or re-orientation of traditionally labor-oriented political formations, new forms of organizing the economy and globalization in particular have had devastating consequences for working people and organized labor. Lower or stagnant real wages, heightened employment insecurity and unemployment, greater workloads, lower union density, the proliferation of economic sectors without effective collective representation vis-à-vis employers--these are among the many burdens placed on workers and their traditional organized voices in the new era of the global capitalist economy.
Yet contemporary global capitalist reorganization has not only weakened labor movements. Examples in which workers have arguably experienced some empowerment amidst globalization include the spaces for cross-border U.S.-Mexico-Canada organizing created (unintentionally) under NAFTA, the Social Chapter of the EU, and global corporate codes of conduct, and organizing campaigns in industries such as textile and apparel. Moreover, globalization, as an imprecise concept that often takes on great importance as a politically charged buzzword in particular contexts, represents a target of popular struggles, from Jakarta to Paris. Trade unions have been increasing their international links, and some labor struggles have been coordinated across national borders. At the subnational level, moreover, one can point to some important instances in which some of the potential for workplace empowerment and greater community control over global firms that is implicit in current trends has, in fact, been harnessed through progressive actions by labor organizations, progressive public authorities, and other actors.
The University Seminar on Labor and Popular Struggles in the Global Political Economy will examine theoretical and historical developments in order to clarify what has been learned and what needs to be learned in the current world-historical moment of global capitalist reorganization. We are inviting specialists from the academic and labor communities to discuss presentations by recognized experts. We want presentations to focus on issues in contemporary labor and popular politics, on a thematic basis, in settings around the world, and to bring to bear a strongly comparative focus. (Such a focus also challenges a common division between specialists on labor in the industrialized world and labor in less developed areas.) Those making presentations will make available in advance papers that will be the focus of their presentation and will facilitate debate. Seminar discussions will provide feedback useful to those presenting papers, with a view toward publishing a volume based on seminar papers.