Globalization and Labour Review

Globalization and Labor: Great Transformations?
Eddie Webster, Rob Lambert and Andries Bezuidenhout, Grounding Globalization: Labor in the Age of Insecurity. Oxford: Blackwell. 261pp. ISBN: 978-1-4051-2914-5.

Review by Peter Waterman


Grounding Globalization (henceforth GG) is a highly original and ambitious work, certain to provoke discussion and encourage further work amongst labor-oriented academics and research-minded activists in coming years. Despite one of its authors, Rob Lambert, living in Australia, it must be considered to represent the ‘SWOP School of Labor Studies’. This is the Sociology of Work Unit at the University of Johannesburg, directed until recently by Eddie Webster and with which the other two have been associated. It could, more broadly, be considered as a – if not the first – contribution from the ‘Global South’ to the widening Left efforts to reconceptualize and reinvent the labor movement worldwide in the age of globalization (Bieler, Lindberg and Pillay 2008, Colgan and Ledwith 2002, Employee Rights and Responsibilities Journal 2008, Munck 2002, Phelan 2006, van der Linden 2008, Waterman and Wills 2001). 1
Karl the Second: a critical reading

GG depends on a critical reconsideration of the theory of 20th century Left sociologist and social historian, Karl Polanyi, with his currently much-cited work (compare Munck 2002) on ‘the great transformation’ brought about by the first industrial revolution; of the ‘double movement’ in which the capitalist economy came to dominate society; and how this provoked a movement to ‘re-embed’ the economy in society. GG marshals many other theorists to supplement or correct Polanyi. They include, notably, Sidney Tarrow on transnational social movements, and Michael Burawoy on both movements against globalization and the relationship of socially-committed academics to the people and movements they study. They also make much use of such radical social geographers such as David Harvey, with arguments concerning capital’s spatial strategies and the necessity for multi-spatial and multi-level counter-strategies. Whilst they do not synthesize their theoretical sources, far less draw from them a set of initial propositions, they do deploy them throughout the work with elegance and effect. Curiously, GG does not conceptualize, in its theoretical introduction, two related notions that nonetheless repeatedly reappear throughout the book, ‘social movement unionism’ and ‘the new labor internationalism’ (although the latter is defined in Chapter 9). Yet these two concepts actually seem to underlie or at least inspire their work. More limiting, however, is their failure to deal with computerization/informatization as a fundamental characteristic of neo-liberal globalization and a crucial terrain of labor and other social movement struggle against this. Informatization depends on and creates another space – cyberspace – which emancipatory social movements ignore at their peril. The implications of this void in the theoretical peregrinations of GG, become evident in the chapter on a new labor internationalism. 2

Three cases from the South, but which South?

The theoretical introduction is followed by three major sections: Part I: Markets Against Society, Part II: Society Against Markets and Part III: Society Governing the Market?

Parts I and II consist of three case studies of corporate strategy, of labor downsizing and/or repression, and of labor’s response in the ‘white goods industry’ (refrigerators, washing machines, cookers, etc) in three cities of the ‘Global South’, Ezakheni in South Africa, Changwon in South Korea, Orange in Australia. The authors innovate in these case studies by considering not only the workplace but the community and the household.

Part I presents a fascinating political-economy of the corporations present in the three sites, showing that despite significant differences between them, all three companies have adopted or benefitted from strategies of ‘market despotism’ (Chapter 3) toward their again very different labor forces. Chapter 4, ‘Citizenship Matters’, actually moves beyond the affected communities to show how neo-liberal globalization has led to brutal attacks on what were (or in South Africa were promised to be) citizen rights, in the sense of access to water, electricity or other essential services. The book uses new concepts to analyze all this and could be recommended for this part alone.

Part II consists of a political-ethnography of labor/community adaptation or resistance to this corporate and globalized capitalist onslaught. It shows how, in very different ways, workers and communities are trying to fight back by spreading their struggle to the local community (social-movement unionism?) and/or globalizing their struggle (the new internationalism?). In each case they find – despite much passivity or fatalism – shoots of hope. In the case of Ezakheni, they state that

Our analysis of the role of the less formal community based organizations…is that, in alliance with the trade unions and the local ANC, they could provide the basis for an alternative local development strategy to that of the current neoliberal orthodoxy. (126).

There is here either trust or hope in a possible radicalization of the ANC, something increasingly contested by the autonomous Left in South Africa itself. 3 In the case of Changwon, GG places its bets on the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) which, whilst in Changwon a minority confederation, addresses itself energetically to the issues of female and precarious workers. In my admittedly limited experience, the KCTU is certainly the most radical and the most sophisticated of the three national trade union centers considered by GG. It is also appears to be the most seriously internationalist, as suggested by the importance given international issues on its website. 4 The KCTU is, however, in the ‘privileged’ position of being the one of the three mentioned centers subject to harsh repression by the state, and has therefore most distance from it. In Changwon, a major industrial city, GG recognizes, moreover, that

The dominant response among the workers we interviewed…was to work harder and increase their overtime work. (140)

The major value of Part II (summarized on pages 157-8) is its recognition of the extent of labor’s retreat or adaptation to the onslaught. As for the mobilization efforts, I note the extent to which GG places their hopes for re-assertion in trade union organizations and left political parties (in Australia the Labor Party, in South Korea the Democratic Labor Party). 5 Yet these are political/associational/institutional forms inevitably shaped by the 20th century capitalism against which they fought – and with which they bargain. My conviction is that whilst one can by no means write these forms off, and whilst I accept that they may now be moving from retreat/adaptation to cautious mobilization, they are structurally unfit for a struggle against and beyond a globalized capitalism that is not only neo-liberal but computerized and networked. 6

Although GG does not pretend to produce ‘a blueprint for action’ (xi) Part III seems intended to remove the question mark from ‘Society Governing the Market?’ by pointing readers in a general, progressive, direction. This part of the book consists of three chapters, one on the significance for labor struggles of strikingly different local histories, one on the necessity for ‘grounding’ a new labor internationalism in such locales, and a third on the importance of a ‘realistic utopianism’ in finding effective alternatives for labor.

Grounding globalization and resistance to such

The history chapter (Ch. 8) makes the simple but important point that any new labor movement globally will have to take account of significant differences between local places/cases, and to build from these (instead, presumably, of imposing some universal model on them top-down?). It only leaves here out of account the fact that: 1) the traditional union hegemons have traditionally exported such universalistic strategies from the West-European heartland (‘Social Partnership’, the ‘Social Clause’ and, currently, ‘Decent Work’); and that 2) such counter-hegemonic concepts as the ‘new labor internationalism’ and ‘social movement unionism’ originated in West-Europe also! 7

Union internationalism, old and new

The internationalism chapter (Chapter 9) depends on a rather schematic opposition between an old and a new labor (actually union) internationalism (Table 9.1), in which the characteristics of the new are: a (new?) generation of activists, the network form, decentralization, open dialogue, mobilization, coalition with new social movements and NGOs, and ‘predominantly struggling Southern Afro, Asian and Latino workers’. Whilst this is an acceptable rhetorical or polemical device (of a kind I often myself employ), it leaves out of account a series of features necessary for a wider and deeper understanding: distinctions between different bearers of internationalism (the union organization? the broader labor movement? the new global social movements more generally? labor-oriented activists/researchers?); the axes, directionality, reach and depth of international solidarity actions or campaigns; the distinct possible yet problematic types of solidarity within either the old or the new (Waterman 2001:57-63, 235-8). 8

I am also not convinced, by either this chapter or a wider reading of the literature, that a new union internationalism is or will be primarily carried by the Southern workers (Waterman 2001:Ch.5). Indeed, it could be seen as a requirement of any new union or labor internationalism that it develop out of a dialectic and dialogue between all world areas (including a customarily forgotten (ex-)Communist one that includes China!), between radically-democratic social movements, as well as between labor organizations/movements and socially-committed academics.

The ‘new internationalist’ cases this chapter offers are all from the Geographic South, though Australia is, actually, part of the Socio-Economic North, and South Korea in the Geographic North (Seoul is on approximately the same latitude as Lisbon)! Even the most Socially Southern of the three, South Africa, is a clearly atypical member of the Global South. So any Manichean, or even a simple binary opposition, between North and South is here either totally undermined or at least made seriously problematic.

The major case offered for the new union internationalism is the Southern Initiative on Globalization and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR). It is no coincidence that this network links major unions in the three case countries in this book. Nor that one of the GG authors, Rob Lambert, is the founder and continuing keystone of this network, nor that he and Eddie Webster have been its major academic promoters (see the co-authored entries in the book’s bibliography). SIGTUR has no presence within the World Social Forum (unlike the KCTU and Cosatu it has attended only one WSF) and after almost two decades of existence it has a weak and non-dialogical web presence. 9 Yet a dialogical web presence is today surely another requirement for any new labor internationalism. Nor, in the presentation of SIGTUR, here or elsewhere, is there any serious discussion of that ‘North/South’ relationship between the three countries that the authors consider ‘the fundamental challenge to a new labor internationalism’ (209). SIGTUR has been so far trapped in an unadmitted and therefore un-discussable contradiction: of trying to build a new networked labor movement internationalism on the basis of leadership relations between trade union organizations that themselves reproduce the state-national base of the Old Labor Internationalism! 10

This is clearly not a problem for SIGTUR alone since the phenomenon is more or less reproduced in the ‘alternative’ Globalization and Labor network within the World Social Forum (Waterman 2009). This latter experiment may, however, turn out to be more productive than that of SIGTUR since: 1) it is not hung up on a binary opposition between North and South; 2) it is open, without condition, to trade unions, other labor movements (or NGOs), to both movements and academics, to the North and South; 3) it is sited within that pressure-cooker of the ‘global justice and solidarity movement’, the World Social Forum; and, finally, 4) it has a web presence open to dialogue. 11 Both experiments are, I believe, limited by their prioritization of the trade union organization. Now, neither experiment is to be written off. They represent the largely pragmatic (i.e. unconceptualized, untheorized, historically-unreflective) efforts of a new generation of activists from within and around the unions to create a new kind of union internationalism. I believe, however, that the innovatory force for such comes primarily from international labor organizations, support-groups and networks autonomous from the old inter/national union institutions.

The return of utopianism in labor studies, but which utopianism?

It is a pleasant surprise to discover the word ‘utopia’ used in a positive sense in a book about trade unions internationally (Chapter 10). This is a reaffirmation of the potential power of desire and imagination in a movement that, over a long historical period, has been drained of such. Interestingly GG asserts, on the basis of its three cases, that due to the loss of workplace- and market-bargaining power, union organizers are beginning to draw on symbolic or moral power. They say that

To effectively use this source of power, unions have to engage more directly in the public arena, form coalitions with other civil society actors and become part of a broader counter-movement. Importantly, the commoditization of society and environment affects not only organized workers; it cuts across all strata, including farmers and small business. A facet of union struggle as it emerged historically is the transformation of the insecure commodity status of persons who experienced devalued lives into the recognition of their creative potential. (214)
This leads them to offer six crucial elements of a ‘new developmental vision’ (216) concerning: Nature; Work; Socially-Responsible Corporations; an Active Democratic Society; Fair Trade; and a New Global Politics. Whilst this is a welcome contribution to a dialogue on an alternative orientation for the trade union organizations, its horizon is evidently that of a ‘socially-responsible’ capitalism. 12 Paradoxically, GG considers that it is nonetheless surpassing any new social-democratic alternative in favor of something more radical:
a counter-hegemonic politics that extends the role of civil society and seeks to establish alternative forms of social organization, political and logics of accumulation. (224)

Whilst I can understand why the authors might be nervous here about using the word ‘socialism’, I would have thought that, because their utopia allows for ‘socially-responsible’ corporations, it well represents a 21st century social-democratic alternative! This feeling is reinforced by the frequent GG references to the African National Congress (ANC) government of South Africa as either favoring, or – in this chapter – hopefully shifting direction toward ‘an alternative developmental path, including an unprecedented investment of human and capital resources in education, and industrial policies that re-direct investment towards labor-intensive sectors’ (217). Here, as elsewhere in the book, there is a dependence on institutions that have been either directly functional to the spread of the globalized and neo-liberalized capitalism they condemn, or that have proven largely incapable of effective defense against it. This may not be, a ‘reactionary utopia’ (e.g. a fundamentalist religious one), nor a ‘conservative utopia’ (e.g. a neo-liberal one), but neither is it a ‘critical and self-critical utopia’. It is, I would say, an ‘incrementalist utopia’, in the sense of accepting the limits of the given and eschewing a socially emancipatory orientation and emancipatory action. 13

Conclusion: Toward a global dialogue on an emancipatory global labor movement!

I hope this review will not be taken as praising with loud damns. I said initially that I welcome this book and I take it very seriously indeed. I hope the review might lead more to read, be provoked by and review this book. 14 I hope, and indeed expect, symposia around it. I would even propose, in the light of the GG utopia above (and Footnotes12 and 13) an open global dialogue on emancipatory or utopian labor movement strategies. In cyberspace as well as locally grounded, of course! Finally, I not a welcome and appropriate innovation: the book is itself instantly available online at round US$40, some 30 percent off the hardcover price! 15


Adamovsky, Ezequiel. 2009. ‘Autonomous Politics and its Problems’, .
Bieler, Andreas, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pillay (eds). 2008. Labor and the Challenges of Globalization: What Prospects for Transnational Solidarity?. London: Pluto.
Castells, Manuel. 1996-8. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. 3 Vols. Oxford: Blackwell.
Colgan, Fiona and Sue Ledwith (eds). 2002. Gender, Diversity and Trade Unions: International Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick. 1999. Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Employee Rights and Responsibilities Journal. 2008. ‘Symposium on “The Future of Social Movement Unionism ”’ (Victor Devinatz, Peter Fairbrother, Dan Clawson, Eddie Webster, Peter Waterman), Employee Rights and Responsibilities Journal, Vol. 20, Nos. 3 and 4. .
Escobar, Arturo. 2004. ‘Other Worlds Are (already) Possible: Cyber-Internationalism and Post-Capitalist Cultures’, in Jai Sen et. al. (eds.), World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: Viveka. 349-58.
Hodkinson, Stuart. 2005. ‘Is There a New Trade Union Internationalism? The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions’ Response to Globalization, 1996-2002’, Labor, Capital and Society, Vol. 38: Nos. 1&2.
Ledwith, Sue. 2006. ‘The Future as Female? Gender, Diversity and Global Labor Solidarity’; in Craig Phelan, (ed), The Future of Organized Labor; Global Perspectives. Bern: Peter Lang. Pp. 91-134.
Lier, David. 2009. ‘Book Review: Grounding Globalization: Labor in the Age of Insecurity’, Journal of Economic Geography pp. 1–3.
Martínez, Silvia Lago, 2006. Internet y lucha política: Los movimientos sociales en la red. Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual.
Munck, Ronaldo. 2002. Globalization and Labor: The New Great Transformation . London: Zed.
Panitch, Leo and Colin Leys (eds). 1999. Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias. London: Merlin and New York: Monthly Review.
Robinson, Bruce. 2006. ‘Cybersolidarity: Internet-Based Campaigning and Trade Union Internationalism’, in in E. Trauth, et. al. (eds), Social Inclusion: Societal and Organizational Implications for Information Systems, Boston: Springer. Pp. 123-135.
Souza Santos, Boaventura de. 2003. ‘The World Social Forum: Toward a Counter-Hegemonic Globalization’. pubboa.html
Phelan, Craig. 2006. The Future of Organized Labor: Global Perspectives. Bern: Peter Lang.
Van der Linden, Marcel. 2002. ‘Globalizing Labor Historiography: The IISH Approach’, .
Van der Linden, Marcel. 2008. Workers of the World: Essays toward a Global Labor History. Leiden: Brill.
Waterman, Peter and Jane Wills (eds). 2001. Place, Space and the New Labor Internationalisms. Oxford: Blackwell. 300 pp.
Waterman, Peter. 2004. ‘Adventures of Emancipatory Labor Strategy as the New Global Movement Challenges International Unionism’, Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol. 10, No. 1. . Also: smu/smuadvent.html
Waterman, Peter. 2006. ‘Toward a Global Labor Charter for the 21st Century’.,28,11,2492
Waterman, Peter. 2009. ‘Labor at the 2009 Belem World Social Forum: Between an Ambiguous Past and an Uncertain Future’, projekte/waterman/belem209 . Also: WSFBelem2009.pdf

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