MIL OSI – Source: Volkswagen Stiftung –
Headline: Veranstaltungsbericht und Audiomitschnitt: Workers of the World – Exploring Global Perspectives on Labour from the 1950s to the Present
The third stream turned towards “collective action” and the “politics of labour”. In her keynote about “Labour and Systemic Chaos: The End of British US World Hegemony Compared” Beverly Silver (Baltimore) outlined a comprehensive analysis of both the epoch we live in and the place of labour movements in it. Departing from a world-system perspective she described the current situation as a period of transition, ending the cycle of US-American hegemony. While previously the end of systemic cycles of accumulation and the ensuing transfer of hegemonic positions in the capitalist world-system corresponded with a period of extended war between major powers, the challenge of the current situation is not only to prevent such bloodshed but also to confront the double task of improving both workers and ecological livelihoods. From the point of view of the cyclical movements of capital accumulation, long periods in which labour is too weak (like in the current situation) are not sustainable. Similarly to what the economist Thomas Piketty affirms, she stated that redistribution towards labour is due. At the same time, as Silver admitted, it seems difficult to build the necessary solidarity and unity among workers worldwide as their situation is too uneven.
In any case, following the newest results of her famous database projects about “labour unrest” and “social unrest” (databases which record incidents of unrest through their mentioning in major newspapers), there are indications that both labour conflicts and wider social protest have sharply increased over the last years and thus somewhat recovered from their global low point in the 1990s. Most of the subsequent papers of the stream analysed more punctual and specific events of resistance without neglecting to connect these experiences to wider contexts of political processes. This included a comparative analysis of the struggle of informal workers in Brazil, China, India, and South Africa (Chris Tilly and Rina Agarwala, Los Angeles and Baltimore), the analysis of the impressively versatile protest repertoires of precarious workers in South Korea (Jennifer J. Chun, Toronto), the less visible but not automatically less effective strategies of “coping” with precarity by workers in Poland (Adam Mrozowicki, Wroclaw), and the way the unionization struggle of janitors in the Netherlands was both inspired and framed by preceding campaigns in the US (Ad Knotter, Maastricht).
The strikingly similar way in which unions dealt with the “rationalization politics” of introducing new technologies was revealed through otherwise very different papers on the textile industry in India in the 1950s and German export industries in the 1980s-1990s (Chitra Joshi, Delhi; Thomas Goes, Göttingen). Finally, Peter Wegenschimmel (Regensburg) reminded the participants that the experience of labour and collective action under state socialism needs its own analysis, although existing conceptual tools such as the “power resource approach” can be used with great benefit for studying these.
The closing roundtable about “Globalisation of Insecurity?” echoed many of the themes brought up during the two preceding days. The different interventions illustrated once more that there is sound empirical evidence for quite diverging assessments of the current situation of workers worldwide: While Birgit Mahnkopf (Berlin) highlighted the gloomy effects of an “oligarchic globalisation” and the systematic exclusion of growing groups of the world’s population (one of those mechanisms being precisely permanent unemployment), Ludger Pries (Bochum) pointed to contradictory processes of a re-formalization of work and even a renewed strengthening of workers’ representation in certain sectors and locations.
The degree social groups (and identities) overlap and mingle, especially in the Global South, was highlighted by Gaochao He (Guangdong) who pointed to the large group officially denominated as “migrant peasant worker” in China. Prabhu Mohapatra (Delhi) stressed that informalization historically has seen very different temporalities: while in the Global North it has recently re-appeared, the Global South has a long history of a continuous presence, if not dominance, of informal labour.
“One of the problems of global approaches is that we cannot agree even on the basic definitions.” This observation by Rina Agarwal (Baltimore) may sum up the productively irritating effects of this conference. It made clear that labour and workers have, as issues full of contemporary urgency, been studied by different disciplines and approaches. These so far have not made full use of the potentials contained in their colleagues’ works. Neither have inter-local, indeed global entanglements, been fully integrated yet. A continuing dialogue is necessary and the Hanover conference “Workers of the World” has achieved the start of such a conversation.
David Mayer, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen