Excerpts from the 17th World Congress preparation text: "Social upheavals, fightbacks and alternatives"

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Pre Congress, 17th World Congress Social upheavals, fightbacks and alternatives

Thursday 27 July 2017

1 / What is the evolution of the situation of the working class and the exploited worldwide?

Several important phenomena should be noted. Globalization has accelerated industrial and economic growth in a number of countries (India, China, Turkey, Mexico...) a phenomenon that should logically continue and diversify.

This leads to two important phenomena in so-called “emerging” countries: urban concentration, increase of the number of wageworkers at a faster rate than that of the population (75% increase between 1992 and 2012 for a 30% population increase). Obviously, this corresponds to the development of new centres of economic development. Another significant feature has been the relative growth of the service sector as compared to manufacturing, together with the proletarianisation of many jobs previously seen as ‘professional’ such as teaching and health care, with the consequent impact of these groups being increasingly likely to participate in industrial action to defend conditions against increasing speedups, pay freezes, privatisations and other attacks.

But we must always take into consideration that, in the aggregate, a large majority of the workforce in these countries consists of workers in precarious employment according to ILO criteria (unpaid family workers or self-employed workers) and this proportion has been increasing since 2008, which is therefore a counter trend. Similarly, the ILO expects a steady increase in unemployment in the next five years in Asia, Africa and Latin America, already noted since 2008. The consequence is obvious: significant urbanization, rural population becoming a minority with the concomitant destruction of the social fabric, obviously leading to a deterioration in living conditions, even if peasants’ solidarity networks persist.

So we see a numerical increase of the working class, but with different overall characteristics shaped by the overall development of societies where this development occurs.

In the “old industrial countries”, the development of the proletariat, has most generally gone hand in hand with trade union and political struggles against the bourgeoisie in a national framework and, whatever the violence of class struggles of the twentieth century, with obtaining social rights on the nation-state level, crystallizing power relations between classes. Recognition of collective rights of the working class did not only concern employment contracts at the company level but also collective social rights as part of civil society; the bourgeoisie conceding that a share of capitalist profits should finance systems of contribution and tax redistribution on which most industrial societies were built in the twentieth century. Thus there were social compromises, development of the “welfare state”, related to the ideological legacy of positivism and social Christianity. These ideologies and compromises were the necessary antidote to the significant development of Marxist and socialist currents. All this is no longer required today and industrial development in emerging countries has not at all come about in the same context. For instance, the automotive production industry “moving east”: Except for Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, the major development areas are in Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and China. In these cases, production lines and qualifications are the same as in old industrialized countries, but social rights and labour legislation are not at all the same. There are similar schemas in many other industrial sectors. In these new areas of industrial development, the social compromises of the last century no longer hold sway. In the old industrial countries, neoliberal austerity policies are already broadly challenging these compromises. Moreover, we can observe semi-slavery situations, especially for migrant workers, and underground factories escaping any legislation.

2 / Evolution of worldwide rate of exploitation.

The economic changes of recent years have also produced various consequences. Not only have wages stagnated in the old industrialized countries, recent years have seen an increase in productivity at the expense of wages, accentuating the trend seen since the 1980s of payroll losses for the benefit of capital. In the same vein, more precarious contracts and moves to introduce new, more restrictive labour laws have been a key element in these productivity gains in the old industrialized countries (zero-hour contracts in Britain, the Italy Jobs Act, mini-jobs in Germany....). Despite the sudden brake on production in 2008, in most new production areas workers have won real wage increases, especially in China. Although these have been economic strikes, carried out workplace-by-workplace or company-by-company, they have had tangible effects.

So, elements of social tension in the labour market persist in both the “emerging” countries and in old economies, either through the increased pressure of unemployment or by a gradual deterioration of employment conditions and social protection systems. Almost half of the workers in the world live outside wage labour, in extreme precarity. And the trend is the spread of precarious contracts and legislation minimizing legal protection against layoffs. These developments increase the flexibility and ability of capitalists to alter maximum working hours and number of employees according to daily needs. This goes along with a logistical organization of chains of production and distribution that reduces costs as much as possible by resorting to myriad subcontractors. Many new treaties allow big corporations to escape national laws: TTIP, TISA, etc.… Within the European Union, every month, new laws are superseding old national laws. De facto, at the international level there are now two levels of power: state power and corporate power and the second one is stronger and stronger in terms of trade organization and workforce contracts.

The debt crisis over the past decade has shifted from the South to the advanced capitalist countries: household debt crises in many countries (USA, India,), sovereign debt crisis in Europe. These crises accelerate social attacks, precariousness and situations of social misery, they also sharpen the requirements for auditing, the control of populations to block these policies.

All these changes weaken the capacity for lasting collective organization and structuring collective resistance within companies. At the same time, they stimulate the need to fight back and the dynamics of self-organization. This also calls for the development of local social organizations able to regroup isolated or temporary workers above and beyond the workplace level.


II / Resistance on different fronts

1 / The uneven development of the labour movement

We obviously see a significant growth of trade unionism among new employment sectors, in countries where there is expanding industrialization and significant resistance to management demands through strikes. But this occurs, overall, in a situation where the social gains won by the “old working class” (pensions and social security, in particular) far from being extended to emerging countries, are being challenged in Europe and other industrialized countries in the name of austerity plans. Likewise, in China, which has experienced in a large number of local strikes in recent years, especially over wage issues, this has not led to the creation of trade unionism independent of the state apparatus.

Quantitatively, the working class is constantly growing. It should be noted that its centres of growth have strongly shifted to Asia, probably tomorrow to Africa. In these areas the development of trade-union forces follows numerical growth, the growing social weight of wage workers, lay the bases for class consciousness but in general they do not have the strong political structures that provided a political backbone to the European labour movement, although the contradiction in that model was to often to delegate ‘political’ questions to political parties.

Powerful workers’ struggles are still taking place not only in the old industrial countries, in Latin America, but also in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, in Turkey, in the Indian Subcontinent, and in Asia.

But in the era of globalization the need for trade unions to take up broader issues including racism, all forms of discrimination and housing has become greater and a spur to radicalization. While there have been some attempts to organize some of the most precarious workers, such as fast-food workers in the US and to a lesser extent in Britain, in general, in old industrialized countries, the most precarious workers (younger with a higher proportion of migrants and women) are the least organized.

Other strategic questions are also posed by the current situation. Unions in many sectors are exploring the question of whether ‘chain of value’ organizing should replace industrial unionism in the era of globalization, i.e., a coordination of all sectors that make a single production possible. This is all the more important as the maximization of profits leads to splintering of production processes, resorting to subcontracting, on the same site, or most often, on an international level. Further, the question of union democracy is essential in building effective organizations.

The creation of a single trade union, ITUC, bringing together the vast majority of union forces worldwide, cannot hide wide disparities especially in terms of capacity to defend the interests of employees and to oppose capitalist plans. The weakness of unions and political organizations with a Marxist and class-struggle background and conducting education among their membership has led to a lack of class-consciousness

The trade union movement is thus confronted with several crucial problems:

• Its ability to integrate all the social issues that arise in society (racism, homophobia and discrimination against women, housing). The need to integrate environmental dimensions is also a major imperative. The tension between safeguarding jobs and the struggle against harmful factories and productions require establishing a system of demands making it possible to go beyond these contradictions.

• to take into account the reality of precarisation in all its forms and therefore stimulating and creating the structures to organize all those concerned, in particular by the development of structures beyond enterprises, in the zones of industrial activities, neighbourhoods and localities.

• the imperative need to co-ordinate this organizing on an international scale, relying on the actual networks of the production chains in which the workers are competing against each other.

• the pressing need to create, out of the struggle for rights, a class identity providing resistance movements the programmes necessary to challenge the capitalist structures of society and to carry through a project of overthrowing this system.