Trade Union Solidarity and Free Trade

Do trade unions matter in the Twenty-First Century? How are they responding to ongoing processes of neoliberal restructuring? In particular, what obstacles do they face in developing transnational solidarity against the rise of free trade? What is clear is that national labour movements in different parts of the world have, at times, responded differently to the deepening of trade liberalisation in recent years. This is because the immediate impact they face differs depending on their place within the structure of the global economy.

In a new academic article published earlier this month I explore these questions through a study of how the biggest trade union federation in South Africa – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – has reacted to both multilateral and bilateral trade liberalisation. COSATU

The article forms part of a special issue of the journal Globalizations, which considers the theme of ‘Free Trade and Transnational Labour’. My contribution also considers the extent to which COSATU has engaged in building transnational links with labour movements outside of South Africa and how effective these attempts have been.

COSATU was formed in 1985 and since the end of apartheid its membership has grown significantly. At its most recent National Congress in 2012 it reported a total of 2.2 million members across its 21 affiliated trade unions.

The post-apartheid era in South Africa has seen the government embrace the free trade agenda. This was most clearly demonstrated when it adopted its Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy way back in 1996. Despite criticism from COSATU, this represented an acceptance of the neoliberal development model, and in particular the need for South Africa to unilaterally reduce its barriers to trade. At the time COSATU took the position that a more strategic engagement with the global economy was needed. More recently government policy has, to some extent, begun to reflect such a view. The ‘New Growth Path‘ launched in 2010 does place much more emphasis on employment and an active industrial policy although COSATU’s leadership has expressed some serious concerns that the subsequent ‘National Development Plan‘, which was launched in 2012, undermines this shift in approach.

COSATU has been active, to varying degrees, in seeking to build transnational solidarity against both further trade liberalisation within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and a number of bilateral negotiations involving South Africa. However, these attempts reveal a number of challenges to transnational labour solidarity in the face of free trade. Ultimately, COSATU is first and foremost a national federation and as such it prioritises the needs of its members. As a result the protection of jobs and working conditions within South Africa are its core remit and a number of obstacles to transnational solidarity remain:

  1. Tensions within COSATU are currently high as a result of its relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) in the form of the tripartite alliance. One of the major unions within COSATU, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) has broken ranks by refusing to endorse the ANC in the forthcoming elections in May 2014 and has questioned the continued viability of the federation itself. Continuing to be in alliance with the ANC does make it difficult to then provide genuine resistance to the trade liberalisation agenda led by the government.
  2. COSATU’s experience of trying to develop solidarity with the European Trade Union Council (ETUC) over WTO proposals for Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) highlights some of the specific issues faced by trade unions in the Global South. In this case one ETUC member, the European Metalworkers’ Federation, joined forces with the owners of the car industry in Europe to undermine the concerns raised by emerging markets, including South Africa, that NAMA would harm key labour-intensive sectors.
  3. At the regional level similar dynamics can be seen but this time it is COSATU that finds itself defending the interests of the dominant national trading power. During the negotiations towards a Free Trade Area within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), COSATU expressed concerns that the domestic clothing and textiles sector could be undermined by cheaper goods of lower quality produced in other parts of Southern Africa.

Given these difficulties in resolving the positions of different national trade unions maybe we should focus on the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which claims on its website to represent ‘the global voice of the world’s working people’. However, ITUC’s approach to free trade agreements has been a reformist agenda based on securing the inclusion of basic labour standards to mitigate any negative impacts on workers. This has led to some of COSATU’s affiliates leaving ITUC. They argue that a more radical approach is needed, which seeks to resist the actual introduction of free trade agreements in the first place, rather than one that seeks to ameliorate their impact on labour.

Instead we may look to the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR). Observations on SIGTUR’s most recent Congress do suggest that it may be a more appropriate avenue for federations like COSATU to focus its energies. Whether it can overcome all of the obstacles identified above remains to be seen.

In sum, workers the world over face common challenges in the face of neoliberal globalisation. These processes can be resisted and, despite some of the difficulties identified above, trade unions should continue to seek to develop solidarity across national borders.

* A limited number of free downloads of the full article are available at

There Is An Alternative

Last week the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published the 2013 edition of its flagship annual publication, The Human Development Report (watch an animated summary here). Since its launch in 1990 this contribution to orthodox thinking on international development has played an important role in shifting attention away from an exclusive focus on economic measures, to a more people-centred or ‘human’ conceptualisation of development. Key to this was the introduction of the Human Development Index (HDI) which is a composite measure of development that includes life expectancy and education indicators in addition to national income. What is interesting about the 2013 report is its attempt to influence the debate on the more theoretical understandings of how to achieve development, rather than offering alternative ways of measuring it. The title of this year’s report is The Rise of the South.

Image Its focus provides a welcome shift of attention away from the dominant intellectual home of thinking on international development (the global North) to the progress achieved by some key states in the global South (especially Brazil, India and China). Whilst not claiming that there is a definitive model at work in these countries, the report does suggest that lessons can be drawn from their experiences over recent years. In particular, it notes three key drivers that have been central to the human development progress achieved in these countries:

  1. A developmental state that has been vitally important in regulating markets, supporting industrial development, and directing the terms of their engagement with the global economy.
  2. The state has also played an important role in investing in health, education and other public services.
  3. Engagement with global markets has been gradual and facilitated by state support.

The notion of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ development strategy is dismissed within the report as both unrealistic and ineffective. Instead there is an emphasis on the flexibility and pragmatism that has been central to the approach adopted by many countries in the global South. The report does acknowledge that, despite such advances, concerns remain over levels of inequality and questions of sustainability, and that both have the potential to undermine much of the progress that has been achieved.

Although there is some discussion of the need for countries in the global South to have greater representation in the key international financial institutions, the report focuses in the main on the domestic obstacles to development. UNDP’s acknowledgement of the important role that developmental states can play is clearly a move away from the days when policymakers suggested ‘there was no alternative’ to the free market as the means for the global South to achieve development.

Image However, what the report fails to acknowledge is the structural limits within which countries in the global South have to operate. These include the continued failure to effectively regulate both transnational corporations and global financial markets and the deepening of trade liberalisation through the exponential rise of bilateral trade agreements in the last two decades.

Nevertheless, the arguments made in the 2013 Human Development Report do suggest that the wheel is finally turning within liberal thinking, away from the neoclassical orthodoxy, which has informed development policy since the 1980s, back towards some of the ideas that dominated the debate in the immediate post-war era. It is interesting to note that the headline quotes that precede each chapter of the report include both John Maynard Keynes and John F. Kennedy. Of course, what is very different from the post-war era is the position of leading states in the Global South within the contemporary geopolitical balance of power. Nevertheless, if the ideas and alternative experiences of the global South are to have any significant impact on dominant thinking on development there will need to be some significant changes in both the material and ideational structures of the global economy.