Mobilizations
16-17 century piracy
The slave uprising in Haiti
The Chartists
1848
The First international
The Social Democratic Party
The Revolutions 1917-19
General strike in Hong Kong 1925-26
The occupation of Flint
The welfare state
Peronism
The boom of the 60s-70s in Europe
Solidarnosc
The metal strike in São Paulo
The Hyundai strike
 
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Labour movements

 

 

 

 

 

The background of the labour movements is found in the artisan companionships of the European guild system, which already in the 14th century invented strikes, collective agreements and pension funds. But it was only with the large factories that emerged from the 18th century in England, the 19th century in Europe and North America, and the 20th century in the rest of the world, that labor movements gained a dominant position in the popular movement system.

The core of the labor movement is the workers’ defense against the capitalists. The main goal of the early northern labour movements was to maintain autonomy in the work towards the capitalists, while the workers were skilled craftsmen. The goal was formulated as producer and consumer cooperation. But they also saw the need for action towards those in power in general; the chartists – a very strong worker mobilization in England in the 1830s and 40s – had e.g. universal suffrage as a unifying requirement.

The breakthrough for a unifying labour movement identity in Europe was the first Workers’ International in the 1860s; its goal was to raise money for strikers and prevent strike-breaking. But the split came quickly, in the form of razor-sharp conflicts over political strategies that hardened to identities: between Social Democrats who wanted to rally everyone in unions and parties, and Anarchists who feared this would create too much functionary power and preferred to organize only the active, and later also Communists who tried to combine the methods and have different organizations for both.

At the end of the 19th century, industry became increasingly capital-intensive and producer cooperatives seemed impossible. Instead, the labour movement began to hope to seize power in the state and that way implement the good society.
During the 20th century, the labour movement came quite far on that road for a while. Mainly because the power position of the workers in the workplace was strengthened: the increasingly automated and flow-controlled industry became increasingly sensitive to sabotage and strikes. While strikes in the 19th century had been terribly difficult, it became almost routine in the middle 20th century. Thanks to the good organization of workers on the work floor, they got respected and could force state bureaucracies to implement labour- and majority-friendly legislation while forcing capital owners to pay higher wages and improve working conditions and alleviate despotism in the workplace.

The capitalists protected themselves against the power of the workers by locating industry to the Southern countries, which led to the weakening of the labour movement in the North and the strengthening of the labour movement in the South. Another way to weaken the labour movement was to tie their organizations in legislation and state responsibility and get the workers used to trusting the state for their welfare.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were strong mobilizations, e.g. in the textile industry of China and India, and in the middle of the 20th century, e.g. Argentina's slaughterhouse workers for a time push through advanced welfare legislation. But it was not until the end of the 20th century that emigration of capital gained mass proportions, to Brazil and South Africa in the 1970s, to South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s and all of Asia in the 1990s, and consequently only then the labour movement of the South could surpass the labour movement of the North, while China is now the hothouse of labour action. This is a development that will continue.

Reading
Beverly Silver: Forces of labor. Cambridge University Press 2003
P.K. Edwards: Conflict at work, Blackwell 1986
Dick Geary: European Labor protest 1848-1939, St Martin's Press 1981
Charles Bergquist: Labor in Latin America, Stanford University Press 1986
Ronaldo Munck & Peter Waterman: Labor worldwide in the era of globalization, Macmillan 1998.

Documents
The inaugural address to the First International

Links
Giovanni Arrighi: Marxist century, American century: The making and remaking of the world labour movement
Beverly Silver: The time-space mapping of world labor unrest
Beverly Silver: Theorising the Working Class in Twenty-First-Century Global Capitalism

News links
Labourstart
China Labour Watch

 

 

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