How Unions Fossilized in the Global Economy, Research Time, 10/02/2016

Right now, I’m the acting President of my electoral district’s New Democratic Party Association. I originally was the Vice-President, then President T-Boz got a contract working on the Bernie Sanders campaign in New Hampshire. 

So congratulations on the primary victory, T-Boz! Now, get back to Toronto and make me the Vice-President again.

But I want to talk today about an issue that’s very important to me as an NDP official: the slow, grinding crisis of labour unions as institutions. Canada’s big unions and their leadership are still powerful influences and voices in the NDP. That has its drawbacks (any old guard ossifies) and its benefits (activists aren’t allowed to forget the needs of working people).

Now, the strong influence that the union movement has had on the NDP has waned in recent years. Major union figures like Buzz Hargrove don’t have as much direct hold over NDP policy. The 2012 leadership convention was the first conducted by a one-member-one-vote system, and unions no longer had a block share of the vote. And the old guard candidate Brian Topp lost.

Violent clashes during the 2012 general strikes in Greece
against the government of the time and its austerity
policies. Not much has changed, as Greek people are
still victims of priorities that put corporate profits and
credit ratings above ordinary people.
Also, the party’s tent has had to widen, as the progressive left has expanded into ecological activism, anti-racism, and the movement for the liberation of indigenous people

Beyond their shrinking dominance in the party itself, the wider union movement has faced an existential problem from globalization. Unions have historically been able to win their victories by a hostage strategy. 

A strike and threats of a strike are, essentially, workers taking a business hostage. Normal production will return when our demands are met, at least in part. A general strike does the same to all the industries of a country.

But the effectiveness of strikes and labour action depends on one stable factor, which the globalization of the economy has completely disrupted: territory. The factory floor. The city streets. The national state. 

The Earth itself is now the terrain of the business world. This is why union movements are so easily neutered: workers can no longer hold a company hostage. If they take control of a factory floor, the company can simply move the factory to another city whose workers will take the deal on offer.

And the unionizing workers will find themselves wandering around a gutted, idle factory in a ghost town. 

Corporate power today surpasses state jurisdiction. Just as union action has become impotent, so have anti-trust laws. Although international governance institutions have grown over the last century, they aren’t nearly so powerful as sovereign states were a hundred years ago to break up trusts and cartels.

Most of the international organizations that come closest to being governments are either toothless to enforce workers’ rights, or are easily co-opted by oligarchic interests. I’m talking about organizations like the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank, as well as treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

So what’s happening here? Antonio Negri describes the process very well. Transnational corporations, international organizations, and treaties overcome territorially-defined state governments, but they don’t literally overcome governance. They become the structure of governance itself.

Organizations like unions are left behind because their activity still relies on a strictly defined territory to be effective. Governance in our era has been deterritorialized. The sphere of politics as a place autonomous from authority – the places where people can organize themselves and their movements – has disappeared.

The only place where it exists now is on the internet. As such, it can be everywhere, because the speed and interactivity of internet communication can make you think it’s a space without territory. Cyberspace. 

But we should never forget that our online political organizing does have a place. Idle No More, Occupy, and the Arab Spring didn’t just happen in the neighbourhoods of Canada, Zuccotti Park, and Tahrir Square. 

They all happened in the same place, the same territory. A server farm in Cupertino, California. A fragile place.

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