Free Labor In A Hostile World

Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House. The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, the Albert Shanker Institute-supported report he cites below, is available here. A "Map of Workers’ Rights," depicting its findings is here. 

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement that played so crucial a role in the collapse of Communist rule in Poland and ultimately everywhere else where it held sway. Solidarity emerged from a series of spontaneous strikes called by workers at the shipbuilding yards of Poland’s Baltic coast cities. It quickly spread throughout the country, pulling in workers from steel works, textile mills, and coal mines. Soon, the working class was joined by the intellectual opposition, a loose movement of academics and former student activists that had been gathering momentum as the corruption of the Communist system became increasingly apparent. 

Solidarity thus quickly evolved into a broad movement for democracy, with a free-wheeling press, a diplomatic apparatus, and close ties to Poland’s influential Catholic Church. It was, however, the support of Poland’s huge working class that ensured Solidarity’s staying power. Where Communist regimes had faced down opposition stirrings among students and intellectuals in the past, it had never been confronted by an adversary as large, disciplined, and well-organized as Solidarity came to be.  

It’s worth mentioning during this U.S. Labor Day period that U.S. unions, led by individuals such as AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and AFT President Al Shanker (from whom this blog is named), among many others, were Solidarity’s staunchest supporters in the U.S.

Solidarity thus validated the conviction, etched in the very marrow of totalitarian methodology, that control over the trade union movement stood as a sine qua non for control of society. Wherever they sought power, Communist movements moved immediately to gain command over the press, the security forces, and trade unions. For die-hard Communists, the lesson of Poland is that permitting the labor movement to escape party domination inevitably leads to the unraveling of the entire Marxist edifice. 

That lesson, in fact, has not gone unheeded. A new report issued by Freedom House on the state of global workers’ rights finds that no fewer than one-third of the world’s people live in societies in which workers and their unions suffer under systematic repression. Forty countries are described as having policies that are characterized as either Repressive or Very Repressive. Another 41 countries have the highest possible ranking: Free. Of these, however, 26 are European Union states and several more are from the developed, English-speaking world. Another 84 countries fall into a middle range described as either Mostly Free (a category which includes the United States) or Partly Free. 

One of the report’s striking findings is the heavy representation of former Communist—or in some cases "Third World" socialist—states among the countries designated as either Repressive or Very Repressive. Fully 10 of the 14 Very Repressive governments fit this description: Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan among the former Soviet Republic; Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea in Asia; Eritrea, Syria, and Libya among Middle East and African countries; and Cuba from the Americas. 

In these societies, working people and their unions function under near-totalitarian conditions. Unions function as appendages of the ruling party. Independent unions are proscribed, and dissident workers are sent to prisons or labor camps. There is no collective bargaining as the state sets wages and terms of labor. 

Countries designated as Repressive—as opposed to the worst of the worst Very Repressive—include several of the world’s most powerful authoritarian states, including China, Venezuela, and Iran. In each of these cases, the political leadership has made efforts to impose a variant of the totalitarian trade union model, in which the state or party uses pliant unions to promote its own interests. And in each case, workers themselves have exhibited an impressive degree of independence by pushing back against the authorities. 

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez’s campaign to bring organized labor under the umbrella of chavista "revolutionary" structures has met with strong resistance from the existing democratic unions. In Iran, the involvement of workers in the opposition movement has provoked bluster and threats from the highest circles of the clerical leadership. And in China, workers operating beyond the control of the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions have engaged in a series of successful strikes against some of the world’s largest multinational corporations. 

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the impact of current Chinese labor resistance to authoritarian rule. Twenty-first century authoritarianism is distinguished from its totalitarian antecedents by its strategic flexibility and willingness to permit a measure of openness. China tolerated the strikes because they were primarily directed against foreign corporations and because events were localized and posed no immediate threat to the Communist leadership. If Chinese workers began organizing nationwide or even regional independent union structures, the authorities would respond with considerably less tolerance. 

The overriding lesson of all this is that, even despite the growing self-confidence of authoritarian powers, the prospects for change are real. In a previous era, the right of working people to free and democratic trade unions was regarded as fundamental by advocates for democracy. The American labor movement made the spread of democratic unionism a major priority, as did many political leaders. Today, while support for independent unions has been institutionalized as part of U.S. democracy-promotion policy, neither the labor movement nor the U.S, government seems to feel a sense of mission towards promoting workers’ rights and political change abroad. Meanwhile, American conservatives seem no longer to regard any union as legitimate, whether in the United States or elsewhere. This is unfortunate. It would be deplorable if those in America, who once ranked as freedom’s champions, were to ignore what may be important new openings for democratic change.