Planetizing the Labor Movement
I read Ronaldo Munck’s piece with interest. I share many of his positions, especially with regard to the argument that the labor movement is not dead nor should it be considered so, although it has gone through some tough times recently in many parts of the globe. Like others, I came to the piece through a particular set of eyes, a perspective shaped by my own discipline: geography. There are three sets of interconnected observations that I wish to make.
(1) Globalization is clearly a political, historical, economic, cultural, and ideological process and phenomenon. But it is also a highly geographical one, as it links diverse parts of the globe together in new and different ways. This is certainly bringing challenges to workers. The annihilation of space by time identified by Marx brought about by technologies such as faster transportation means that workers and businesses in one part of the globe are now not just in competition with those in a neighboring community but are, quite literally, in competition with those across the planet. Roses grown in Tanzania can now be flown to flower markets in Europe overnight while tomatoes grown in Mexico can be in my local supermarket in Georgia the day after they have been harvested, with all sorts of consequences for European flower growers and US tomato producers. Indeed, in many economic sectors, the commodity and labor markets are now truly global.
However, the spatial transformations wrought by globalization are also, as Munck notes, bringing opportunities. Not only are new trade links or the structures of various Global Production Networks (GPNs) connecting workers in different parts of the world in new ways (perhaps linking workers who have never before been connected), but new technologies such as Skype mean that they can communicate like never before. This means that word of a strike here or the arrest of a union representative there can be spread with the pushing of just a few keys on a laptop (assuming, of course, that people have access to such technologies—we should not forget the digital divide, which has its own geography to it). Thanks to email, Skype, and other such technologies, organizing can occur much more quickly than in the past, and spreading the consequences of actions aimed at particular employers can spawn responses from across the planet in hours.
There is another important consequence of this change, though. Not only does the annihilation of space by time mean that workers can be mobilized much more rapidly than in the past over a wider geographical area, but also the technologies that are bringing it about (the Internet, relatively cheap international flights) are having implications for the types of organizing in which unions might engage. In particular, as Peter Waterman noted several years ago, they mean that organizing is likely to become increasingly hierarchically “flatter,” as official organizers in various unions’ international departments are supplemented (or even replaced) by worker-to-worker contacts.1
No longer must a union in, say, a GM factory in South Africa or Brazil work through its national office (typically in the country’s capital) to link to an international labor organization like IndustriALL (typically headquartered somewhere in the Global North), which then puts it in contact with the appropriate national union in, say, the US or Australia, which then, in turn, puts it in contact with local union officials in a plant which is part of GM’s organization in the second country. Rather, tech-savvy workers in plants across GM’s corporate structure can easily make direct linkages with one another, sometimes even bypassing their national office altogether. Obviously, this has implications for the internal dynamics of the union and the relationship between rank-and-file and the leadership.
(2) Discussions of workers organizing across space inevitably raise questions of geographical scale and spatial hierarchy. Indeed, scalar language is often at the heart of the language of organizing—organizers and academics frequently talk, for instance, about shifting from “the local scale” to “the national” or “global” scale of organization as a way of gaining greater purchase on those firms with whom they are in conflict. However, what exactly is meant by this is often left unstated. What does it even mean to talk of something being “local” and something else being “global”? Hence, should a corporation like McDonald’s be seen as being “global” because it has operations in many different countries of the world, or should it be viewed as being “multi-local,” operating in many different locales simultaneously?
Such a question may seem pedantic, but I think that it is really important for thinking about how we think about organizing. This is because of the power of scalar language. Hence, as geographers Kathy Gibson and Julie Graham (writing as J.K. Gibson-Graham) have argued, “the global” has often been seen to be more powerful than “the local” in the Western imagination.2 This means that many workers who are faced with challenging a firm that is seen to be and/or presents itself as “global” are probably fairly likely at the outset to think of their quest as relatively forlorn, with the fight perhaps having been lost before it is even begun. Challenging a firm that is seen to be “multi-local,” on the other hand, typically does not seem quite as daunting—which is why firms frequently present themselves as “global” when in conflict with their workers and yet as the “local” hometown industry when trying to convince municipal politicians to provide them with favorable treatment. This means that the “gestalt of scale” (how the same object can look radically different when viewed from different perspectives, e.g., “global” versus “national” versus “local”) can play an important role in framing any dispute and, therefore, in shaping subsequent actions.
Discussions of organizing, then, often posit situations in terms of a hierarchical scalar imaginary in which “the global” and “the local” are counterposed. Such counterposing is also seen in phrases such as “top-down” versus “bottom-up” organizing. This terminology projects a scalar imaginary which views the relationships between different scales of organization—the local, the national, the global—in ladder-like terms, in which social actors are visualized as climbing up from the local scale to “higher” scales like the national or the global. Indeed, the English word “scale” has its origins in the Latin word scala (meaning “a ladder”). However, there are other ways in which we might imagine the relationship between “the local” and “the global.” For instance, rather than climbing a set of scalar rungs upwards from the local to the national and then to the global scale of organization, we might employ a horizontalist imaginary in which the local sits at the center of a set of ever-larger scalar circles, with one progressing out from the smaller “local” circle/ scale to larger circles representing other scales—the regional, the national, the global.3
What, then, does changing our scalar imaginary, from a verticalist image of climbing up scales from the local to the global to one in which we move outward from the local to other scales, mean for understanding how the planet is connected? Well, for one thing, it changes how we think about the relationship between the local and the global—in the verticalist imaginary, the global is “above” the local and one climbs up and down scales, whereas in the horizontalist imaginary the global is not above the local but does enclose it and one travels outwards from the local to the global. This has implications for how we conceive of the relationship between these scales and, therefore, how we develop praxis to move from the local to the national or global scale of organization.
Significantly, though, the above are not the only ways in which we might conceive of scales of organization. However different the verticalist and horizontalist approaches are, they share at least one similarity: they both view scales as ontologically separate entities—the local scale (as either ladder rung or circle) is clearly separate and distinct from, say, the national or global scales (as either ladder rungs or circles). They both see scales, in other words, as being what Henri Lefebvre referred to as “space envelopes”—each scale encloses or envelopes a particular space, such that it is possible to delineate a sharp edge between these different scales.4
If we draw upon language from actor-network theory, on the other hand, we shift from a topographical to a topological view of the world. Hence, Bruno Latour suggests that the world’s complexity cannot be captured by “notions of levels, layers, territories, [and] spheres,” and so should not be thought of as being made up of discreet areas of bounded space which fit together neatly.5 Rather, Latour urges us to think of it as “fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, [and] capillary,” an approach which views scales more in rhizomic than in areal terms, terms in which it is impossible to say where the local scale ends and where other scales begin. In such an approach, scales like “the global” and “the local” are understood to be not opposite ends of some scalar spectrum but as a terminology for distinguishing shorter and less connected networks from longer and more connected ones.
Such matters of how we think of how the world is scaled themselves raise important questions concerning strategy and how it is envisioned. Hence, what does such a scalar imaginary mean for discourses that argue that, say, instead of a top-down model of organizing, unions need to develop a bottom-up one? How does one have a top-down or a bottom-up approach if one conceives of the world in capillary fashion? Equally, given that GPNs are, essentially, networks, what does it mean to talk about a particular firm being at the “top” or at the “bottom” of the GPN?
(3) Finally, when talking about scales of organizing, it is important to recognize that such scales have to be constructed. Labor organizations and/or campaigns do not just “become” national or global but have to be actively constructed as such. In other words, they do not just “jump” from, say, the local scale to what is imagined to be some pre-existing national or global scale of existence but must actively bring that scale into being. This involves a tremendous amount of work, and there is a complicated politics of producing new scales of organization. For instance, when unions seek to develop national contracts, they must address all sorts of geographical matters—how do they develop a national contract that can bring some degree of uniformity to wages and conditions across the national space-economy whilst also taking into consideration the myriad local differences that exist between localities?
Such difficulties can be shown through examination of efforts by the East Coast dockers’ union in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s to develop a contract that would include all of the ports from Maine to Texas.6
In an effort to prevent employers in the three dozen or so ports up and down the coast from undercutting each other by putting pressure on local dockers’ wages and working conditions, the national leaders of the International Longshoremen’s Association decided to seek a master contract that would standardize wages and working conditions. However, in doing so they had to deal with myriad different traditions and conditions along the coast: different ports had different working rules, handled different types and tonnages of cargo, were subject to different state laws, etc. Initially, these national union leaders (headquartered in New York City) were successful in managing tensions between ports and created a coastwide agreement. By the 1980s, though, strains between the various ports resulting from their local differences led to the pulling apart of the national agreement as several ports in the Gulf left it. Similar tensions can be seen in myriad other sectors of the economy in which unions have tried to develop regional or national contracts.
Thinking about how to construct scales of organizing also raises questions about the need (or not) for a symmetry of praxis between capital and labor. In other words, it forces us to ask whether it is always necessary to develop a transnational “global” campaign to match the transnational “global” organization of an employer or whether, instead, effective campaigns can be waged by organizing at other scales. Hence, much rhetoric these days suggests that the only way in which labor can counter the power of corporations is to “become global,” just like them. However, I would aver that this is not always the case. Indeed, some firms’ increasing reliance upon, for instance, just-in-time inventory control means that striking at a handful of key points in one or two communities can often bring much of a firm’s entire global operations to a grinding halt, turning a firm’s “global” organization against itself by capturing power at one or two places along the supply chain—this was certainly the case with the 1998 GM dispute, wherein strikes at just two supplier factories in Flint, Michigan, resulted in GM production being shut down across North America, with evern some plants in Asia affected.7 The key issue, then, is to understand how particular parts of a corporation are connected to its other parts, which is a geographical question. Knowing whether it is indeed necessary to develop a transnational “global” labor campaign to match that of a firm with which workers are in conflict or whether focusing upon one or two choke points within the firm’s overall organizational structure will suffice requires labor strategists to understand how that firm is spatially constituted.
Such questions mean, then, that there is not necessarily a blanket solution to challenging firms and, indeed, thinking that there is can perhaps result in the waste of a lot of resources. Spending the time and money to develop a campaign involving activists in myriad countries against a “global” firm may bring certain advantages (such as getting workers to understand that their futures are interconnected), but, from a resource-use point of view, it may be no more efficacious than striking at one or two well-chosen sites within its overall structure. What this means, I would argue, is that those seeking to develop a brighter future for workers must think carefully and deeply about how globalization is reworking the geographical connections between places, how capital is organized spatially across the economic landscape, how it is embedded in particular places and not in others, and how workers in one part of the world are connected spatially to those in other parts of it. It requires, in other words, a distinctly geographical imagination.
1. Peter Waterman, “Internationalism is Dead! Long Live Global Solidarity?” in Global Visions: Beyond the New World Order, eds. Jeremy Brecher, John Brown Childs, and Jill Cutler (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 257–261.
2. J. K. Gibson Graham, “Beyond Global vs. Local: Economic Politics Outside the Binary Frame,” in Geographies of Power: Placing Scale, eds. Andrew Herod and Melissa W. Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 25–60.
3. There are some relevant diagrams in my book Scale (Routledge: London, 2010).
4. Henri Lefebre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).
5. Bruno Latour, “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications,” Soziale Welt 47 (1996): 369-381.
6. Andrew Herod, “Labor’s Spatial Praxis and the Geography of Contract Bargaining in the US East Coast Longshore Industry, 1953-1989,” Political Geography 16, no. 2 (1997): 145–169.
7. Andrew Herod, “Implications of Just-in-Time Production for Union Strategy: Lessons from the 1998 General Motors-United Auto Workers Dispute,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no. 3 (2000): 521–547.