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Reviewed by:
  • Where Are the Unions? Workers and Social Movements in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe ed. by Sian Lazar
  • Kevin A. Young
Where Are the Unions? Workers and Social Movements in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe
Sian Lazar, ed.
London: Zed, 2017
296 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper)

In the numerous studies of early twenty-first-century protest movements, the role of labor is often ignored. The reasons are many: the fascination with “new” social movements and subjects, the prevalence of ideologies that downplay the importance of class in people’s lives, and justified disenchantment with bureaucratic union leaders, to name a few. Much commentary on recent social movements also depicts them as spontaneous and leaderless uprisings in which social media substitutes for organization. The result is that “organised class-based resistance to capitalism has slipped out of view in both scholarly work and political commentary,” as Sian Lazar notes in her introduction to this ambitious anthology (8).

The volume includes case studies from eleven different countries, focusing on recent labor movements and their proximate historical roots over the last two decades. A central theme is the wide diversity of labor’s political positions and roles. Many unions have responded to neoliberal austerity, repression, and xenophobia by “closing in on themselves and becoming less and less relevant” (8), as the examples of Italian, Greek, and Lebanese unions attest. Others have responded by mobilizing their members and forging alliances with unorganized workers and community-based movements. This latter approach, known variously as social-movement unionism, community unionism, or class-struggle unionism, involves looking beyond traditional workplaces and sectoral concerns to address the problems of working people in all sectors and realms of society. Sometimes this social-movement orientation emerges from within existing unions, and sometimes the militant thrust comes from nonunionized workers themselves, such as the Brazilian street vendors or Greek call center workers examined here.

Of the eleven chapters, most interesting to me were the four dealing with concrete attempts to build participatory, social-movement unions. Thomas Grisaffi’s chapter examines the Bolivian coca farmers who have played a central role in the country’s politics since the 1980s. Given the weak state presence in coca-growing regions, cocalero unions became vital to all aspects of community life at the local level, “transcending the role of a union as a mere vehicle for workers’ demands” (60). They opposed forced eradication by elevating coca as a symbol of national and cultural sovereignty, successfully mobilizing other Bolivian sectors in opposition to US imperialism. Grisaffi also notes how increased electoral politicking and the ascent of coca union leader Evo Morales to the Bolivian presidency has led to a partial erosion of union democracy, which he attributes to the (inevitable?) tensions between national party politics and radical grassroots mobilization.

A chapter by Mary Compton, a teacher and former president of the United Kingdom’s national teachers’ union, compares responses to neoliberal education reforms by her [End Page 120] union and by reformers within the Mexican teachers’ union. She argues that successful resistance requires four ingredients: internal union democratization, union-community coalitions, a critical vision of the role that schools should play in a just society, and alliances across national borders. While the UK teachers have taken some steps in this direction, the Mexican reformers have much more fully done so, though their impact at the national level remains unclear amid state repression of teachers’ mobilizations and pro-government leaders’ continued control over the national union.

Argentina’s formidable movement of piqueteros—unemployed road-blockaders—is the focus of Virginia Manzano’s chapter. Although prior studies of the movement have neglected its connections with organized labor, Manzano demonstrates how two of the country’s union bodies have actively supported the struggles of the unemployed. Healthcare workers, teachers, social workers, and other public-sector employees in these unions have used their skills to aid piquetero mobilizations and movement building. In the process, they have helped politicize and validate the “unemployed” identity. However, these efforts have not succeeded in vanquishing the masculinist conception of work that views recipients of state aid as undignified. If the social-movement unionists deliberately “blurred...


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