- Rethinking Global Labour by Ronaldo Munck
According to the ILO, one in every ten persons in employment (including self-employment) and one in every six persons that are in a formal employment relationship is a member of a trade union.1 This in a context in which the organisational power of unions in advanced economies fell from an average of 30 per cent in 1985 to an average 17 per cent in 2017.2 As a result, the voice of unions and their institutional power, for example to regulate conditions of work through collective agreements, has declined. The erosion of this countervailing force in the polity and in labour markets is closely associated with the dramatic rise in income inequality. These imbalances and inequalities are mirrored in the working arrangements of the new 'gig economy'.
Is this the end of organised labour as we know it? How will labour respond to its commodification in the digitally mediated work in the platform-based economy? Where will the 'second movement' come from? What contribution can global labour studies make to understanding the contested nature of the making (and taking) of value and the shaping of the future of work? These are among the questions that Ronaldo Munck seeks to answer in Rethinking Global Labour, a thought provoking book that challenges labour scholars and labour activists alike to reclaim historical principles of solidarity and reconceptualise and revitalise a truly global labour movement.
Rethinking Global Labour gives us a long-view account of labour agency and the development of capitalism as a contested path. The volume is informed by Karl Polanyi's thesis that history moves in a series of [End Page 139] double movements, with the initial expansion of markets and commodification of labour, followed by the re-embedding of markets in society and the regulation and de-commodification of labour. The author begins with a historical account of the transformation of labour as a working class under a new capitalist mode of production – from the Industrial Revolution onwards – and its organisation and emergence as a powerful social actor. The author shows the role that labour agency has played in repeatedly shaping the economic system, including the compromise between Fordist production methods and a welfare state in the advanced economies of 'the West' that ushered in a 'golden era' following the Second World War. In spite of the clawing and uneven incorporation of workers in the developing world during this period, the volume provides a persuasive argument for the emergence of a global working class and similar processes of contestation in shaping an 'era of globalization', beginning in the mid-twentieth century onwards.
The author sees the resurgence of grass-roots labour movements worldwide, the growing interest in global unions, the incorporation of workers' organisations such as SEWA and alliances between the ICFTU (now ITUC) and NGOs as providing the seeds of a truly inclusive international labour movement capable of provoking a Polanyi counter-movement. To this might be added that despite declines in their membership, trade unions remain the largest membership-based organisations, many times higher than membership in political parties in countries where such comparisons make sense.
Throughout the volume, the author provides a welcomed feminist critique of developments in labour markets and labour movements. It also shows the important contribution that global labour studies have made to understanding the nature of work under late capitalism and the growing exclusion and marginalisation of certain workers from the core of labour markets. The volume cautions against a binary conceptualisation of a new 'precariat' class. Instead, it provides an appreciation of a global working class labouring in conditions of increasing vulnerability, insecurity and precarity no matter where they are located. As history-making agents engaged in repeated periods of contestation and struggle, the emerging global labour movement needs to be nurtured through the integration of migrant workers and forging of alliances with other social movements (such as the environmental movement) if the deeply divisive and unequal path of capitalism is to be diverted. [End Page 140]
While characterising the Decent Work Agenda of the International Labour Organization...