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Trade Union Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa  

Nick Bernards

Although unionized workers have rarely represented more than a small minority of the population anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, trade unions have played, and continue to play, a significant political role. Trade unions still occupy strategic choke points in many African economies, particularly around transport infrastructure, and retain a spatially concentrated organizational base as well as a degree of symbolic power drawn from participation in struggles against colonialism, apartheid, and authoritarianism. Three persistent dilemmas have strongly shaped the role of African trade unions and driven much of the academic debate about them. First are debates about the relationships between trade unions and political parties. These date to the often-fraught relationships between unions and anti-colonial movements in the last years of colonial rule. Pitched struggles, both within trade unions and between unions and governing parties, were often fought in the decade after the end of formal colonization over the degree of autonomy that unions should have from governing parties. These were often resolved through the widespread repression of politically independent unionism in the 1970s. This relationship, however, became untenable under processes of structural adjustment, and unions have often played a significant role in protests against neoliberal reforms, which have spurred widespread political transformation. Second are debates about the relationships of trade unions to non-unionized workers, especially the unemployed or the “informal” sector. Critics on both left and right have long pointed to the relatively privileged position of trade unions. This has consistently been invoked by governments seeking to justify the limited political role of trade unions as well as policies for wage restraint, state retrenchment, or currency devaluation that have negatively affected organized labor. However, given the increasingly widespread nature of informality and unemployment in contemporary Africa, trade unions have begun to make tentative steps toward organizing informal and unemployed workers in some cases. Finally, the relationships of African unions to the international labor movement and to international organizations have often been important. African unions have frequently drawn on links to international trade unions, regional institutions, or the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a way of compensating for domestic weaknesses. These strategies, however, have often engendered significant conflicts around the differing objectives of African and metropolitan actors, between African unions over access to international resources, and concerning “imperialism” by American and European unions.

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Latin American Labor Regulation in the 21st Century  

Matthew E. Carnes

The labor market of the 21st century is evolving at a rapid pace, making traditional manufacturing and agricultural jobs increasingly precarious and generating significant pressure for turnover, retraining, and adaptation by workers. Latin America’s labor regulation, adopted in the middle of the 20th century to foster industrial development and incorporate urban workers, has been slow to adapt to these conditions. Its restrictive and costly hiring and firing rules offer stronger protections than in many other parts of the world, but they often apply to a diminishing minority of laborers. Despite a few exceptions, once-strong unions have been hollowed out in the region, and workers have become increasingly atomized in their job seeking. The region’s educational systems are plagued by underinvestment, and they struggle to provide the needed technical skills that could galvanize investment that would provide higher-wage employment. Large segments of the workforce—a majority in most countries—find themselves in the informal sector, in jobs that are not registered with the state and that do not make contributions to pensions and social security systems. Why has Latin America—a region endowed with a variety of natural resources and a resilient entrepreneurial spirit—exhibited these patterns in its labor market regulation? The answer lies in an overlapping nexus of economic and political influences in the region. In this complex mix, one strand of scholarship has documented the lasting and recurrent alliance between organized labor and political parties on the left. Another strand has highlighted the concentrated power of business interests—both local and transnational—that have had the power to shape policies. And a third body of research concentrates on the electoral dynamics that have given rise to a growing set of politically motivated policies that seek to support informal sector workers, but may incentivize their remaining in that status. Finally, considerable attention has been given to the under-resourced state agencies that are not adequately monitoring labor regulations, allowing for widespread evasion of required payroll taxes. A change-resistant cycle has predominated in the region, in which protected insiders in the unionized sectors seek to preserve a set of protections that apply to a shrinking few, while politicians court support among outsiders with direct benefits that address immediate needs but have not yet achieved long-term or intergenerational change. Business interests have largely benefited from the status quo of labor law evasion and social security avoidance, so they have been slow to invest in upgrading the workforce or changing technology that would inspire additional investment in education. Addressing this situation will require efforts at both the political and economic levels, perhaps loosening the partisan ties that lock in preferential policies, as well as increasing the skill levels that would attract higher-tech industries and higher-paying jobs.