Emerging workers’ movements

Issue: 150

Benjamin Selwyn

A review of Immanuel Ness, Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class (Pluto Press, 2016), £15

Since the 1980s the institutionalisation of global neoliberalism has been pursued based on a range of ideological claims which have been advanced (or at least accepted) across the political spectrum. These claims include the arguments that the working class is increasingly a thing of the past, both structurally (as industry gives way to services and information) and politically (as traditional left parties embrace varieties of neoliberalism); that globalisation is reducing world poverty and that as a result the global middle class is expanding rapidly; and, seemingly logically, that radical politics are a thing of the past.

Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class, by Immanuel Ness, Professor of Political Science at New York’s City University, represents a welcome response to such claims. Ness, writing from an explicitly Marxist perspective, advances three core claims throughout the book. First, that the restructuring of global capitalism—made possible by collaborations between states, international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO and transnational corporations—has generated an unprecedentedly vast, continually expanding and super-exploited working class across the global south. Secondly, that traditional trade union organisations in the south are unable to represent or defend, let alone advance the rights of these workers. And thirdly and consequently, that rank and file and independent workers’ struggles are ­proliferating—hence “insurgency” in the book’s title.

Ness’s book is divided into two sections. The first “capitalism and imperialism” provides a theoretical framework to understanding contemporary capitalism and data showing the expansion of the southern working class. This provides a useful comparison and analysis of differential global labour costs and wages, the evolution of male and (increasingly predominant) female employment across sectors since the 1980s, and the state of international trade union membership. One weakness in this section that carries over to the next one is Ness’s conception of super-exploitation, which is not in my view, sufficiently distinguished from “normal” capitalist exploitation.

In part two Ness develops his argument through three case studies of mass workers’ struggle—in the Maruti-Suzuki auto plants of Gurgaon, Northern India, the Yue Yuen shoe factories in China’s Pearl River Delta, and across South Africa’s platinum belt. Each case study is placed in a broader political economy context of ­state-managed neoliberalism. Although distinct, Ness stresses the commonalities between the cases—where national states have pursued forms of global economic integration that rest upon well-known strategies—­openness to foreign capital, large investments in infrastructure to facilitate global integration, and most fundamentally, the establishment of large, very cheap, and as far as possible, passive working classes ripe for exploitation by foreign and domestic capital. The latter is achieved through state and firm-organised recruitment of workers from the rural sector, which Ness characterises as the expansion of the reserve army of labour, strict state and firm-level repression, and crucially, trade union collaboration with states and capital. This is intended to secure only minimal rights for labour, and to actively discourage and oppose independent workers’ collective action to better their circumstances. These strategies have been concentrated within fast-proliferating Export Processing Zones (EPZ’s).

A strength of this book is that Ness does not allow similarities to overshadow the specificities of each case. In the case study of Indian auto workers, Ness documents how the company’s objective has been to raise profits by raising productivity while keeping workers’ pay down and limiting the potential for workers’ solidarity by using contractors to recruit and hire temporary labour from rural areas. However, between 2012 and 2014 a wave of sit-down strikes paralysed these plants and spread to other industries to the extent that Ness claims that strikes are becoming ubiquitous in these EPZ’s. The strike wave was particularly significant because, while it was led by full-time, permanently employed workers, one of their key demands was equal treatment for informal workers.

In his analysis of the rising strike wave in urban China, he shows how, on the one hand, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in conjunction with the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) purposefully block the national generalisation of worker grievances and demands. On the other hand, however, the ACFTU and the Chinese state have responded to the rising wave of strikes by introducing new labour laws (most importantly the 2008 labour law), which have stipulated limited collective bargaining rights, rules governing employer social insurance contributions, establishment of grievance systems to enable workers to recoup unpaid wages, rules for employer conduct and the granting of migrant worker’s legal rights. These laws sought to increase the regulation of foreign capital in China in order, partly at least, to demonstrate the CPC’s commitment to the welfare of the expanding urban working class. But, as Ness shows, these laws, and very importantly, the consequent growing awareness among workers that they do possess certain rights, has contributed to an increase in militancy. The mass strikes at Yue Yuen in 2014, the world’s largest manufacturer of athletic shoes, was to date the biggest strike at a private enterprise in China and, according to Ness, represented a further escalation of independent working class organisation and struggle in the Pearl River Delta. The strike was sparked when workers discovered that Yue Yuen had underpaid workers’ pension contributions. At the peak of the strike production was halted for 11 days. It ended after the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security ordered the company to rectify its payment system and to compensate workers adversely affected by underpayment of company contributions.

Ness completes his case studies with an examination of the continuing struggles in South Africa’s platinum belt. The sector and its workforce became global front page news for a few days in mid-2012 following the cold-blooded massacre of 34 protesting miners at the hands of the South African Police Service. The killings were part of a broader pattern of state-sanctioned repression of workers to bolster a national economic strategy predicated upon cheaply produced mineral exports. Contrary to the state’s hopes, the reaction by workers to the massacre in the mines and beyond was to intensify their struggles and demands. In 2014 mineworkers struck and won significant pay increases. Ness ends the chapter by discussing the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from COSATU following its support for the striking miners, and the possibilities of it combining with other organisations into a radical worker-led opposition to the neoliberal ANC-COSATU coalition.

This book is well written and will inspire trade unionists and activists looking for hope among the numerous disasters of neoliberal capitalism. Ness finishes the book by stating that “eventually the worker mobilisation that is taking place both inside and outside established structures will cohere into disciplined organisations…the time when workers can be taken for granted is over. Workers’ movements are emerging, and will expand to contest the legitimacy of capital, the state, and existing unions” (p190).

It is still too early to say what these organisations will look like, but this book represents a worthy contribution to identifying the dangers and opportunities for the future of the world’s growing working class.