Immanuel Ness is a labour activist, college professor and noted author. He's speaking this Friday (January 13, 2012) at an event called: Strategizing the Resistance - A Conversation with Manny Ness; it's free and begins at 6:00 pm at the Steelworkers Hall at 25 Cecil Street. The event is being put on by the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly as an introduction to their winter strategy session. These events are highly recommended as both will give invaluable insights into the state of radical labour organizing in Toronto and beyond.
I recently had the chance to ask Manny Ness some questions about his most recent academic work and the current state of resistance to neoliberalism. His answers provide an illuminating portrait of the global struggle for change amid uncertain times and a critical assessment of the state of organized labour in North America. Many of the themes that get discussed are poignant given the realities of Canadian political culture in 2012 and the contradictions that are quickly bubbling to the surface in our economy. The interview appears below, see:
A.L.: Over the past three decades we've seen the formation of a global precariat; your body of work focuses on labour issues and migrant workers. What's behind the exponential growth in the use of migrant workers in the advanced economies in North America and Europe?
M.N: The expansion of migration to the Global North and within the Global South is an extension of the current phase of global capitalism. Since 1975 to 1980, imposing neoliberal economic order in the Global South through removing currency controls, doing away with tariffs, and stripping social safety systems has more and more increased the size of the global precariat. In the contemporary era of capitalist globalization, neoliberal policies have been obligatory on countries seeking to inclusion in the world political economy.
The consequence of opting out from neoliberalism was exclusion from the global political economy and isolation, which was prevented by capitalist classes in every country. Even countries that steered clear of free market policies were ultimately forced to adopt them to take part in external trade. Only those states that had significant petroleum reserves like Venezuela could deviate from the dogma of neoliberal political economy—and then only at risk of potential political and military destabilization from the US and its allies. The socialist or even Keynesianism alternative of the post-war era was patently not an option.
The global precariat has expanded still further through the creation of the World Trade Organisation, NAFTA, and the enlargement of the European Union, which resulted in deepening poverty among hundreds of millions of workers and peasants throughout the world, creating permanent precarious and mobile labour forces, and reducing living standards and the quality of life for most people throughout the world.
The result of capital’s inexorable search for profit at any cost has been the creation of a global precariat and environmental disaster for many who have been forced to move from their places of origin as part of an international migrant labour force. Peasants have lost land through the commodification of farming and workers have lost jobs through the outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage labour markets that produce goods in modern factories. Service and public sector jobs, the mainstays of middle-income workers, were not exempt from the effort to reduce wages and working conditions. The economic stability of workers in public sector enterprises were undermined through privatization and the comprehensive elimination of often essential services like health care, education, and public transportation.
The displacement of workers capacity to earn a living wage is forcing them to search for new jobs away from their hometowns and in many cases overseas. Given that that the WTO, World Bank and IMF and other multinational institutions view migrant labour as a resource, they argue that when workers earn wages abroad, they contribute to their economies in source countries through remittances. In many countries, foreign workers are the major source of GDP! This view is further impoverishing workers in home countries and also migrants who live in shantytowns, suffer from disease and poor health care, and do not have education. Today more than 200 million workers live outside their countries of origin and more live away from their hometowns, creating mass poverty, lack of job security, and high unemployment. It is important to note that the policies are not only undermining migrant labour , who form part of the working classes where they work, but also native-born workers, who must compete with low-wage labour, creating a generalized system of super-exploitation.
A.L.: Your new book, Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism, addresses the use of guest workers by American corporations. Is the organized labour movement doing enough to address the plight of migrant workers in the United States? Are the traditional trade Unions well suited to respond to the needs of migrant workers or do new forms of workplace representation need to be explored?
M.N.: Yes, US corporations are employing guest workers most extensively than any other country, and the trend is also advancing in North America and Europe as a means to cut labour costs and eliminate unions. Traditional trade unions are absolutely incapable countering guest worker programs, nor staunching the decline of wages and working conditions among their members due to their status as representatives of the organised working class. Traditional labour unions have always sought to protect the industries where their dues-paying members work. As a result, the bar has been lowered from seeking to advance the interests of workers as a class through building a radical labour movement to organisations that represent the interests of their members as interest groups.
Politically electing liberal officials to office has been the mark of success for labour unions rather than advancing the class interests of workers in the political arena. But even then, trade unions have come to recognise power as having a union official appointed to government office or even having the opportunity to meet regularly with the president or prime minister. If that is the bar of success, labour is doomed to fail and liberal politicians will consider them reliable allies that do not require much in return. Thus, organised labour is responsible for lowering the bar and this translates into a generalized anaemic working class in North America.
The status of traditional unions has now diminished so dramatically from delegates for labour to the intermediaries of the working class to capital and the state. In this role, unions have diminished rank and file democracy, made a sham of the collective bargaining process, and failed to reverse the capitalist offensive destroying unions through lock outs, and outsourcing of jobs to lower-wage locations. In fact, the current crisis reveals that the majority of traditional labour unions more frequently reflect the economic and political interests of capital rather than the class interests of their members. Labour unions do not at all represent the interests of former members or prospective members. So it should be no surprise that labour unions have declined in influence—and this decline will accelerate unless labour unions recognize that they must go beyond interest representation to social movement unionism. There is no surprise Collective bargaining is less effective than ever in defending workers from wage cuts, intensification of labour and worse than ever. Labour unions are not interested in the notion of working class solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all.
Indeed, as the economic crisis demonstrates, many unions prefer layoffs to engaging in serious and militant collective bargaining, including challenging corporate absolutism at the workplace and in the community. They are either disconnected from their rank and file or domineering over their members. In the former, they are not interested in union democracy and member participation and thus do not even have a comprehensive system of representation, as the SEIU does when they outsource representation and grievances to call centres. In the latter, they control their members through a top-down shop steward system — imposing their will on members and punishing all dissenters, as is the case with the United Auto Workers in the US.
Unions are only interested in organizing precarious workers to increase membership and often do not improve wages and conditions. So I consider the need for new forms of representation inevitable in the current period as conditions of the majority of workers grow difficult and precarious. It is probably that new forms of unions that do not engage in collective bargaining will emerge and grow alongside traditional unions that benefit only a few.
As for as migrant workers, organised labour in North America and Europe have returned to their nativist roots that they seemed to jettison a decade ago when they recognized that immigrants comprised a large and growing share of the labour markets in industries where they have the most success in organising. Yet at the same time, organised labour has failed to organise immigrant workers at a rate that they have projected. And when immigrants are organised, they are typically not directly involved in campaigns led by mega-unions like the SEIU that care more about membership and dues than tangibly improving the conditions of workers.
A.L.: In 2011 we saw numerous mass protests by young people (i.e. OWS, Spain's Indigent movement, the Arab Spring) on a range of issues. What is your sense of these protests and do you see new forms of resistance emerging from these movements?
M.N.: We must be careful to differentiate the political protests and the causes and forces that have propelled them as the objectives are different. But what we cannot fail to recognize is that the 2011 protests share a common fundamental cause: neoliberal capitalism has been applied throughout Europe, the Arab world, and North America, East Asia, South Asia, and beyond. In fact, throughout Europe workers are challenging state cutbacks and economic austerity that disproportionately hurts workers through factory and public occupations and mass insurrections and uprisings.
In North America, 2011 was marked by unprecedented protest by working class youth through the Occupy movement. In China, mass worker strikes and unrest and opposition to the privatisation of state-owned companies has forced the state managers to engage in Keynesian stimulus policies. In India, workers have occupied Suzuki-Murati works, the nation’s leading auto manufacturer while rural workers continue to organise against the expropriation of land. The year 2011 represents a worldwide mass echo of Argentina 2001-02 when the working class forced the government into exiting the world financial system rather than continue to play by its unfair rules that only contributed to greater crisis.
The protests have also been directed at traditional parties, which like unions, have embraced neoliberal capitalism and do not demonstrate a tangible difference in their policies. The struggles have had a tangible effect in decelerating the extension of neoliberalism to every fragment of society. While traditional political parties have not embraced these movements, they have sought to co-opt them for their own benefit. But in the absence of a political alternative in the political arena, we can consider the Occupy movements a major victory for working people who are discontented with electoral politics. As a consequence the insurgencies and protests of 2011 reflect the frustration of the working class that has no representation. After years of banging our heads against the wall, Occupy opened a fissure by exiting the traditional system and finding a voice beyond the traditional system.
Occupy uncovered the reality that the majority of workers are excluded from direct union representation —whether due to government policies prohibiting working class organisations or union indifference. Moreover Occupy challenges neoliberal policies that have destroyed communities and prevented meaningful democracy that is necessary for survival. The betrayal and treachery of the state, capital, and traditional unions of the 99 per cent in all countries was finally met with a comprehensive challenge that will only intensify. Occupy was the panic alarm for the upper classes who had to resort to government officials to demolish the public assemblies and encampments through brute force and still could not crush the spirit of the movement and its unquestionable return.
A.L.: Young people in advanced economies are facing dim economic prospects in the wake of the recession and for the most part there has been a lack of ameliorative public policy responses from governments. Are we seeing the strategic abandonment of youth as governments implement austerity agendas at the expense of any notion of intergenerational equity?
M.N.: Without question, young people have been most left most exposed to the economic crisis. They recognise that in all likelihood they will not have the opportunity to succeed or fail in the new economy. The attack against youth has been catastrophic. Children have suffered disproportionately from banks foreclosing on their parents’ homes, unemployment among working-class youths and young adults are significantly higher than adults. Hopes for the future have been dashed by the erosion of access to higher education as tuitions have climbed sharply and beyond their reach. What is tragic is that young people must give up experiencing what should be their most gratifying part of life just to survive.
Yes, youth have been abandoned, but this neglect does not seem a strategic decision but because of the fact that governments take them for granted as dispassionate, apolitical, and apathetic to the world as they seek to find meaning and purpose. Do government officials deliberately assault youth because they are young? I don’t think so. But government and corporate leaders recognize that they can seize on the vulnerabilities of young people without consequence. Achieving intergenerational equity has often been used as a means to cut programs for the elderly. Yet I think the attack on pensions and social security is also an attack against the young who are thinking about survival more than retirement. Governments are just as willing to go after the elderly—and when they do—the young will suffer equally?
Young people are in fact not self-absorbed and don’t want to see their parents and grandparents mired in poverty either. If the elderly are poor without government benefits, who will sacrifice a portion of their lives who care for them? Who will have to contribute their income to support them? Yes, the government is pitting generation against generation, but the end result is that most people’s economic position is determined by their class background and young people suffer poverty as part of families and communities.