Chapter 9: Trade opening and the decline of industrial action
This chapter investigates the relationship between trade opening and the situation of labour, focusing particularly on the decline of industrial action. A rich literature describes multidimensional processes of change but in both academic and popular accounts ‘globalization’ is typically blamed for many of labour’s problems. The prospects of labour acting as an independent political or social agent have either dropped off the agenda or, where they are discussed, are overwhelmingly rejected. Much as with questions of rising inequality and trade discussed in the last chapter, there is at least coincidence. In recent decades, many countries have become more open and have seen falling levels of industrial action. However, this apparent association warrants careful critical investigation for several reasons. As was stressed at the end of the last chapter, social practices are complex and contested, likely to be influenced by economic changes but not determined by them in any straightforward way. Claims of labour’s structural weakness are intensely and inescapably political and labour’s opponents have vested interests in overstating the case, insisting that there is no alternative and that economic change means that resistance is now futile. The idea of ‘globalization’ is extensively debated and contested. It means different things to different people, if it means anything at all. Therefore, if something called ‘globalization’ is taken to have weakened labour it is necessary to enquire more closely into exactly what mechanisms and what particular processes this is supposed to have involved.
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