How the union movement has joined modern calls for change

The world has seen resistance to neoliberalism and austerity - and organised labour has played an important part

Where are the Unions?, edited by Sian Lazar (Zed Books, 2017)

“2011 was a remarkable year for spectacular mass protest,” writes Sian Lazar introducing Where are the Unions?.

But, she adds, “one of the most important similarities between the Latin American uprisings, the Arab revolutions and the contemporary European movements of the indignados has been onlookers’ tendency to underplay the role of organised labour in their mobilisations and their aftermath.”

This book is an attempt to address that oversight, with a collection of essays that for the first time compares challenges faced by movements in Latin America, the Arab world and Europe.

Essays cover the labour movements on different continents, the precarity of identity, and how traditional unionism is being challenged in different ways. They also explore the prospects for worker mobilisation in the aftermath of the uprisings, as workers, migrants, students and the unemployed “try to define political and social alternatives to neoliberalism and austerity”.

Ms Lazar, an anthropologist based at the University of Cambridge, specialises in trade unionism in Argentina, and particularly focuses on citizenship, social movements and anthropology in Latin America.

Where are the Unions? is the book that resulted from the Bread and Freedom conference that Anne Alexander and I co-organised a few years ago,” she says. “I am enormously proud of this collection; it is genuinely interdisciplinary, combines an activist perspective with academic rigour and addresses a really important question.”

An important question – but not easily answered. The role played by organised labour on the three regions over the last 20 years has been “anything but simple,” she admits, and “nor was it always even supportive of change”.

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Often organised labour took advantage of protest situations to strengthen its own position – but at the same time, new unionist initiatives developed, often related to student activism.

“It is evident that the struggle against a common enemy that might be defined very simply as ‘government in favour of the rich’ requires a much longer time frame than that of a street occupation, single protest or even a wave of protests,” she says.

“The authors of the chapters in this book are not disheartened by this realisation, but write precisely from a longer sense of ongoing struggle.

“This is especially the case for those who are activists themselves, but is shared also by those from journalist and academic backgrounds.”

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