Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Untold Role of Trade Unions in Development

Labor Unions have long been vibrant forces for change, struggling to improve conditions in their individual workplaces. Increasingly, trade unions are enlarging their agendas to include issues such as national social and economic policy.

For example, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is pressing the South African government to consider nationalisation of mines in the world's largest producer of platinum. The decision is stifly opposed by foreign investors in the country. South Africa's largest trade union is heading up the call for "more equitable ownership, especially collective ownership through the state" in order to empower the nation's poor and redistribute mineral wealth in a vastly unequal economy. Also, a smaller construction union demanded higher wages for workers building the stadiums and rail stations for Africa's first World Cup. The dispute was settled yesterday but the growing direct actions of the labor movement in South Africa is having resonannce throughout the halls of parliament.

In South Korea last year, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), nearly collapsed the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak over a free-trade deal with the US and organized a series of crippling strikes and street protests that eventually succeeded in stalling government policy on the issue. Earlier this month, despite fears that a wage increase would deter private investment in South Korea, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) joined KCTU in pushing government officials to increase the hourly minimum wage rate. The end result was tripartite agreement between the government, businesses, and unions for an increase in hourly minimum- wage. The two unions, however are expected to demand an even higher increase.

The government of Peru, led by President Alan Garcia, has been facing a series of mass protests and strikes largely promoted by domestic trade unions. In opposition to the perceived pro-business policies of the government that favor foreign investors over the needs of citizens, thousands of Peruvians have taken to the streets led by some of the countries largest trade confederations. The end result of these popular outbursts is unclear, but cabinet shifts by Garcia suggest some changes in economic policy are on the horizon.

We often discuss international donors, private businesses, and government as the most salient actors in development policy. The reality may actually be that oranized labor in many cases is the most significant determinate of development policy outcomes in the global South.
It is interesting to watch the extent to which workers in the global economy can secure fairness and justice not only in their workplaces but on the national stage.

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