Workers around the world are facing unique challenges thrown up by the platform, sharing, or the gig economy. While the terminologies to refer to these emergent digital economies may vary, what they have in common is that they have redefined the nature of work and given rise to a digital labor market in which casual work is shared over a communication network. The result is increased informalization and greater precarity in work conditions across almost all sectors, and especially in low and medium-skilled jobs. Current labor legislation has proved inadequate in meeting the need for labor protection in our digtally-networked world. Moreover, the growing power of corporations has weakened workers’ collective bargaining powers, and placed greater regulations on their ability to organize.
Given this backdrop, collective organization and solidarity among workers is needed now more than ever, Yorgos Altintzis of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Kate Lappin, the Regional Secretary of the global union Public Service International told Bot Populi in an interview. While labor unions are increasingly under attack, they see signs of hope in the actions seen from students and women’s movements around the world in challenging the hegemony of corporations.
Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
What is the role of unionization today at the national and gobal level?
Kate: Unions are just as important today as they have always been, but perhaps increasingly under attack. The only way we have to defend our commons and labor rights is through collective action. As we know, inequality is growing along with increasing power of corporations. So it’s more important than ever that people come together in workplaces, and also across workplaces, and across movements, because we have already lost so much power. For that reason, I think unions play an important role in challenging the global power of corporations, thinking differently about how we can respond to international problems, and organizing as many people as we can – for workers who are not regarded as workers, who might be in the informal sector, or with other movements who have the same objectives, to defend our commons and to defend people’s rights.
Yorgos: Trade unions have, historically speaking, played an important role in distributing income better between capital and labour. They also play an important role in the empowerment of individuals who are participating in these collectives, a general democratizing effect not only on the workplace but also on economic and social policies, and on politics in general.
What are the critical mechanisms that need to be utilized for engaging with unions at the global level?
Yorgos: The right to organize and collectively bargain are established and protected by the ILO Conventions. ILO is the International Labor Organization, the international organization or authoritative body for the creation of labor standards. As Kate said, the right to unionize or collectively bargain are under attack. For many years and many decades now, I think after the 1970s, where we can see a point in time when productivity and wages have started diverging – I think that is more or less the time that the trade unions stopped making advances. In fact, the attacks against them have led to workers losing income or seeing wages stagnating. The global inequality – income and wealth inequality – have increased because of that.
Kate: I think one of the results of increasing corporate power has been that they have demanded deregulation for corporations – for digital corporations, in particular, but also corporations in general, while also demanding increasing regulations on workers and trade unions and prohibiting any real power to bargain and organize. This means prohibiting things that are essential to have in the workplace, like the right to strike.
I think one of the hopeful things that I see is increasing interest around the world in using that power [of collective bargaining], by workers who have been alienated from their collective power as digital companies turned them into contractors and so forth. We also see interest in other movements – students deciding that they are going to go on strike, or withdrawing their consent from the system because of the power of corporations to undermine the environment for example, or women going on strikes because they believe that there has not been adequate attention paid to the injustices of gender inequality. I think it is really important for us in this movement to recognise that we must increase our power through using these collective methods, regardless of whether it is lawful or deregulated. It is critical that we do so.
Yorgos Altintzis works for the economic and social policy department of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). He deals with issues of trade, investment, labor rights in trade and investment, and also the coordination of the work of labor in the G20 process and other global goals processes.
Kate Lappin is the Regional Secretary for the Asia & Pacific region of Public Service International, a global union that represents workers who deal with public service.