Pierre Laliberté , Editor of the International Journal of Labour Research: “Trade unionization is a powerful force against inequality”

The Bureau of Workers’ Activities (ILO-ACTRAV) has just published the latest issue of the International Journal of Labour Research (IJLR) which addresses “The Challenge of Inequality”. In this interview, the Journal’s editor Pierre Laliberté explains the issues surrounding inequality in the world of work, for the trade union movement in particular.

Article | Geneva, Switzerland | 07 July 2014
ACTRAV INFO: what made you decide on inequality as the theme for this issue?

It came about as a follow-up on the discussions at an ACTRAV symposium on the same topic in December 2013. The issue of inequality is at the heart not just of the political debate, but of the economic debate too. Far from being a secondary issue as old-school economists would often have you believe, growing inequality reveals the fault-lines in the existing neo-liberal development model. It undermines the very foundation of development and is a direct assault on the social cohesion without which our societies cannot advance.

ACTRAV INFO: What are the main conclusions drawn in this issue?

The numbers are very clear: they show a marked increase in inequality in the vast majority of societies, although this is accompanied by a slight reduction in inequality between some “emerging” countries and those countries that are dubbed “developed”.

There are multiple causes which often overlap. On the one hand, we are seeing a massive expansion in precarious work just about everywhere in the world. This indicates that the globalized supply chains are not playing the role they could in improving living standards. On the other hand, assaults on trade unionization have ensured that fewer workers are protected by a collective agreement today compared with 30 years ago. So trade unionization is definitely a very powerful force for equality in a society, not only because it is a leveller at the company, sector and economy levels, but also because a strong trade union presence automatically translates into stronger redistributive social programmes. The assaults on redistributive social programmes are the last major factor behind the increase in inequality. Without of course, forgetting tax evasion and tax competition, which are also making it harder to win the battle to strengthen redistributive social programmes.

ACTRAV INFO: What role can trade unions play in facing the challenges of inequality?

It is tempting to say that trade unions only need to do what they have always done, i.e. recruit and represent workers, and the rest will follow… but if we want to combat the decline in trade unionism and the growth in inequality, we need to be doing more than that.

Firstly, trade unions must realise that a large part of the problem comes from the deficient framework that is provided by globalisation. The dismantling of national economic models based on liberalism has pitted workers and social protection systems against systems with no social or even environmental indicators. The belief that neo-liberal globalization is a fact of life that we have to accept is one of the big deceptions which needs to be unpicked. The financial sector has to be regulated, and it will not be achieved through social dialogue alone.

Secondly, trade unions need to communicate and debate with their members the challenges that go beyond the strict framework of collective bargaining; and to increase mobilisation of their members on a broader basis.

Thirdly, and consequently, trade unions must open up to broader alliances outside their own ranks. The need to organize workers in precarious situations and workers in the informal economy has become unavoidable for social, political and economic reasons. Moreover, mobilisation on a supra-national basis as always remains an important challenge for trade union activities that go beyond short-term solidarity campaigns to get trade union colleagues out of prison or to offer moral support to striking workers. When one analyses the situation, one realises that despite the strategic presence of trade unions within the global economy, trade union action is having trouble making itself heard; to the point where employers are taking advantage of the crisis to move on the offensive.

Lastly, given the intellectual capitulation of a certain social democracy before neo-liberalism, trade unionists also have the challenge of considering new models in which we might invest hope for a more just society. That will not happen overnight, and in the meantime, trade unionists will have to navigate a great deal by the “compass” of social justice.