Global Struggles

Global and Local Union Struggles Against the GATS

The widespread adoption of neoliberal policies, which promote trade liberalisation at the expense of worker’s power and living conditions, is pushing trade unions to find ways to influence trade policies and trade negotiations at the national and international level. At the same time, the current terrain of neoliberal globalisation and international trade liberalisation, provides a potential opportunity structure which could facilitate the emergence of new forms of global and national resistance that link work-related concerns to wider social issues (Moody 1997, Tarrow 2005).

While the existence of such an opportunity structure may facilitate and even encourage unions to take action in the trade policy field, unions also face considerable restraints to their mobilising and organising capacity in the trade arena, including; declining union power, lack of formal representational capacity within the multilateral trade arena, and lack of resources and expertise in relation to trade. In the face of these restraints it is important to understand how unions tried to influence international trade policy and what lessons can be drawn from that for future practice.

Taking union protests against the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) negotiated in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a case study, this study will examine how unions at the international and national level tried to influence the GATS negotiations, and the factors that facilitated and constrained their capacity to do so. In doing so, it also seeks to identify and analyse the various sources of power and leverage used by unions to promote their agenda and the factors impacting on their availability and use.

The protests against GATS are particularly significant because they link work-related issues to wider social concerns. To some extent the protests against GATS are emblematic of wider social discontent with the impact of neo-liberal economic policy – the issues that come up and drive it are not always directly related to the specific negotiations but to other (often pre-existing) problems. Due to the perceived threat which the GATS negotiations presented to the provision of services (including public services and education) the research focuses on the role of Public Services International (PSI) and Education International (EI) in the global and local struggles against the GATS between 1999 and 2006, including a comparative case study of union action in Australia and South Africa.

The analysis is informed by insights from social movement theory (McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1996; Tarrow 1998 and 2005; Benford and Snow 2000; Meyer 2004) and recent literature which theorises about union revitalisation and new sources of power (for union revitalisations see Frege and Kelly 2004; Behrrens, Hamann, and Hurd 2004; Frege, Heery, and Turner 2004; Turner 2006; and Dörre, Holst and Nachwey 2009; and for new sources of power see Silver 2003; Chun 2005 and 2009; Webster, Lambert and Bezuidenhout 2008). It also draws on discursive approaches which emphasise the contested nature of meaning attached to issues, and the capacity of language “to make politics, to create signs and symbols that can shift power balances and that can impact on institutions and policy making” (e.g. Hayer 2006: 67).