In a recent round table discussion, academics Volodymyr Artiukh (University of Oxford, UK), Çağatay Edgücan Şahin (University of Ordu, Turkey), Kerstin Hamann (University of Central Florida, USA), and Elina Troscenko (GRIP, University of Bergen) gathered to delineate the intricate relationship between labour unions and authoritarianism. The discussion was a part of a broader focus on labour and inequality – the GRIP annual theme for 2023. The round table took place on the second day of the Bergen Exchanges, an interdisciplinary conference exploring how law serves as an instrument for social transformation, organised by LawTransform.
The Role of Labour Unions in Political Landscapes
As the conversation commenced, the moderator, Elina Troscenko, highlighted the significance and the potential of labour unions, acknowledging their dual nature – both as economic actors and as a political force that can play a crucial role in mobilising society against oppressive regimes. At the same time, Troscenko underlined that labour unions often face challenges due to repressions and restrictions, forcing labour unions to navigate a difficult political landscape.
The panelists brought diverse perspectives to the table, shedding light on the experiences of labour unions in different countries, including Spain, Turkey, Egypt, and Belarus. The aim was to explore the conditions of labour, mobilisation against regimes, and how unions navigate the intricate web of politics.
Insights from the Panelists
Kerstin Hamann, a political scientist from the University of Central Florida, examined the role of unions from an industrial relations perspective. She highlighted the threefold function of unions – as actors between the market, society, and class. Hamann also emphasised that unions often serve as political actors and have a vested interest in democratic processes, making them active participants in resistance against autocratic regimes.
…when we talk about unions as sort of regime actors, in some ways, we really talk about them as political actors in their interactions with governments – political parties, political institutions, more so than organisations that represent the membership narrowly defined. So, their role as political actors is largely predicated by their ability to mobilise and represent citizens well beyond established union members. And perhaps is most visible when unions protest against governments and their policies, either lawfully in democracies, where they have the right to do so, not without limits, but generally or unlawfully, in often autocratic regimes.
Çağatay Edgücan Şahin, an anthropologist and labour economist from the University of Ordu, discussed the challenges faced by labour unions in Turkey and Egypt under neoliberal authoritarianism. He pointed out the criminalisation of labour advocates and the suppression of independent unions. Despite these challenges, Şahin emphasised the importance of strengthening cooperation between independent unions and other social movements.
…Egypt and Turkey are amongst the top ten countries with the worst conditions for working class… these are two increasingly securitised countries, especially in the last decades. There is a well-established policy to repress independent unions and union confederations work to keep the working class docile.
Volodymyr Artiukh, an anthropologist from the University of Oxford, shared insights from Belarus. He discussed the participation of labour groups in the country’s protest movements in 2020, reinforcing the structural power of the working class. However, Artiukh noted that these movements failed to bring about substantial change due to the lack of genuine political representation for workers.
Navigating Political Realities and Potential Strategies
During the Q&A session, the panelists addressed critical questions about labour unions’ potential to promote democracy, challenges of internal and international cooperation, and strategies for achieving effective change.
Internal and External Challenges: The panelists highlighted the complex challenges that labour unions face, including the lack of internal democracy within some unions, the influence of established political parties, and the need to prioritise urgent practical needs in some contexts, such as conflict zones.
Strategies for Effective Change: The panelists discussed strategies for labour unions to navigate authoritarian landscapes. These strategies included organising cross-sectoral alliances, focusing on class-based interests rather than divisive identities, and engaging in wildcat actions or gatherings to negotiate with management.
International Support: International organisations like the International Labour Organization (ILO) were recognised for their presence on paper, but the limitations of their impact were acknowledged. The urgency of practical support for labour activists facing repression under authoritarian regimes in countries like Belarus was highlighted.
The round table discussion provided a comprehensive exploration of the complexities and challenges faced by labour unions in their struggle against authoritarianism. The insights shared by the panelists highlighted the need for flexible strategies that suit the specific contexts in which unions operate. While the road ahead may be filled with obstacles, the potential of labour unions to foster change and democratisation remains a crucial force in the struggle against authoritarian regimes. As these academics continue their research, the lessons learned from their work have the potential to inform future avenues of exploration and strategies for labour movements around the world.