The Labour Movement and Politics - Do They Mix?

Labour movements in Asia employ a wide range of means to defend workers from the control of capital, and make gains in their ability to control their work conditions and participate in decision-making about their welfares as workers and citizens. The key known tools are those of collective bargaining with employers at the workplace. They may also engage in actions including strikes, protests and demonstrations, with the target of their actions being either employers or the government, or even public sympathy. Another major avenue is through battle in courts, challenging capital through judicial processes. These are methods guaranteed by constitution, but confined by regulatory frameworks, such as the labour law, the trade union law, freedom of expression, etc. However, while offering leverage and protection to the trade unions and workers, they also put up barriers and narrow the range of measures workers can take to bargain for improving their conditions. Going beyond the legal frameworks immediately puts workers into illegal status or even criminality. Workers are forced to struggle politically as well as economically, when the state and its related institutions tend to limit workers’ legally acceptable demands to economic ones only. This explains the immediate interest of the labour movement in state and politics – ‘politics’ understood in the limited sense of electoral politics.

Entry into the arena of electoral politics is to secure a ‘place at the table’ of decision-making for representatives of workers, and limits the domination of legislative bodies and government agencies by capitalist elites, which take for granted that workers exist to serve the economy and businesses, not vice versa. What is at stake is the chance to have a direct say in the regulatory frameworks set by the government. The more radical groups would like to take it a step further; can the existing democratic arena be used to also challenge the way a country’s economy is directed? The answer to this question is often a subject of controversy in the movement for workers’ rights. As the introductory article by Dae-oup Chang points out, most of us in Asia need to deal with ‘market democracies’: political systems that have evolved along with the development of capitalism, and hence are serving that development. By acting within it, can we change the market driven imperatives in our society? Or do we need to challenge the political practices all together, as a prerequisite? The debate on this is never far away and many groups frame their strategies according to their views on it.

In India, it is commonplace that major labour union federations have explicit affiliations with political parties. This has proven to have major implications on the unions’ freedom of action with respect to strikes and other confrontational actions. As shared by the two union leaders from major Indian unions who are interviewed in this issue, strong union affiliations often result in the union having to compromise its goals and independence when a political party it has affiliated to demands it. In Korea, the Democratic Labour Party has been established for several years, arising from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, though it has not yet managed to unite the progressive movements and labour movement to be a significant political force. In Indonesia, the strong anti-communist position of the government has created a strong deterrent against labour activists entering politics; yet political reform in 1998 in Indonesia has opened a space for workers to unionize, and, after being cut from any political process for 32 years, to regroup and explore greater political participation in different ways: setting up a labour political party, affiliating with a political party or taking up electoral strategies from without.

As our monitoring of the labour law throughout the years has shown, labour parties have not been able to stop an erosion of protective frameworks. As it appears, labour parties risk being pulled into the logic of electoral politics: one of compromising in order to survive in the game of power, where the means to an end (electoral politics) becomes an end in itself. Do the costs end up outweighing the gains? Or is it more of an inside-outside strategy, i.e. multiple strategic prongs of a single aim, which is to gain power for workers by various means. Is there a possibility of cooperation among those inside and those outside the electoral arena, without ending up working to cross-purposes?

As Dae-oup Chang has written, unions often equate ‘doing politics’ in the form of political parties as ‘the’ way to be political, and unfortunately neglect the variety of ways to be political. Yet there are multiple ways and levels of increasing workers´ democratic control over their work and their lives, and we are now in an age that capital has expanded its influence and sway in previously untouched parts of our lives, and hollowed out the rights of industrial workers at the workplace through this expansion. This process and its impacts, i.e. of informalization of labour, has been a frequent theme of our recent issues of Asian Labour Update. As with the very institutions of labour unions and of collective bargaining practices, the institution and debate of labour movement involvement in politics also require fresh examination: do they fully take into account the systems and environment workers work in now, and meet the needs of workers in our present society? If not, have we succeeded in adapting those strategies and assumptions, and made maximum effort to create ones that precisely reflect our current constraints and possibilities?

In Asia it is clear that there is still a vast difference of national contexts in which their labour movements develop. Yet the universal element is the dominance of capital, and the strong sway that capital tends to have on countries which have embraced (or been forced to embrace) economic development as the key to national progress. The form of democracy that exists tends to be inherently market-driven, and it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting the state-given form and to focus one´s struggle on success within that. In some countries, labour movements indeed invest great amounts of time, effort and money into the hope that representation and advocacy of workers through politics is an effective way forward.

National labour movements are struggling to find their balance among different strategies to empower themselves in the face of capital and government determined to discipline and limit them. Whatever the manner or level of engagement in electoral politics in a liberal/market model of economy and government, each labour movement will have to continue emphasizing the demand for a development model that is equitable, just and sustainable. At the same time, we hope to continue identifying and sharing the successful struggles that are spread out on different ´fronts’ against capital - not only that of electoral politics, but in communities, homes and different arenas, in pursuit of the real democracy as it is sought by workers.