Global Labour and Recent Popular Movements

Richard Abernethy

Trade unions, political parties and more grassroots forms of organisation are discussed with respect to the UK, Thailand, and Cambodia; edited version of a talk at the Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organisation on 27 July 2014 in Chicago – Editors

5778877be1a35482f319be586a4e5dc3_XLSince we founded the International Marxist-Humanist Organisation, we have established ourselves as a serious current within intellectual Marxism. Can we now extend that, to gain recognition as a significant current in the labour and social movements?

To do so, we must keep abreast of complex, often contradictory developments, offer informed, insightful commentary, project our distinctive ideas in a way that is relevant, while avoiding being sectarian or dogmatic.

Let’s begin with some general considerations before considering a range of countries:

Today’s movements are shifting combinations of different kinds of organisation:

  • The political party. I’ve observed before that political parties (Left and Right) are generally in decline. However, there are significant exceptions: Syriza in Greece receives a quarter of the vote, is the official opposition, and came first in the Euro elections (though we would disagree strongly with some of its political positions, such as on Ukraine).
  • Trade unions. In developed countries, they are in long-term decline, but still powerful. They can still call mass strikes and demonstrations – e.g. public sector workers in UK. In some developing countries they are growing.
  • NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are very diverse. Tactics range from polite lobbying to quite militant protests. They are an important form of modern reformism. The sort of person who would have joined a mass reformist party in earlier times is more likely to support one or more NGOs. NGOs tend to be good at some things – they do important research into conditions of life and labour, and make a lot of factual information public. They may campaign effectively over particular issues and injustices. The big limitation – whether as declared strategy or as tacit assumption, NGOs seek change within the capitalist system, not to overturn it. Also in their role as employers they adapt to the norms of capitalist society.
  • Forms of association and co-operation that emerge spontaneously – now assisted by instant communications which are becoming available to more people, worldwide.
  • Sometimes forms of popular protest – occupation of public spaces, mass demonstrations, have been appropriated by sections of the ruling class – Thailand, Venezuela.

England & Wales, 10 July 2014.

This was a one day strike of public sector workers. A traditional, official strike, called by the trade unions. A co-ordinated action by teachers, firefighters, civil servants and local government workers.

Any strike (short of a revolutionary general strike) will have defined, limited goals. However, the movement will also have a more general sense of its direction and goals (which may well be disputed).

The irony is that, in a certain sense, the mainstream left has a more optimistic view of capitalism than the Right.

The union leaders protest against austerity, welfare cuts, pay restraint.

For them, austerity is a bad policy driven by a false ideology.

They propose a better way of managing capitalism, this to involve:

  • Investment, particularly in green technologies.
  • Training, for a skilled and productive workforce.
  • Higher wages, to stimulate demand.
  • Some degree of worker participation.

Even if it were possible to build a consensus around these goals, they would not solve the problems of capitalist society: exploitation and alienation.

We need to argue the need for a new kind of society – as participants, not outsiders – in a way that relates to people’s experiences.


Who would have predicted that in Brazil, a country famed for its love of soccer, the FIFA World Cup would trigger a massive wave of social protest against poverty and inequality?

These were protests against lavish spending on new stadia and associated infrastructure, contrasting with the neglect of the poor conditions of everyday life for millions of Brazilians – and the displacement of many by developments for the World Cup.

The harsh polarity of wealth and poverty neatly summed up by one travel writer’s description of Rio as “like Saint-Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu.”

This was a grassroots movement against a government whose origins were within the Left – the Workers’ Party.


Thailand is a country where the familiar forms of mass protest have been appropriated by rival factions of the ruling class.

Thai politics are divided into two factions, which for simplicity we may call Reds and Yellows.

The Reds are not a socialist or labour movement – either in origin or actuality (although many supporters are poor farmers or workers). They are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a billionaire who acquired his fortune in mobile phones. As a populist prime minister, he introduced health care and other social welfare measures, winning the support of many poor farmers and workers, mainly in the north. However, his regime was associated with violent repression of drug users, including extra-judicial killings, and repression of separatist movements among national minorities.

The Yellows represent the old establishment – the royal court and the Bangkok bourgeoisie, supported by many middle class professionals. The monarchy has real power, protected from criticism by lèse-majestè laws. However, the royal family itself may be split, as the crown prince appears sympathetic to the Reds.

For years, Thai politics has been in a cycle. Whichever side is in power, the other will mobilise mass protests – occupations of public spaces, barricades etc. This cycle has been suspended, for the moment, by the military seizing power in a recent coup.

Thailand was also the source of the most harrowing labour story I have read recently – the use of slave workers on fishing boats. These are often migrants from Cambodia or Burma, forced to work by beatings, torture and even killings. This continued, whichever faction was in power.


This is a less developed country than Brazil or Thailand; remember that in the Year Zero (1975) Pol Pot emptied the cities and forced the whole population to labour in the countryside. Though still mainly agricultural, there is now rapid growth in textiles, tourism and agribusiness. Agribusiness means especially sugar plantations, with exhausting work and child labour. Clothing makes up four-fifths of exports. Production is moving there from China to take advantage of lower wages. At the turn of the year, a mass strike of garment workers led to clashes between workers and the riot police and the army. This was concurrent with a political protest against ballot rigging by the ruling party and struggles by peasant and fishing communities against land grabs.

A Chinese corporation received a concession to build a vast tourist complex in the Batum Sakor nature reserve, displacing a thousand families of farmers and fishers. In April 2012 Chut Vuthy, a militant ecologist who denounced illegal exploitation of the park, was assassinated (an echo of the murder of Chico Mendes in the Brazilian rainforest in 1988).

The garment industry sees many episodes of mass fainting, which may affect a hundred or more workers at a time. Long hours, poor ventilation and chemicals in the environment are likely causes.

Some Conclusions

This report was written late and hastily, in part because of recent union activity. The main aim is to stimulate more discussion within IMHO about how we work in labour and social movements. There are several labour rights campaigns doing good work already – we don’t want simply to duplicate their efforts on a smaller scale. We need to think about the distinctive contribution we can make as Marxist-Humanists, how to work in this field while taking our philosophy with us. The nature of union meetings is to focus on immediate and practical matters. It is not a natural habitat to discuss political analysis, let alone philosophy, without appearing as a distraction. So we will need to use judgement about finding the right moment. Often this may be in one to one conversations with work or union colleagues. As members of IMHO in our different countries, we should make greater use of our internal communications to share experiences and discuss ideas among ourselves.


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1 Comment

  1. Dave

    Seems that the most important observation to be made concerning todays struggles both social as well as economic is that they remain within capitalist parameters and it looks like this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. The struggles mentioned in this very brief report all look to making life for workers within capitalism more endurable. In some ways this is no bad thing but this is not a perspective for human liberation from capitalist exploitation and alienation. To go beyond the capitalist perspective will take time and patience from Marxists. Spontaneity will not lead to a Marxist revolution, neither will organisation that denies human participation.