The International Handbook of Labour Unions
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The International Handbook of Labour Unions

Responses to Neo-Liberalism

Edited by Gregor Gall, Adrian Wilkinson and Richard Hurd

Since the 1970s, the spread of neo-liberalism across the world has radically reconfigured the relationship between unions, employers and the state. The contributors highlight that this is the major cause and effect of union decline and if there is to be any union revitalisation and return to former levels of influence, then unions need to respond in appropriate political and practical ways. Written in a clear and accessible style, the Handbook examines unions’ efforts to date in many of the major economies of the world, providing foundations for understanding each country.
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Chapter 15: Interaction between Labour Unions and Social Movements in Responding to Neo-liberalism

Bill Fletcher


Bill Fletcher Jr INTRODUCTION Traditional mainstream unionism tends to set itself apart from other social movements, distinguishing itself from them except under particular periods of stress. This exceptionalism has coincided with the institutionalization of labour unions as legitimate components of so-called democratic capitalist societies. Once unions had broken from the margins and were no longer seen as either explicitly revolutionary forces or organisations of the rabble, they found themselves seeking stability and a permanent role in democratic capitalist systems. Unions, in developing an institutional existence, nevertheless, constituted the core of a social movement: the labour movement. Other working class forces have existed within this larger movement and unions themselves have often existed as movement-organisations rather than solely institutions. This struggle for the identity of unions has had a direct impact on the contradictory relationship of unions to other social movements. Among, and within the unions, there have been conflicting tendencies in addressing their raison d’être and that of organised labour. Mainstream ‘business unionism’ has been at odds with that of a class struggle orientation. Those of a class struggle orientation have often, but not always, tended to see in other social movements potential allies in the struggle for social justice and social transformation. Beginning in the 1980s, new labour formations started to emerge, largely in the global South, taking an orientation to their tasks that shared a great deal in common with class struggle unionism. This orientation, which over time came to be known as social movement unionism (SMU)...

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