Trade Unions, Class Struggle and Development

Source: Ben Selwyn, Global Labour Column, March 26, 2012

How do class relations contribute to processes of capitalist development? Can workers’ struggles generate more progressive forms of human development, in the form of improved working and non-working conditions, rising pay and active social movements that bring workers’ concerns to the fore? Within much thinking about development the principal debate over the past 30 years or so has been between advocates of state-led and market-led development. For these advocates either state allocation and generation of resources or market-efficiency generates a growing pot of social wealth which trickles down, at some indeterminate point in the future, to the labouring population. Advocates of these approaches often support labour-repressive measures (ranging from opposition to minimum wages and worker welfare to support for dictatorial regimes that outlaw trade unions, raise the rate of exploitation and repress labour) as a means to kickstart the ‘development’ process of capital accumulation. From these perspectives capital and the state come first and receive political priority, and labour comes a distinct second, if at all. Within development studies, such perspectives have become so normalised that there is rarely any comment on how they rest on a fundamental contradiction: Whilst development practitioners aim to improve the lot of the poor, such labour-repressing measures actually worsen their conditions for a considerable period of time and offer no guarantee when (or if) they will improve.

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