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Mass Strikes and Social Movements in India and Brazil

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - STRISOC (Mass Strikes and Social Movements in India and Brazil)

Reporting period: 2017-09-15 to 2019-09-14

Since the onset of the world financial crisis a new cycle of labour unrest emerged around the world. In this project, I compare mass strikes in India and Brazil since 2008 and the new forms of workers´ organisations that emerged in these strikes. Characteristics of these strikes were that they took place in central and growing sectors of the economy; that they focused on wage demands in an early phase, but transformed into strikes with a political dimension in the course of events; a resurgence of wildcat strikes; and the use of wide-scale state repression against strikers.
The mass strikes affected various sectors in the two countries, but were showed the highest occurrence in one sector in each country: the automobile industry in India and the construction sector in Brazil. The mass strikes in question were traditional strikes in the sense that they were focused on specific economic sectors on the one hand, on the other hand the forms of workers’ organisation were innovative, including new alliances with social movements.
The research question of the project concerns the characteristics of the new forms of organisations of workers: What types of organisation emerge and how does the form of organisation impact on trajectory and results of the strikes? This question is important since the way conflicts are led by a new generation of workers in the emerging economies will have a profound impact on global economic and political constellations. On a theoretical level, I contend that theories of strikes that focus on quantitative analyses and trade unions as organisational centres are not capable to grasp the specific spatial patterns and the forms of organisation and cooperation that characterises the recent wave of mass strikes. A wider scope, like the one employed by labour geography and its focus on community unionism is needed in order to grasp those logics of organisation. In order to demonstrate this, I explore four case studies, two in each of the countries.

Conclusions

One can observe that the forms of workers´ organisation that emerged during the mass strikes in emerging economies after 2008 are characterised by a diminishing significance of established national trade union federations. Independent factory-based or regional union federations and grass roots mobilisations of workers gained in relevance, and in two of the four case studies workers entered into alliances with other actors beyond the workplace. Nonetheless, trade unions continued to play an important role in all case studies investigated, but they do not adhere to one or two standard models of trade unionism, but exhibit very different characteristics in each of the cases. Thus, there is considerable plurality, or better fragmentation, among trade union strategies and politics. In those two cases where strikers established alliances with other social movement actors they were significantly more successful regarding workplace demands or political organisation than in the other two cases investigated.
Another conclusion on another level of analysis is that the wave of mass strikes in Brazil and India between 2010 and 2014 led to new right-wing authoritarian governments – in India with the electoral of the BJP in 2014, and in Brazil with the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, preceded by a neoliberal turn of the second presidential term of Dilma Rousseff from 2015 on. The right-wing governments in India and Brazil can be seen as political projects designed to cope with the recent upsurge of labour unrest in both countries – but consistently high numbers of strikes in Brazil after 2016 and a number of very large workers’ mobilisations in India after 2014 show that right-wing authoritarianism came only with limited effectivity against those strikes. At the same time, the mass strikes in question between 2010 and 2014, and also in the following period, were not able to forge a movement that would attract participants from social movements that occurred in parallel, like the anti-corruption movement in India, or the street demonstrations in Brazil in 2013. The inability of the strike movements to connect to national political forces and to exert hegemony over other social movement actors on a national scale revealed a political vacuum, and the strike movements themselves lacked the means to fill this vacuum.
The work performed consisted mainly in fieldwork in India and Brazil to enquire about the cases, processing of the fieldwork data, and the elaboration of a theoretical framework to analyse mass strikes. All these specific processes culminated in the write-up of a book manuscript. The book was published with Palgrave in March 2019 with the title “Mass Strikes and Social Movements in Brazil and India. Popular Mobilisation in the Long Depression”.
Since the manuscript could be completed fairly early in the process, I was able to conduct new fieldwork on an 11-day long truckers’ strike in Brazil that had occurred in May 2018. The strike saw participation of about 400.000 truckers who blocked roads all over Brazil. In addition, I conducted fieldwork on a strike of dock workers in Setubal, Portugal that took place in November/December 2018 and affected the logistics of a nearby factory of German car producer Volkswagen. Thus, apart from the main result, the publication of the monography, the work performed will have further results in terms of publication output that builds on the additional fieldwork conducted.

Exploitation and dissemination of results

Results have been disseminated with two talks held at the University of Nottingham, with a podcast on the website of said university, at an invited talk at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans in April 2018, at an invited talk at the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) at University of Edinburgh in May 2018, at an invited talk at the Second BRICS Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS) conference in Brasilia in November 2018 and at an international workshop held at the University of Nottingham in June 2019.
Furthermore, book presentations have been held in talks at Universidade Nova in Lisbon and at University of Vienna in May 2019, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, in June 2019. In addition, the book has been discussed by six leading scholars from different world regions on the Progress in Political Economy blog in a weekly rhythm between May 28 and July 11, 2019: https://ppesydney.net/debating-mass-strikes-and-social-movements-in-brazil-and-india/. Another comment on the book appeared in the influential blog The Next Recession of Michael Roberts on 18 June, 2019: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2019/06/18/strikes-in-the-long-depression/
Progress beyond state of the art and expected potential impact

The results of the project went beyond the state of the art in two respects: (1) The mass strikes in Brazil and India during the 2010s had not been subject to intensive research yet, thus this has been largely uncharted territory. (2) The project developed a new theoretical approach to analyse the organisational processes during strikes and argued for a turnaround in industrial relations studies.
In addition, the additional field research on strikes in transport and logistics in Brazil and Portugal contribute to a recent debate on workers’ power resources in logistics, exploring areas of empirical research that had not been dealt with earlier.