Data compiled by independent labour researchers indicates that there may be a significant increase in the numbers of workers involved in mass strikes across the globe. One interesting list was circulated recently by Peter Hall-Jones of the New Unionism Network. Hall-Jones points out that a huge strike wave involving up to 100,000,000 workers across India last September 7 was ignored by western media, in favour of reporting on “a Gainesville preacher who had threatened to burn a Koran.”
The action in India was notable for bringing together most of that country’s unions, which are divided along cultural, sectoral, religious and political lines, to resist the growing attack on the rights of working people.
The year 2010 also saw huge strikes in seven other countries, including an estimated 2.5 million in France, 10 million in Spain (involving about 70% of the workforce!), 3 million in Portugal, 2 million each in Greece and Turkey, 1.3 million in South Africa, and 1 million in Italy. According to the figures compiled by Hall-Jones (who admits that his research remains incomplete), this means that eight of the thirty-three largest national strike actions across the planet over the past century took place during one calendar year.
Other countries which have witnessed large numbers of strikers in recent years include the USA, Britain, China, Nigeria, Egypt, Colombia, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Nepal and Cambodia. Hall-Jones calculates that two-thirds of the largest strikes in history have occurred in the last decade.
These include the USA (4 million in 2006) India (50 million in both 2003 and 2005, and 10 million in 2002), Italy (10 million in 2002), South Africa (2 million in 2008, and 1 million in 2006), France (2 million in 2003, and 1 million in 2009), Nigeria (2 million in both 2007 and 2004), Britain (1 million in 2006), and Madagascar (1 million in 2002).
For Canadians, one gap in Hall-Jones’ research is quickly evident. There is no mention of the 1976 Day of Protest against wage controls, organized by the Canadian Labour Congress and other labour federations. On October 14, 1976, one million workers walked out, the biggest single labour action in Canadian history.
Hall-Jones also warns that his research is hindered by conflicting or missing estimates of the number of participants, and varying definitions. The huge strike by immigrant workers and their supporters in the USA on May 1, 2006, for example, was strictly speaking a mass political action rather than a strike against a government or employers.
Others might argue that an increase in industrial action is only to be expected, since the international working class has grown considerably as more countries industrialize.
But Hall-Jones argues that the figures reveal that while union numbers have fallen in some countries, “the dominant narrative of union decline is false. It is an ideological position – a portrait of the world the way some would wish it to be. The facts tell a different story, and so the facts are being ignored or distorted to suit.”
He also points out that the New Unionism Network has gathered comparable data on union membership post‑2000 for 81 countries, showing that 52 countries have experienced union growth over the last decade, while just 23 have experienced union decline.