Organized Labor: The folks who brought you the weekendToday marks the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The disaster resulted in 146 deaths, largely because factory management was in the habit of locking the exits and stairwells. The event is credited with galvanizing the labor movement in America, leading to new regulations and increased support for unionization in the following years. Laura Freschi at AidWatch has written more on the events of March 25th, 2011.

The status of American organized labor is somewhat grimmer today. Union membership in the private sector is less than 7% of workers. This is correlated with public support for unions, which has reached an all time low. In some ways, licensing has replaced union membership as America shifted into a post-industrial economy based more on services than manufacturing. However licensing is arguably a poor replacement for unions, especially for unskilled workers who are most vulnerable. The Wisconsin protests demonstrated that organized labor isn’t quite powerless: Governor Walker’s victory in the legislature may turn out to be Pyrrhic if the political fight costs him a future term in office (and, to possibly make it worse for him: the state supreme court is set to review whether the bill’s passage violated procedures).

What’s the role of organized labor in influencing labor standards in developing countries? Apparently, not much. Unions in the developing world are weak, and play a less important role than they do in developed countries. Where they exist, they focus more on political activity rather than collective bargaining. (See here for more — sorry, can’t find an ungated version.)

The international development industry doesn’t seem very interested in promoting unionization. The International Labour Organization (ILO) works with governments on promoting compliance with labor standards, and one of those standards is freedom of association. A report from 2008 suggests that influencing the legal framework and getting conventions ratified (the bulk of ILO’s approach) is much easier than changing real practices in developing economies. In any case, the ILO may be losing favor: DFID recently decided to stop funding it because it’s ineffective (for the full explanation, see here page 186). More broadly, it seems like the US discourse about developing country worker protections tends to focus on top-down solutions from policymakers (better labor regulations) or corporations (appeals to corporate social responsibility or consumer pressure), rather than bottom-up pressure from organized labor.

Labor standards in the US didn’t evolve in response to pressure from outside the US. Yet that seems to be the model being pursued for developing countries today. This is fairly representative of how developing country governments face different political constraints today than the developed nations faced a century ago. US labor standards evolved in response to bottom-up pressure from unions and their political allies. Ditto for anti-corruption efforts, establishment of the social safety net, improvement of public services, expansion of political enfranchisement, and so on. No force outside the US was pushing these reforms as hard as the internal forces. In contrast, developing countries today face larger external forces than internal ones. We shouldn’t be surprised if the result is a government that fails to serve the interests of the poor.


Fun facts: The site of the Triangle Factory, just off Washington Square Park, is now an NYU building. I had a class there last year. Also, the commission that investigated the fire was chaired by State Senator Robert F. Wagner. Later, as a US Senator, Wagner sponsored federal legislation that guaranteed union rights to private sector workers. His son was Robert F. Wagner Jr., who became a three-term mayor of New York in the 1950s/60s and then had a certain graduate school in named in his honor.

If you’re interested, there are various happenings in NYC commemorating the Triangle Fire.

(Hat tip to @bwuphoto for various sources.)

  1. Nice summary, Dave. This is really not my area of expertise, but I think there are a couple things here worth discussion.

    “The international development industry doesn’t seem very interested in promoting unionization.”

    Depends on how you’re defining the development industry. If your definition is broad enough to include progressive advocacy groups and transnational social movement networks (and I’d argue a definition of development that excludes these is incomplete), there’s definitely some activity there. A more conventional definition – for instance a definition limited to the aid industry – gives a very different story of course.

    “In contrast, developing countries today face larger external forces than internal ones. We shouldn’t be surprised if the result is a government that fails to serve the interests of the poor.”

    I imagine this (the first sentence) is largely true across the board; however, I think some additional analysis is useful. I think political scientist Kathryn Sikkink’s “boomerang model” is useful here; in her model, social movements in a developing country have an active role in advocating for their rights. If they are barred from changing their country’s policies by oppression or outright suppression of dissent, *then* they appeal to the international community and try to bring external pressure onto their government. I’m sure this model, which gives primacy to internal rather than external forces, doesn’t hold true in all cases, but there are certainly many prominent cases in which it does.

    A related point: while movements for fairness and equality in developing countries might not be labor movements exactly, they certainly do exist in other forms: indigenous people’s movements, landless people’s movements, agragrian solidarity groups and farmers’ unions, etc etc. They’re all generating internal pressure similar to the pressure that a labor movement, traditionally conceived, might generate. I guess the question relevant to your post is, what’s the relationship between that internal pressure and the external pressure coming from the international community (inclusive of activists, governments, international financial institutions, and multinational corporations)? What are the qualitative differences between those pressures?


    1. Mr. Whale, you point out a couple things that I glossed over. You’re right that there’s more to this question. Two quick responses to the points you raised.

      First, you’re right that I’m using a narrow definition of “international development industry” — to me, it’s short-hand for a particular group of organizations and activities (bi/multilateral donors, NGOs, contractors, consultants, foundations, etc). Transnational social movements are definitely important to development *processes*, but I think they lie outside of that particular industry. Sorry, I should have been clearer about that.

      Second, the “boomerang model”: Sounds very interesting. Do you have any good articles you’d recommend on it? It makes sense that domestic movements would seek to engage the international community when their own pressure is insufficient. My point in the post was simply that the international development industry (again, within my narrow definition) does not seem particularly interested in reciprocating that engagement, let alone initiating it. At least not when it comes to labor unions.

      Third, the relationship between internal and external pressures: It’s a bigger question that deserves more attention from the industry’s discourse. A couple thoughts on it. The industry often looks for a policy solution, then looks for any blunt instrument to implement it, without consideration for how those blunt instruments impact the domestic political economy. Often, the international pressures even work toward opposite goals with the domestic pressures (e.g. WB structural adjustment programs). The “rights-based development” approach taken by CARE and others is relevant here. It seeks to provide support (through funding, training, etc.) to domestic groups asserting their rights, thus supplementing internal pressure with external resources.

      A related overarching observation: I think your comment highlights the perspective that I tend to take in my posts. I tend to think about problems and issues from the perspective of international and US-based organizations, institutions, donors, NGOs, etc. (i.e. the “industry” defined above plus other external actors). I take this perspective in part because that’s where I come from. More importantly, I think the discourse within this community pays too much attention to the *solutions* we’d like to see on the ground, but too little enough attention to the *means* we use for trying to implement those solution. In order to pay attention to the means, we have to be aware of where we sit in the system.


  2. The easy question first: the best thing to look at re the boomerang model is the primary source, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s book “Activists Beyond Borders.” The introduction gives a nice summary of the ideas within.

    I think the definition of the development industry that you’re using is pretty standard, right? It’s interesting – my complaint about the way development is talked about here at the Humphrey is that it’s basically treated as functionally the same thing as the aid industry. My perspective is informed by my experience within a transnational social movement with a critical eye towards global trade and economic policy, so that definition of development, to me, is not only incomplete, it also misses the point. It’s like dealing with little pieces of the problem without looking at the overarching structures. (This kind of ties into the conversation about world-systems theory that I still need to respond to.) I think your analysis of solutions vs. processes is similar… maybe. Gotta think about that more.

    Anyway. If the takeaway of all this is that the development industry, conventionally defined, should maybe pay more attention to labor and other social movements in developing countries, my response is… yes. And if that were to happen, maybe labor and other social movements in developing countries would become much stronger, creating a virtuous cycle. (Or a vicious cycle, I guess, depending on your views.)

    So, how to design a system in which people in the developing world can participate in the process of their own development? And maybe even more importantly, how to get the development industry interested in such a system, which would ostensibly take away some (much?) of its power?


  3. […] On the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: What about unions in the developing world…- Find What Works – Looks at the impact that collective bargaining had in the improvement of working conditions and wages in the US and the lack of this in the developing world. […]


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