Economic Globalization Creates Challenges for Bolivian Labour Unions
In his PhD research Håvard Haarstad shows that not even Evo Morales has been able to counter the negative effect of global economic forces on the influence of labor unions.
The completion of Håvard Haarstad’s PhD project is just around the corner at the Department of Geography at the University of Bergen. In his thesis, under the title “Changing structural contexts for politics: FDI policy and the political spaces for labor in Bolivia”, he is analyzing how complex processes of globalization are changing conditions for political practices in civil society in Bolivia. Haarstad looks in particular at the gas sector unions, and shows how they were weakened by policies aimed to attract FDI (foreign direct investment) into the Bolivian economy. These new policies privatized the state enterprise that the unions depended on for employment and organizational coherence, and brought in private foreign companies, within which it is much more difficult to organize. He argues that foreign companies discourage labour organization and prefer instead to improve their public image by helping communities through NGOs. Gas sector unions and other unions struggle to create effective organization vis-à-vis private companies.
- In Latin America and perhaps particularly in Bolivia, labor unions used to be quite influential in national politics, but they are weaker today. Social movements, particularly the indigenous movement, are much stronger and more influential. This has something (but of course not everything) to do with the structural change that globalization entails. I am interested in looking into how this happens within a specific context and the effects on political economy.
Haarstad became interested in these issues doing research in Peru for his Master's Thesis, where he looked at how a local farming community in northern Peru campaigned against a mining project, by networking with organizations at the national and international scales.
He showed how some political actors are to a degree empowered by globalization processes (see article link below). Changing contexts to Bolivia, he wanted to focus more on actors that were less able to take advantage of the political spaces of globalization; labor unions. In particular, he has focused on unions in the gas sector.
Doing Research in a Diverse and Conflictual Field
Haarstad conducted a fieldwork for the thesis in Bolivia, and has also collected policy documents at the Archives of the International Monetary Fund. This has situated his research work in two very different contexts, as Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, while the IMF is situated two blocks away from the White House in Washington.
His research has not been based on a particular community, but aims to understand processes taking place at the national scale. The gas sector unions, for example, have branches in different places in the country, but have their main office in La Paz. The private companies of the gas sector have their offices in Santa Cruz, in the lowlands. Haarstad has been travelling between these and other places collecting data.
- Bolivia is a really interesting country to study for someone with an interest in politics and geography. It is a highly politically mobilized country, and very divided. When I was there the lowland departamentos intensified their struggle for autonomy, which led to enormous demonstrations for and against. But this also makes it more difficult to study, because it becomes hard to separate the politics one is interested in from those that are "beyond the scope". The different political lines of conflict in Bolivia, rural versus urban, lowland versus highland, poor versus elite, indigenous versus mestizo, are all interrelated. This is interesting but also challenging to conceptualize when one is looking at a particular topic.
- My challenge here has been to try to focus only on parts of this without reducing the complexity of the situation too much.
One conflictual topic he studied, and wrote a paper about (see reference below), was gas nationalization. Haarstad says that gas nationalization is very contentious, and in a way lies at the heart of all these lines of conflict. It was demanded by unions and by social movements, but the elites in the lowland states want a bigger share of the income. Evo Morales nationalized the gas sector, but not completely, so now there are also tensions between the main union federation (the COB) and the Morales administration over the character of nationalization.
A Nationalization Process under Pressure, but Not from the Unions
He argues that the weakness of labour unions has effects on the way gas nationalization was conducted. Nationalization does not accommodate the demands of labour unions. It does not represent a significant increase in employment and does not go very far in returning the state enterprise YPFB to a significant operator in the sector.
-This is because it is largely a response to two types of pressure. The first source of pressure for this particular model of nationalization was of course social movements. But another other source of pressure was the international market. In order to participate in international market transactions, the Morales administration has had to rely on FDI, foreign companies, to develop the sector. So in that sense it is not a "real" nationalization. It would not be possible or desirable to return to the old model, where the state enterprise had near monopoly on operation, within the context of globalization.
- At a more abstract level, I argue that globalization narrows the political spaces for redistributive politics, by weakening state regulation, and increasing mobility of multinational companies. But it also opens spaces for civil society political practices that can take advantage of increased mobility and transnational networks.
Labour Unions Need More Focus
Haarstad chose to focus on labour unions partly because few academics choose that focus these days. He thinks it's a problem that they are not being paid more attention, because of their potential importance to welfare and distribution of resources in society.
- Unions bargain for interests that can not be achieved only through electoral channels but are still important, such as wages and working conditions in the private sector. At the same time, unions have often been undemocratic and unrepresentative. Still I think effective and democratic unions are of central importance to achieve better income distribution in Bolivia and in Latin America.
- With this research, I hope to contribute to develop an understanding of the pressures faced by unions and the potential for more effective politics of redistribution. This work is, for example, an argument for better monitoring of labour regulations in private companies. Ultimately, however, I think single academic works rarely have a direct impact on the object of study. Instead, academic discussion in general develops insights and knowledge that over time shape society.
Haarstad hopes to stay in academia after completing his PhD, and has several ideas for future projects.
-My supervisor Arnt Fløysand, some partners and I are developing a project that takes some of these ideas further and broadens the scope. Another really important process it would be interesting to do research on is the development of multilateral organizations in South and Latin America. I think these will be important in shaping the political and economic landscape of the region in the future, and constitute an important research agenda.
Håvard Haarstad has been a visiting researcher at INESAD in La Paz, Bolivia, University of Oxford and Trinity College in Dublin. His PhD project is part of the Norwegian Research Council financed research project; "The Spatial Embeddedness of Foreign Direct Investment".
Links and references to some of Haarstad's work:
Haarstad, H. In press. FDI policy and political spaces for labour: the disarticulation of the Bolivian petroleros. Geoforum. Link here
Haarstad, H. In press. Globalization and the New Spaces for Social Movement Politics: The Marginalization of Labor Unions in Bolivian Gas Nationalization. Globalizations. (not online yet)
Fløysand, A and Haarstad, H. 2008. Foreign direct investments in development strategies: Norwegian FDI and the tendency for agglomeration. In: Tamásy, C and Taylor, M. Globalising Worlds and New Economic Configurations. Ashgate, London, pp. 47-56. Link here
Haarstad, H and Fløysand, A. 2007. Globalization and the power of rescaled narratives: A case of opposition to mining in Tambogrande, Peru. Political Geography, 26, pp 289-308. Link here
Haarstad, H. 2007. Collective political subjectivity and the problem of scale. Contemporary Politics, 13, No. 1, pp. 57-74. Link here