Why we need a Global Strike

by Kate Lappin

© Ryan Brown/UN Women

Kate Lappin is the Regional Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), a network of 200 women's rights organisations and movements in 26 countries of the Asia and Pacific region. She has worked for 20 years in the promotion of women's rights, labour rights and Development Justice. She is a member of UN Women’s Asia Pacific Civil Society Advisory Committee, sits on the Executive Committee of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition and the coordinating committee of the Southeast Asian Women´s Caucus.

We are living in an era of unprecedented wealth coupled with unprecedented inequality. Eight men control as much wealth as half the world’s population. One percent of the world’s population own more than the other 99%. Sixty nine of the largest 100 economies in the world are corporations and 10 corporations are richer than 180 countries combined. This concentration of wealth is fueled by an extractivist economy that prioritises consumption, growth and profit over social and environmental good. Consequently we are experiencing a climate crisis that threatens humanity and has the most catastrophic consequences for women in the global south.
There are many reasons for this growth in inequality. One of them has been the growing percentage of wealth gained from capital. As French economist, Thomas Picketty, has shown, returns on capital are much higher than economic growth. One of the sources of this increase in capital profit has been the cut in wage share as a percentage of profit. In 1965 a CEO in the US earned, on average, 20 times more than average workers. Now they earn 345 times more. As large as that difference appears, it actually masks an even larger difference. In 1965 workers and CEOs were mainly employed within the same corporate structure. Globalisation facilitated a race for the cheapest labour and conditions. The CEO of Walmart, for example, now earns 22,600 times more than a Bangladeshi garment worker making the clothes Walmart profits from selling. Even this doesn’t reveal the enormous global disparity in wealth because capital is where the real wealth is. The wealth of the founder of the fashion chain Zara, for example, is more than 82 million times the income of a Bangladeshi garment worker making Zara clothes. She is not likely to hold wealth equivalent to her meager annual salary so the differential is likely to be even greater.
This neoliberal economic model has also led to a crisis of democracy. Nominally democratic governments rarely make policy decisions that do not advance the interests of corporations or the wealthiest. A study by Princeton University researchers (Gilens & Page, 2014) concluded that public opinion and peoples’ movements have no impact on government decision making when corporations or economic elites are lobbying for a contrary position. They concluded that the US is effectively no longer a democracy, it is an oligarchy.


When governments do want to make policy decisions that are in the public interest, they are constrained by rules, conditions or rankings set by the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or credit rating agencies. Even more explicitly, investor rights contained in trade and investment treaties allow foreign corporations to sue governments when policies and laws might have an impact on investor profits. The tribunals these cases are heard in are able to ignore democratically drafted laws, constitutions and domestic courts. Suits commonly relate to the regulation of water resources, energy and environmental protections in the public interest. Corporations have also been able to sue governments for raising the minimum wage, for introducing affirmative actions laws and at least 24 countries have been sued in relation to taxes imposed, amongst many others.
So if democracy is failing how can we address the multiple crises of inequality, climate and patriarchal extremisms we are currently experiencing? Frederick Douglas famously said already in 1857 that “power concedes nothing without a demand” and “if there is no struggle, there is no progress”. He was proven correct by the outbreak of the American civil war shortly afterward. But struggles do not have to be violent. The power of many can overcome the power of the very few, but only if it is organized and able to show solidarity globally.

It is time to consider the power of a Global Strike

While capital has become borderless, labour solidarity has become increasingly localised. Governments have deliberately prevented labour from expressing solidarity – within an industry, across industries or across borders. Those strikes across industries or countries are labeled secondary boycotts or secondary strikes. They are banned because they are powerful.
The trade union movement played a key role in bringing about the end to apartheid in South Africa by boycotting the sale and movement of South African products, for example. Australian maritime workers refused to load Dutch ships in support of Indonesian self-determination – playing a part in the end to colonialism. International women’s day commemorates garment worker strikes in New York following a horrific fire. The women were joined by workers from a range of industries and their struggle for dignity went beyond their workplace. The Swedish and Norwegian labour movements acted to prevent war by refusing to participate in a potential war when Norway declared its separation from Sweden in 1905. Unions in Australia have joined with communities and refused to build commercial development projects on community common land – creating ‘green bans’.

© Munnar Frontline

Strikes haven’t just been called by organized labour. The people of Cochabamba in Bolivia held a successful general strike to oppose the privatisation of water. Doctors in El Salvador also took to the streets to oppose privatization of healthcare and won. In Italy, the people of Lampedusa Island striked to oppose nuclear dumping on their land. Women in Iceland achieved one of the most gender equitable societies after calling a women’s strike in 1975, when 90% of women stopped doing housework and did not go to their paid work for one day. Now, 44% of the Icelandic parliament is made up of women, compared to 3% in 1975.
In the past year the idea of global strikes and strikes to oppose authoritarianism has proliferated. Women in Poland took to the streets to oppose a new law to criminalise abortion – and they won. The women’s march on Washington with 2 million protestors around the world, the day after Trump’s inauguration was accompanied by a strike. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, a global strike of women took place in numerous countries, including women childcare workers in Australia who left work at 3.20 pm to demonstrate the gender pay gap that keeps their wages low.
Women garment workers in Bangladesh cannot achieve justice by striking alone. Their wages will remain low if investors can threaten investment strikes. Only if workers, consumers and social justice advocates globally support a fairer global economy can they achieve decent wages. Similarly, women most suffering from climate change cannot go on strike to stop polluters or corporations continually land-grabbing. Only a global movement can stop that. A global strike of people from all social movements and with varied but interlinked concerns around inequalities, climate change, conflict and democratic decline is not only strategic – it’s our only hope for Development Justice. A global strike may seem impossible but “it always seems impossible until it’s done” – Nelson Mandela (9 June 2017).