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Research Assistant Opportunity

Voicing Opposition: Labor Repression and Trade Liberalization in Developing Countries [Research Assistant]

Professor: Adam Dean

Department: Political Science

Title: Voicing Opposition: Labor Repression and Trade Liberalization in Developing Countries

Description: One of the most important developments in the world economy over the past few decades has been the decision of developing countries to open their economies to the global market. Governments around the world lowered their tariffs and other trade barriers so rapidly that scholars began to puzzle over what explained this new “rush towards free trade.”  In the field of international relations, the conventional wisdom holds that this dramatic policy shift was caused by a wave of democratization, which enfranchised the world’s poor, who then rose up and demanded the free trade policies that would help to lift them out of poverty.  In short, many scholars hold that democratic governments in developing countries chose to pursue trade liberalization because they were accountable to workers.  In contrast, this research project offers a much needed corrective to this common narrative by introducing a number of missing factors including the roles of labor unions, state repression, and the free trade demands made by the United States.

Whereas previous scholars assume that workers in developing countries all favored free trade, my new book demonstrates that labor unions in developing countries regularly opposed trade liberalization.  Some unions feared
competition from imports, others argued that increased exports would only increase profits for capital, still others joined societal coalitions that opposed broad liberalization packages extending far beyond trade policy.
Despite the common prediction that all workers in developing countries benefit from free trade, it is extremely rare to find labor unions in developing countries that actually support trade liberalization.  Where labor rights were well protected, these unions effectively slowed down the rate of trade policy reform.  Unions were particularly influential when democratization opened up public debates about economic policy.  Unions called general strikes and pushed back against the liberalization demands of export-oriented businesses and pro-reform technocrats.  Such labor union opposition in developing countries even blunted the liberalization demands made by the United States.

Labor unions failed to influence trade policy, however, in countries where workers’ rights were less protected and labor mobilization was actively repressed.  When countries democratized but did not protect workers’ rights, labor opposition was squashed and liberalization proceeded rapidly. Similarly, the United States’ efforts to open markets were more successful when focused on developing countries that lacked powerful unions.  In short, where unions were granted a voice in policy debates they managed to push back against both domestic and international demands for free trade.  The international politics literature therefore mischaracterizes the trade policy preferences of labor unions in developing countries and also exaggerates the responsiveness of democratic governments to organized labor’s demands.

Duties: I am looking for a research assistant to help with archival research at the Library of Congress and National Archives.  We will be looking for primary documents (pamphlets, newspapers, meeting minutes, etc) from labor
unions in India, Bolivia, and Argentina.  The research on India can be conducted in English, but Spanish language skill are needed for the research on Bolivia and Argentina.  The research assistant will help locate, collect,
read, analyze, and summarize these and other related primary documents. There will also be opportunities to read more broadly about these three cases.

Time commitment: 1-3 hours per week (average)

Credit hour option*: 1

Submit Cover Letter/Resume to: adamdean@gwu.edu

*If credit is sought, all registration deadlines and requirements must be met.  Students selected to be research assistants should contact Mary Rothemich at rothemich@gwu.edu whether they intend to pursue credit or not.

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