||Issue No. 124||15 February 2002|
Chickens Come Home
Unions: Winning the Heartland
Interview: Swan's Song
Corporate: Lessons from Enron
Politics: What We Did Last Summer
History: Solidarity in Song
International: A Tale of Two Cities
Poetry: Nobody Told Me
Review: Labor and the Rings
Satire: Rafter Named Bermudan Of The Year For Tax Purposes
The Locker Room
Week in Review
'International Labour's Year in Review' - A Re-View
Collins Gets Cryptic
Letters to the Editor
'International Labour's Year in Review' - A Re-View
Eric Lee, of the UK-based website/portal LabourStart, has provided us, on the Australia-based LaborNet (http://workers.labor.net.au/123/b_tradeunion_eric.html), with his take on International Labour 2001 (appended). Eric's account centres on the September 11 terrorist attack on the USA which, he reasonably declares, has changed labour's world for ever, but has also 'paralysed' the 'anti-globalisation movement'. He concludes, therefore, that unions will 'be needed as never before to protect the interests of working people and to preserve the possibility of a better world'.
I am not at ease with this - admittedly telegraphic or photographic - account. I would consider it to both underestimate the depth and significance of the crisis for labour internationally, and to overestimate the crisis for what I prefer to call the global justice movement (GJM).
The inter/national trade-union organizations (ITUOs) - the significant remaining part of what was once an international labour movement - are increasingly to be found in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and its 'family' (for which see Global Unions http://www.global-unions.org/). The family now has at least 157 million members, including unions in all major world reserves of the working class with the exception of China. But its unity is that of a downsized, defensive and socio-politically marginalised labour movement. These unions are having the greatest difficulty coming to terms with globalisation - 'the cancer stage of capitalism'. They are repeatedly trying - and repeatedly failing - to get globalisation to behave according to the rules, procedures, institutions and understandings of a 20th century national-industrial-colonial (NIC) capitalism.
The GJM was born in and against this globalised-networked-financial/services capitalism (GNC). It promises to fill the role, within both national and global society, played by labour at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. At that time labour was the social movement - meaning that which gave form, voice and leadership to the most general social discontents and demands (it included, at least for a time and in part, the women's, nationalist, suffrage, culture, communication, nature, education, peace and cooperative production/consumption movements). The GJM could benefit dramatically from the full commitment of the institutionalized international union movement (IIUM), but the latter has a profoundly ambiguous attitude toward the former.
During 2001, there was repeated evidence of the entrapment of the institutionalized international unions within the old NIC capitalism. One could mention their cautious and diplomatic behaviour during an innovatory roundtable with GJM NGOs and social movements, on international labour issues, in Bangkok, March. Or their virtual invisibility (invisibility also in virtual reality) outside the lobbies at the Genoa Summit of the G8 in July.
Or, most significantly, their almost unconditional identification with 'western civilisation' not only in immediate shocked reaction to September 11, but also in respect of the US-dominated 'war against terrorism' - which counter-terrorized a whole nation, and is apparently putting previously-defeated macho tribalists, oligarchs and militarists back into power (under the tutelage, now, of the USA+Family, the MNCs and the IMF). There are here strong echoes of Western labour's role during NIC phase of capitalism. This is not only the self-identification of labour with the 'free world' during the Cold War, but its self-subordination to nationalistic militarism and colonial imperialism almost 100 years ago!
The ICFTU Family largely re-affirmed, after September 11, that it was going, on November 9, to organize an international day of action against (or at least around) the WTO 4th Ministerial, in Dohar, Quatar. This was a uniquely assertive proposal. It was to be internationally coordinated but nationally or even locally determined. It was to take place within the workplaces - a space so far untouched by the GJM. It was to take place in coordination with major elements of the GJM. What actually occurred amongst the 157 million members of the ICFTU was a decidedly low-key affair - virtually unnoticed outside the trade union websites. As for Doha itself, the IIUOs apparently played their traditional role of energetic lobbying - combined with some globally invisible demonstration along with the GJM - but ending with the ritual complaint that the WTO is ignoring organized labour. (Actually the WTO is not ignoring labour: it has been systematically taking it to the cleaners worldwide!
, whilst wisely tolerating the ineffective complaints of its representatives in the lobbies).
Closer to the year's end we did see energetic and extensive trade union and GJM demonstrations at the time of the European Summit, at Laeken, Belgium, December.
Eric Lee's suggestion 1) that the GJM was paralysed by September 11 and ineffective on November 9 (at Doha), and 2) that the unions must continue energetically as before, is lacking as analysis and counter-productive as strategy.
The GJM took S11 on its chest but in its stride (it already assumed the inter-dependency of capitalist job-destruction, exploitation of labour, militarism, and projects for world domination). It was no more ineffective in Doha than the IIUOs but, unlike labour, it was prevented from its customary street protests by the conference site (the kind of place where Western Civilisation really appreciates Muslim Autocracy), as well as by quite specific WTO measures to restrict NGO access. Walden Bello, the veteran Filipino intellectual and activist, a prominent figure within the GJM, recognizes the challenge that S11 implies for the movement but concludes rather differently than Eric:
(T)here is a clear silver lining in the post-September 11 situation, it is that three movements that had formerly gone their independent ways - the peace movement, the human rights movement, and the anti-corporate globalization movement - now find it critical to collaborate more closely with one another. This is a potent alliance that can make a significant contribution to changing the correlation of forces in medium and long term, as the exclusionary, marginalizing, and repressive thrusts of the global system inexorably assert themselves.
Where are the IIUOs in relationship to such an interpretation? 2001 suggests that one can look at the unions in two ways simultaneously: 1) as being outside the GJM, and 2) as being on one of its peripheries. It is outside in terms of its age, its narrowness, its institutional rigidities, its central concern with 'social partnership' with multi/national corporations and inter/state organizations. It is within in so far as the GJM is a broad and loose alliance, including reformist single-issue/single-identity movements at one margin, and ultra-radical socialists or anarchists at the other.
There is, however, plenty of room, and plenty of openness, in the GJM for the unions - as witnessed whenever they show up in the public arena - however they show up in this arena (peaceful demonstration on the streets, mass media presence, public dialogue, cyberspace activity). Moreover, the GJM needs and could greatly benefit from the energetic commitment of the IIUOs.
The self-mobilisation of 157 million unionized workers, alongside the students, women, indigenous peoples, enviromentalists, anti-militarists, the democratic movements of the West, the old East and the old South - might have the civilizing impact on 'the civilized world' that the GJM has so far been unable to achieve. And whilst the IIUOs are something of an alligator (trying to digest whatever they swallow), the GJM is more like an amoeba, or cyberspace - in a condition of continual self-transformation and re-invention. The IIUOs could therefore be positively/energetically engaged with the GJM without losing any such autonomy as they might wish to retain.
What the unions have learned, or failed to learn - or even reversed away from - in 2001 will be demonstrated by their presence or absence at the World Social Forum II, Porto Alegre, Brazil, early-February, 2002.
If Seattle, November 1999, was the site of one 'no', the WSF in Porto Alegre, is the place of many 'yeses'. This is the new, if only temporary, capital of the Global Justice Movement. It is in the South - the 'majority world'. It is a city ruled by a labour party, with a tradition of participatory and consciousness-raising urban government. The Brazilian CUT union centre will be there. So will the ORIT (the regional organization for the whole American hemisphere - i.e. including the USA and Canada!).
What the unions have learned or failed to learn from 2001 will be also demonstrated by the manner of their participation. Will they stick to 'core business' (defence of the collective self-interest of the decreasingly unionized minority of the world's working classes, to appeals for capital and state to go back to the 'social partnership' of a past that is fading into history)? Or will they recognize that capitalist globalisation implies poverty, ecological destruction, cultural uniformity, denial of the rights of women, racism. And that the war against Afghanistan is only 'the first war of the 21st century'?
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