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  Issue No 83 Official Organ of LaborNet 09 February 2001  

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The Soapbox

John Sweeney: Birth Pangs of a New Internationalism


The head of the US labour movement addresses the world's business leaders on the backlash against globalisation.

 
 

I am honoured to join this distinguished panel in discussing a topic of such importance and moment, but the title of this Forum session "Addressing the backlash against globalisation" is a disservice to the discussion.

What we are witnessing is not a backlash but pangs of birth. And it is not against globalisation but for a new internationalism.

This movement for a new internationalism is building from the bottom up, not the top down. It features democratic protest, not corporate deals. Its forum is the public square, not the boardroom. And its promise is to remake the global economy so that it begins to work for working people all over the world.

We should be celebrating this new movement. Too much attention has been given to the few who are violent, and too little to the remarkable discipline of the many to non-violence.

How remarkable it is that millions of young people are communicating about sweatshops across the world wide web.

How exciting that many feel morally compelled to protest the inhumane conditions that workers face in countries on the other side of the globe.

How encouraging that children are calling their parents to account for the abuse of child labor.

How extraordinary that workers in industrialised countries will pressure companies in solidarity with workers in poorer and weaker countries. Or that workers, environmentalists, religious leaders and students are coming together to call for workers' rights and human rights and consumer and environmental protections in the global economy.

A new morning is dawning and we should rejoice in it.

This new internationalism has blossomed not because - as some here would suggest - the global economy has a public relations problem.

Billions of dollars in free and paid media exalt it. The global economy's blessings are trumpeted - its blemishes often ignored. From the editorial pages of leading newspapers to the banquets of local business clubs, the hallelujah chorus is deafening.

The current global system doesn't have a public relations gap, it has a promise gap.

Its performance does not match its promise. And no amount of public relations can change that. Much of the debate has focused on trade and investment policies. But trade is simply an instrument, and a minor one at that. Development and democracy are the ends.

The promise was that freeing up markets, de-regulating finance and joining the global market would provide growth, and growth would provide development. If we get governments out of the way, markets will work their magic - that's what we are told.

The reality of the last quarter century makes this prescription harder and harder to swallow. Growth has been slower, not faster. Instability is growing, not slowing.

Inequality - among and within countries - is rising not falling. And Russia has rather conclusively shown that if governments really get out of the way, the market's black magic is likely to produce gangsterism rather than capitalism.

Moreover the much-celebrated corporate global economy doesn't hold out much hope for most poor countries.

Foreign investment has increased sevenfold in 20 years. But 70% of it goes from one rich country to another. Eight developing countries got another 20% - with the bulk going to dictatorships, not democracies. The remainder is divided unequally among more than 100 poor countries. This isn't a public relations problem. This is a reality problem.

That is why we should be celebrating the movement for the new internationalism.

Seattle, I am proud to say, is often seen as the turning point at which a growing movement finally gained the attention of a rather impervious establishment.

There, workers, students, environmentalists and religious activists all came together to call the World Trade Organisation to account. Developing country leaders objected to being locked out of the backrooms. Union leaders representing workers in over 70 countries - rich and poor alike - marched shoulder to shoulder in the demand for workers' rights.

Since that time we've been able to transform the agenda of the global institutions - including this gathering.

Led by the faith-based Jubilee 2000, we've put debt forgiveness and poverty reduction on the agenda of the industrialised countries.

The IMF, which for years told us it wasn't a development agency, suddenly discovered that it was. The World Bank rediscovered poverty as a central focus. Its most recent report even suggests that free markets aren't necessarily the key to the kingdom after all.

Global corporations - even the most notorious like Nike - have scrambled to put together codes of conduct. They are driven not by a sudden attack of conscience, but by shareholder concern for their reputations and their markets.

The demand for workers rights, human rights and environmental and consumer protections will not disappear. Trade accords will face difficult sledding without including them. Companies will face embarrassment for violating them. And countries too will eventually be challenged for trampling them.

The International Labor Organization, for the first time, has called on the world community to curtail relations with Myanmar due to that brutal regime's policy of forced labor.

A global consensus has been reaffirmed on core workers' rights. Now it's time to post those basic rights on the walls of every place of employment in the world.

The moral force of this movement cannot be denied. It is profoundly threatening to the so-called Washington consensus - and profoundly promising for poor and working people across the globe.

We don't need to exaggerate the accomplishments. Global fairness is indeed on the docket for discussion, but now is the time for action. The debts of the impoverished nations need to be forgiven. Industrial nations must significantly increase development aid. The World Bank should focus on supporting health and education. The WTO needs a massive overhaul in how it operates. Companies need to change their practices as well as their rhetoric. The casino financial economy calls out for greater rules.

But this movement for a new internationalism has only begun to build. The harsh realities that drive it are likely to get worse - not better - as the US economy slows.

The best and the brightest of the next generation are enlisting in droves. Workers across the world are calling for a better deal. It is time for us to get on with the task.


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*    Visit the AFL-CIO

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*   Issue 83 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Dispatch from Davos
ACTU President Shahran Burrow reports back on the trade union movement’s presence at last week’s meeting of the heavyweights of global capital.
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*  Unions: After the Gold Rush
Recent mass sackings at high-profile e-businesses are beginning to expose the flimsiness of the ‘jobs for all’ predictions made on behalf of the sector.
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*  Economics: The Other Davos
While the world’s business leaders met in Davos, a very different gathering was taking place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Pat Ranald was there.
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*  Politics: While We Were Snoozing
As we lay in our banana chair through summer the political world kept turning with a new man in the White House. Here’s what we missed while we were off the air.
*
*  History: Federation Day, 1901
One hundred years after Australia became a nation, Ralph Sawyer relives the original Federation Day through the eyes of Billy Hughes.
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*  International: Burma: The Struggle Continues
As the internatinal community moves to bring Burma to account, APHEDA - Union Aid Abroad is working on the ground.
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*  Review: Inside the Journopolis
In his new book, Rob Johnson brings the infamous Cash for Comment Affair to life.
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*  Satire: Families Demand Longer Work Hours
A new report confirms the long held suspicion that employees who reduce their workload to spend more time with their spouse and children just end up annoying their families even more.
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»  Billions Spent on Mine Takeovers
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»  No Guarantees on Orange Jobs
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»  M5 Project- Worker Pays the Price
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»  Forum: Organising Youth in a Hostile Workplace
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»  Western Sahara Marks 25 Years of Waiting
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»  Action as Australia Considers WTO Ties
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Cavalier Attitude to Cricketers
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»  Unions and the WEF: How should unions bridge the divide?
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»  Botsman's Ivory Tower
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»  Volunteering a Modest Proposal
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»  Well Done, Workers Online
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