With this coming Saturday's conference titled Labor Now and it's theme of exploring the role of organized labor in the 21st century, I thought it timely to find a great piece in the Fall Issue of Dissent titled The Future of Global Unions: Is solidarity still forever? by Alan Howard. Mr. Howard does a good job dissecting the problems and opportunities in the field of global unionism and I wish conference participants could all read this piece but I will try to summarize the main points and give us a base for future discussion.
The article points out what most realize, unionism has been slow to adapt to a rapidly changing global economic environment and it pinpoints the reason for this failure , accurately ,in my opinion, with the unflexible, hierarchical structure of traditional unions and associations of unions. Howard states "Union structures look much as they did a hundred years ago, rigid but not necessarily coherent hierachies, from the broad, sprawling base of increasingly diverse workplaces to local union hall to national headquarters reaching a pinnacle in the recently formed International Trade Union Confederation", which represents 168 million workers in 153 countries. Within these structures , unfortunately, "all to often the energy and creativity of many talented and selfless people is smothered by a lethal bureacratic mentality and more than a few leaders whose first priority is is to defend their own fuedal powers.."
Examining the myriad difficulties unions have had in adjusting to new global realities, Howard points first to his own experience as an organizer for UNITE and it's attempts to "follow the work" around the world as garment manufacturers began moving to Mexico, Central America and the Carribean. They found they were unprepared to deal with complicated cultural, legal and political issues nor could they answer the question: Once you crossed the Rio Grande, where did you stop? "Because whether you are a corporation, a union, a person looking for work-or an imperial army-crossing any national border means a new and often unpredictable complexity.." Neither European nor American unions understood what they were doing by allying with "their" employers to restrict imports or agreeing to all kinds of concessions to save jobs that eventually dissapeared anyway. The question is; Is it to late?
Certain unions are forging effective programs of international work such as the Teamsters, with it's Global Strategies department, SIEU, which has launched a high profile campaign to organize property service workers in dozens of cities around the world and the Steelworkers, which are attempting a merger with UK workers unions and have embraced the anti-sweatshop movement. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of national unions which thwarts efforts towards any profound change and this relates to the meaning of solidarity. Take for instance the debate within the AFL-CIO only a decade ago,"when any activity associated with international solidarity was characterized..as little more than "labor tourism" and a waste of money" ( How could we fight for the rights of Guatemalan workers when their employment took our jobs?) The new efforts that seem to be effective, for instance the United Electrical workers union's alliance with Mexico's FAT federation or the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, have these traits in common, according to Howard. "They are fluid networks in which the agenda is set by participants directly linked to the shop floor.Sometimes they include organizations that are not unions but are integral to the process.They can turn on a dime and discuss anything they think is relevent." Very unlike traditional union structures.
The article then goes into some interesting detail about how " for more than a century , unions in the USA have cooperated , reluctantly or enthusiastically ,with the US governments foreign policy." To me , this points to another fundamental contradiction because US foreign policy is always in the service of capitalism. Whether we are talking about the Cold War, Vietnam. decades of Latin American intervention (continuing with the AFL-CIO meddling in Venezuela and it's taking government funding for international work) this subservience has undermined unionisms credibility and there are valid questions as to it's ability "to provide an effective counterweight to the inequities of capitalism. This is a race against time, and the stakes are very high. As weak as it is, organized labor, with it's global reach, it's billions in assets, tens of millions of members, thousands of employees and historic vocation for uplifting the downtrodden, is the largest social movement on the planet and perhaps the last, best hope we have for averting the rendezvous with disaster that our profit-crazed economic system seems determined to keep."Obviously then it needs more seperation from government policy and ideology , both at the leadership level and within it's rank and file.
Will unions find the sophistication necessary to deal with China? Will they find a coherent strategy or the semblance of a practicle program for organizing and raising the living standards of the 1.5 billion workers of the Global South ? Efforts such as the revived IWW, the Brussels based textile global union federation , the nine other federations doing such work (previously known as international trade secretariats) , or the new ITUC may be hopeful signs and the "labor movement" is much bigger and more inclusive than simple "organized labor". Wworker centers, NGO's womens ,immigrant, community and research organizations worldwide defend the rights of workers and function as their advocates before governments and the general public.
"Whether we are talking about formal and official mergers of entire institutions or the global networks growing organically with specific campaigns, unions have begun a process of global integration that could prove to be historic." This could also prove to be our last chance to save our societies from the barbaric predations of globally rampaging capital. The very concept of justice is under attack and losing. How many members do we want in our union? At least 30 million!