The New Labor Internationalism
Must be around six months since I wrote an open letter to Barbara Shailor, new international relations honcha at the *new* AFL-CIO. Did the postman only ring once? Doesn't she have really important email and electronic lists scanned by an aide or intern? Does she secretly discrimate against Middle-Aged White Male Hetero Intellectuals of the Marxist Tradition? Doesn't she realise that failing to answer demonstrates the doubts I there expressed about just how new the *new* Labour Internationalism of the AFL-CIO is?
OK, Barbara. No more Mr Nice M-AWMHI(MT)! Open Letters are for Open People! I am going to reveal all to the 1,000+ Concerned Leftie US and Other Citizens who peak, lurk or even chat on (`No, no, Peter, not…ZNet?' `Yes Barbara, you had your chance. Too late to cry Auntie! Heh, heh, heh');.
The story so far.
I was in the US-occupied zone of California, maybe 140-50 years after the invasion, late- 1998. I read Barbara's piece on `A new Internationalism: Advancing Workers' Rights in the Global Economy', in a book on the *new* AFL-CIO, Not Your Father's Union Movement: Inside the AFL- CIO, Verso Books, London/New York, 1998). We, in the Uniting States of Europe, had earlier heard (g)rumbles of the `renewal' or `rebirth' of the AFL-CIO, but I had not followed it in detail. I was therefore doubly impressed: by the book and by her contribution to it. And both impressed and confused by finding in it the term, and many of the arguments, that a number of us - on the margins of the US and international labour movement - had been pressing for 15 years or more.
I don't think there was one of Barbara's mentioned analyses, activities or strategies that had not first been proposed by us - premature? - new internationalists: direct solidarity with women and child workers, labour rights, unionising of new workers, cooperation with NGOs (which we called new social movements), mobilisation of union members for a grassroots labour internationalism, demonstrating and picketing, supporting democratic, militant and accountable unions regardless of ideology, international labour education, changing the attitudes of unions, addressing the `longer term interests of all working people' (154).
I was impressed because, frankly, I never really expected the institutionalised labour movements of North America (or Europe) to accept arguments largely developed out of a profound critique of these organisations. I was confused because I didn't know whether I should feel I had contributed to an amazing victory, been invisibly incorporated or quietly ripped off.
Who were, or are, `we'.
Well, at random, let me mention: Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello (authors of Global Village or Global Pillage?) and Rachel Karmel of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in the US, the Transnationals Information Exchange in Amsterdam, International Labour Reports in the UK, my own Newsletter of International Labour Studies in The Hague (long gone to join ILR in that Great International Labour Archive in the Sky), the South African Labour Bulletin in Johannesburg, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre in Hongkong. All these, and numerous other groups and individuals, were active in the 1970s-80s, arguing for a new kind of labour internationalism.
By the 1990s we were being joined by worker support groups in countries like Russia, India and Australia. In 1995-8 many of our ideas on a shopfloor internationalism - and for the use of the new electronic media to advance such - found dramatic expression in international solidarity with the Liverpool dockworkers in the UK. It is only in the last year or two that we have heard such internationalist sounds from the more-advanced national or international unions in Europe, Canada and the US. And, in the meantime, we have to record that the Liverpool dockers campaign was organised because of the failure of their national and international unions to support them, and despite the active or passive hostility of these. (It also eventually failed at least partly because they did not organise to support them).
It would be gratifying if we were to be given some recognition for years of un- or underpaid solidarity work, always ignored and often condemned by the institutionalised national and international labour organisations. It would be extremely valuable if Barbara were to give public recognition to cases like Liverpool, in which workers themselves pioneered a new internationalism which - as she recognises - should be both for and by workers themselves.
More fundamental, however, for the future would be the opening of a genuinely open and worldwide debate on the meaning of a new kind of labour internationalism. This is because one of the main problems with the old internationalism was, precisely, the refusal of the traditional labour organisations to dialogue with those making criticism or proposing alternative strategies - whether inside or outside the unions, inside or outside the labour movement.
I would myself argue that a new labour internationalism can only be developed through a dialogue of all socially interested parties, in all parts of the world. And, indeed, that we will not know what this new internationalism is until these people have spoken and been heard.
I would further argue that we cannot conceive of a new labour internationalism except as equal partners of the other well-developed internationalisms, which have had much more media expression, much more public and political impact. They have also demonstrated that, under a globalised and networked capitalism, the networking form is more powerful, democratic and flexible than the pyramidical organisation (representative or not).
A gringo student of mine, Aaron Pollack, referred to the new movements in terms of `cross-border, cross-movement' alliances. And the richest case of such has got to be - hey! - not a million miles from the AFL-CIO GHQ, on the frontier/frontera, between Mexico and the USA, just where the shit hits the fan (see the excellent Maquiladora Reader, AFSC, Philadelphia, 1999).
Even recognising and valuing the change of tone, I have to admit to doubts about some elements of the *new* AFL-CIO internationalism as described by Barbara (150-55).
Its *new* Solidarity Center was? still is? apparently going to continue financial dependence on the US state (USAID) and the (corporate-? foundation-? funded?) National Endowment for Democracy;
It was pressing for international labour rights within the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (Whoops! Which irresponsible new internationalists blew it up before the AFL-CIO could responsibly `press' it?)
The AFL-CIO still considers itself `uniquely positioned to provide leadership and a vision for the international trade union movement';
The whole strategy is premised on a `program for the global economy that will share the benefit of economic development with working people'.
What this would seem to amount to is - excuse my language here - a Western-defined, state- funded, US-led, social-democratic strategy for a globalised neo-Keynesianism. In other words, for continued capitalist growth but now with redistribution to workers internationally.
Whilst both I and George Soros would welcome any civilising of mad-dog global capitalism, I see no reason to believe that we can turn the clock back to a political-economic strategy which failed in the past, and the shortcomings of which laid a popular, or at least populist, basis for neo-liberalism. Nor does Barbara provide any grounds for such a belief. The `redistribution from growth' strategy will also run up against the well-known `limits to growth'. It in no way challenges consumerism, which has a powerful grip on ordinary people everywhere (I include myself as ordinary here) but which is also consuming our planet. And it will alienate the national and international ecological movements with which labour should be allied. The strategy has no such broad ethical appeal as attaches to the women's, peace and other such movements - and which explains their attraction to students and other young people. (Right now, in the US, students campaigning against sweatshop labour seem to have a higher profile on labour internationalism than the AFL-CIO).
There is also, to my mind, a major absence in Barbara's argument.
This has to do with the increasing centrality to social and political life of the electronic media and the internet. Labour has been the latest and slowest movement to recognise the value of these in the development of internationalism. It is maybe 15 years behind the ecological movement here. Yet the new internationalisms are, to a large extent, `communication internationalisms', revealing facts internationally concealed, and re-interpreting in democratic, cooperative and human ways those that are internationally known.
And this brings me back to the matter of a broad dialogue on the new internationalism, because the worldwide web is uniquely suited to such. There are already numerous labour, socialist and union sites, operating in several of the world's major languages (I don't know the minor ones, except for Dutch). These pick up and forward items to and from each other. Cyberspace provides a potentially democratic space that is potentially worldwide. (Don't tell me it is a capitalist, statist or elitist medium, dominated by the US, occupied by yuppies, twinkies and kinkies, and inaccessible to the majority of working people worldwide. So were photo and movie cameras and radio stations in the 1920s, which didn't stop the innovatory international worker film, photo, and radio movements using them).
'Smatterafact, the exchange of information and ideas about labour internationalism already exists within my barrio in cyberspace. It was some of the recent postings that wakened this Rip van Winkel from his six-month cybersleep.
Dirt - and ridicule - is surrounding the grave of that veteran AFL-CIO-CIA Cold Warrior, Irving Brown (threw some, concerning Nigerian dockers, 20 years ago myself). Voices suggest that glaznost might accompany perestroika in the International Department of the AFL -CIO. My rude friend Kim Scipes, wants to know what squeaky-clean John Sweeney was or was not doing internationally before the fall of the Wall of Washington. He wants the files on Chile opened - and with no State Department paint job on the revealing bits. (See what I mean by rude?).
Open up, own up, clean up (and answer your Open Letters, Barbara!). Then, and only then, will the AFL-CIO be able to make its full, necessary but modest contribution to a new labour internationalism.