Back to that first International?

This article was published in Solidarity.

A century and a half ago, workers’ leaders from a number of European countries met in St. Martin’s Hall in London under a banner proclaiming “All men are brothers.” The organisation they founded has come to be known as the First International.

Last week at the giant Bella Center in Copenhagen, a much larger conference representing many more workers was held. The organisation it formed was called IndustriALL Global Union.

If I seem to be comparing the two events, it’s not to wrap IndustriALL in the glory of that legendary First International. It’s because the parallels where they exist are not flattering.

The First International was Eurocentric, male-dominated and paralysed by in-fighting. While some of its leaders such as Marx and Engels had a clear view of the direction the workers’ movement must follow, others were — to put it mildly — cranks. The First International was not a Marxist organisation in spite of Marx’s participation in it. It was not even social democratic, as many of its members were anarchists. And it lasted for little more than a decade. It wasn’t until the formation of the Second International in 1889 that one could speak of a global organisation of workers united behind socialist ideas.

IndustriALL was meant to be the biggest and most powerful of the global union federations, which are unions of unions around the world organised by sector or profession. It’s a merger of three existing federations, some of which have histories going back more than a century. These were the metal workers; the chemical, energy and mine workers; and the textile, leather and garment workers. The first day of the congress was taken up by the business of dissolving those three global unions.

What followed was a bit reminiscent of the First International, but not in a good way.

The Latin American delegates noisily walked out, furious at their reduction in representation on IndustriALL’s Executive. As they pointed out, in one of the key global union federations that had just dissolved itself (the metal workers), Latin America had 15% of the seats. That was reduced to 10%. They felt they were being cut out and replaced by powerful and rich northern European unions including Germany and the Nordic countries. As one them put it in a speech to congress, “one dollar one vote” was “a bourgeois form of democracy”. They wanted the leadership of the organisation to reflect the size of the working class, not how rich it was.

They were not the only ones to feel under-represented. The report from the Credentials Committee noted in passing that about 22% of the congress delegates were female. Only one of the eight elected officers was a woman. And in creating the Executive, there was little effort to ensure equal participation by women, who were allocated, at best, about 30% of the seats.

This contrasts sharply with the practice at other global union federations. For example, the food workers (IUF) required delegations to its recent congress to be at least 40% female. Delegations that didn’t meet that requirement lost votes. When a male European delegate rose to challenge this, the IUF general secretary basically said, “tough.”

The Copenhagen launch of IndustriALL was supposed to be a celebration, so there was little in terms of politics. A ten point action plan was adopted committing the federation to global organizing, democracy and so on. Resolutions were passed against precarious work and for democracy in Fiji. An online campaign was launched to support striking Spanish miners.

But there was none of the sharp ideological edge one used to find in some of the global union federations. The former leader of the International Metalworkers Federation, Herman Rebhan, was a staunch anti-Stalinist, having battled against the American Communist Party in his days working side by side with Walter Reuther in the United Auto Workers. So was the former leader of the chemical workers, Charles “Chip” Levinson. Levinson was a pioneering advocate of global trade unionism, and also an iconoclast. His book, Vodka-Cola, published in the late 1970s, made the argument that Stalinist states had become junior partners in a globalized capitalist world. Both Rebhan and Levinson came out of the North American unions during the time of the cold war, and had politics that we might recognize today as being not far removed from the third camp politics of Max Shachtman’s organisation.

The politics of their successors is somewhat more muddled. At the opening congress of IndustriALL, congratulatory videos were shown featuring the exiled leader of the Mexican mine workers, Napoleon Gomez, and the Australian Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard. That made sense. But videos were also shown featuring Noam Chomsky (whose connection to the trade union movement is tenuous at best) and then one featuring a vice president of Nike.

The last of these reflected a view common among the powerful European unions, which is that some kind of “social partnership” needs to be reached with companies like Nike, which have very poor records of respecting workers’ rights or recognising unions. This view is probably not shared by the Spanish miners who face daily confrontations with armed police.

It would be a great thing if IndustriALL succeeds. The world does need large, strong global union federations.

But when I think about the relative absence of women, the domination by established and powerful European unions, the ideological muddle — I am unfortunately reminded of the the First International, which never did live up to its promise.