Building global labor solidarity – challenges and opportunities

This article appeared in the Labor Day issue of Democratic Left.

In 1847, when Marx and Engels issued their ringing call for workers of all countries to unite, it fell on deaf ears. However, by the 1890s, trade unions had begun to operate across borders, creating permanent institutions that are today known as “global union federations,” which unite transport workers, food and agriculture workers, journalists, teachers and others.

These federations, which have lasted for more than a century, are at the heart of the global labor movement. They represent the promise of working-class internationalism.

But the global union federations have never had the resources to play the role envisaged for them by such pioneers as Edo Fimmen, who headed up the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in the inter-war years. Fimmen saw these industrial federations, and not the organization now known as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), as the heart of a true global working-class movement.

The global union federations include as members individual national unions, not national trade union centers. So, while the ITF will have the Teamsters as one of its U.S affiliates–and thus be only one step removed from actual workers on the shop floor–the ITUC has as its U.S. affiliate the AFL-CIO, which is somewhat more distant from the shop floor.

It was only in the 1970s, with the rise of what is now called “globalization,” that serious thought was given to turning these incipient global unions into what Charles “Chip” Levinson would call a “countervailing power” to the multinational corporations. In Levinson’s view, it was only a matter of time until employers would be compelled to bargain collectively with global union federations directly.

At the core of Levinson’s vision when he headed the international chemical workers federation (now a part of IndustriALL) were “company councils,” which consisted of worker representatives from transnational corporations who would meet to share ideas and experiences, and to plan strategy. The idea was only a limited success as the costs of flying in representatives of unions from all over the world eventually proved to be prohibitive. Levinson’s counterpart in the International Union of Food Workers (IUF), Dan Gallin, was also a strong advocate of powerful, independent global unions to counter the growing power of transnational corporations.

It was not until the advent of the Internet in the 1990s that unions were finally able to overcome the very high costs of communication and transportation and begin to truly challenge corporate power across borders.

The global union federations, including the ITF, IUF and IndustriALL, were quick to embrace the net, and were among the first avid users of email back in the 1980s.

In a recent example of how global unions work in this new environment, we need only look at the reaction to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in April 2013 in which more than 1,000 workers, mainly in the garment industry, were killed in a building collapse. IndustriALL was able to campaign online and off with considerable success, eventually forcing most of the global clothing brands to contribute to a relief fund.

In addition to the traditional, formal structures using the new technology, entirely new formations exploited the developing technology in order to realize a very old vision of working-class internationalism.

Foremost among these has been the LabourStart project, founded in 1998. LabourStart was born as a news aggregator, a website where several hundred volunteers regularly post links to news stories about workers and unions in more than 30 languages. They post on average 250 such stories a day, or more than 90,000 every year, making LabourStart the best source of online news for trade unionists.That news is widely syndicated to hundreds of other trade union websites.

For the last decade or more, LabourStart has become known increasingly as the international trade union movement’s campaigns platform, a place where unions can mobilize thousands of activists to challenge corporate power and to defend workers’ rights where they are under attack.

As I write these words, in the summer of 2015, LabourStart is currently working with global unions on a half dozen online campaigns, including a demand for the release of a jailed Iranian teacher trade unionist, a call for a forestry company in Malaysia to stop union busting, and a campaign to pressure the Chinese government to stop targeting pro-labor non-governmental organizations.

LabourStart has also become a network of over 130,000 trade unionists who can be mobilized in a matter of hours in a way that was unimaginable even two decades ago. Using that network, those campaigns have resulted in a number of significant wins, including getting trade unionists released from jail, forcing employers back to the bargaining table, ending lockouts and helping unions win strikes.

But the new technology is a double-edge sword. Companies have access to the same technologies, but with much more money. When we flood their inboxes with messages of protest, we also give them the opportunity to write back to thousands of our supporters, giving their point of view. Unions are not always prepared to effectively answer in these cases.

The activists involved in those campaigns and that news service come together every year or so in “global solidarity conferences” which have been held recently in London, Berlin, Sydney and Istanbul. In 2016, there will be another in Toronto. These conferences are unlike anything else in the international labor movement as they are open to all trade unionists to attend.

Despite the benefits of new technology, global trade union solidarity is still far from a reality. The existing bureaucratic structures of unions sometimes do slow things down and stand in the way. Unions, as everyone who works in them will be aware, are often the most conservative institutions.

Even when unions, and particularly global union federations, get it right, there remain challenges, not least of which is the problem of language. With more than 6,000 spoken languages in the world, and machine translation still not perfect, unions that are serious about global solidarity are obliged to spend ever-increasing sums on interpretation and translation.

Unions are divided over how to relate to the Chinese working class, with some (particularly in the top leadership of the ITUC) urging some kind of constructive engagement with the existing state-controlled “unions” while others hold fast to the traditional Western union stance of working only with independent, genuine unions (which remain illegal in China).

And China’s not the only government that represses trade unions. The ITUC’s annual report on trade union rights around the globe always makes headlines with its chilling statistics regarding how many trade unionists were murdered in the previous year.

And even if union leaders get everything right, there remains the problem of what used to be called “class consciousness”–working people who do not yet fully understand that the things which unite us as a class are far more important than the things that divide us, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion and race.

We see this in the unfortunate call by former British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown for “British Jobs for British Workers” and the use of “Buy American” as a synonym for “Buy Union” among some trade unionists in the United States.

It’s not about defending our jobs against other workers who are competing for them; it’s about building solidarity across borders and cultures and languages. That means support for migrant workers, solidarity with countries like Greece fighting against austerity, and a strategy toward China that focusses on building genuine independent trade unions from the ground up.

Even with those challenges, I’m convinced that the vision of Marx and Engels, Fimmen and Levinson, will become real, and sooner rather than later. This is true due to the combination of the powerful traditions of trade union solidarity with the very latest technologies that make that solidarity possible.

The workers of the world will unite, and they’ll be using their tablets and smartphones to do it.