Every magazine and newspaper in the world is going to have to rewrite their end-of- year surveys to reflect the significance of the events of September 11th — and this is just as true for the labour movement.
Prior to September 11th, most of what was happening in the world of labour was a continuation of events from the previous year and years. The global economy was moving into recession; social democratic governments, elected with the support of unions, were often proving inadequate to the job; a grassroots rebellion against capitalist globalization seemed to be brewing, with big demonstrations in Genoa, Melbourne, Seattle, London, Prague and elsewhere.
All of that, and more, changed forever when knife-wielding terrorists hijacked four US airplanes and slammed them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the fields of Pennsylvania.
The recession which had been building up slowly suddenly burst forth with volanic power. Hundreds of thousands of workers were immediately layed off, with some sectors utterly devastated — such as the airline industry, hotels and tourism. New York City suffered not only thousands of deaths but tens of thousands of layoffs as businesses fled as far away as they could from Ground Zero.
The anti-globalization movement, as it came to be known, which had gone from strength to strength, was suddenly paralyzed and speechless. In Qatar, the World Trade Organization was able to meet for the first time without having to cope with mass street demonstrations, and took a range of decisions which spell bad news for workers everywhere.
Moderate left-wing governments, such as Tony Blair’s New Labour, which had previously faced the threat of trade union rebellions against their policies of privatization, suddenly found themselves popular once again, as unions rallied around nation and flag in the early days of the war against terror.
On top of all this came the anthrax attacks — working people around the USA, particularly postal workers, were the primary victims as fears of biological attack spread throughout workplaces around the globe. Unions played a key role in spreading accurate information, demanding that employers take precautionary measures, and so on, in the first major health and safety crisis of the twenty-first century.
The September 11th events had an extraordinary effect on the unions worldwide: for the first time in living memory, trade unions around the globe united in condemning an act of terror. Unions from Cuba to Israel, including unions in Muslim countries like Palestine and Pakistan, rushed to condemn the terrorist attack in unequivocal terms. For the first time, the formerly-Stalinist World Federation of Trade Unions was in agreement with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The lion, it seemed, was laying down with the lamb.
But it was not to last. The US decision to launch military operations in Afghanistan ripped the coalition asunder, with some unions rushing to condemn the attacks (the South African and Korean unions come to mind) while others offered unqualified support to Operation Enduring Freedom (with the American unions in the lead).
The year ended with a trade union movement which had briefly united now once again bitterly divided over the war. More important, unions faced new challenges, such as an erosion of civil liberties and massive layoffs, for which they were utterly unprepared.
The world that existed before September 11th is no more, and unions — like everyone else — have to adapt to a new world, one which is more frightening and full of uncertainty. In such a time, unions will be needed as never before to protect the interests of working people and to preserve the possibility of a better world.