Back to homepage...

Needed: A New International Labour Movement for
(and against) a Globalised, Networked Capitalism

Peter Waterman

Foregrounding the background

This paper was initially intended solely as a contribution to the `Conference on Organised Labour in the 21st Century' (COL2), sponsored by the International Labour Organisation and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. COL2 is an electronic conference, co-ordinated by the International Institute of Labour Studies of the ILO, and itself a part of the latter's four-year programme on the same topic. At the first stage of the event unionists and academics have been invited to express their own views, in response to a Background Document:

The document indicates such key areas as: changing employment patterns and union membership; changing labour-management relations; public status of unions; challenges of a hostile economic environment; the international economy as a threat to national trade unions. Although the final questions to readers seem to assume nationally-identified contributors or contributions, one also asks whether there are other key issues to be examined. As someone who has been trying for many years to get such a global debate on the future of unionism going between unionists and pro-labour academics, I not only welcome the opportunity but wish to encourage others to contribute - also from beyond the realms of unionism and academia. I consider that an international trade unionism relevant to a 21st century capitalism needs to be reinvented and that such reinvention requires the contributions of all radically democratic individuals and movements world-wide. 

After initial submission, the COL2 co-ordinators suggested I might wish to redraft it in the month before the official opening statements by ILO Director General, Juan Somavia and ICFTU General Secretary, Bill Jordan. Having read these I felt that rather than addressing them directly I wanted to come in from another angle, hoping to both broaden the subject out and to enter it more deeply.

Around the same time, I received an invitation to submit a short item to the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR), for a conference to be hosted by the South African union centre, COSATU, Johannesburg, October, 1999. This is not an event on the labour problem, it is a labour movement even. In form it represents some kind of hybrid between an international union conference (supported by a number of national and international unions) and the kind of networking, coalition or alliance form common to the new social movements. The initiative is considered complementary to, not competitive with, the established international unions: it is intended to create a new space of discussion and to meet new needs. The whole is oriented toward offensive action. In the mind of its Regional Co-ordinator, there appears to lie here some aspiration toward a `global social movement unionism'.

Given the nature of the argument below, the joint address of this present paper seems particularly appropriate. Readers can judge for themselves. Or they can take a look at the draft of a much longer paper on this topic, `International Labour's Y2K Problem: A Debate, A Discussion and a Dialogue', on the Global Solidarity Website,

The electronically-striped, individualised, plastic, advantage-card union

I never leave The Netherlands without my membership card of the Dutch ABVA-KABO union (joined 1972). This is not because it is of any more use or significance beyond the polders than within. It is to show head-shaking unionists, in North America, Latin America and the UK, how even the relatively stable and resistant Dutch trade unions have reduced themselves to the parameters of an individualised, commoditised, informatised, consumer capitalism. The card is made of plastic, carries a bar-code, an electronic stripe, my signature, and offers me insurance and shopping benefits. I have never had cause to use it within the Netherlands, and it is of no use outside - except for my own subversive educational purposes. What was once an international and internationalist social movement has reduced itself - and not only here - to a national wage-earners' service organisation and pressure group. Other national or regional movements find themselves reduced, trapped, bogged down, marginalised or (self-) isolated. But the cause of their problem is the same: they are still working within models developed under a national/industrial/colonial capitalism at a moment in which capitalism is becoming globalised and informatised.

I am convinced that, even for effective defence under our new globalised networked information and service capitalism, unions have to turn themselves back - and forward - into part of a global social movement around work in all its forms. They have, moreover, to address themselves not simply to capital/companies (economic unionism) or state/government (political unionism), or both (political-economic unionism) but also to civil society (socio-cultural unionism). Unions have to win citizens to an awareness of how their lives are dominated by enforced work/lessness, useless or ecologically-destructive work, and its uneven distribution, in all its varied forms. And this new labour movement has to propose realistic-utopian alternatives to such. The reasons for this radical - and hopefully provocative - proposal are spelled out below. They are meant to be relevant to labour globally.


The present era is deeply marked by the globalisation and informatisation of the social relations of capitalism. Globalisation is a phenomenon with economic, political, ecological, gender/sexual, ethnic/racial, military/strategic and communicational/cultural causes/effects. These are increasingly interdependent, making traditional distinctions between `economic base’ and `socio-political-cultural superstructure’ increasingly irrelevant. Capitalism becomes simultaneously omnipotent (bending localities, nations and regions to its demands) and intangible (centred in a global and electronic sphere both out of sight and out of reach). 

The increasing networking, mobility and flexibility of a networked and globalised capital makes the employer/enemy increasingly difficult to pin-down or even identify, whilst generalising commoditisation (competition as the measure, explanation and justification of everything). The terrains of struggle multiply, with those of the local, regional and global relativising the centrality of the nation state (actually the state-defined-nation), or requiring its radical-democratic reinvention. 

Traditional political institutions lose both authority and legitimacy, whilst simultaneously moving from local geographical place (the hustings, the street, parliament) to national/regional/global electronic space (TV, the Internet). This transformation represents a revolution within capitalism at least as profound as that from a craft/local to an industrial/national one.

Social movements on a world scale

The traditional radical-democratic social movement of national and industrial capitalism (labour), or movements of such (labour, nationalism), find themselves replaced - or at least seriously challenged - by those of the new radical-democratic social movements: of women, urban residents, the landless, ethnics, anti-militarism, citizens (human, political, social rights), ecology/consumption, peace, communications/culture. Many wage-earners may invest as much in such interests/identities as in their worker ones. 

Already in the Netherlands of the 1980s, 10-20 times more unionists turned out on the famous peace demonstrations as have ever done on a labour one. It would be a declaration of faith to say this was a temporary aberration. The emancipatory movement of our day is not structurally pre-ordained (by political economy): it is a matter of the dialectic and dialogue between (and within) all such movements. The `new social movements’ are themselves no more ordained to succeed than the old one(s). The old one(s), however, certainly need to re-invent themselves in the light of the new. And the unions have to find a way of communicating to (and within) the others the significance of the struggle against alienated labour.

Relational form

The dominant `relational form' of industrial and national capitalism is the organisation. The national industrial trade union is thus a political form of industrial and national capitalism, as well as an opposition to it, or at least within it. The dominant relational form of a globalised and informatised capitalism is that of the network - which is also the typical form of the new alternative social movements! 

The labour movement has 124 million members in one organisation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and its related International Trade Secretariats (ITSs). What percentage of even unionised Brussels workers know that its headquarters are in Brussels - or even of its existence? The international women’s movement has no single organisation, few formal members, but impacts on the public internationally, has been globally visible and effective. The Fourth World Conference on Women (4WCW), Beijing 1995, communicated to the world via the dominant or alternative international media. It proposed to international civil society a civilisation fit for women - and therefore also for working men and children. The 4WCW proposed new and more-civilised global standards, which simultaneously provided goals and stimuli to women's movements (and working women) world-wide. Despite a century or more of existence, international labour organisations, institutions and standards are less known, on the defensive, and still concerned to appease the international monetary fundamentalists.

The national/industrial trade union, illegitimate child of national and industrial capitalism, had to claim its rights against the guild of local/craft capitalism. A contemporary international movement on labour questions (industrial, office, rural, part-time, sub-contracted, domestic, household) will need to reinvent itself on network lines to be effective in a globalised and informatised world. The old institutions will continue but that they will be increasingly relativised - and simultaneously renewed - by movements networking inside, across and outside.

Culture and identity beyond workplace and union

Actually-existing proletarians and other wage-earners (such as increasingly industrialised/proletarianised/casualised academics) have or share in an immense variety of identities, and cultures that contain the most diverse and contradictory elements. Nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, consumptionism, intolerance, are as much a part of these as are democratic, pluralistic and tolerant attitudes. The development of the latter elements, along with internationalism, environmentalism and anti-militarism, is a matter of the dialectic and dialogue with other social movements, nationalities, classes (which have their own blindspots - often in relation to labour). In opposition to, or at least surpassing, these limitations and blindspots, we need:

  • a recognition within the labour movement of the increasing centrality to society - and its transformation - of the `immaterial’ sphere of communication and culture (e.g. TV, email, the Internet and World Wide Web),
  • a re-specification of solidarity, as an ethic that does not assume identity, and that recognises the value of difference for variety, flexibility and self-renewal.
From internationalism to global solidarity

Internationalism is, etymologically and historically, a relationship between nations, nationals, nationalities and nationalisms. It needs to be today surpassed by a `global solidarity’, recognising global problems, global subjects/citizens, global movements and necessary/desirable global solutions. In one sense, `the global’ is out of reach of labour and other popular sectors/classes. It is represented by institutions and instances to which one can at best send…well…representatives. But a globalised capitalism is one in which locales are also globalised. This implies that one’s local activities must be informed by an understanding of and alternatives to globalism - customarily framed in global dialogues and fora (increasingly on the world-wide web). 

Thinking globally also means thinking holistically. Today, for example, the `national question’, or the `woman question’, or the `labour question’ can no longer find a `national’, `women’s’ or `labour’ solution. Or, if they do, then it is likely to be in essentialist, particularist or fundamentalist terms (which also, it must be remembered, have their own internationalisms and websites!). A new labour internationalism must therefore see itself as just one component of a more general movement of global solidarity.

Emancipating unionism

Who could bring this understanding about? This requires a social movement within the trade unions. Under traditional capitalism the force for turning `economically-conscious' trade-union caterpillars into `politically-conscious' working-class butterflies was provided by a (or the) socialist party. This was sometimes a vanguard and/or internationalist party, often a nationalist socialist party, occasionally a National-Socialist one (the tragic trajectory of communism in Russia during this century). 

Under contemporary conditions, it seems to me, what is required (and often present) is the unionist who is simultaneously and equally a feminist, an ecologist, an anti-militarist, a radical-democrat and an internationalist. They have always been there, anyway, but they today need to have an increasing presence and impact. The new radical-democratic social movements are still often looked on disparagingly, or despairingly (`NGOs', `non-representative', `single-issue', `middle-class'), by state- or capital-fixated labour activists, who cannot see how they could possibly emancipate society in the absence of a (or the) party, a (or the) state. Neither, history tells us, does a social or socialist revolution! The matter is transformed - for both traditional and post-traditional unionists or socialists - if we think not of power but empowerment, not of power as state control but power as civil capacity. 

Empowerment: from margin to centre

These ideas, or closely related ones, are not as marginal as when first proposed 10-15 years ago. They are increasingly common amongst the union left internationally, now beginning to talk about an `international social movement unionism'. But related ideas, possibly rhetorical or attenuated, are becoming increasingly common at both national and international union levels. 

This attests to the `power of marginality', since those proposing such ideas have been both politically and personally marginal to the central institutions of labour - never mind their power-elites or counter-elites. But, in the age of the Internet (consisting, in essence, of a network of nodes), one can be at the margin without being marginalised. If power still rests at the centre, imagination, innovation and freedom abound at the periphery. 

This is the lesson of the Liverpool dockworkers' internationalised strike of 1995-8. This was carried out at the base and at the periphery, as much despite reluctant national and international labour organisations as against the British state, local/national/international capital, and a globalised Thatcherite ideology known as Tina (There Is No Alternative). The movement was defeated - at least against capital and state. But it may just possibly have marked a turning point within the international unionism, as well as showing the labour movement and public that There Is An Alternative (Tiana?). There are increasing such cases, North, South, East, West - and across their increasingly porous or overlapping borders.

A new international labour institutionality

We are, today, increasingly sensitive to the power relations underlying and surrounding, as well as within, our theoretical, ideological, analytical or strategic utterances. The notion of a `Conference on Organised Labour in the 21st Century', that it is hosted by the International Labour Organisation, that it is sponsored by the Director of the ILO and the General Secretary of the ICFTU, that it is an electronic dialogue, that this dialogue is being monitored - all these must be seen as part of the positions presented, and therefore themselves open to analysis and challenge. Here are some first thoughts on these matters.

Both the ILO, as the highest instance of international labour relations, and the ICFTU, as the major international representative of unionism, are today suffering something of an identity crisis. This is clearly a result of a neo-liberal globalisation process which undermines, marginalises and/or circumvents them. In order to be part of the solution, the ILO, ICFTU and related institutions, have to recognise that they are also part of the problem.

Both the ILO and the ICFTU are products of the national/industrial/colonial stage of capitalist development. Both came out of massive (inter)national social movements, conflicts and consequent world wars. Both are literally international in the sense of their constituents being defined by nation-state identity (the Conference invites participants to talk about the `challenges in your own country'). Jointly these institutions have expressed a liberal-cum-social-democratic project of bipartite or tripartite labour relations. The 19th Century `social problem', Labour versus Capital, became the 20th Century `social compromise', with the State as supposedly neutral arbiter. Since 1945 they have shifted the focus of their attention (and funding) from the socially unstable capitalist core to the socially unstable capitalist periphery, and their primary discourse from `industrial peace' to `development'. Whatever achievements may have been recorded over the century, the acceptance of such discourses has meant that labouring people internationally and the international labour movement have been left disarmed before the new, dynamic and aggressive capitalism with which they are confronted.

The crisis of the ILO. The ILO has never been able to enforce the standards it sets. Rhetoric has always been more important than power. And now it is confronting its crisis by further reducing the power and upgrading the rhetoric. Two questions arise here. The first is whether a policy of concession or appeasement is the wise posture to adopt in the face of aggression - here of the world monetary fundamentalists. All labour and democratic history suggests the opposite. The second question is whether the ILO should even be trying to protect or establish a niche as an international financial or economic development institution rather than the international labour rights one. Whatever the case, it does seem clear that the ILO is in need of not simply defence or reform but of re-invention in the light of the labour problem and the relevant social forces, as they exist under globalisation, for the 21st Century. 

The crisis of the ICFTU and ITSs. The ICFTU seems to have been emasculated by not only the neoliberal assault but the very collapse of Communism! The ideological identity, and often fragile cohesion, of the ICFTU has, since its foundation, been largely dependent on being the enemy of its enemy (`Communism', `totalitarianism'). The loss of this has left the ICFTU no enemy other than one which has not only become extremely powerful, aggressive and elusive, but which appears not particularly interested to compete in the International Tripartite Games. It is true that the ICFTU has (following the example of Amnesty International?) proven capable of sharply criticising the USA, the core capitalist state (which combines the maximum of labour rights rhetoric with the minimum national and international application of ILO standards). But in common with the other union internationals it shows little or no capacity to address international public opinion about such issues, far less to mobilise it for visible and effective action. (Of course, as feminists might remind us, emasculation could be empowering if it implied a recognition and admission of vulnerability, and an increase in the caring/sharing qualities traditionally associated with the feminine!).

We are anyway faced with a major new problem concerning what we must call `the principle of articulation for international labour and labour internationalism'. This is not only a matter of union ideology/ies, nor of their varying or even declining representation of not only labour-in-general (therefore including that of women, the casualised, the self-employed) but even the waged/salaried. It is a matter also of the relevance of even meaningfully representative-democratic organisations to both a globalised and networked capitalism and to any kind of labour movement. (Remember that it was a social-democratic thinker, writing of the labour movement as it was taking its present form, who discovered within it the `iron law of oligarchy'!).

It has been suggested above that the appropriate form for movements (national and international) today is that of the network, coalition or alliance. Yet it would be madness to reject the representative-democratic organisation that is, for millions of workers world-wide, their only defence against an increasingly global, aggressive and destructive capitalism. Perhaps the solution lies, precisely, in distinguishing between labour representation and labour movement, between international labour and labour internationalism. The first could be carried by the organisation, the second advanced by the network. But, then, the old international union organisations would still have to take three major steps:

  • The first would be to abandon the notion that they are either the sole or the privileged representative of labour. This is, after all, a privilege that, since it relates to the passing period of national-industrial capitalism, is also a prison. 
  • The second would be to recognise the network and networking as the source of movement and innovation. This would mean welcoming labour and labour-allied networks or NGOs into their fora - including that of the ILO. 
  • The third would be to recognise that the new internationalism is, primarily, a communications internationalism, with electronic media as primary means and global solidarity culture as central value. 
Much of such a programme of reinvention is either implicit or explicit in a plethora of recent, current or proposed international conference, initiated by movements, alliances, coalitions and NGOs, in or between North and South America, South Africa and the Asia/Pacific area.

Just as the networks in and around labour provide the - or at least a major - source for reinvention, so could and should institutionalised international labour be for the ILO. International unionism surely needs to see the ILO less as a fortress that protects it than as a public platform from which it can address not only capital and state but global civil society (here understood as a site of permanent struggle against the ideological and institutional hegemony of market and state). Within the existing ILO labour should, therefore, argue for the inclusion of all relevant expressions of labour discontent (whether women's, environmental, petty-entrepreneurial, rural, etc).

Surpassing the binary opposition between reform and revolution

However radical the proposals concerning labour internationality might seem at first glance, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about them. This is despite the anti-capitalist attitudes and aspirations of this paper. What is being here proposed is a radical reformism informed by a post-capitalist vision. 

The reason for such a `reformist' proposal is that 

    • there is no binary opposition between meaningful reform and realistic radicalism, because
    • each is a condition for the existence of the other, the reformists providing space for the radicals, the radicals providing energy to the reformists, and
    • an open global dialogue on international labour and labour relations cannot but be subversive of national chauvinism, institutional closure, ideological conservatism (left, right and centre) and - of course - world monetary fundamentalism. 
The reason why all this might be particularly true today is because of the growing centrality of cyberspace - as both demonstrated and furthered by COL2 itself! Whoever `invented' and whoever `dominates' it, cyberspace differs quite fundamentally from institutional space, or even from traditional media space (radio, film, TV). Cyberspace is infinite. The computer incorporates a dialectical/dialogical logic. The Web, moreover, potentially surpasses the age-old split between the audiovisual and the verbal (feeling and logic) that went with the just as old division of labour between doers and thinkers. 

Less grandly, but more to the point here, it means that the hypothetical exclusion of this present - or any other - text from COL2, is of minor consequence, except, possibly, for the image of the Conference itself. There are an increasing number of institutionally independent labour lists and websites. And, even if none of them is currently offering such a forum as the ILO/ICFTU is, the cost of creating an appropriate one is a fraction of that of creating an international organisation, an international conference, an international publication. The same, is, of course, true for the non-electronic SIGTUR event!

In conclusion, this:

A globalised and networked capitalism creates the possibility of reinventing labour as an internationalist movement, addressed to society as a whole, aiming not at `a fair day's wage for a fair day's work' (a liberal notion), but at surpassing the continuing capitalist commoditisation of human labour and creativity (the original socialist one).

Back to the top