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Needed: A New Language to Contribute to
a New 'International Social-Movement Unionism'

Peter Waterman

The new left and the old unions

In 1997 two journals, representative of the old New Left in Britain and the US, spoke out on globalisation and trade unionism internationally. There was a special issue of the New York-based Monthly Review (MR) on `Labor in the Age of "Global" Capitalism’ (Wood, Meiksins and Yates 1997). And there was a number of the London-based New Left Review (NLR) which, amongst a range of items on globalisation, carried an article by one of the contributors to the MR special, Kim Moody. This had the title `Towards an International Social-Movement Unionism’ (Moody 1997a). Kim Moody had a book on unionism coming out with Verso, the publishing house twinned with NLR (Moody 1997b). He is also the founder-editor of Labor Notes, the Detroit-based monthly newspaper of left trade unionism in the US. For reasons of economy I will address myself primarily to the Kim Moody piece. I want to welcome it, take issue with it and thus contribute to the discussion around the future of trade unionism called for in MR by Ellen Meiksins Wood. 


Social-movementism and internationalism

Kim Moody sees social-movement unionism (SMU) as less an ideology or political tendency than a broad orientation, distinct from either party-led or bargaining-dominated unionisms: 

In social-movement unionism neither the unions nor their members are passive in any sense. Unions take an active lead in the streets, as well as in politics. They ally with other social movements, but provide a class vision and content... That content is not simply the demands of the movements but the activation of the mass of union members as the leaders of change - those who in most cases have the greatest social and economic leverage in capitalist society. Social-movement unionism implies an active strategic orientation that uses the strongest of society’s oppressed and exploited, generally organised workers, to mobilise those who are less able to sustain self-mobilisation: the poor, the unemployed, the casualised workers, the neighbourhood organisations. (Moody 1997a:39)
Other crucial elements of his vision of a renewed unionism include: current worker rebellion against capitalist globalisation (53); that this rebellion can be found across the dominant global triad (US, Western Europe, Japan) and in both the global North and South; that it challenges class-collaborationist and bureaucratic leaderships; the recognition or even embrace of differences within the working class; the reaching out to wider communities of the poor; the required linkage of democracy, solidarity and mobilisation (59). Whilst finding instances or moments of such a cross-sectoral and cross-ideological movement in the North, he considers it to be already exemplified in countries like Argentina, Venzuela, Ecuador, Colombia, South Africa, Brazil and South Korea - the last three of which provide the North with `role models’ (70). 
In the face of a neo-liberal globalisation, a renewed and energised internationalism is an essential part of Kim Moody’s vision: 

 To say that most struggle is ultimately national or even local is not to say that international links, coordination, organisation, and action are not critical to the success of social-movement unionism in today’s globalising international economy. Internationalism must be part of the perspective and practice of union leaders, activists, and members if global capital is to be contained at all. (62) 

He points to a growing understanding by national and international unions of `the contours and vulnerabilities of international production chains’ (57), and mentions a number of cross-border alliances and networks across the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), or between Europe and North Africa. He picks out as exemplary the Amsterdam-based Transnational Information Exchange (TIE) for its role as ginger-group, educator and occasional exemplar. He looks forward to the possibility of such networks going beyond this and eventually impacting on transnational management decisions and changing the rules of the game (64). 


A critique

Kim Moody’s argument is welcome for coming from the heart of the labour left in the USA. It is based on a long, deep and broad knowledge of the union movement nationally and internationally. His argument, furthermore, is not unfamiliar: related or identical ideas have been expressed since the 1980s in, or in relation to, union developments and labour struggles in South Africa, the Philippines, Poland, Brazil, Western Europe and North America. They have found expression in the South African Labour Bulletin (SALB), the Newsletter of International Labour Studies (NILS, 1978-1990, The Hague), International Labour Reports (ILR, 1984-90, UK), Nueva Sociedad (Caracas), Z Magazine (Boston) and in a series of monographs and collections, mostly published in the US or UK, often by South End Press in Boston or Zed Press and Pluto Books in London. 

It is a pity that neither of Kim Moody’s articles goes into these experiences or shows awareness of the literature, two or three significant examples of which were published several years earlier in the US - one of them by MR Press itself (Brecher and Costello 1990, Brecher, Brown and Childs 1993, Brecher and Costello 1994). This literature would have been more worthy of critique than that chosen by Moody or Wood. By arguing only with those to their right, Moody and Wood imply that theirs is the voice of the left. Both the experiences reported and the strategies argued for, in much of this left literature, reveal contradictions that Kim Moody’s NLR piece slides over. I will try to confine myself to two issues here, one related to his understanding of SMU, the other to internationalism. 

Kim Moody’s SMU represents a union alliance with the labouring poor, with leadership in the hands of the well-organised workers, who occupy strategically central positions in capitalist society. and who potentially possess emancipatory consciousness and vision (the underlying argument in the MR collection also). This is a contemporary expression of classical 19th century Marxism. It differs from some versions of Marxism in so far as it takes distance from vanguardism. But it replaces this, I think, by a workerism related to the 19th century anarcho-sindicalist tradition. It represents, implicitly, the expectation that now that Marx’s capitalism has become global, Marx’s working class will fulfil its emancipatory role, socially and internationally. There is, it seems to me, nothing in history to justify this vision, since this rather reveals industrial worker struggles ending in vicious repression, profound class compromises, false utopias - or, most problematically, succesful reform. Contemporary evidence - West, South and East (the ex-Communist world ignored by both Moody and Wood) - points in other directions to those suggested by Moody. The exemplary cases he mentions, such as Brazil and South Africa, reveal attempts at, or moments of, something that could be called social-movement unionism. But the workers here find themselves mired in much the same mud as those of the North, and the unions tend to find themselves increasingly deeply involved in webs of industrial relations institutions, laws and values (Barchiesi 1996 shows that South African unions provide less a `role model’ than another problematic case). The centrality of the industrial or wage-earning working class to capitalist production, distribution and exchange is not necessarily correlated to their primacy in emancipatory struggle. The contemporary Mexican case presented in the MR collection (Roman and Velasco Arregui 1997) demonstrates - despite the authors’ intentions - something quite different. The initiating role and radicalism came from the rural areas, the indigenous minorities, the geographical periphery; and both Zapatistas and radical unions are aiming at democratisation and self-determination (indigenous, popular, national) rather than socialism. Socialist consciousness and transformatory intention rest here, as they so often have, largely in the minds of the authors. I see no way that Moody’s model of a labour/popular alliance could make room even for what is happening next door to the US - for the Canadian Labour Congress’ national conference of gay, lesbian and bisexual workers (Kinsman 1997). We obviously need a model that can. It could start from the belated recognition that Marx’ revolutionary proletariat was a philosophical necessity rather than a sociological discovery (compare Engels’ study of the English working class). 

The internationalism of the working class, also assumed by Marx, is fraught with similar problems. Kim Moody allows for one of these in so far as he recognises that whilst capitalism is increasingly global, workers live and fight nationally or even more locally. Historically, as Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, when workers and unions have had to chose between class and national or ethnic identity, they have tended to opt for the latter. It can be argued that historical labour internationalism was a national internationalism (seeking the right to nations of those who had none, and rights within them for those who had). It can also be argued that proletarian internationalism had most social impact when it was least proletarian (combined with democratic, anti-fascist, pacifist, anti-imperialist internationalisms). Whilst, in the contemporary period, there has been a welcome increase in labour and even union internationalism, this again tends to be most successful when most-closely articulated with other internationalisms (women’s, human rights, ecological/consumer, peace). 

Absences and silences

I do not think that Kim Moody’s 21st century internationalist social-movement unionism can come into existence on the basis of his largely-19th century vocabulary. This is the language of opposition to national and industrial capitalism. He is attempting, with these tried and (t)rusted weapons to slay the dragon of a complex, globalised and informatised capitalism. Just as this new capitalism escapes the vision and reach of national/ist working-classes and unions so it does from Moody’s conceptual vocabulary. Let me suggest a few necessary new concepts or understandings. These relate to globalisation/informatisation, social movements, relational form, identity/culture, and internationalism. These ideas come, incidentally, from another literature ignored by Kim Moody and the MR special. I call it `theoretically critical and politically committed globalisation literature’. 

Globalisation/informatisation. 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 and communicational/cultural causes/effects. These are increasingly interdependent, making traditional distinctions between `base’ and `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). Workers - and other people - are increasingly global subjects, as well as local, national and regional ones, but they are not yet global citizens. The increasing flexibility of a networked and globalised capital makes the employer/enemy increasingly difficult to 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. `Politics’ increasingly moves from geographical place (the hustings, the street, parliament) to 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. The traditional social movement of national and industrial capitalism (labour), or movements of such (labour, nationalism), find themselves replaced - or at least displaced from the centre - by those of the `new’ social movements; of women, residents, ethnics, citizens (human rights), ecological/consumer, peace, communications/culture. Many wage-earners may invest as much in such interests/identities as in their worker ones. The extent to which these interests/identities - including that of worker - are `central to’ or `subversive of’ a globalised and informatised capitalism is not a matter of pronouncement but of experience, experiment and evaluation. In the Netherlands of the 1980s, 10-20 times more unionists turned out on the famous peace demonstrations than have ever done on a union one. In South Korea, in the hot winter of 1996-7, the new unions combined worker and liberal-democratic demands, and temporarily led the cross-class opposition to authoritarianism. The emancipatory movement of our day is not structurally pre-ordained: it is a matter of the dialectic and dialogue between (and within) 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 experience of the new ones. 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 was the organisation. Almost all previously existing forms became subjected to its logic. The national industrial trade union is thus a political form of industrial and national capitalism, as well as an opposition to it. Thus it is that the typical party form of industrial and national capitalism was invented by the German labour movement - the hierarchical and bureacratic political party with its separate and subordinate wings or fronts for workers, women, sports, peace, culture and language (the worker Esperanto movement of the the interwar years). 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 movement. Thus, the labour movement has 124 million members in one organisation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and its related International Trade Secretariats. The International Transport Workers Federation has done as much to prevent as to facilitate international solidarity with the Liverpool dockworkers (for which see below). These organisations are, moreover, invisible to an increasingly global public view. And whilst essential and often effective in defence, and progressive within the parameters of capitalist society, they offer no alternative beyond this. The international women’s movement has no single organisation, few formal members, but impacts on the public internationally, has been globally visible and effective (Beijing), and proposes an alternative civilisation. 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, parttime, sub-contracted, domestic, household) will need to reinvent itself on network lines to be effective today. 

Identity/culture. Marx/Engel’s socially emancipatory and internationalist working class was, as I have said, a philosophical requirement rather than a sociological discovery. Neither the Chartist movement in the UK nor the Paris Commune were as proletarian as Marx and Engels liked to suggest. When the working class failed to act as it `should’, they pulled out of their hat `labour aristocrats’ (class-compromised) and `semi-proletarianised peasants’ (disorganised, anarchic and manipulable). Later Marxists developed vanguard parties and organic intellectuals to tell the empirical working classes what its true class consciousness was. Actually-existing proletarians and other wage-earners (such as academics) have 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 elements. 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: 1) a recognition within the labour movement of the increasing centrality to society - and its transformation - of the `imaterial’ sphere of communication (e.g. email, the internet and World Wide Web), 2) 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. 

Internationalism. This is, etymologically and historically, a relationship between nations, nationalities and nationalisms. It needs to be today surpassed by a `global solidarity’, recognising global problems, global subjects/citizens, global movements and necessary or 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. 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 solely `national’, `women’s’ or `labour’ solution. Or, if they do, then it is likely to be in essentialist, particularist or fundamentalist terms. A new labour internationalism must therefore see itself as just one component of a more general movement of global solidarity. 

A new social unionism

Out of such arguments as those above, I have tried to develop my own understanding of an `international social-movement unionism’ (Munck and Waterman Forthcoming). Indeed, I contributed to the conceptualisation of the `new labour internationalism’ and coined that of `social-movement unionism’ 10-15 years ago (Waterman 1984, 1993). I now use the concepts of the `new global solidarity’ and `new social unionism’. The former points beyond labour and inter-nationalism, suggesting the necessity for labour to place itself within a broader and deeper internationalism. The latter points beyond `economic’, `political’ or `political-economic’ unionism and reminds unions of the necessity to address themselves to civil society and the new social movements as well as capital and state. This new name does not, of course, settle the matter, since `social unionism’ is also the concept preferred by a commission of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), attempting (as it seems to every year or so), to obtain an effective grip on a new, hostile, complex and slippery world order (Collins and Ray 1997, Holdt 1997). My own understandings are offered as a contribution to a debate, in which I hope that organisations like COSATU (or spokespeople for it), Kim Moody, and many others will take part. It certainly overlaps with their understandings in many particulars. And my specification below could certainly be strengthened by theirs. By a new internationalist social unionism I mean that which is: 

1. Struggling within and around waged work, not simply for better wages and conditions but for increased worker and union control over the labour process, investments, new technology, relocation, subcontracting, training and education policies. Such strategies and struggles should be carried out in dialogue and common action with affected communities and interests so as to avoid conflicts (e.g. with local residents, with environmentalists, with women) and to positively increase the appeal of the demands; 

  2. Struggling against hierarchical, authoritarian and technocratic working methods and relations, for socially-useful and environmentally-friendly products, for a reduction in the hours of work, for the distribution of that which is available and necessary, for the sharing of domestic work, and for an increase in free time for cultural self-development and self-realisation; 

  3. Intimately related to the movements of other non-unionised or non-unionisable working classes or categories (petty-commodity sector, homeworkers, peasants, housewives, technicians and professionals); 

  4. Intimately related to other non- or multi-class democratic movements (base movements of churches, women's, residents', ecological, human-rights and peace movements, etc) in the effort to create a powerful and diverse civil society; 

  5. Working for the continuing transformation of all social relationships and structures (`economic', `political', `social', `residential', `domestic', `sexual', `cultural') in a democratic, pluralistic and cooperative direction; 

  6. Related - but a little less intimately? - to political forces (parties, fronts or states) with similar orientations (i.e. which demonstrate their recognition of the value of a plurality of autonomous social forces in an emancipatory and transformatory direction); 

  7. Intimately related to other (potential) allies as an autonomous, equal and democratic partner, neither claiming to be, nor subordinating itself to, a `vanguard' or `sovereign' organisation or power; 

  8. Taking up the new social issues within society at large, as they arise for workers specifically and as they express themselves within the union itself (struggle against authoritarianism, majoritarianism, bureaucracy, sexism, racism, etc.); 

  9. Favouring shopfloor democracy and encouraging direct horizontal relations both between workers and between the workers and other popular/democratic social forces; 

  10. Active on the terrain of education, culture and communication, stimulating worker, popular and alternative culture (up to and including computer-mediated communication), supporting initiatives for democracy and pluralism both inside and outside the dominant institutions or media, locally, nationally, globally; 

  11. Favouring direct shopfloor, grassroots and community contacts and solidarity internationally, both with workers and other popular or democratic forces, regardless of social system, ideology or political identity, in the struggle to create some kind of a global civil society and a global solidarity culture; 

  12. Open to networking both within and between organisations, understanding the value of informal, horizontal, flexible coalitions, alliances and interest groups to stimulate organisational democracy, pluralism and innovation. 

The problem of agency and organisation 
The British socialist labour specialist, Richard Hyman, once responded to an earlier version of my argument in a tone that suggested both his attraction to it and his scepticism about it (compare his five scenarios for European unionism in Hyman Forthcoming). He wrote, if I remember correctly, `who is going to bring this about?'. This was a question that had arisen in my (hopefully) realistically-utopian mind, though possibly with less force than in that of someone more embedded in and aware of the nature of actually-existing unionism. The answer is, of course, that `social-movement unionism' 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. Under contemporary conditions, it seems to me, what is required (and often anyway 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 social movements are still looked on disparagingly, or despairingly, by state- or capital-fixated socialists, who cannot see how they could possibly transform anything in the absence of a (or the) socialist party . This problem has occurred to me, also, since it is evident that even ten social-movement swallows do not necessarily make a post-capitalist summer. Neither, history tells us, does a social or socialist revolution. The continuing nation-state focus of of Kim Moody (and the nation-state fixation of Wood) suggests their continued attachment to the notion of this as the privileged instrument of socialism - patriotism as the last refuge of socialists? The matter is transformed - for both traditional and post-traditional socialists - if we think not of power but empowerment, not of power as control but power as capacity. How can, how will, this be increased? 


Communicating a radical-democratic unionism and internationalism

Here we can reflect on the experience of the United States - and the `subject position’ of Kim Moody. The major principle of coordination amongst militant unionists in the United States may well be his monthly Labor Notes. Labor Notes, which is not controlled by any union, circulates widely both within and beyond the US, organises an important annual conference, and produces much-respected handbooks. This periodical has played a significant role in supporting the significantly-named `democratic caucuses' within some of the major US unions. The monthly is (or was) actually a project of a minuscule Trotskyist party, smart enough to hide any Marxist-Leninist light under a militant union bushel. In the fateful year of 1989 I had some 24 fascinating hours with these people. I spent the day with the magazine. In the evening I was invited to a fund-raiser for the party. Here the eminently pragmatic left unionist journalists were transformed, Jekyl-and-Hyde, into the true-believing talmudic scholars of Leninism, familiar from my Communist youth. (Or maybe there were two shifts, with the ideologists replacing the pragmatists - I had already had several glasses of expensive, fund-raising, wine). I remember kicking myself for getting involved in a polemic in which the memorable phrases (theirs or mine) were `what about Kronstadt?’, `what about the militarisation of the Soviet unions?’ 

Now for Lenin, Iskra, his pre-revolutionary newspaper, was also a pre-party form. But that was under the marginally-industrial and marginally-capitalist conditions of tsarist Russia. Today, it would seem, the relationship is reversed: organisation is surpassed by communication. Guarantees against any such type or product of communication seeing itself, or being perceived, as the Vanguard Periodical, are provided by other publications, and by other means of communication that are less expensive, less organisationally demanding and less `one-to-many'. Computer mediated communication (CMC), for example, is increasingly employed for exchange of information and ideas within and between national and international labour and other social movements (Lee 1997). 

It is, incidentally, the Internet, the World Wide Web and an increasingly multinodal and multimodal cyberspace, that holds out the promise of global effectivity to working people who are admitedly rooted in national, local or enterprise spaces. Both Kim Moody and the MR Special are nervous about the global as space for effective working-class presence, action and impact. They tend to discuss it in negative terms, as being not or not necessarily excluded from a nationally- or locally-based internationalism (a re-born nationalist internationalism?). Yet the truly amazing international campaign in solidarity with a handful of Liverpool dockers, itself mentioned by Kim Moody, has revealed the combination of traditional means and forms (international conferences, collections and donations, exchange visits, common or complementary protest activity) with the use of email, an electronic mail list and a web site. The computer-mediated communication has itself largely rested on the activity of an unemployed Cambridge worker and ex-vanguardist, Chris Bailey (who told me, bemusedly, that he had done more, with a friend, for international solidarity, in a couple of years on the Net, than in 20 years within his former party). The global electronic space created by the movement of solidarity with the dockers is one that has already allowed for a cross-national and cross-class dialogue, circumventing repeated efforts by both national and international unions to ignore, destroy or control the movement. As the internet and TV merge, workers, or the computerwise children thereof, will have both the motivation and the means to do this with even less `mediation’ than at present. 

Conclusion: The Need for Recognition and Dialogue in Creating a 21st Century Unionism 

 I had just finished writing this when three things happened. 

1. I was made aware of a Global Labour Summit organised by the Danish General Workers Union, early-summer 1997 (General Workers Union 1997). The discussion document for this event makes clear that it is an attempt to create a global social-democratic project for the 21st century. This is a welcome sign that the labour movement is recovering from the `present shock’ of neo-liberalism and globalisation. Remarkable is that - in its recognition of the importance of the new social movements, global arenas and cyberspace - this old institutionalised left is often in advance of the Moody position. Oh, and it can be found on a World Wide Web site that also promises space for debate at:

  2. I received an invitation from the Korean labour movement to attend the Seoul International LaborMedia ‘97 Conference (LaborMedia 1997). This revealed the extent to which the Korean movement is conscious of the role of both media and the Internet in creating international solidarity. Although currently representing here the most advanced union model, this was not how the Korean participants presented themselves, being highly sensitive to contributions from the - mostly marginal - pioneers of internationalist labour communications from abroad. 

3. In September, the ICFTU traded in its dull bi-monthly bulletin, Free Labour World, for an illustrated monthly, reminiscient of the important, but equally marginal, international labour monthly of the 1980s, International Labour Reports. Its second issue had four pages on unions in cyberspace, which even provided space for the electronic activity of the problematic Liverpool dockers (David 1997a, b). 

These cases and contributions suggest to me that a new international social-movement unionism is, and has to be, a matter of a dialogue between all left, democratic and internationalist tendencies, rather than being pronounced or claimed - even implicitly - by one. This in turn implies recognition of the contribution of the customarily-excluded Other. We therefore need not only new terminology but new styles of acting and speaking, which overcome sectarianism, authoritarianism and politicking. The Internet does not guarantee this, but, with its infinite space and flexibility, it allows for it in a way that the old union and political organisations of the working class, national and international, have not. Maybe we therefore need a new slogan for 1998, 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto: `Workers of the World, Relate!’ 


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