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Needed: A Global Dialogue on the
'New Labour Internationalism'

An open Letter to Barbara Shailor, Director of
International Affairs, AFL-CIO

Peter Waterman

Dear Barbara:

I am writing to you as one new labour internationalist to another. That's why I am taking the liberty of using your first name. Well, actually, I am writing to you as an old new labour internationalist to a new new labour internationalist! I would like to invite you to an open global dialogue on the new labour internationalism.

I have just read your piece on `A New Internationalism: Advancing Workers' Rights in the Global Economy', in a book on the new AFL-CIO, Not Your Father's Union Movement: Inside the AFL-CIO, Verso Books, London/New York, 1998). (It's an amazing publication and I hope you will buy in bulk and re-sell it, at least abroad, at less than the present $20. A Spanish-language edition could make it accessible to Latino/Latina activists both in the US and in the rest of the hemisphere).

I had heard about the 1995 rebellion against the old leadership of the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) and the revival of this confederation of US (and some Canadian) unions. Although I was delighted by this revival of the petrified AFL-CIO, fired by a wave of rank-and-file activism and union revival, I had not followed the developments in detail. I was therefore doubly impressed both by the book and by your contribution to it. And then pleasurably surprised - even somewhat disoriented - by finding in your article a term, and many of the arguments, that a number of us - on the margins of the US and international labour movement - have been pressing for 15 years or more!

I don't think there is one of the your new international analyses, activities or strategies that was not first proposed by us premature new internationalists: direct solidarity with women and child workers, labour rights and standards, the unionising of new workers, cooperation with non-governmental organisations, the mobilisation of union members for a grassroots labour internationalism, demonstrations and pickets, the supporting of foreign unions - so long as they are democratic, active and accountable - regardless of ideology, international labour education, changing the attitudes of national unions, addressing the `longer term interests of all working people' (154). 

I am impressed because, although I supported internationalist developments within the old institutions, I never deeply expected the 100-year-old unions of Europe and North America to accept arguments that sprang out of a profound critique of these organisations! I don't yet know whether I should feel gratified, incorporated or ripped off by the AFL-CIO's adoption of the new internationalism. I am, however, quite pleased to be in this state of confusion.

Who were, or are, `we'. Well, at random, let me mention some of us: Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello (authors of Global Village or Global Pillage) and the periodical Labor Notes in the US, the Transnationals Information Exchange in Amsterdam, the now-deceased International Labour Reports in the UK, my own, equally-deceased, Newsletter of International Labour Studies in The Hague, the on-going South African Labour Bulletin in Johannesburg and the Asia Monitor Resource Centre in Hongkong. All these, and numerous past and present groups and individuals, were active in the 1970s-80s, arguing for a new kind of labour internationalism. In the 1990s we were joined by worker support groups in countries like Russia, India and Australia. Most of these additionally favoured worker-community alliances, as well as intimate cooperation between the old labour and new social movements.

In 1995-8 many of our ideas on a shopfloor internationalism - and for the use of the new electronic media to advance such - found dramatic expression in international solidarity with the Liverpool dockworkers in the UK. It is only in the last year or two that we have heard such sounds from the more-advanced national or international unions in Europe, Canada and the US. And, in the meantime, we have to remember that the Liverpool dockers' campaign was organised because of the failure of their national and international unions to support them, and despite the hostility of these to what one of them once called `strike tourism'. If these waterside internationalists had had the support of the new internationalism you claim to represent, would they have not won rather than lost their heroic strike?

Many of `us', incidentally, were or are in the church, socialist and solidarity NGOs the AFL-CIO is now talking about collaboration with. It is not clear to me, however, whether you are using this term as a synonym for `social movements' (peace, environment, human rights, women, etc). The distinction has to be made because the term `NGO' is often used by unions in a disparaging or belittling way. The fact is that even such NGOs as I have mentioned above were internationalist and movement-oriented, at a time when the AFL-CIO and other such national and international unions concentrated their international activities on the lobbying, conference-attending, declaration-issuing, confidential or clandestine activity of a handful of officers. 

It would be gratifying if the activist pioneers were to be given some recognition for years of un- or underpaid solidarity work, customarily ignored and often condemned by the institutionalised national and international labour organisations. It would be extremely valuable if you were to give public recognition to cases like Liverpool, in which workers themselves have pioneered a new kind of internationalism which - as you recognise - should be both for and by workers themselves.

In so far as the AFL-CIO is now involved in Gorbachov-style perestroika (restructuring) and glaznost (transparency), then I think many foreign union victims - of what was often called the `trade union imperialism' of what was often called the AFL-CIO-CIA - would like the new leadership to be upfront about the former leadership's foreign relations. 

Indeed, it would seem to be in the interest of both the new leadership and of the new labour internationalism, if you were to open the archives, so that interested unions and researchers could have access to a long and shabby history of US union collaboration with (multi)national corporations, the State Department, and even its security, espionage and sabotage operations in the international labour movement. The Soviet state and Communist Party archives are now open to the people of Russia and the world. I am sure that you support this. And I am sure you would not want the AFL-CIO to be unfavourably compared to these notoriously secretive and anti-democratic bodies. 

The new AFL-CIO leadership could, for example, make its own contribution to the campaign against the former Chilean dictator Pinochet if it revealed to what extent US unions helped him to bring down the democratic regime there, and whether or not they then collaborated with Pinochet after his coup.

More fundamental, however, for the future would be the opening of a genuinely open and worldwide discussion on the meaning of a new kind of labour internationalism. This is because one of the main problems with the old internationalism was, precisely, the refusal of the dominant labour organisations (right and centre as well as `left') to dialogue with those making criticism or proposing alternative strategies - whether inside or outside the unions, inside or outside the labour movement. 

There was always the explicit or implicit assumption that a particular union leadership, a particular organisation, a particular labour tradition or socialist ideology, were the best or only expression of either labour internationalism, or of internationalism as a more general political phenomenon.

Although I have myself tried to define the principles of a new labour internationalism, I have also argued that such can only be developed through a dialogue of all socially interested parties, in all parts of the world. And I have suggested that we will not know what this thing actually is until these people have spoken and been heard. 

I have further argued that we cannot conceive of a new labour internationalism except as equal partners of the other well-developed new internationalisms (women, ecology, peace, human-rights, indigenous peoples), which have much more media expression, much more public and political impact. 

I think, moreover, that the new internationalisms have also demonstrated that, under a globalised and networked capitalism, the networking form is more powerful, democratic and flexible than the pyramidical organisation (representative or not). This may be the reason that whilst the AFL-CIO is preaching a new labour internationalism, it is the new social movements and NGOs that seem to both publicising and practising it. You mention in your article the plight of the 40,000 Asian workers being explited in the US-controlled Northern Mariana islands (147). But when, early-January 1999, this story hit the international radio and TV news, due to a legal case being brought against GAP and other US/transnational clothes retailers, I noted the customary NGO-network being named, but there was no word, sign or symbol of the AFL-CIO. Perhaps it was involved, in which case you could inform me accordingly.

I also have other questions in my mind about some elements of the new AFL-CIO internationalism as described by yourself. These could also be a matter for a public exchange of information and ideas: 

      The new Solidarity Center is apparently going to continue the old financial dependence on the US state (USAID) and the (corporate-funded?) National Endowment for Democracy (151);The new AFL-CIO considers that, because it organises so many workers employed in transnationals, it is `uniquely positioned to provide leadership and a vision for the international trade union movement' (152);The whole strategy is premised on the creation of a `vibrant global economy that will life up working people throughtout the world' (155).
This could be interpreted as a Western-defined, state-funded, paternalistic, social-democratic strategy for a globalised neo-Keynesianism. In other words, a policy for continued capitalist and corporate growth but, this time, with redistribution to workers internationally. In at least one element it is already outdated. Whilst you are calling for labour rights within the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (150), movement-oriented and internationalist NGOs have severely damaged and possibly killed it!

Whilst I would welcome any civilising of our present mad-dog global capitalism, I see no particular reason to believe that we can depend on an essentially national political-economic strategy which failed in the past, and the shortcomings of which contributed to the success of neo-liberalism. Nor do you provide any grounds for such a belief. The `redistribution from growth' strategy also runs up against the well-known `limits to growth'. It in no way challenges consumerism, which has a powerful appeal to ordinary working people everywhere - but which also happens to be consuming our planet! This policy will therefore alienate the national and international ecological movements (particularly its `social justice' tendency) with which labour should, surely, be allied. The strategy has no such broad ethical appeal as attaches to the women's, peace and other such movements - and which explains their attraction to millions of young people - the workers of the future. These things also require a discussion, involving the people and movements concerned.

There is also, to my mind, a major lacuna in your argument. This has to do with the increasing centrality to social and political life of the electronic media and the internet. Labour has been the latest and slowest movement to recognise the value of these in the development of internationalism. It is maybe 15 years behind the ecological, peace and human rights movements here. Yet the new internationalisms are, to a large extent, `communication internationalisms', revealing facts internationally concealed, and re-interpreting in democratic, cooperative and human ways those which are internationally known. (It was with the significant help of the internet that the MAI was first made known publicly and internationally, then revealed as an anti-worker, anti-democratic, anti-ecological tool of globalised capital). When, incidentally, I tried to find your department, via the website address in the book, I discovered only an AFL-CIO publicity page, which has no discussion or feedback feature, gives no email addresses for departments, and of which the only `participatory' element encourages visitors to address the US Congress rather than their own organisation!

And this brings me back to the matter of a broad dialogue on the new internationalism, because - as the Liverpool Dockers' Site demonstrated - the worldwide web is uniquely suited to such. There are already numerous labour, socialist and union sites, operating in many of the world's major languages. These pick up and forward items to and from each other. Cyberspace provides a potentially democratic space that is simultaneously worldwide. Increasing numbers of trade unions, labour activists, labour academics and labour media people have access to it. And this is as true for the former Soviet Bloc and Third World as it is for the industrialised capitalist North-West of the world. Indeed, for some of the former it plays a more crucial role than in the West, precisely because of absence or lack of access to other media.

I am now putting this letter on my own new (if roughand ready site), and sending it to a number of other websites or electronic lists, as well as mailing it to you. I am confident of receiving a response and look forward to it. I can provide samples and references for the various statements made above should you require them. I very much hope that this open letter will launch an ongoing discussion on the future of labour internationalism.

Finally, let me say that I have no doubt that US workers and unions will make a major contribution to the development of a new internationalism. I am aware of many kinds of struggle and forms of solidarity they have pioneered over the last decades. But the extent of its contribution will surely depend precisely on the extent to which it listens, discusses and learns. It is support from below or behind, not leadership from outside or above, that will grow a new internationalist ethic and activity amongst workers internationally.


Peter Waterman

[Peter Waterman is the author of Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms, Mansell, London/New York, 1998, and co-editor of Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alternatives for Trade Unionism in the New World Order (Macmillan, London/St Martins, New York, 1999].

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