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
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
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
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:
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!
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).
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
[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].