|Dear Bill Jordan:
I write to you as one lifelong
member of the British and international labour movement to another. Did
I also read somewhere that you, like me, were born in 1936?. I am aware
of writing as a marginal intellectual member of such to the leader of the
predominant international trade union organisation; and as a retired academic
to an organiser; and as someone always associated with the Left (Communism
and the World Federation of Trade Unions in the past, with 'the new social
unionism' and 'the new labour internationalism' today) to someone I understand
has been long-associated with the Centre or Right.
All this is, however, just
to be explicit about where I am coming from and what my assumptions are.
Because what I want to deal with is the future of the ICFTU, by far the
biggest international organisation of organised labour - a matter which
goes beyond these occupations, ideologies or identities. The tens of millions
of workers already affiliated to the ICFTU represent the largest organised
mass resource for a new internationalism and a global civil society. Its
future should therefore be of concern also to all labour activists, to
ordinary working people (waged or not), and to the growing number of radical-democratic
social movements active internationally - women's, ecological, human rights,
consumer, cultural / communicational, indigenous peoples, etc.
I do not want to go into
the history of the ICFTU and international labour since this has been often
commented on and discussed through the years, in the South African Labour
Bulletin and elsewhere (Waterman 1999). We can, in any case, expect a discussion
of the historical role of the ICFTU to follow publication of the first
substantial history of the organisation, due out shortly.
What I want to raise here
are questions concerning the relationship of the ICFTU to globalisation,
as raised by yourself for public discussion worldwide - or at least on
the worldwide web. I am referring to your opening address (Jordan 1999)
to the electronic conference on `Organised Labour in the 21st Century'
(OL21), co-sponsored by the ICFTU and the International Labour Organisation
(ILO), which began in 1999 and continues at the time of writing. Your paper
is, I feel, an eminently clear, wide-ranging and innovative document, revealing
the extent of the ICFTU's response to a globalised and informatised world
capitalist (dis)order. I am not aware of any full and direct response to
this on the OL21 Website and, in any case, your paper deserves much wider
circulation and discussion than it could
possibly receive there.
What I want to comment on
is the relationship of the ICFTU with: capital, state, with the unions,
with working people generally, and with civil society globally.
Capital. At a time in which
capitalism is dynamic and triumphant, both geographically and ideologically,
and an increasing threat to unions, workers - and even the ecological basis
of human life - this word only appears in your paper dressed up, or cut
down, as 'the economy', 'employers', 'multinationals', 'corporations'.
Whilst you condemn the destruction wrought by globalisation, what I call
capitalism is still therefore presented by you as something unions do or
could not only civilise, but as an actual or potential 'social partner'.
The terms you employ, the 'social partnership' you promote, relate to the
passing era of national, industrial capitalism. This 'partnership' did
not prevent the brutal attack on labour by a globalised neo-liberal capitalism.
I do not see how it could, today, do more
than create a more-civilised
but equally powerful and unpredictable capitalism, benefiting at best temporarily,
at most a minority of workers and unionists, in a minority of countries.
Using the words capital, capitalism, capitalists enables
us to recognise a global
social structure, a historical process, ideology and values, a class -
beyond which labour must surely go, in the interests of itself, of democracy,
of humankind and of nature. Even the neo-liberals call capitalism by
its name. Why not the ICFTU?
State. Another (past? future?
someplace? sometime?) 'social partner' in your discourse - called in all
cases but one `government'. You denounce the role governments have played
in globalisation, and recognise the way the intergovernmental financial
institutions and accords (like the Multilateral Agreement on Investments
(MAI), the World Bank and World Trade Organisation(WTO)) serve the multinationals.
Yet your core strategy is that of
appealing to or lobbying
states and interstate organisations to be nicer to labour. This, again,
is based on the past experience (or myth) of unionised labour, primarily
in industrially-developed capitalist welfare states. It is significant
that, disarmed by this understanding
and strategy, the ICFTU was invisible in the international and internationalist
struggles against the MAI in Geneva 1998 and the WTO in Seattle 1999. These
successful mass protest actions represented an implicit or explicit critique
of the symbiotic relation between the liberal-democratic state and big
capital (national and global). The ICFTU surely needs to learn from those
who organised and won the Battle of Seattle if it is to impact today on
(inter)state organisations in the interests of labouring people worldwide.
Unions. Here you argue that
unions (in distinction from non-governmental organisations - NGOs) are
popular organisations, with a mass base, are (always? everywhere?) a force
for democracy and wielders of a 'certain economic
power'. You suggest that
they need to retain their traditional values whilst adopting contemporary
Values are constant and
central to our very existence and survival. They are not subject to the
whims of the market nor the will of tyrants, public or private. They have
been proven and hardened in the fire of battle. They respond to and
nurture that spark of human solidarity that is found in all of us. I doubt
whether in this respect the 21st century will be very different from the
20th century. The big difference is that we will have to change our structures
and methods to get results from the local to the international levels.
Whilst your treatment of
national and international unionism recognises the necessity for increased
union participation, communication, democracy and protest activity, the
above quote is more in the rhetorical than the analytical or
strategic mode. Trade union
values have customarily been both varied and problematic, even when the
unions were most internationalist! `Solidarity' has been - and still often
is - expressed against workers of a different category,
company, colour, ideology,
gender, sexual orientation, nationality, as well as against pacifists,
environmentalists or feminists. So we really need a more critical approach
to past union values and a re-specification of 'solidarity' in the light
As for the change in structures
and methods, your argument here hardly confronts the problem of either
the representative-democratic union or the national one in the era of a
globalised networked capitalism: nor does it address those many ICFTU member
unions that may be neither the one nor the other!. Even if we assume,
uncritically, that these
were effective under traditional capitalism, the scale, scope and speed
of change today - particularly when seen in relation to widespread privatisation,
informalisation, subcontracting and individualisation worldwide - raises
fundamental questions about the 'principle of articulation' (both connection
and expression) for a labour movement that must, today, go way beyond the
unionised or unionisable. In so far as the capitalist industrial revolution
required a transformation from the craft and local guild to the national
industrial union, is not a parallel transformation necessary to what could
be called 'the global, electronic and networked unionism' of the future?
The transformation of capitalism
also raises fundamental questions about the nation-state basis (identity
and address) of labour organisation. Such challenges are being raised by
the International Trade Secretariats, which suggest that
the industry or company
identity is the relevant one today. But the ITSs, which have been increasingly
merging to form conglomerates across any single distinct industry, are
also based on national industrial unions. I am not suggesting
that such literally international
organisations as the ICFTU or ITSs will or should disappear. But I do suggest
they will have to recognise the power of the network over the organisation
if they are to be effective as an international and internationalist force.
Working people. You do raise
the problem of the increasing number of working people outside the traditional
employment relationship on which unions have been based. The `thirdworldisation'
or 'housewifisation' of the global labour force is one increasingly effecting
'first world' labour and men. This is not only due to evil employers or
complicit/complacent governments. Computerisation/informatisation creates
the technical possibility for the reduction, individualisation, feminisation
and exportation of work. Even the mighty German (national-industrial) unions
apparently unable to prevent
this transformation, or to propose a convincing, attractive and progressive
alternative to such. This suggests to me the necessity to either (re)convert
the trade unions into a labour movement (another concept you do not mention),
and to develop a democratic, co-operative, egalitarian and solidarity relationship
with bodies that are working with non-unionised / non-unionisable labour
(i.e. the majority of the world's working people).
Civil society. I am happy
to see this term in your paper, though you nowhere say what you mean by
it or who it includes/excludes. So we have to assume that, as elsewhere
in your argument, you endorse the dominant liberal idea: civil society
as democratic and self-organised citizen organisations and movements independent
of the state. In so far as you are proposing a positive relationship between
(inter)national unions and other radical-democratic and pluralistic forces,
I won't argue (though we surely need to increasingly see civil society
posed also against the power of capital). When you move from orientation
to political relations, however, you refer rather to 'NGOs'. Whilst you
are here generally positive, you also - as nowhere else - problematise
them, suggesting that unions are uniquely democratic and popular organisations
(based on a dues-paying membership and some kind of economic power), and
that relations with NGOs can be either 'very good' or 'very bad'. Whilst
this is a step forward from past dismissal of these
bodies, I am not sure whether
it is wise to either set up some kind of opposition, or to problematise
the NGOs whilst assuming that (inter)national unions are unproblematic.
You may be either interested or amused to know that some
feminists tend to reverse
the argument, assuming that the women's movement is 'autonomous' whilst
the unions are 'incorporated'.
It is true that NGOs have
an ambiguous relationship with capital and state. But so do trade unions!
Yours, for example, still believes in the fundamental value to workers
and society of a `social partnership' with both of these! It is, in this
context, significant, that
it was international/ist 'NGOs', not the ICFTU (or its US affiliate), that
stopped both the MAI and the WTO. So perhaps we should rather talk of the
relationship between both types of institution on the one hand, and
mass, popular and effective
movements against a globalised networked capitalism on the other. After
all, the ICFTU, like many NGOs, is dependent for almost half of its income
(I stand to be corrected) not on workers or on civil society but on funding
from nation-states like Germany that are supporting a neo-liberal globalisation.
Amnesty International rejects all state funding. My guess (an interesting
subject for ICFTU-supported research?) is that Amnesty may be
better known, or more appreciated,
amongst working people worldwide than the ICFTU. Amnesty, moreover, does
not either assume or claim that it is the human rights movement. It is
part of a network of international human rights organisations. Just as
Seattle was the achievement of a complex and contradictory network of movements
(including labour) critical of, or opposed to, globalisation. The question
that arises here, in relationship to labour and civil society, may not,
therefore, be one of representativity, a problematic quality of unions
everywhere, but of responsibility,in the sense of a democratic, open, egalitarian,
empowering, effective relationship with the community addressed.
I do not see the ICFTU as
some representative of evil, any more than I see myself as possessed of
virtue. Under a neo-liberalised global capitalism, it seems to me, labour
radicalism and labour reformism provide the conditions for each other's
existence. This is as true of labour as for the ecological or women's movement.
My challenge, therefore,
is not so much to the ICFTU for wanting to civilise capitalism rather than
overthrow it, since the only way to surpass capitalism is by constantly
exposing its limitations, pushing at its limits, proposing attractive
alternatives to such: it
is to make it an effective force for meaningful reform under conditions
of globalisation. This means, I suspect, recognising a 'division of labour'
within and around labour internationally. This would be between the force
for innovating and advancing internationalism (the international labour,
pro-labour or labour-allied network), the organisation for representing
unions internationally (a radically reformed and democratised ICFTU, set
of ITSs and regional organisations), and the institution for negotiating
and enforcing international labour standards (an equally reformed or reinvented
International Labour Organisation).
Such an understanding of
the ICFTU's position and possibilities has implications.
Its orientation toward the
ILO would not be one of dependency, as it comes out of your argument, but
of contesting an inter-state terrain, in which the ICFTU/ITSs press for
a reinvention of the ILO to make it appropriate for a globalised networked
capitalism. The ICFTU orientation toward the networks would be one of open
encouragement and mutual dialogue. Indeed, it occurs to me that a relationship
between trade unions and other radical-democratic social movements, aimed
at developing civil society nationally and globally, would be a real 'social
partnership', based on equality, rather than the old one, articulating
dependent labour with dominant capital and/or state.
I want to add two points
which are hardly raised in your paper. One has to do with the West and
the Rest within the international trade union movement. The other with
the increasing centrality of communication to labour internationalism.
The West and the Rest. The
ICFTU and ITSs originate in the West, have their headquarters in the West,
are dominated by Western funding and officers, and have had - with exceptions
- a paternalistic attitude towards the 'underdeveloped' unions in the 'developing'
world (as revealed by ICFTU dependence on 'development funding'). Yet the
overwhelming majority of the world's workers are in contemporary capitalism's
two peripheries, the old South, plus Russia and China. This would seem
to face the ICFTU with two alternatives. The first is to reproduce the
socio-geographic relationship of the Vatican with its overwhelmingly Third
World membership. The second would be to radically democratise and redistribute
power towards the periphery. As with a number of feminist and ecological
NGOs, this might imply not
only regional autonomy but diversifying its leadership (what percentage
of top international union leaders are female, non-white and Third World?),
and even moving headquarters to non-Western locations! All this is made
possible by computer communication, of which more below.
International Labour and
Communication. The ICFTU resisted open-access international labour computer
communication when offered by a top social-democratic specialist and supporter
some 15 years ago. It has been late,
slow and awkward in entering
this new world - which really has more promise for radical-democratic internationalist
forces than for the capitalists who profit from it or the states that try
to control it. In so far as the most valuable function of the ICFTU and
ITSs is precisely that of information, co-ordination and communication,
trade union internationalism needs to be re-thought in terms of international
communication for the creation of an internationalist culture. This is
how the international women's movement works. It is how the Battle of Seattle
was first co-ordinated and then projected globally - by both the dominant
and the alternative media.
And let me, finally, return
to where I started, which is on myself as a marginal member of the labour
movement. In your last paragraph you welcome the ICFTU/ILO electronic conference
as a forum for academics as well as unionists. Yet it is my experience
(also with the WFTU, the Dutch trade unions and even with the OL21 Conference!)
that intellectuals are welcomed rather as supporters of an institution,
a policy or an orientation than as partners in a dialogue. This belongs
to a logic of organisational self-interest and self-perpetuation rather
than to one of movement and transformation. It belongs to the capitalism
of yesterday rather than that of today and tomorrow.
If labour is ever to recapture
the social, cultural, political and intellectual high ground it occupied
during the early period of capitalist and nation-state development, it
is, I believe, really going to have to dialogue not only with its base
but also with its periphery, institutional, socio-geographical and intellectual.
Power rests, but also stagnates, at the centre of the labour movement,
innovation comes from the periphery - the organisational margins, the social,
Much of the new thinking
about unionism internationally first appeared not in the publications of
the ICFTU but in those like the South African Labour Bulletin in South
Africa and Labor Notes in the USA. I recall only one recent case in
which the ICFTU has entered
into a public dialogue with those outside its ranks, and that was with
radical-nationalist (not necessarily pro-labour or socialist) intellectuals
from the Third World who are opposed to linking worker rights with
trading privileges. I welcome
this debate - or at least this response. But when are we going to see you
personally, or the ICFTU leadership more generally, or its media of communication,
open up to similarly serious public dialogue with
feminists, labour leaders, and activists internationally (e.g. with the
American journalist Bacon (2000) or the Brazilian union leader Jakobsen
(1998)? A leadership equipped primarily with administrative or diplomatic
skills is not going to lead a new international labour movement: it increasingly
has to demonstrate intellectual and media/communicational ones. A social
partnership relevant to labour internationally in the era of globalisation
requires these things too.
I await with great interest
the results of your Millennial Congress - though with no expectation of
a millennial self-transformation. I will, however, continue to hope for
either the publication of this item in or on an ICFTU periodical or website,
or your response in the present place of publication.
Bacon, David. 2000. `World
Labour Needs Independence and Solidarity', email@example.com. March 6.
Jakobsen, Kjeld Aagaard.
1998. 'New Challenges in the ORIT [ICFTU regional organisation for the
Americas]' in Maria Portella de Castro and Achim Wachendorfter (eds), Trade
Unions and Globalisation: The Painful Insertion into an Uncertain World
(in Spanish). Caracas: Editorial Nueva Sociedad. Pp. 307-19.
Jordan, Bill. 1999. 'Subject:
Trade Unions in the 21st Century. Response by ICFTU General Secretary to
Keynote by Juan Somavia [Director General of the ILO]', Organized_Labour_2000@listserver.ilo.org.
Waterman, Peter. 1999. 'International
Labour's Y2K Problem: A Debate, A Discussion and a Dialogue (A Contribution
to the ILO/ICFTU Conference on Organised Labour in the 21st Century)'.
Working Paper Series, No. 306. The Hague: Institute of Social Studies.
64 pp. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Peter Waterman authored
Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms (Cassell,
London, 1998) and co-edited Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation:
Alternative Union Models in the New World Order
(Macmillan, London, 1999).
E-dresses: email@example.com, http://www.antenna.nl/~waterman/] .