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Labor Changes and Potential in the Global Economy:
Telecommunications, Democracy, Mobilization
and Power for the 21st Century

Steve Zeltzer

lvpsf@igc.org


 

November 4, 1999

The growing crisis of organized labor as it faces the 21st century is wrought with contradictions. While the global economy has led to seamless operations of multi-nationals that control the world’s wealth and exploitation of workers and peasants worldwide, the trade union movement has been unable to challenge the growing capitalist juggernaut. The coming protest by US and other unions around the world to the World Trade Organization’s Seattle November 99 conference is a clear example of this paralysis. 

The WTO and it’s collaborating organizations such as the IMF and World Bank were established to strengthen world capitalism and to dominate not only the working class of the world but to further subjugate the poorer countries of the world. The ICFTU and the AFL-CIO while supporting a labor protest at the WTO meeting seek to pressure for the "reform" of these international financial organizations. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO has said that he wants a "place at the table" to discuss labor conditions and other concerns. His view and the view of the ICFTU leadership is that the solution to the global attack on the world working class is to establish a "social contract" with the WTO, IMF, World Bank and the multi-nationals that control them. It is clear however, that like NAFTA, the EC and other corporate trade driven trade and financial agreements, there will be no real role and voice for the working class and it’s allies in the implementation of these agreements. Despite this reality, the official labor movement of the world has yet to develop or even discuss an alternative vision or strategy.

The need for a "World Labor Bank" that allocates capital on the basis of the needs of working people and the oppressed is desperately needed. The establishment of such an institution however will never take place when the entire international monetary system is designed and controlled for the protection and growth of world’s largest capitalists and multi-nationals. In order to seriously challenge the structure and designs of global capitalism, world labor needs itself to develop and build new structures based on a democratic organization of the working class. This runs opposite the general direction of the AFL-CIO and other unions around the world. At the recent AFL-CIO convention, the leadership of the AFL-CIO voted to take even more control away from the independence of state, local and regional labor councils. Unlike the British Trades Council movement there was no organized opposition.

The structure of the trade unions of the world for the most part do not allow a democratic debate among all layers. In fact, the rank and file of most unions in the United States do not elect the staff of the union, the national leadership of their union or the national leadership of the AFL-CIO. There is a growing disenfranchisement of the rank and file from the structure of the unions that logically flows from the view of the leadership that the trade unions must be accomplices with the corporations and capital even when they themselves are being destroyed. The lack of checks and balances between the rank and file not only leads to greater centralization and less democracy but also a growing corruption crisis. This is tied to the transfer of tens of millions of dollars to corporate controlled politicians of the Democratic party. This money again is not voted on by the rank and file but is decided on by the top leadership with little consultation.

The United Steelworkers Of America (USWA) is a union under threat. From the Kaiser Aluminum workers and Oregon Steel to Titan Tire workers, one corporation after another is laying down the gauntlet against this union. Despite spending $24 million dollars on organizing and sending workers throughout the country in the campaign, the union has been unable to reverse this attack. At the same time that the union is fighting battles from coast to coast it continues to support the Democratic Party which is leading the charge for the WTO, NAFTA and other agreements that help destroy their ability to fight.

The millions of organized workers in the United States and the tens of millions around the world have the power to challenge global capital but it requires a radical break with not only with business/corporate unionism which dominates the US AFL-CIO but national unionism.

What is required now are global contracts based on shop steward level links of workers around the world in the same companies and industries. Recently, IBM workers in the United States have begun to move toward unionization and this potential shows that workers in most advanced industries when they come under attack can take collective action in conjunction with organized labor. The IBM workers were faced with a sharp attack on their pension plan and through the use of the internet were able to build links nationally and internationally and helped push forward the fight for unionization. The IBM workers themselves were surprised at their ability to directly rally the rank and file against this corporate attack.

In order to build an effective challenge to the world multi-nationals and global capitalism the working class has obviously to organize globally. This is beginning to take place in a number of areas already. In the air line industry, the global partnerships between the world airlines are now linking the unions in these countries with each other so they can potentially act collectively in worldwide strikes and protests. From American Airlines to Japan Airlines to United and Lufthansa, the pilots unions are now linked up globally with each other and the potential for global collective action is on the agenda.

Tied to this is the powerful use of the internet and telecommunications. In a recent contract of the Northwest Flight Attendants who are organized in Local 2000 of the International Brotherhood Of Teamsters, the workers were able to develop an email list of 2500 flight attendants worldwide. They were able to put up rank and file controlled web pages and put the entire proposed contract on the web for discussion and debate. The contract, which contained many concessions, was voted down by the IBT flight attendants despite the union leadership effort at a massive publicity campaign costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. They sent a video touting the contract to every flight attendant’s home. What the flight attendants had done was to break the one sided communication that presently dominates not only US unions but most unions of the world.

This example, while significant, is only the beginning of a growing use of the internet and other technologies to break through the rigidity and bureaucratization of the trade union movement. This was the first time in the history of the union that every rank and file worker had a copy of the proposed contract on line prior to the vote and had the opportunity to debate and discuss it’s contents. (www.cleardaze.com) (www.nwafacontract). This network among the NWA flight attendants was established by rank and file workers without support from their International and despite efforts to quash it.

This example of rank and file control of information is critical if labor is to organize and mobilize locally, nationally and internationally. At a recent report at the Labor On Line Conference in New York, the web masters of the UAW, SEIU, AFSMCE, CWA reported that they could not have interactive sites due to limits put on by the union leadership. This fear of rank and file communication that breaks the controlled barriers set up by the formal union structure will not only grow but explode in the future. 

An example of this was in the NWA Flight Attendants' contract. The New York Times, in reporting the rejection of the contract, did not rely on the statements of the union leadership but went instead to web page of the rank and file flight attendants.

At the convention of the AFL-CIO International Labor Communication Association, Faye Hale, assistant editor of the LIUNA (Laborers') paper admitted that more and more members were getting their information through the web site of a rank and file group, Laborers For Justice & Democracy at (www.laborers.org).

The ability of workers in every industry, every trade and every region to link up with one another is a key element in confronting the assault of global capitalism. It opens the way for a new movement and neworganization of workers worldwide that has the potential of beginning to act collectively against the attacks.

The previous examples of the Liverpool Dockers and their international day of action could only have been organized through the internet and the web. The International Transport Workers Federation as well as the UK Transport and General Workers Union refused to mobilize their resources to confront not only the Tory government but the Labor government. This political paralysis that the trade unions are locked into has led to splits and growing divisions with the social democratic parties that many unions have supported. From Germany and New Zealand to Canada, organized labor has be left in the lurch by parties that promised to defend labor and ended up joining the corporate agenda.

A major reason for this is obvious. No one country can withstand the power of global capitalism which operates through the machinery of the international financial organizations and the multi-nationals of the world. Only a worldwide simultaneous labor political and organizational offensive is capable of throwing back these assaults. The pressing need for such action cannot be put off. When the present economic speculative frenzy that is gripping the United States bursts, it will lead to profound consequences not only in the US but in every country of the world. We must prepare now for that eventuality and that challenge. We have no other choice.

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