The New Labor Internationalism

Peter Waterman


be around six months since I wrote an open letter to Barbara Shailor, new

international relations honcha at the *new* AFL-CIO. Did the postman only ring

once? Doesn’t she have really important email and electronic lists scanned by an

aide or intern? Does she secretly discrimate against Middle-Aged White Male

Hetero Intellectuals of the Marxist Tradition? Doesn’t she realise that failing

to answer demonstrates the doubts I there expressed about just how new the *new*

Labour Internationalism of the AFL-CIO is?


Barbara. No more Mr Nice M-AWMHI(MT)! Open Letters are for Open People! I am

going to reveal all to the 1,000+ Concerned Leftie US and Other Citizens who

peak, lurk or even chat on (`No, no, Peter, not…ZNet?’ `Yes Barbara, you had

your chance. Too late to cry Auntie! Heh, heh, heh’);.


story so far.


was in the US-occupied zone of California, maybe 140-50 years after the

invasion, late- 1998. I read Barbara’s 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). We, in the Uniting States of Europe, had earlier heard (g)rumbles

of the `renewal’ or `rebirth’ of the AFL-CIO, but I had not followed it in

detail. I was therefore doubly impressed: by the book and by her contribution to

it. And both impressed and confused by finding in it the term, and many of the

arguments, that a number of us – on the margins of the US and international

labour movement – had been pressing for 15 years or more.


don’t think there was one of Barbara’s mentioned analyses, activities or

strategies that had not first been proposed by us – premature? – new

internationalists: direct solidarity with women and child workers, labour

rights, unionising of new workers, cooperation with NGOs (which we called new

social movements), mobilisation of union members for a grassroots labour

internationalism, demonstrating and picketing, supporting democratic, militant

and accountable unions regardless of ideology, international labour education,

changing the attitudes of unions, addressing the `longer term interests of all

working people’ (154).


was impressed because, frankly, I never really expected the institutionalised

labour movements of North America (or Europe) to accept arguments largely

developed out of a profound critique of these organisations. I was confused

because I didn’t know whether I should feel I had contributed to an amazing

victory, been invisibly incorporated or quietly ripped off.


were, or are, `we’.


at random, let me mention: Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello (authors of Global

Village or Global Pillage?) and Rachel Karmel of the American Friends Service

Committee (AFSC) in the US, the Transnationals Information Exchange in

Amsterdam, International Labour Reports in the UK, my own Newsletter of

International Labour Studies in The Hague (long gone to join ILR in that Great

International Labour Archive in the Sky), the South African Labour Bulletin in

Johannesburg, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre in Hongkong. All these, and

numerous other groups and individuals, were active in the 1970s-80s, arguing for

a new kind of labour internationalism.


the 1990s we were being joined by worker support groups in countries like

Russia, India and Australia. 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 internationalist sounds from the more-advanced national or international

unions in Europe, Canada and the US. And, in the meantime, we have to record

that the Liverpool dockers campaign was organised because of the failure of

their national and international unions to support them, and despite the active

or passive hostility of these. (It also eventually failed at least partly

because they did not organise to support them).


would be gratifying if we were to be given some recognition for years of un- or

underpaid solidarity work, always ignored and often condemned by the

institutionalised national and international labour organisations. It would be

extremely valuable if Barbara were to give public recognition to cases like

Liverpool, in which workers themselves pioneered a new internationalism which -

as she recognises – should be both for and by workers themselves.


fundamental, however, for the future would be the opening of a genuinely open

and worldwide debate 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 traditional labour organisations to dialogue with

those making criticism or proposing alternative strategies – whether inside or

outside the unions, inside or outside the labour movement.


would myself argue that a new labour internationalism can only be developed

through a dialogue of all socially interested parties, in all parts of the

world. And, indeed, that we will not know what this new internationalism is

until these people have spoken and been heard.


would further argue that we cannot conceive of a new labour internationalism

except as equal partners of the other well-developed internationalisms, which

have had much more media expression, much more public and political impact. They

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).


gringo student of mine, Aaron Pollack, referred to the new movements in terms of

`cross-border, cross-movement’ alliances. And the richest case of such has got

to be – hey! – not a million miles from the AFL-CIO GHQ, on the frontier/frontera,

between Mexico and the USA, just where the shit hits the fan (see the excellent

Maquiladora Reader, AFSC, Philadelphia, 1999).


recognising and valuing the change of tone, I have to admit to doubts about some

elements of the *new* AFL-CIO internationalism as described by Barbara (150-55).


*new* Solidarity Center was? still is? apparently going to continue financial

dependence on the US state (USAID) and the (corporate-? foundation-? funded?)

National Endowment for Democracy;


was pressing for international labour rights within the Multilateral Agreement

on Investment (Whoops! Which irresponsible new internationalists blew it up

before the AFL-CIO could responsibly `press’ it?)


AFL-CIO still considers itself `uniquely positioned to provide leadership and a

vision for the international trade union movement’;


whole strategy is premised on a `program for the global economy that will share

the benefit of economic development with working people’.


this would seem to amount to is – excuse my language here – a Western-defined,

state- funded, US-led, social-democratic strategy for a globalised neo-Keynesianism.

In other words, for continued capitalist growth but now with redistribution to

workers internationally.


both I and George Soros would welcome any civilising of mad-dog global

capitalism, I see no reason to believe that we can turn the clock back to a

political-economic strategy which failed in the past, and the shortcomings of

which laid a popular, or at least populist, basis for neo-liberalism. Nor does

Barbara provide any grounds for such a belief. The `redistribution from growth’

strategy will also run up against the well-known `limits to growth’. It in no

way challenges consumerism, which has a powerful grip on ordinary people

everywhere (I include myself as ordinary here) but which is also consuming our

planet. And it will alienate the national and international ecological movements

with which labour should 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 students and other young people. (Right now, in the

US, students campaigning against sweatshop labour seem to have a higher profile

on labour internationalism than the AFL-CIO).


is also, to my mind, a major absence in Barbara’s argument.


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 movement 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 that are internationally known.


this brings me back to the matter of a broad dialogue on the new

internationalism, because the worldwide web is uniquely suited to such. There

are already numerous labour, socialist and union sites, operating in several of

the world’s major languages (I don’t know the minor ones, except for Dutch).

These pick up and forward items to and from each other. Cyberspace provides a

potentially democratic space that is potentially worldwide. (Don’t tell me it is

a capitalist, statist or elitist medium, dominated by the US, occupied by

yuppies, twinkies and kinkies, and inaccessible to the majority of working

people worldwide. So were photo and movie cameras and radio stations in the

1920s, which didn’t stop the innovatory international worker film, photo, and

radio movements using them).


the exchange of information and ideas about labour internationalism already

exists within my barrio in cyberspace. It was some of the recent postings that

wakened this Rip van Winkel from his six-month cybersleep.


- and ridicule – is surrounding the grave of that veteran AFL-CIO-CIA Cold

Warrior, Irving Brown (threw some, concerning Nigerian dockers, 20 years ago

myself). Voices suggest that glaznost might accompany perestroika in the

International Department of the AFL -CIO. My rude friend Kim Scipes, wants to

know what squeaky-clean John Sweeney was or was not doing internationally before

the fall of the Wall of Washington. He wants the files on Chile opened – and

with no State Department paint job on the revealing bits. (See what I mean by



up, own up, clean up (and answer your Open Letters, Barbara!). Then, and only

then, will the AFL-CIO be able to make its full, necessary but modest

contribution to a new labour internationalism.


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