Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Your book Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization is a manifesto for the unification of the labor union movement around the world. In your opinion, is this idea a requirement in the resistance to the ultra liberal offensive? Is the idea of a global labor union front feasible?
Dr. Kim Scipes: I think we have to be careful about the idea of a global labor organization. I certainly think that labor should be talking to each other, respectfully, and perhaps more importantly, listening to each other. I think a global union front—down the road—might be a good thing, but it would have to be constructed, not just asserted on the existence of unions today. If we say a global labor front is a desirable goal down the road, what are the values on which it is built? Certainly, non-oppression of other labor movements is a necessity. But there’s also got to be a sharing of resources, as well—especially between the larger unions (mainly in the Global North) with those in the Global South.
But to me, any labor organization must be built on member democracy, where members control the union, and not just the formal leaders. (I think that’s been a big failure of the established labor movement.) But I argue that unions—and this is especially true in the United States—MUST go beyond what is called “business unionism,” by which they only act to advance the interests of their dominant members—I argue for a broader conceptualization of unionism that I’ve called “social justice unionism” whereby the union advances the interests of all of its members (or at least the large majority), at work AND in their community/society, etc.: it is clear than any unionism that is confined only to the workplace is doomed to extinction.
However, my vision is larger than even that. Victoria Bonnell, in 1983 book titled “Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organization in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1914,” a book on Russian workers before 1917, argued that unions were needed to protect and advance the interests at the workplace, AND that they needed to present the interests of workers, their families, and their communities in society; that only by organization could workers create a source of power that could stand up to corporations and governments in society, and that was the labor movement (i.e., the conceptualization is broader, more comprehensive than trade union movement). In other words, workers need to create organizations to advance their interests not only as workers, but as members of society.
Now, some could say that what was tried in Europe—we didn’t have that in the US, except perhaps long ago in the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) in the early 1900s—but that was confined largely to Europe, and worked to whatever extent it did when focusing on the level of the nation-state. It also accepted the existence of capitalism (in Europe), and imperialism throughout the world. But if one analyzes whether capitalism can meet the needs of workers around the world, it is clear that it cannot. Period. It cannot even meet the goal of providing jobs—any job, not just “good” jobs—at the national level. Do we have to look at current unemployment rates? At the same time, collaboration with imperialism in any way shape or form not only is morally reprehensible and a betrayal of the values that labor says it advances and supports—so it betrays itself—but it undermines, sabotages and defeats labor struggles in the so-called developing countries. No organization can support imperialism and claim to be fighting for liberation.
And I haven’t even mentioned global climate change and environmental destruction.
It is clear to me that working people (and their allies and advocates) need to be thinking “outside the box” to try to figure out—in conjunction with workers—what are programs and projects that advance the best interests of workers, not in one country, or even the Global North, but around the world. We have to be able to say, “Sisters and brothers—this is our best thinking about the really important issues facing workers here and around the world. We have given you our best. Which do you think is the best way to go?” We need to open up discussions in every labor organization, in every country, in every region of the world.
You are a great researcher in the history of the American labor movement and in other countries. How do you explain the growing decline in union movements in the US and elsewhere?
I think it’s simple: union movements around the world have accepted the parameters of thought, of possibilities, as defined by corporate and government leaders, both which accept the continued existence of capitalism. They don’t have any forward-looking vision. I think that’s disastrous.
And I want to say that I come to that conclusion because I have read Marx or Gorz or whoever: for years, I was a factory worker, a printer, putting ink on paper; then I taught high school; then I worked in offices for corporations including management consulting firms and investment banks: I have been in the belly of the beast. To better understand all of this, I returned to academia, getting my Ph.D. at age 52. (I also served in the US Marine Corps from 1969-73, fortunately never being sent to Vietnam, but going from one who thought the war was necessary to completely “turning around,” and rejecting the Marine Corps and US imperialism while on active duty.)
So, my experiences, my readings, and my reflections on my experiences from a global perspective tell me that there are no national solutions; there are only global solutions. And that means we have to throw out almost all of the thinking to date that does not understand the necessity of this.
Did not the industrial offshoring, the emergence of service trades, start-ups and other phenomena peculiar to capitalism, contribute to the disappearance of productive work as we know it, to the precariousness of employment, and to the disappearance of a revolutionary framework for labor forces?
The industrial offshoring, etc., hurt workers, no question, but we have to ask WHY this was done? There were two, interconnected reasons. (1) The recovery of industrialized countries during World War II placed them in competition with the US, and then additional competition emerged from corporations in such “developing countries” as Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, etc. So, US corporations offshore labor-intensive production to places where workers were paid almost nothing, and kept controlled by their respective government, such as in Mexico and China. At the same time, when capital-intensive firms purchased new equipment, they bought equipment that used fewer and fewer workers. This allowed the US—and it’s happened in other countries—to be able to compete to the extent it has with new competitors. But (2), the corporate elites felt they had to break the union movement, and they’ve been trying to do this since the 1940s. The tragedy is that the US labor movement—the one I know most about—has done nothing to address these challenges; they have no vision, no determination, etc.
You mention “revolutionary framework” for labor forces, but I don’t know what you’re talking about, especially in the US. Most American unions don’t even have a social democratic framework, much less anything larger, regardless of what it’s called.
AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers, this book is both a history of the workers’ movement throughout the world and a profound and relevant analysis of the US workers’ movement in its specificity. The concept of “labor imperialism” especially caught my attention; can you explain this concept to our readership?
Basically, “labor imperialism” is the efforts by one labor organization—in this case, the AFL-CIO—to dominate and control labor movements in other countries, especially in the so-called developing countries. They use the word “solidarity”: I use the word “sabotage.” As I detail in my book, the AFL-CIO has helped overthrow democratically-elected governments, such as in Guatemala in 1954; Brazil in 1964; and in Chile in 1973. They also supported dictators in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, South Africa (a white dictatorship)—as well as dictators after the coups mentioned above–and supported challenges to progressive governments in the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Nicaragua, Venezuela. Tell me how these activities help labor organizations in those countries? In the Philippines, during the late 1980s, the largest affiliate of their ally in that country, worked with a death squad—I do not exaggerate; this is closely documented through my personal field research—against the progressive affiliate of the Kilusang Mayo Uno Labor Center.
Now, the AFL-CIO has gotten a lot better, and has even been helpful in a few limited cases since 1995. But they are still an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a reactionary, US government-creased and financed organization that operates globally. Plus, over 90% of the AFL-CIO’s international work is funded by the US Government, and it was true under Obama as well as Bush.
And they never—in over 100 years—given an honest account of their overseas operations to their affiliated union members. So, these operations are done behind the backs, and without the knowledge of most trade unionists in the US; hell, they’re done without the knowledge of most union leaders, as well. Yet they act in the name of US workers. And the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center operates in over 60 countries around the world: why 60, why THESE 60, and for what purpose? They’ve never said.
The thing about labor imperialism is that it, obviously, hurts the workers that are being controlled; but it also hurts those in the country who are doing the controlling. If we’re going to change the world, we need workers globally to create, join together, and act on this larger vision; but if workers in the imperialist country don’t adopt those in the developing countries as “allies,” as “sisters and brothers,” and if they don’t work together, respectfully and equally, then they can’t get the boot off their own necks.
You are an eminent sociologist. In addition to your academic activities at the university, you are a member of several organizations such as Labor and Labor Movements, Collective Behavior and Social Movements, Global and Transnational Sociology Sections of the American Sociology Association, and an elected member of the Research Committee 44 from 2006 to 2010. Can you tell us about RC44’s missions?
I don’t know if I’m “eminent,” although I am prolific. Besides three books—you haven’t mentioned my first, which is titled “KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994” (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1996)—I’ve published something like 11 peer-reviewed articles, plus over 200 articles for specialty journals, the general public and union and union-focused outlets, such as certain web sites. If anyone is interested, you can see my list of publications—with links to most articles—here.
RC 44 (Research Committee 44) of the International Sociological Association is comprised of sociologists who study labor from around the world. It doesn’t really have a “mission” or “missions,” but we are a network of researchers who share our writings and thinking among the RC, and we meet every two and four years at international gatherings. We try to support each other to advance the quality of our research, and to encourage the study of labor organizations around the globe. We think working people and their organizations are important.
Do not you think that in the face of the ultra-liberal offensive, the fighting of the labor union organizations around the world is diminishing or even disappearing? How do you explain it?
If you’re talking about the established labor unions fighting, especially in the Global North, I don’t see much of it. There might be a bit here, and a bit there, but it seems to be specifically located, in particular circumstances, in places where activists can mobilize members to demand their unions fight. It is not systematic, it is not determined. Many are afraid to fight, and are willing to collaborate to try to survive. The problem is that what’s the need for a union that won’t fight; hell, many members feel like “I can collaborate myself and not have to pay union dues!”
You can see more of this fighting in the Global South, but conditions are so much worse. The KMU of the Philippines has been fighting for 37 years—but what other option, other than surrender, do they have? There are unions fighting in countries such as Brazil and South Africa and in India, and workers fighting in China, in Vietnam, to build genuine unions. It’s actually broader than this: working people want to have power to control their lives. And working people around the world are trying to build unions that will help them live the lives they seek. Their situations are difficult, no doubt. But people keep trying—people want better lives, and often take huge risks to build organizations that will advance their interests.
We need unions—they are important. But they need to develop a vision that addresses the real issues of real working people around the world. And that vision, I argue, must be built on the principles of equality and solidarity. And that means we cannot limit ourselves to capitalism, cause capitalism cannot provide a good existence, much less jobs, for most people. Capitalism is literally killing life on the planet. It cannot be reformed; it must be superseded. But to do this, we have to not be afraid to look, to think, to discuss, to organize outside of the confines of capitalism; if we limit ourselves to the possibilities under capitalism, we are screwed. (I’m being polite: I need a word with the necessary understanding of the violence that is and will continue to be done to and against working people.)
But this also means we’ve got to reject the consumerism being shoved down our throats by capitalism—it’s more than just relations of production. I just spent a couple of months this summer teaching at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And there’s a lot of new construction being done, especially of apartment buildings—all over the city. But when you look at the visual representations that accompany many of them, its of Lexuses, BMWs, the finest liquors, the most expensive perfumes, it’s this global capitalist shit that gets shoved down our throats whenever we fly internationally.
The reality is, first, most Americans don’t live at this level of consumption, and yet the world cannot support everyone living at the level of even the standard that many Americans live at—we’d need 5 more planet Earth’s—and, of course, most people cannot live at this “elite” standard of consumption. We’ve got to reject this!
We’ve got to figure out how to live at a level where every person on the planet can have a good life. That cannot include chasing after the bourgeois.
In your opinion, if capitalism lives in the rhythm of crises and that this is in its very nature, do not labor union movements around the world also experience a crisis like capitalism?
The reality is that capitalism dominates much of the world. People need to pay attention, learn what’s really going on, and figure out with friends, workmates, associates, lovers, everyone that can get together, what they want to do to make a world for all of us, and then extending their connections across their country, their region, their continent, their globe and fight for this better world.
A big challenge: of course! But if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it for us? I’ll say one thing for certain: the “big boys and girls,” the elites and their lackies, are not going to do it for us. Our future is in our hands: do we act on it, or do we just roll over and go back to sleep?
But I will tell you one other thing: I’m focusing more and more on global climate change and the environment, and one thing that is becoming clear: if we don’t make major changes—and I’m talking MAJOR changes—by 2030, according to the best science today, then we will see the beginning of the extermination of humans, animals and most plants by the turn of the century (this means the year 2100). Whether that actually happens cannot yet be determined, but if current trends continue, it looks almost certain at this point in time.
In your work and research, you make concrete proposals, often based on a thorough study of labor union movements. In your opinion, what is the major lesson to be learned from the long struggle of the workers’ movement against the capitalist night?
I think the major lesson to be learned is that working people are not saints; there are wonderful people among us, and they are some, shall we say, not so wonderful. But when good people get together; get good, accurate information; and then decide to act on it, they can move mountains.
I’ll give you a personal example: I was in the Philippines in January and very early February, 1986. Marcos was the dictator, and he called a “snap” election to get the US off his back; word on the street was that he was going to reinstate martial law upon his re-election. I had traveled over much of the country, and I was visiting workers and labor leaders literally on the front line of the anti-Marcos resistance. We had many talks over my time there. None of these people that I talked with, no one, had any real hope of getting rid of Marcos in the foreseeable future; their goal was to mobilize as much resistance as possible, to slow him down, to build over future years to get rid of him. I left on February 5th, happy to get out of this boiling cauldron. People voted, election workers went to reporters and detailed the fraud and deceit they know of, the leaders of the Catholic Church—many who had previously supported Marcos—called their people out into the streets, the people responded, the military split, the people supported the “renegades,” and the US told Marcos he had to leave and offered him a place in Hawaii—Ferdinand Marcos left the Philippines on February 25, 1986–20 days after I had left. No one I talked with had even dreamed this could happen, much less that it would.
Now, let’s understand, this didn’t get pulled out of the air, like many people claimed. It built on years and years of political organizing by the left. Organizing in the slums, the schools, the unions, among Church organizations, etc. It didn’t “just happen.”
This potential gives me hope; the question is, can we mobilize it?
Is not the specificity of the struggle in every country in the world a handicap to the construction of a world labor front?
We have to build out of the conditions we face. It’s that simple. But we can travel, we can meet, we can talk about our values, what we’d like to see. There are many paths to take us to where we want to be. If we are determined to reach our destination, one that really “works” for people, we will get there. But we’ve got to start the journey now.
What is your look at the last US presidential election? How do you analyze the sociology of these elections with the duality between rural America that voted for Trump whom slogan is “American first” and urban America that voted for Hillary Clinton?
Personally, I’m pretty sick of talking about this last election. Hillary Clinton can be fairly called a war criminal. She’s a supporter of Wall Street. She was a terrible candidate, following Obama, who had done little or nothing for most people, and she said we’d keep doing what Obama did. She didn’t inspire people—she had nothing to offer. She also had no idea of what many Americans are going through: according to some research I’ve done and that I’m getting ready to submit for publication, those economically in the bottom 20% of our population have only seen their incomes decline in absolute terms since 1973;those in the 21st-40th percentiles have seen their incomes grow by less than 10% over a 40 year period (1973-2013);and those in the 41st-60th have seen their incomes grow by little over 28% over 40 years: in other words, the bottom 60% of our population has either lost income or seen their incomes grow by less than 1% a year over this period. She did not address this.
Bernie Sanders did address the situation of people, and he earned tremendous support. However, Clinton’s people in the Democratic National Committee rigged the game so he couldn’t win, and he didn’t.
That leaves Trump. I think everything bad that you’ve heard about Trump is true. But the thing he did successfully do is recognize the suffering that has been going on over the last 40 years—and he claimed he would “solve” that problem. He cannot—it’s a structural problem, not a cyclical one that can be fixed. But he convinced people that were hurting, and hurting seriously, that he was on their side, that he had solutions, that he would solve their problems. (I think the Easter Bunny would have been a better choice.) But within our limited and undemocratic electoral system in the US, enough people thought he could solve their problems, and they voted for him. And Americans and everyone else in the world is going to have to deal with this terribly inadequate man for the next four years, and eight if we’re not careful.
But where was the AFL-CIO? No plan, no vision, just elect another corporate Democrat. I’ve seen polls that suggest the majority of union voters didn’t buy this. Clearly, we need a new type of labor movement in the USA.
Your course as an activist against the racism came during your incorporation in the US Marines. Does the racism that you have fought as a military still exist in the US army?
I have no doubt that racism still exists throughout the US military, but I don’t have any direct experience. I know from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of the extreme racism projected on people of those societies. In some ways, the military has dealt with intra-organization racism better than other parts of US society. Remember this, however: their mission is not social change or making life better for people: it’s to kill and destroy the “enemy,” as defined by governmental leaders and the mainstream media. They don’t want racism to get in the way of accomplishing their mission.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Kim Scipes?
Dr. Kim Scipes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest, a regional campus of Purdue University, in Westville, Indiana. He is a member of the American Sociological Association, with memberships in the Labor and Labor Movements, Collective Behavior and Social Movements, and Global and Transnational Sociology sections. Further, Dr. Scipes is a long-time member of RC 44, the Research Committee on Labor, of the International Sociological Association, and was elected and served on the Board of RC 44 from 2006-10. He is a member of the National Writers Union, and a long-time activist in the US labor movement.
Dr. Scipes has been writing on Labor-related issues primarily since 1984, although He has written on a number of connected issues as well. His 200+ articles have been published in the United States, and in 14 other countries–in hard copy, in hard copy and the Internet, and just on the Internet. His writing has included everything from theoretical writings to description/analysis to opinion pieces in local newspapers.
He has traveled around the world, and have done research in the Philippines, Venezuela, and South Africa. He has traveled extensively around Western Europe, particularly in England, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.
Dr. Scipes has a Master’s Degree in Development Studies from The Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, The Netherlands (1991), and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago (2003).
He has published three books: KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994 (New Day Publishers, 1996) ; AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, 2010) ; Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).