Trade Union Internationalism
in the Age of Seattle
Abstract: It is widely recognised within and around the labour movement that labour (as wage work, as class identity, in the trade union form, as a partner in industrial relations, as a radical-democratic social movement, as a part of civil society) is in profound crisis. Even more is this the case for labour as an international movement at a time in which the old international capitalist order is being challenged by the new global capitalist disorder. Recovery requires a critique of traditional labour internationalism, re-conceptualisation, new kinds of analysis, and a new dialogue and dialectic between interested parties. Presented here in turn are the following: 1) a critique of the union internationalism of the national/industrial/colonial (NIC) era; 2) a reconceptualisation of unionism and labour internationalism appropriate to a globalised/networked/informatised (GNI) capitalist era, 3) the millennial dialogue on labour and globalisation; 4) one of the new academic approaches to international labour/labour internationalism; 5) the role of communication, culture and the new information and communication technology (ICT). The conclusion stresses the centrality of networking, communication and dialogue to the creation of a new labour internationalism.
Peter Waterman (London, 1936) is an independent researcher/writer, resident in The Hague, Netherlands. He is the author of Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms, Cassell, London, 1998 (paperback forthcoming from Continuum, London), and co-editor of Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order, Macmillan, London, 1999 (Korean edition 2000). His current interests include: globalisation, communication, culture and solidarity; the life histories of internationalists; and his long-suffering Global Solidarity Dialogue website.
Trade Union Internationalism
in the Age of Seattle
Introduction: three internationalisms
It is widely recognised within and around the labour movement that labour (as wage work, as class identity, in the trade union form, as a partner in industrial relations, as a radical-democratic social movement, as a part of civil society) is in profound crisis. Even more is this the case for labour as an international movement at a time in which the old international capitalist order is being challenged by the new global capitalist disorder. Recovery requires a critique of traditional labour internationalism, re-conceptualisation, new kinds of analysis, and a new dialogue and dialectic between interested parties. Presented here in turn are the following: 1) a critique of the union internationalism of the national/industrial/colonial (NIC) era; 2) a reconceptualisation of unionism and labour internationalism appropriate to a globalised/networked/informatised (GNI) capitalist era, 3) the millennial dialogue on labour and globalisation; 4) one of the new academic approaches to international labour/labour internationalism; 5) the role of communication, culture and the new information and communication technology (ICT). The conclusion stresses the centrality of networking, communication and dialogue to the creation of a new labour internationalism.
Before starting, a note on ‘internationalism’, ‘labour internationalism’ and ‘union internationalism’. Within social movement discourse, internationalism is customarily associated with 19th century labour, with socialism and Marxism. It may be projected backwards so as to include the ancient religious universalisms, or the liberal cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. And it should be extended, in both the 19th and 20th century, so as to include women’s/feminist, pacifist, anti-colonial and human rights forms. In so far as it is limited to these two centuries, and to a ‘world of nation states’, we need a new term for the era of globalisation. Some talk of transnationalism. I prefer global solidarity, in so far as it is addressed to globalisation, its discontents and alternatives. As for labour internationalism this refers to a whole gamut of international labour-related practices, including those of co-operatives, labour and socialist parties, socialist intellectuals, culture, the media and even sport. As for union internationalism this refers to the primary form of worker self-articulation during the NIC era. This has so displaced or dominated labour internationalism during the later-20th century as to be commonly conflated with the latter. Yet it is precisely union internationalism that is most profoundly in crisis, and in question, under our GNI capitalism. In what follows I may use internationalism as a stand-alone term, but only as a familiar and general descriptor, behind which there lies the above understanding.
1. Union internationals and the national/industrial/colonial era
There have been and still are other types of international union organisation. I limit myself to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and two others that have related to it in ways of continuing importance. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was in ideological/political competition with the ICFTU during the Cold War era. The International Transportworkers Federation (ITF), as one of several major industry-based International Trade Secretariats (ITSs), was and is in some competition with the nation-state-based ICFTU. The political/ideological victory of the ICFTU in the Cold War thus still leaves open the question of whether nationally- or industrially-based internationals (or something rather different) are most appropriate for a new union, labour or general internationalism in the era of globalisation.
The origins of the World Federation of Trade Unions lie with the inter-state alliance (the Allies) that defeated the fascist one (the Axis) in World War Two. They also lie, however, in the wave of popular labour, democratic, nationalist and revolutionary feeling that accompanied this. That the movement dynamic was subordinate to the inter-state one is revealed by the speed with which the WFTU split on Cold War lines in 1947-9. The rapidity of the split was, however, also due to an earlier cold war - between Social-Democratic and Communist unions, going back to the time that the Profintern, or Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), was created by the Communists in 1920 (MacShane 1992). The WFTU retained the state-controlled unions in the Communist world, the Communist-led unions in the West and the Communist and some of the Radical-Nationalist unions in the South. In its efforts at expansion into this apparently-promising new world area, the WFTU reproduced, though with significantly less resources and against infinitely greater odds, the patron-client relations of the Western unions. Its solidarity, publicity and educational activities were more oriented toward winning labour and state allies for the Communist world than either increasing class-consciousness, autonomy and combativity, confronting capitalism or overthrowing authoritarian states (except where Western-subordinated). During a 50-year history, the ‘revolutionary’ WFTU never, for example, produced anything on how to organise a strike – national or international. Indeed, the main activity of the WFTU seems to have been that of organising international conferences, all of which pleaded for a ‘reunification of the international trade union movement’, each of which ended with the call for a follow-up conference.
At the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Czech working class ignored (actually, was ignorant of) the WFTU, although the latter was headquartered in Prague. The WFTU Secretariat briefly recovered a democratic and proletarian nerve by condemning the invasion – perhaps the only international Communist front organisation to have ever publicly criticised the Soviet Union. But this little, late gesture of autonomy was buried at a Council meeting some months later. That this required the switching off translation equipment when a Maoist Japanese union representative tried to speak, only reveals the bankruptcy of this organisation in the year that authoritarianism and conservatism were being questioned on the streets world-wide.
The WFTU continues to exist, and this in two equally problematic senses. The first is as a number of modest offices and modestly-paid officers, and a series of conferences and publications with a striking similarity to those of 30 years ago. The second is as a persistent myth, perpetuated by left, militant or anti-imperialist unionists - and by some younger-generation leftist researchers. These would seem to be searching for an alternative to the ICFTU, but then by looking backwards rather than forwards. The only evidence that the WFTU has itself learned something from struggles against contemporary capitalism is the creation in 2000 of its own website (see Resources).
But why should people be searching for an alternative to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, an organisation with 100 years of tradition behind it, backed by the overwhelming majority of Northern national unions, which won the trade union cold war, which has recruited to its ranks the major new left national unions of the South, which claims 124 million members, and which looks set to eventually gain those of China and Russia? It is, I think, because this international confederation, continues to mirror the national/industrial/colonial capitalism which gave it birth and shape. The ICFTU is an international confederation of national(ist) union federations; themselves historically representing (re-presenting?) the male industrial worker in large-scale capitalist or state enterprise; seeking from employers and governments, recognition, protection and representation within the state-nation and a world of such. This tradition is one of competition/collaboration with Taylorism (the mass-production assembly line), Fordism (workers paid enough to become mass consumers of their own mass products), Keynesianism (social redistribution and welfare from growth) and State-Nationalism (workers defined as national citizens, in distinction from, competition with, and even war against, others). The ideology, institutions and procedures of ‘social partnership’ (actually, of course, ‘capitalist partnership’) have been hegemonic ever since the creation in 1919, under considerable union pressure, of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ICFTU has internalised the tripartism of the ILO. To tripartism there was added, during the Cold War, the ideology of ‘free’ trade unionism, thus identifying the ICFTU with the ‘free world’, the USA and its dictatorial sons-of-bitches. And to this there was added, as colonialism (with which the ICFTU was often complicit) collapsed, the ideology of ‘development’ toward some implicit Swedish utopia or Californian cornucopia. The international organisation was built on the model of the era, a nation-state based and formally representative-democratic body, addressed primarily to the lobbying of inter-state organs. The internationalism this produced was, at best, a ‘national internationalism’ - the winning of liberal/social-democratic rights and standards within the state-nation, and the gaining of such state-nations for those workers denied this (Apartheid South Africa, Communist Poland).
On its 50th anniversary, a special issue of the ICFTU’s Trade Union World (1999) presented itself in terms of ‘How the ICFTU Has Influenced Global Developments Year after Year’. The weighty history of the ICFTU (v.d. Linden 2000), which shares this institutional-evolutionary perspective, nonetheless reveals many problematic aspects of its half century: these include intimate, even symbiotic, relations with states, capital, empires, blocs (even within the West!) and their intelligence agencies. Equally revealed, and equally problematic, is the extent to which ICFTU policy has been determined by its major Northern national member organisations, and by the internecine, if customarily concealed, conflicts of its leading unions and officers. Indeed, one comes away from this book with the impression that the ICFTU is not so much the major tradition and leading force within the international labour movement as an international office or pressure group, relating to other national and inter-state and employers' organisations, quite separately from what may be going on amongst workers on the shopfloor. This feeling is reinforced by the Conclusion to the 1972-1990s chapter of the above-mentioned book, which quotes one prominent Northern national leader's words to its 1975 Congress:
'I do not know how many people in your own country are deeply aware and conscious of the existence of the ICFTU, but I suspect in my country it is very few…' (516)
The author of this book-length, chapter, Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick (2000) concedes the point, and recognises other limitations, but asserts that
many workers in Africa, Chile or other trouble spots, where their colleagues have been arrested or killed, and others rescued through the intervention of the ICFTU or its affiliates, may well be aware of it, whether or not they know its name. (517)
Assuming this to be true, it still suggests a body more akin to the International Committee of the Red Cross rather than an international SMO (social movement organisation - a useful Americanism). One must avoid either demonising or dismissing the ICFTU. If workers had wanted a different ICFTU (or a different international union body), they could have organised to achieve such. So the ICFTU could and possibly should be seen as operating a self-limiting and defensive operation, within and under NIC capitalism, and despite the competition of Communist unionism from the East and of Radical-Nationalist/Populist unionism in the South.
The search for alternatives for, or to, the ICFTU is today fuelled by more contemporary challenges. One has to do with the role of a literally international confederation in times of globalisation. The ICFTU is an institution formally subordinate to national(ist) unions, and - in terms of the politics of power and money that have dominated the ICFTU historically - to its richest and most-powerful members. It is at the peak of a pyramidal structure several removes - and gatekeepers - away from any flesh-and-blood workers. It is also an institution heavily incorporated into a traditional world of inter-state institutions, with much of its energy addressed to lobbying these. The second major problem, to my mind, is the virtual invisibility of the ICFTU. Here is an organisation with 124 million members - and rising - which has no presence at all in the global media or culture, whether dominant, popular or alternative.
The ICFTU is changing. Both the extent and limits to this change were revealed by its Millennial Congress, Durban, South Africa, 2000. Reflecting on it, shortly afterwards, ICFTU General Secretary, Bill Jordan said:
[I]n periods of revolutionary change, and we are in one now, we must be able to think and act outside the straight-jacket of our traditions…The trade union movement, once again, needs new ideas for the needs of new workers, new occupations, new forms of work organisation, new employment relationships. (Jordan 2000)
Congress also appointed a ‘millennial commission’ on (re)organisation, to confront these challenges. But a participant’s response to the event, in the South African Labour Bulletin (2000), which has always been close to the South African and other Southern unions, suggests disdain for an organisation imprisoned by its own history. The anonymous author identifies, as a fundamental obstacle, the archaic/formalistic structures and procedures, and, as a force for innovation and internationalism, only the women trade unionists there present
The International Transportworkers Federation (ITF) came out of the wave of transportworker protest and action, particularly in the Europe of the 1890s-1920s. During the interwar years it was a significant part of the Social-Democratic union internationalism that was both independent of Moscow and opposed to the rise of fascism. The ITF also established its place in relationship to the ILO, created to solve 'the social problem' after World War I. Despite its entry here into international collective bargaining, the ITF continued to support mass mobilisation and international industrial action. It also actively supported anti-fascist movements and underground unions within fascist states. During World War Two the ITF contributed significantly to, and was supported by, the British and US anti-Nazi war efforts, thus discovering the benefits of collaboration with liberal-democratic states - and their intelligence operations. ITF collaboration with US intelligence during World War II, led to its involvement with the CIA during the Cold War, particularly in the violent repression of Communist dockworker unions in France and Italy, as well as in the even more violent repression of Communist and radical-nationalist unionism in Latin America and Africa.
During the 50 years after 1945, the ITF developed as at least a minor 'transnational actor' within the 'international system' (Reinalda 1997). Significant here is the ITF's longstanding campaign concerning sailors under so-called Flags of Convenience. This has been considered a model of union internationalism under globalisation, in so far as 1) FoC ships are registered beyond national union or government reach, with shipowner-friendly states, 2) crew are hired from yet other cheap-labour countries, 3) effective solidarity action has been often taken by workers outside this particular industry. Its FoC activity involves the ITF in international negotiations, and results in equally international collective agreements, including a shipowner-collected but ITF-administered welfare fund. Through such action the ITF has not only recovered millions of dollars in back-pay for crew. It also has a well-financed welfare function. The question arises, however, whether what we have here is not a paternalist operation, in which the ITF provides services for a Third World labour force that has no direct, or even indirect, control over its benefactor - thus approaching the model of state-funded 'development co-operation'.
ITF-affiliated dockers have historically played an important role in solidarity with these sailors, who evidently come from other countries and another industry. When, on the other hand, the ITF-affiliated Liverpool dockworkers called for international solidarity during their desperate but innovatory strike against a triumphant British neo-liberalism in 1995-8, the ITF had at least two reasons for failing to support them. The first is that these were, in a manner of speaking, subjects of one particular nation and therefore of a particular national affiliate of the ITF. (The British Transport and General Workers Union was itself reluctant to fully and openly support the strike). The second reason is that, given its role as collective-bargaining agent for international FoC crew, it is registered as a national union under anti-union labour legislation in Britain, and was therefore unable to take the requested solidarity action without risking its funds and/or its headquarters.
Regarding international transport policy, a longstanding matter of ITF concern, it apparently still
believes in a rational, co-operative and publicly planned transport system, both nationally and internationally co-ordinated to provide an efficient and integrated service for goods and passenger transport. Broader social costs and benefits should be taken into account in transport planning, because of transport's social function. Current international trends to liberalise and deregulate transport are seen by the ITF as a step backwards from such a public service concept. The art will be to find a proper middle road between 'the extremes of a planned transport industry and its complete liberalisation'. (Reinalda 1997:31)
This literally middle-of-the-road policy places the ITF alongside the more rational and farsighted international bureaucrats and technocrats, whilst accepting capitalism. This is in itself consistent with a bureaucratic vision of internationalism, as a relation between national union organisations, rather than between workers. In so far as the ITF is giving recognition to the newer social movements, this, also tends to be in alliance with national or international NGOs, rather than a direct relationship between workers and activists in allied movements. Whilst the ITSs will continue to exist, there therefore seems no good reason to assume that they are specially equipped for the new era. They share many of the characteristics of the ICFTU. And any traditional industrial specificity is being eroded by a wave of mergers. These can only exceptionally pretend to match that of capital - which is today changing sites, products/services, ownership and employment forms with increasing rapidity.
The ICFTU, ITF and - who knows? - even the WFTU, may add new elements to the old model of international trade unionism. But if it is not to remain a prisoner of this past, seeking a return to some golden age of partnership between Labour, State and Capital, international unionism is surely going to need an understanding of labour internationalism appropriate to a globalised capitalist disorder.
2. Conceiving a new labour internationalism
There is increasing talk, by academics and unionists alike, of some kind of international or global ‘social movement unionism’ (Ashwin 2000, Bezuidenhout 1999, Moody 1997). There is, however, both here and elsewhere a reluctance to discuss and conceptualise this (Munck 2000 is a partial exception). I therefore want here - and in the hope of provoking a critical response - to present two inter-related pieces of conceptualisation relevant to the matter.
A new social unionism. By this I mean one surpassing existing models of ‘economic’, ‘political’ or ‘political-economic’ unionism, by addressing itself to all forms of work, by taking on socio-cultural forms, and addressing itself to civil society. Such a union model would be:
- Struggling within and around waged work, not simply for better wages and conditions but for increased worker and union control over the labour process, investments, new technology, relocation, subcontracting, training and education policies. Such strategies and struggles should be carried out in dialogue and common action with affected communities and interests so as to avoid conflicts (e.g. with environmentalists, with women) and to positively increase the appeal of the demands;
- Struggling against hierarchical, authoritarian and technocratic working methods and relations, for socially-useful and environmentally-friendly products, for a reduction in the hours of work, for the distribution of that which is available and necessary, for the sharing of domestic work, and for an increase in free time for cultural self-development and self-realisation;
- Intimately related with the movements of other non-unionised or non-unionisable working classes or categories (petty-commodity sector, homeworkers, peasants, housewives, technicians and professionals);
- Intimately related to other non- or multi-class democratic movements (base movements of churches, women's, residents', ecological, human-rights and peace movements, etc) in the effort to create a powerful and diverse civil society;
- Working for the continuing transformation of all social relationships and structures ('economic', `political', `social', `residential', `domestic', `sexual', `cultural') in a democratic, pluralistic and co-operative direction;
- Intimately related to political forces (parties, fronts or states) with similar orientations (i.e. which demonstrate their recognition of the value of a plurality of autonomous social forces in an emancipatory and transformatory direction);
- Intimately related to other (potential) allies as an autonomous, equal and democratic partner, neither claiming to be, nor subordinating itself to, a `vanguard' or `sovereign' organisation or power;
- Taking up the new social issues within society at large, as they arise for workers specifically and as they express themselves within the union itself (struggle against authoritarianism, majoritarianism, bureaucracy, sexism, racism, etc.);
- Favouring shopfloor democracy and encouraging direct horizontal relations both between workers and between the workers and other popular/democratic social forces;
- Active on the terrain of education, culture and communication, stimulating worker and popular culture, supporting initiatives for democracy and pluralism both inside and outside the dominant institutions or media, locally, nationally, globally;
- Favouring direct shopfloor, grassroots and community contacts and solidarity internationally, both with workers and other popular or democratic forces, regardless of social system, ideology or political identity in the struggle to create a global civil society and culture;
- Open to networking both within and between organisations, understanding the value of informal, horizontal, flexible coalitions, alliances and interest groups to stimulate organisational democracy, pluralism and innovation.
Various writers have, over the years, identified ‘social movement unionism’ with 1) particular national organisations and/or 2) the South. This represents, I believe, an analytical, theoretical and strategic error. Analytically, they tend to identify as ‘social movement unions’ those involved in various kinds of labour-popular alliance, primarily during (semi-)insurrectionary movements against military/right-authoritarian regimes. Theoretically, they tend to reduce a conceptual category to an analytical one, thus preventing its critical application to the cases they label. Strategically, they tend to make it a characteristic of one world area – at a time in which globalisation is homogenising/diversifying the world in ways that both require and make possible the search for universal (not universalistic) alternatives.
A new labour internationalism. In so far as this addresses itself to the problems of a GNI capitalism (of which inter-state relations are but one part), this would have to see itself as part of a general global solidarity movement, from which it must learn and to which it must contribute. A new kind of labour internationalism implies, for me:
- Moving from the international relations of union or other officials towards face-to-face relations of concerned labouring people at the shopfloor, community or grassroots level;
- Surpassing dependence on the centralised, bureaucratic and rigid model of the pyramidal international organisation by stimulating the self-empowering, decentralised, horizontal, democratic and flexible model of the international information network;
- Moving from an `aid model' (one-way flows of money and material from the `rich, powerful, free' unions, workers or others), to a `solidarity model' (two-way or multi-directional flows of political support, information and ideas);
- Moving from verbal declarations, appeals and conferences to political activity, creative work, visits, or direct financial contributions (which will continue to be necessary) by the working people concerned;
- Surpassing an `export solidarity' model by practising `international solidarity at home', combating the local causes/effects of international exploitation and repression;
- Generalising the solidarity ethic by combating national, racial, political, religious, ideological and gender discrimination amongst working people locally;
- Basing international solidarity on the expressed daily needs, values and capacities of ordinary working people, not simply on those of their representatives;
- Recognising that whilst labour is not the privileged bearer of internationalism, it is essential to it, and therefore linking up with other democratic internationalisms, so as to reinforce wage-labour struggles and surpass a workerist internationalism;
- Overcoming ideological, political and financial dependency in international solidarity work by financing internationalist activities from worker or publicly-collected funds, and carrying out independent research activities and policy formulation;
- Replacing the political/financial coercion, the private collusion and public silences of the traditional internationalisms, with a frank, friendly, constructive and public discourse of equals, made available to interested workers.
- Requiring of involved intellectuals, professionals and officials that they are open about their own interests, motives and roles, that they dialogue with workers and take on a service and training role, rather than that of political leaders or official ideologists;
- Recognising that there is no single site or level of international struggle and that, whilst the shopfloor, grassroots and community may be the base, the traditional formal terrains can be used and can also be influenced;
- Recognising that the development of a new internationalism requires contributions from and discussion with labour movements in West, East and South, as well as within and between other socio-geographic regions.
Elements of such an understanding can be found within both international union pronouncements and practice. It is, I think, becoming the commonsense amongst left labour internationalists (see, for example, Lambert Forthcoming), although some still seem to consider labour (or even union) internationalism as the one that either leads, or ought to lead, the new wave of struggles against neo-liberal globalisation (Open World Conference 2000a). Yet others are beginning to go beyond such ideal types to spell out global labour/popular and democratic alternatives to ‘globalisation-from-above’ in both relational and programmatic terms (Brecher, Costello and Smith Forthcoming).
In what follows I want to consider, in the light of the above, the ways in which international labour/labour internationalism is either coming, or failing to come, to terms with the new global solidarity movements. Once again, traditional international institutions will remain at the centre of the analysis, as will the questions of forms and procedures.
3. International Labour’s Millennial Dialogue
‘International Labour’s Millennial Dialogue’ is my name for something that exists empirically and that I wish to further programmatically. We have, in 1999-2000, seen increasing numbers of union, labour, socialist and academic dialogues on labour and globalisation. These have been obviously stimulated by the coincidence of the millennium with what we have to call a ‘globalisation crisis’. The latter means not only the crisis of labour but that of the neo-liberal globalisation project as such. Amongst the conferences held we must note, firstly, the major international initiative of the ICFTU and ILO, in the form of an open, bilingual, electronic Conference on Organised Labour in the Century (COL21, see Resources) in 1999-2000. I am aware, secondly, of nine or ten international labour events on neo-liberalism/globalisation, mostly in the period 1999-2000. Most of these have been organised either beneath, at the periphery, or outside, the traditional international union structures.
COL21: the dialogue of which millennium? Despite its electronic form, its international accessibility, and its apparent openness, my impression is that this is a dialogue imprisoned by the history of its two sponsors and their joint interest in preserving or restoring their past centrality to the world of international labour relations. With one exception (that of left labour specialist Richard Hyman (1999)) the launching statements of the institutional sponsors and invitees were cast within the traditional discourses of ‘industrial relations’, ‘social partnership’ and ‘development’. Other keywords, such as ‘international solidarity’, ‘ICFTU’ and ‘ILO’ - surely all central to the future of organised labour - did not come under discussion, far less challenge. My rule-of-thumb analysis of COL21, at an early moment, suggests that those participating were mostly the usual suspects: White, Anglo-Saxon, Male (as, with the exception of the Chilean Director General of the ILO, Juan Somavia, were all the initial agenda-setters!). Most of the background papers commissioned by the ILO were restricted to unions-and-globalisation-in-my-country. Whilst conference contributors have been providing much information on the site, and occasionally taking critical positions, there has been little or no engagement with the opening statements, nor have participants been in noticeable dialogue with each other. When the Spanish-language site was first launched, most of the messages were those of greeting. If, later, this particular site became more lively, this may have been due to a more-enterprising web-mistress. Occasional personal enquiries, both in the Americas and Western Europe, suggest, moreover, that critically-minded international labour specialists have not been much interested in participating in this unique, innovatory, experiment, although they may have lurked (participated passively) there. None of which, however, means that the experiment should be dismissed. On the contrary, this criticism should be considered a provocation to systematic research on COL21, including its sponsorship and management, its subjects, discourses, participation and impact – and the similarities/differences between the English and Spanish sites. The point is that we (I risk speaking also for the reader here) quite urgently need such a discussion site, and it does not yet really exist.
The unofficial conferences: which dialogue of the millennium? To the seven conferences I have previously noted, I have to add a significant forerunner from 1988 and two latecomers, at the end of 2000. These events have been taking place on the institutional, political, educational and academic margins, or bases, of the international trade union structures. Most have taken place within the traditional capitalist core. But several have not (Korea, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil). And those that have been US-sited have, in most cases of which I am aware, involved Southern participants, although only exceptionally those from the ex-Communist world.
I will have to here confine myself to the Open World Conference in Defence of Trade Union Independence and Democratic Rights (OWC), held in San Francisco, February 11-14, 2000 (Open World Conference 2000b). This was probably the largest of the informal millennial events, attended by 560 people from 56 countries, 200 of them from outside North America. It was a Trotskyist initiative, was addressed by the leaders of the party concerned, but avoided blowing this particular trumpet and succeeded in involving a rather wide range of people, way beyond the traditional left. It was, moreover, entirely funded by unions, community and labour movement organisations – which raised the $11-14,000 to cover the costs of the event. Nine workshops were held, covering such subjects as women workers, immigrant workers, privatisation and deregulation, civil society and NGOs, peace and self-determination, racism and democratic rights, union incorporation into corporate and/or state structures (at every level), labour and the environment. It also paid considerable attention to the role of the UN and to the ILO – both seen as abandoning their traditional roles and being incorporated, in subordinate position, into the neo-liberal globalisation project (Sandri 1999). This was an impressive, even heroic, initiative, revealing the capacity of a traditional vanguardist socialist party to come out energetically, broadly and internationally against neo-liberal globalisation. And suggesting the willingness of organisations representing hundreds of thousands of members to respond to such an appeal. The OWC, moreover, eventually established its own website, produced a video and printed reports (see Resources). Much of this has been reproduced in other languages
I wish, however, to question certain features of this event, some common to the other ‘alternative’ conferences mentioned, some common to that of the ICFTU itself. The first is its defensive character, from its title forward. The language is that of militant resistance: ‘denounce’, ‘preserve’, ‘steer clear of…attempts to coopt’, ‘beat back’, ‘fight against’, ‘defend’, ‘halt’, ‘re-nationalise’, ‘refuse’. There is here no sign of the movement (in Latin American feminist parlance) ‘from opposition to proposition’. The second notable feature is, for me, the assumption that the working class is the prime victim of neo-liberalism. ‘Working class’ here seems to embrace all poor people (women, peasants, indigenous peoples, urban residents) who are thus denied any other significant interest or identity than that of unionised male urban workers in large-scale enterprise. There follows from this, thirdly, the assumption that the (inter)national union movement is, or should be, the leading force for the reversal (I use this word advisedly) of neo-liberalism. And the assumption that any non-traditional institution, practice or discourse – ‘NGOs’, ‘civil society’, ‘so-called globalisation’, even national or international union mergers – are, as such, instruments of the class enemy, that they debilitate or disorient the class struggle. This is particularly paradoxical given that the OWC, or the International Liaison Committee behind it, is itself, of course, an NGO. I note, sixthly, significant lacunae. Although there was a session on/of women, the sole demand of the conference concerned an ILO instrument on pregnancy leave; there was no mention of sexual harassment and rights, and therefore nothing about patriarchy within either the inter/national union movement or the ILC/IWC itself. And, despite one woman’s proposal for an international committee of working-class women, led by women, there was no reference to feminism, the major theoretical/ideological force both informing and stimulating international working women’s struggles over the last 20 years. There was, seventhly, no critique of traditional international trade unionism as such.. And, consistent with this, there was, finally, no workshop, no statement – and certainly no discussion - on the meaning of internationalism: whether yesterday or today; whether that of the unions, labour, socialists or more generally. The conference, in sum, was marked not only by a posture of radical oppositionism but also by the ideology of labourism/classism. Its internationalism, by default, remains largely that of the NIC period.
Let me risk a generalisation about the informal events: they customarily have their feet on the new terrain of neo-liberal globalisation, but their heads are often in an old world of ideologies and institutions. This is, of course, a criticism, but for me - for us - it also has to be a recognition. The organisers and participants in most of these often innovative events still seem more at home with the discourses of imperialism or national-protectionism; to be still wedded to the union (and/or labour/socialist party) as the primary or sole institutions for struggle against globalisation; to think of internationalism in terms of relations between national, local, industrial or company-based unions; to understand international dialogue as ‘exchange of experiences’ and, often, of ‘the national’ as the privileged or sole terrain of resistance and reassertion. Their procedures, too – sometimes despite contrary intentions – tend to reproduce traditional union or party practices. Some of these projects still consider theirs as the privileged voice of the new labour internationalism. And, even if they don’t have such pretensions, they do not seem to be aware or take account of the others, even if they overlap in focus and intent, even if some participants are present at one or more of the others. All of this, could and possibly should be taken as a sign of 1) the novelty of the networks and networking, 2) of a continuing globalisation shock, as 3) militant inter/nationalist activists grasp for old tools to dislocate a radically transformed capitalism, which, as suggested above, really requires radically transformed ones.
Every reason, therefore, I think, to avoid posing the informal events in opposition to either COL21, or even to the Millennium Congress of the ICFTU. In some ways, in certain areas, on certain issues, the ICFTU may be in advance of the OWC (on women, on relations with NGOs). I think we therefore need, rather, to see all these conferences as a single new international agora (both public space and market place) for which a new map is necessary, of which a full picture still has to be painted.
4. New writing on labour internationally: from place to space?
Given the dramatic boom in writing/publishing about this subject, given the increasing numbers of reviews/overviews, given space constraints, and given, of course, the nature of the book to which this item is intended to contribute, I will here consider only one challenging new contribution to international labour studies, that of radical social geography. What this challenges are the institutional or political-economic (PE) assumptions, parameters and solutions proffered by not only most of the traditional studies but also the new wave of international labour studies. I have already suggested the limits of the institutional parameters of much thinking and acting here, particularly the assumption of the union or nation-state, or inter-state forms as natural, privileged or even sacrosanct. As for the political-economic tradition, this tends to see the economy as international/global and the polity as, again, national, with this implying that the national polity is the privileged one for struggle, and that internationalism is an international relation between nation-state-defined working classes and labour movements.
Radical social geography insists that people are as much made by, and makers of, place/space as they are of work and industry. It represents a historical-geographical materialism. Whilst not necessarily disputing the vocabularies above, it adds to them: place and space, scale, mobility, locality, globality, and the geographies of industry/employment, domination, resistance and challenge. The left social geographers seem to have no such problem with ‘globalisation’ as do many left PE people. Maybe the discipline concerned with space is simply more open to the world than those more time-fixated (who may still believe that the more advanced countries, or movements, show the more backward ones their future). In the major new collection in this area (Herod 1998a), Richard Walker argues that the new labour studies:
must begin from the standpoint of the new global working class, which in its great variety of peoples and backgrounds overturns many conventional suppositions from the outset…But it must get back to being political economy; that is, it must take the logic of capitalist economies and the force of class as essential premises…The presumption still remains that for the great mass of the world's people work is still the central fact of existence […] What we need, in particular, is a political economy of place… [G]eographic inquiry must be telescopic, able to move up and down the scale of places…Globalism is as real as the persistence of localism, but when and where and how it matters is for us to puzzle out, not to assume. [Walker 1998:xvi]
What does this mean for international labour studies and internationalism? Andy Herod (1998b) argues, in relation to the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) activities in Eastern Europe, that a geographic perspective 1) provides insight into locally specific conditions, values, union thinking and acting, 2) allows the formulation of policy in geo-strategic terms, 3) raises awareness of the transmission of ideas across borders and cultures, and 4) reveals that ‘Ideas that work in one context might not work elsewhere. Geographic context is important. Blanket, aspatial solutions will not work’. (67) Whilst this case, and the book as a whole, certainly raises our awareness of the extent to which labour is made by and a maker of geographies, I am not sure whether such a sensitivity is sufficient for a transformation of internationalism. It might continue to conflate labour with union internationalism, or allow the trade union IMF (like the anti-union IMF), to make geo-strategically informed decisions in pursuance of geographically particular interests. The most provocative notion here is the suggestion that, in international work, ‘blanket, aspatial solutions will not work’.
This notion is fleshed out by Doreen Massey (2000). Although she is not here primarily concerned with either labour or union internationalism, her understanding of globalisation, in the light of Seattle, reminds us, yet again, that labour internationalism is only a particular form of a more general phenomenon. At the very least it suggests how a general understanding of globalisation might lead to international labour strategies of a less particularist/protectionist kind. Massey is arguing not against globalisation but for another kind, an internationalism that respects localities and differences. Her four propositions are 1) that neither the local nor the global are good or bad in themselves, and that left suspicion of the global level is both dangerous and contradictory; 2) that any kind of spatial fetishism (attaching fixed value to either the local or the global) side-steps the real question – of what kind of power relations exist at either level; 3) that abstract and general rules, such as ‘free trade’ (or a universal rule governing the trade-privilege/labour-rights relationship?) fails to allow for differential power relations locally/globally; 4) that the ‘big question must be: what kind of globalisation do we want?’; to which her big answer is that we need an ‘equalitarian, sustainable ethics of development’ (20). Bringing her argument down from the global and general to the national and specific, she argues, finally, that
In the UK we must contest the New Labour line that globalisation is inevitable; we should also contest its form. We should put on the agenda the questions: what is globalisation for? What principles might we be aiming at for the international (internationalist) organisation of economy and society…Learning to talk across difference in an interconnected world might be one step towards imagining an alternative form of globalisation. (21).
I think we will need to spell out her ‘egalitarian and sustainable ethics of development’ in such a way as to distinguish it from the kind of Global Neo-Keynesianism implicit in ICFTU thinking (compare Brecher, Costello and Smith Forthcoming). We will also need to explicitly add culture to our recipe if our historical materialism is to relate adequately to a GNI capitalism, its workers and an internationalism relevant to both.
5. Communications, culture and computers: from space to cyberspace?
The necessity for labour and its internationalism to have communicational/cultural and electronic form was revealed most dramatically by the ‘Battle of Seattle’ against the World Trade Organisation, late-1999. The initiative for the demonstration came from a network of NGOs - or a network of networks of NGOs. So far as I am aware, US and international labour neither led nor significantly shaped this event. Rather was it the other way round. International mobilisation took place largely through the internet. Protest activity was largely in the hands of the Direct Action Movement, which trained people in flexible but combined forms of action. All this is well expressed by Naomi Klein (2000):
Despite…common ground, these campaigns have not coalesced into a single movement. Rather they are intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as ‘hotlinks’ connect their websites on the internet. This analogy is more than coincidental: the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. Thanks to the net, mobilisations unfold with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and laboured manifestos are fading into the background, replaced by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information-swapping […] The decentralised nature of these campaigns is not a source of incoherence and fragmentation but a reasonable, even ingenious, adaptation to changes in the broader culture. (23-4. My emphasis. PW)
The US unions, providing some 50 percent of total participation, got involved late, organised separate activities (in a stadium and a hall), and tried to marshal their march away from where the police were brutalising non-violent resisters (not the tiny minority trashing the High Street multinationals). The international trade unions were invisible in the dominant media, and scarcely more so in the alternative videos made (see Resources). Whilst the ecologists turned out dressed as turtles, the trade unionists turned out dressed as…trade unionists. Where the non-violent resisters put their bodies on the line, the US union leaders went down on their knees in prayerful attitude. Result: the 50 percent of unionists got five percent of the visual coverage in the major international (meaning US) news magazines! One could only put this down to ‘media bias’ if the forms of union expression had been as original, attractive, dramatic or ludic as those of the other demonstrators.
With a few notable exceptions, the international labour movement has not yet understood the significance of all this. Jean-Paul Marthoz (2000), a journalist long associated with the ICFTU, recognises the increasing centrality of the media within the globalisation process, and the potential of both the media and media workers in the struggle against globalisation. But - confronted by media coverage of the radicals and radicalism at Seattle – he considers the public projection of Seattle a matter for ‘caution rather than euphoria’. Why not both? And why, for that matter, is not international labour prominently identified with and involved in the new international movement for the democratisation of communication (Voices 21)? Again, it seems, international labour is to respond to the new globalised public sphere and new forms of collective self-expression in a defensive rather than in learning or creative mode.
Such a literally conservative response has been long identifiable in international union attitudes toward the new information and communication technology (ICT). This began, almost 20 years ago, with the ICFTU’s failure to take up the free offer of a Scandinavian social-democratic computer specialist of an open-access database, called – ironically in the circumstances – Unite. It continues today with what one must call the ICFTU’s technically misguided and politically elitist attempt to establish and control a ‘union’ domain name (like .com, .uk, .org) on the internet. Increasing numbers of international union websites do provide a welcome increase in access to information on their own activities. But this represents only a belated response to ICT as instrument (faster, cheaper, further-reaching) not as cyberspace (another kind of place, with unlimited possibilities for international dialogue, creativity and the invention/discovery/development of new values, new attitudes, new dialogues). So even the brave new multi-union website, Global Unions, only represents a bigger, faster, further-reaching union magazine, news and – possibly mobilisation - service. These are, then, organs of propaganda, which can only incidentally serve the creation of those dialogical practices and dialectical understandings necessary to our new complex, globalised, capitalist reality.
For more globalisation-appropriate practices we have to turn to international labour’s more marginal media, whether magazines such as International Trade Union Rights (which has been running an extensive discussion of the problematic issue of trade/rights linkage) or websites run by NGOs and/or individuals, such as Eric Lee’s news (plus much more) service, LabourStart, or to left communication specialist, Richard Barbrook’s provocative proposals for new principles of labour organisation. Barbrook understands ICT not simply as something workers or unions can use, it is something that they produce, and that also produces workers, and workers needing unions of another kind:
As in other industries, workers in the emerging digital economy also need to defend their common interests. However, most of the existing labour organisations are not responding quickly enough to the changes in people’s working lives. Although formed to fight the employers, industrial trade unions were also created in the image of the Fordist factory: bureaucratic, centralised and nationalist. For those working within the digital economy, such labour organisations seem anachronistic. Instead, new forms of unionism need to be developed which can represent the interests of digital workers. As well as reforming the structures of existing labour organisations, digital workers should start co-operating with each other using their own methods. As they’re already on-line, people could organise to advance their common interests through the Net. Formed within the digital economy, a virtual trade union should emphasise new principles of labour organisation: artisanal, networked and global. (Barbrook 1999)
And, for a yet more general understanding of the role of ICT in relationship to internationalism, we again need to go beyond the particular world and worldview of labour, to a reflection on ‘Women @ Internet’ by Arturo Escobar:
Networks - such as women's, environmental, ethnic and other social movements networks - are the location of new political actors and the source of promising cultural practices and possibilities. It is thus possible to speak of a cultural politics of cyberspace and the production of cybercultures that resist, transform or present alternatives to the dominant virtual and real worlds. This cybercultural politics can be most effective if it fulfils two conditions: awareness of the dominant worlds that are being created by the same technologies on which the progressive networks rely (including awareness of how power works in the world of transnational networks and flows); and an ongoing tacking back and forth between cyberpolitics (political activism of the Internet) and what I call place politics, or political activism in the physical locations at which the networker sits and lives. (Escobar 1999:32)
Conclusion: networking, communication, dialogue
I have earlier suggested that the fundamental problem of trade union internationalism under a GNC is one of forms and practices, with those of the trade union being heavily marked by the NIC capitalism in and against which it took shape. This means that criticism of union bureaucracy, hierarchy, ideology (and the necessity to overcome - even the possibility of overcoming - such) are somewhat out of place. We really need an alternative principle of worker self-articulation (both joining and expression) appropriate to our era.
As our last two quotes suggest, this principle is the network, the practice is networking. There is no need to fetishise the network nor demonise the organisation. ‘Networking’ is also a way of understanding human inter-relations, and we can therefore see an organisation in network terms, just as we can look at a network in organisational ones. It remains nonetheless true that the movement from an NIC to a GNI capitalism is also one from an organised to a networked capitalism (Castells 1996-8). It is from the international labour networks, and networking, that today tend to come the new initiatives, speed, creativity and flexibility. For unions, or socialists, to condemn, or even criticise, ‘NGOs’ as lacking in ‘democracy’ or ‘representativity’ is to misunderstand the new principles, forms and practices of radical-democratic social movements. The latter are centrally concerned with empowerment through information, ideas, images, son et lumière, values. In so far as we are talking of radical-democratic networks, networking or – indeed – NGOs, then they represent a major source of, or resource for, renovation and movement both within society, in relation to capital and state - and within or between such organisations as trade unions. An international unionism concerned to be radically-democratic and internationalist will learn this, or it will stagnate. International union networking, moreover, will stagnate if it does not recognise itself as a part of a radical-democratic internationalist project that goes far beyond the unions, far beyond labour problems.
‘Networking’ is a term that relates to communication rather than institutions. And, in so far as international labour networking is not to reproduce the dominant values of a GNI capitalism, it must be informed by and produce a radical-democratic style of communication - and sense of culture. I call this a ‘global solidarity culture’. This currently finds its most forceful expression in the declaration Voices 21 (1999), itself an international network of democratic communications academics, activists and practitioners. This movement concerns itself with increasing access to the media, the right to communicate, diversity of expression, security and privacy. The international trade union organisations are so far notably absent from this new international social movement. This is in part because of their institutional self-definition, in part because communications workers and unions tend to be as fearful of ‘public interference’ in their territory as they are of media magnates or state censorship. Yet labour has a long and rich cultural history and has in the past innovated and even led popular and democratic cultural movements. International trade unionism, once again, has to either surpass its reductionist self-definition or remain invisible in the international media arena, which is increasingly challenging and even replacing the institutional ones as the central site of democratic contestation and deliberation.
Debate is a continuation of war by other means. The intention is to defeat or destroy the other, whether this is an idea, movement or person. Discussion implies listening to the other, with no necessary implication of surpassing or transforming the exchange. Dialogue implies a dialectic, a process in which initial positions are transformed and a new synthesis reached. In talking above about international labour’s millennial dialogue I was speaking both descriptively and prescriptively. There are such debates and discussions taking place; they ought to take dialogical form, within, between and without (outside) the international labour movement.
Let me here get up close and personal. Coming from the tradition of Marxist polemic (including that of Lenin, whose major works are all problematic because of their polemical form), I have had to fight my way out of this box and toward something more like a discussion or a dialogue. To have established at least a public discussion with Bill Jordan (for the exchange see Waterman 2000) is, I consider, an achievement for both parties - that with 124 million members and that with none. Elsewhere I find myself in increasing, and increasingly meaningful, dialogue with labour and other internationalists. Some of this is revealed in Rob Lambert (Forthcoming), although it may not reveal that this particular dialogue started 15 or more years ago! I would like to hope that such a dialogical intention is present in this piece of writing however critical it may be of the traditional institutions.
Such international and internationalist dialogue on labour internationally is not simply facilitated by the web. The logic of the computer is one of feedback. A unidirectional, one-to-many, centralising, use of the computer, for purposes of control, is a denial of this logic and its possibilities. The military/industrial/commercial/statist internet and web are subversive of institutions and institutionalisation. As Marx said of capitalism itself (somewhat prematurely, or sanguinely) 150 years ago:
All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air. (Marx and Engels (1848) 1935:209).
There is no other way for us to operate within both our globalised world, and the ‘real virtuality’ (Castells 1996-8: Vol. I: 327-75) surrounding it, and literally informing it, than to overcome our fear of flying. This requires of labour internationalists - whether within the institutions, on their peripheries (or somewhere-else-but-concerned-with-such) that we become, as Enzensburger (1976) said of the electronic media, 'as free as dancers, as aware as football players, as surprising as guerrillas'). And this requires – of all of us again – that we learn to dialogue with each other as we continue our struggles; that we make a road beyond capitalism whilst both walking and talking.
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