Labor Missed a Big Opportunity at the World Economic Forum

[This article was published in "Viewpoint" column.]

Labor was handed (and missed) a tremendous opportunity in February when the World Economic Forum met in New York. The forum, an exclusive annual gathering of corporate and political leaders,normally meets in Davos, Switzerland. Protests led by global justice activists forced the WEF out of the Alps and into the corporate valleys of Manhattan this year.

WEF organizers tried to paint their choice of New York as a charitable gesture in the wake of the September 11 events.

Young global justice activists, continuing the movement that sparked protests in Seattle and other cities around the world, jumped on the forum as a way to revive protest that had been dampened by the climate since September 11. They organized an impressive demonstration February 2, some 15,000 strong, that marched peacefully through the streets of Manhattan to the ritzy Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

But organized labor was nowhere in sight, avoiding a march that even New York City police had blessed with an official permit. Since Seattle, people have wondered what would come of the labor-youth alliance born there. In New York, labor’s answer seemed to be that it would stick with forums and separate events and not join young people in the streets.

THE AFL’S PROTEST: BY INVITATION ONLY

Two days before the march the AFL sponsored an invitation-only forum followed by a rally at a Gap store.

At the AFL forum several hundred union officials and staffers hunkered down to listen to a roundtable discussion and then a speech by President Sweeney. The forum was by invitation only and held during regular work hours, largely making worker participation impossible.

The roundtable was impressive, though. It featured a panel of two maquiladora workers (one from Guatemala and one from Kukdong in Mexico), a former Chinese railroad worker (jailed for participation in Tiananmen Square), as well as several U.S. workers, including an LTV steelworker, a garment worker, and a soon-to-be-laid-off auto worker from the Edison, New Jersey Ford plant.

Sweeney’s speech at the forum was timeworn and predictable. He avoided mentioning that he would later be attending the WEF himself, having secured a “seat at the table.” Also of interest was his effort to avoid talking about any of the positions that are actually taken by the AFL or affiliates in response to globalization, such as trade policies to protect American workers or Buy American campaigns.

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After the forum, participants walked (it was made clear that it was not a march) to a rally to hear more speakers. The AFL’s application for a march permit had been denied, although the organization Another World Is Possible, comprised of younger anti-globalization activists, including anarchists, did get a permit for their march two days later.

PROSPECTS

Nearly 1,000 attended the AFL’s rally, a testament to the work of Jobs with Justice and other organizers, but far short of what could be done with real participation by the AFL and affiliates in a city with hundreds of thousands of union members. The “canned” nature of the event was striking in contrast to the energy and creativity of the global justice march that took place two days later, on Saturday.

What are the prospects for a labor-youth alliance in a post September 11 world? The AFL’s choreographed but disengaged events in New York don’t bode well. A cynical (or astute, depending on how you look at it) observer might point out that the AFL is doing just enough to retain a social justice image, one that makes it more possible to draw young recruits into its Organizing Institute from the movement, while doing little to advance that movement.

On the other hand, many involved in the global justice movement continue to harbor serious misconceptions about the labor movement, not understanding the real-life differences that can exist between grassroots and top-down unionism, and often show a lack of interest in creating real links with working people.

Debates over direct action and civil disobedience point to a certain irony. In order to recapture the interest of working people, labor needs to adopt many new, and old, tactics. Civil disobedience has to be on the labor agenda. The success of the global justice movement and of organizations like ActUP should be a wake-up call for labor.

Yet the global justice movement’s over-emphasis on direct action to the exclusion of other, more routine but important movement-building techniques can be an impediment-if one goal is to broaden the movement.

Likewise, labor’s aversion to bottom-up democracy and love of top-down, bureaucratic approaches to meetings and organization sends young activists running in the opposite direction. The same could be said, however, of the strange and dreadful procedural debates and frustrating diversions caused by rampant consensus-based decision making in global justice coalition meetings.

The AFL-CIO’s limp choice of a theme during the WEF protests-“What About the Workers?”-ended up saying much about the organization’s own shortcomings around globalization, highlighting the lack of creativity and fightback. Globalization offers labor a tremendous chance to reclaim its position as a force for real social and economic change. Asking, and working together to answer, the question “What about the youth-labor alliance?” has to be a first step.

David Pratt is an organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union in New York City.