Anti-Globalization Activists And Unions Can Still Work Together

[This article was published in "Viewpoint: What We Must Do To Keep the Movement Alive" column.]

What a difference a year makes! In April 2001 we were marching in Quebec, 50,000 strong: students, activists, and union members-including many from the northeastern U.S.-voicing our opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the latest manifestation of corporate-sponsored globalization. When the protests finally ended and the pro-Free Trade officials were choking on tear gas, activists on both sides of the border were convinced that the momentum was with us.

Flash forward to April 20, 2002 and another march is scheduled. While globalization is once again a theme -- the demonstrations will coincide with the annual meeting of the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in Washington -- you won’t see many union jackets in the crowd.

In fact, even progressive labor groups like Jobs With Justice that have spearheaded labor’s participation in the anti-corporate-globalization movement are sitting out this April.

What happened? Is the famous “blue-green” alliance from Seattle dead? Are “Teamsters and Turtles” not friends anymore? And just how deep are the divisions between the labor movement and the young anti-global protesters over the U.S. government’s war on terrorism? If we wish to build a bigger, better movement for global social justice, addressing these questions is essential.

THE MEMORY OF SEATTLE

The movement that emerged in the streets of Seattle three years ago shook the world. For activists in the U.S., the sight of environmentalists, students, radical young people, and union members fighting together provided a jolt of energy. Even in Europe, where protests against the neoliberal economic agenda had been under way for a decade, Seattle was seen as a beginning.

Activists in the industrial countries as well as the Global South felt, for the first time, that it was possible to talk back to a global system of capitalism that was-and still is-spiraling out of control. Perhaps most important, the protests seemed to signal the rebirth of internationalism within a U.S. labor movement that had for too long allied itself with cold war policies.

But even before the events of September 11 stopped, at least temporarily, the movement for global justice in its tracks, the euphoria of Seattle was proving increasingly difficult to sustain. The promise of labor solidarity with the students and environmentalists had fallen short.

Unions and environmentalists found themselves split over issues like Arctic drilling and auto emissions standards. In Quebec in April 2001, mainstream Canadian labor unions turned out their members by the thousands, but the U.S. labor movement didn’t put its muscle behind those actions in the streets.

A growing debate was developing over “direct action,” especially in light of the violence at the globalization protests in Genoa, Italy last summer. Some were uneasy about the movement’s position in favor of “diversity of tactics”-which seemed to allow the police and press to paint all globalization protesters as violent (now read “terrorist”).

Finally, there were questions about the demographics of the movement, especially at big protests. Wasn’t the movement too white and middle-class, at least in the U.S., for something that claimed to speak for the oppressed of the world?

Despite these weaknesses the global justice movement still seemed, and I would argue still is, the best hope for developing an alternative to a world dominated by the demands of corporate profits.

In addition to shaking up the corporate consensus, the movement also began to shake up parts of the labor movement, imparting youthful energy and, dare I say, hipness to workers’ struggles that we hadn’t seen since, wow, the 1930s. The movement was arguably having a real impact on the corporate elite, forcing them onto the ideological defensive and making some progress on issues like AIDS in Africa.

Labor was still committed, despite the tensions. Fast Track was almost defeated, and the AFL-CIO had an ambitious mobilization planned for the World Bank/IMF protests in Washington last September. Then the towers crumbled.

WAR IS HELL

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The war has made maintaining the coalition against global capital infinitely more difficult. Unions supported a military response in Afghanistan-as did more than 90 percent of working people-while most non-labor activists in the movement did not. Many unions in other countries have also opposed the war, threatening international labor solidarity and throwing U.S. labor back into the role of supporting the policies of the U.S. government.

The burgeoning movement for the rights of undocumented workers was also struck a blow, although labor stuck to its guns regarding the treatment of immigrants in this country, criticizing anti-immigrant and anti-Arab sentiment and continuing to support legalization.

Support for the war among unions has served to alienate the direct action youth in the global justice movement and some of the students from whom labor has drawn many new organizers. U.S. labor’s position also puts it at odds with much of the rest of the world anti-corporate globalization movement. At the recent World Social Forum in Brazil, most people seemed to assume that everyone there had an anti-war stance-political suicide at this point for elected labor leaders in the U.S.

ANOTHER MOVEMENT POSSIBLE

What is the potential of the movement for global justice post-9/11? At the very moment that the war has made the possibility of a labor-backed global justice movement seem unlikely, the economic war being waged against workers in the U.S. (the recession that has now “ended”) has made a mass movement of workers here more likely than at any time in recent history.

The Enron debacle, the faltering economy, and the health care crisis have broadened the potential base for anti-corporate mobilization, even if labor has been slow (to put it charitably) to act on these possibilities. Millions of workers, arguably many more than before 9/11, are open to the idea that a more just economic system is needed if our children, and the children of workers in other countries, are to grow up in a world that is not in a state of permanent war and economic stagnation.

How do we get there? First we need to keep alive the spirit of international solidarity in the face of war rhetoric and the growing protectionist sentiment that accompanies massive job losses. The global organization of production requires that labor organize internationally in order to win future battles.

We need to support workers and unions in Colombia and elsewhere who are murdered when they speak out against U.S. corporate exploitation. We need to continue to situate local struggles in a global context with a global strategy.

MOBILIZE MILLIONS

We need to look for what can unite us, like support for immigrant rights, or opposition to the FTAA, and act on that, not focus on what divides us.

There will be growing fights over health care, jobs, and a decent retirement that have the potential to become social movements in the coming years, mobilizing multiracial millions, not thousands. We need to constantly draw the links between these issues and others. Enron ripped off American workers and consumers? In India, there has been mass opposition to Enron’s policies for years.

At the same time that labor activists strive to keep communication and joint action alive, our allies in the globalization movement, domestically and internationally, need to appreciate the political realities that we face in the U.S. labor movement.

The demands, including opposition to the current war, put forth for the April 20 march are supported by only a small minority of Americans today. On the other hand, a large majority of workers and their allies still support the issues of global justice.

Therein lies the problem. It will take patience and a long-term commitment to movement-building to realize that potential. If our slogan is “Another World Is Possible,” then we need to realize that another movement is possible, in fact necessary, to realize that potential: a movement of workers, students, environmentalists, and others whose promise we saw in Seattle and whose reality we will see on the streets in the years to come.

Russ Davis is an organizer of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice. For French version of this article, click here.

Labor Notes welcomes alternative viewpoints on this issue.