Kim Scipes (ed.), Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization

(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 259 pp.

The changing strategies of the international labor solidarity movement reflect trends on the left and worldwide beginning with the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and globalization in the 1980s. The recognition of diversity, respect for the autonomy of social movements, and rejection of top-down decision making have gained widespread acceptance on the left since the 1960s and have influenced solidarity work, particularly at the international level. In addition, globalization trends have brought a sense of urgency to international solidarity as the super-exploitation of workers in the third world has a more direct negative impact on wages in developed nations than in the past. Finally, territorial-based confrontations over issues such as the environment in recent years have helped cement a close relationship between unions and social movements engaged in international solidarity work; conflicts along these lines have led many to rethink the view of the workplace as the epicenter of the struggle for change.

Building Global Labor Solidarity addresses these developments and analyzes their strategic implications for the labor solidarity movement. In his introductory essay, Scipes points out that much solidarity work in the twentieth century “proceeded… in a clientelistic manner rather than  a solidaristic one, and this has generally been one-way, from labor movements in the Global North toward labor movements in the Global South.” In contrast, in the current period, labor solidarity “can originate in the South or the North… and can be based on respectful, solidaristic relations” (38). In accordance with his critique of North-dominated solidarity, Scipes favors what he calls “grassroots labor internationalism” consisting of “a growing number” of trade unionists as well as “those outside of the labor movement who want to build a better world” (47).  These activists are “not waiting for the international office of their union to mobilize them” (45) and perhaps for this reason there is a “general lack of knowledge” (47) about their activity.

Some, but not all, of the contributors to the volume share Scipes critical position on the leadership of the US labor movement. In her chapter on the influence of immigrant workers on solidarity work, Jenny Jungehülsing points to the longstanding resistance of US labor leaders to internationalist positions, and in doing so recalls Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” on the inherently conservative tendencies of all organizations in the course of time. The transnational nature of immigration in the age of globalization, however, promises to have a reverse effect, as transportation and communication technology facilitates a greater interconnectedness of immigrant workers with their countries of origin. The resultant “emotional bonds” (81) infuse solidarity work and the labor movement in general with a much needed “felt solidarity” (79-80) and sensitivity to the plight of third world people.

Katherine Nastovski’s chapter on the solidarity movement that emerged in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s is equally critical of the leadership of the AFL-CIO as well as the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Far from constituting expressions of labor solidarity, the AFL-CIO’s activities, such as its role leading to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, were examples of “labor imperialism” (58).  Nastovski relates how CLC leaders attempted to block the efforts of labor solidarity activists intent on raising the issue of apartheid in South Africa and the contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s by arguing that these matters were the sole preserve of the CLC’s International Department. Drawing on Gramsci, Nastovski categorizes the Canadian solidarity movement of those years as “counter-hegemonic” in that it questioned the “everyday common sense of business unionism” (57), which is antithetical to the internationalism championed by Marxists.

In contrast to the critique of the US-Canadian labor leadership formulated by Scipes, Jungehülsing and Nastovski and their praise of grassroots initiatives, other contributors focus more on the progressive positions adopted by the national leadership of the AFL-CIO since John Sweeney assumed the federation’s presidency in 1995. Timothy Ryan’s chapter on the deplorable working conditions in Bangladesh, for instance, highlights the solidarity efforts of the AFL-CIO even prior to 1995. Ryan points out that since the mid-1980s the AFL-CIO has pressured multinationals and governments throughout the world to enforce minimum standards for working conditions. More recently, the “active, sustained, and trusted presence on the ground” of the AFL-CIO and its international arm, the Solidarity Center, has been “critical to the current growth in Bangladesh’s labor movement” (131).

Michael Zweig, in his chapter “Working for Global Justice in the New US Labor Movement,” also highlights the importance of the solidarity efforts of the AFL-CIO following the federation’s historic change of leadership in 1995. In addition to distancing the AFL-CIO from its Cold War legacy of anti-Communism, Sweeney, his successor Richard Trumka and other federation leaders have rejected their organization’s long-standing “nativist reaction against immigrant workers” (178). They have also engaged in “coalition building” (179) by cooperating with the NAACP and participating in the Occupy movement – to name but two examples of joint efforts. At the same time, Zweig points to the shortcomings of the federation’s solidarity work. He points out that the AFL-CIO targets issues of direct concern to the US labor movement, such as trade and immigration, and does so in a “piecemeal” (187) fashion, while giving less emphasis to US interventionism and privatization abroad. This self-serving prioritization, according to Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin (whom Zweig quotes), explains why “many in the Global South are skeptical of the sincerity of US intentions, including those of the US labor movement” (186). Zweig also calls on the labor movement to give greater weight to the education of the rank and file in order to create “a new union culture” (193), which is a sine qua non for the deepening of international solidarity.

Surprisingly, Zweig fails to fully recognize the seriousness of the fact that the Solidarity Center receives much of its funding either “directly” or “indirectly” (184) from the US government. Considerable evidence points to the convergence of the work performed by the Solidarity Center and the interests and aims of its financial patron, that is the US government in the form of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Agency for International Development (AID) and the State Department. In Venezuela, for instance, the Center worked with the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) which played a central role in the coup against President Hugo Chávez in April 2002. Although the incident embarrassed the Center, it maintained relations with the CTV in subsequent years, even after the Confederación played an equally central role in the general strike of 2002-03, which also attempted to unseat Chávez. In spite of the undeniable importance of the change in AFL-CIO positions after 1995, the federation has failed to completely break with its legacy of promoting US interventions. The first step in such a renovation would have been a complete documentation and repudiation of the nefarious foreign activities of the AFL-CIO (and the AFL before it) going back to the Spanish-American War.

Bruno Dobrusin’s chapter on Latin America explores the debate over the new directions of the labor solidarity movement and its paradigmatic implications. Writers who are inspired by the World Social Forum with its emphasis on social movements have questioned the effectiveness of top-down solidarity work originating from the national leadership of the AFL-CIO and other powerful worker organizations. A major and successful example of the “new alliances” (104) that bring together labor unions and social movements was the struggle against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which Dobrusin calls a “counter-hegemonic” (110) struggle against neoliberalism. Over the recent past, environmental struggles bolstered by “well-rooted territorial-community identity” (105) have been at the center of national attention and debate, a reality that the labor movement should recognize. Controversial developmental projects that endanger the environment, however, are mostly “felt on the ground in the rural areas” (114), whose residents lack political clout. In addition, these struggles have divided the labor movement, as a conservative wing opposed to demands along these lines represents workers in “the so-called dirty industries” (112).

In short, the contributors to Building Global Labor Solidarity perform a valuable service by demonstrating the pluses and minuses of the labor movement’s international work over a period of decades. The essays document the profundity of the changes, in the favorable sense, as a result of the AFL-CIO’s leadership renovation in 1995, but at the same time they point to shortcomings in the federation’s solidarity work over the recent past. These deficiencies represent a special liability for the US working class given the high degree of interdependence that characterizes the age of globalization. 

Reviewed by Steve Ellner
Universidad de Oriente

Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

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