Roundtable

Planetizing the Labor Movement
A contribution to an exchange on Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Kim Scipes

I absolutely agree with Munck (and respondents) that those who see labor as having little to contribute to global progressive politics today are misguided. Yet I want to approach this subject from a slightly different position. I do this as someone who has actively been working to build global labor solidarity for more than thirty-five years, and who has written extensively on the subject. In particular, I want to address four themes in this essay.

(1) First, we need to break apart the concept of globalization. I see it as having two levels instead of the one commonly used. The top level, indicating top-down processes, is what I call “corporate/military globalization,” and this is what generally gets referred to as “globalization.” This basically sees anything done by multinational corporations as being good, along with any military actions to support/protect them, and, this, I argue, is based on the values of domination and hierarchy.

However—and generally unrecognized—there is another level, which has been called the “global economic and social justice movement” (hereafter, GESJM). This is women and men from the grassroots of global society all seeking to build a better world, based on the values of equality and solidarity, from the bottom up. This includes women, peasants, workers, students, youth, the urban poor, etc. In some cases, there are conscious efforts to build this movement among organizations and people, but in perhaps most, it is in a stage of potential development.

These two levels are built on values that are qualitatively different, and opposed to the other. However, recognizing the existence of the GESJM allows us to encourage globalization, just through our values and not those of the corporate/military globalists. And I would place labor—in some cases, consciously, but in others potentially—in this category.

(2) Much of what Munck has discussed really is of the potential of labor to build global labor solidarity. I agree with its potential. But what this ignores is the existing and previous actual efforts to build global labor solidarity, which in many cases are efforts not generally known.

For example, every year since 1984, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Labor Center of the Philippines has conducted its “International Solidarity Affair (ISA),” which is a conscious effort to build global labor solidarity. (As far as I can ascertain, this is the only such program like this in the world.) This is a ten-day program, inviting workers and labor leaders to travel to the Philippines to experience the reality of life for Filipino workers. It begins with a formal program in Metro Manila, and then seeks to get people to work sites around the National Capital Region and out into the provinces.1

The KMU may have the most consciously developed program, but there has been an increasing level of efforts to build cross-border solidarity over the years. My edited collection Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization presents a number of examples from Canada, the US/Mexico/Central America worker links, South America, Bangladesh, the Philippines, the US-Mexico border, and global justice efforts within the US labor movement.2

(3) This brings me to my third theme: the need for workers to be organized, consolidated and educated, as a key aspect of building global labor solidarity. Most workers in the world are not in unions, and of those who are, only a very small number have been consolidated and educated. For all practical purposes, most workers who are said to be in unions are still not organized. Many union members today are paper members only, whether in the United States or in most countries around the world. They have the potential to mobilize around strike calls, etc., when they feel their interests demand it; however, this is generally in reaction to attacks on them, maybe family members, etc.

In general, this means that workers are not seeing themselves as union members, and especially not as union activists. And this means that their unions are not developing their members’ leadership capacities. It is not enough to simply “organize” workers into unions; they must be consolidated as such. Key to this is through education. Thus, the KMU and its affiliated unions have an extensive education program for individual members, not limited to just shop stewards, etc. The aim is to develop each member’s leadership capacity, training them to their fullest potential. Now, this may not be achieved in many cases, or even most cases, but still is understood to be important and necessary, and made available as extensively as possible. In other words, development of the individual member is seen as a priority.3

It is this level of conscious global education and activism that I think Munck is trying to encourage. I support it, but as indicated above, I seek to deepen this so as to develop active global labor solidarity with working people around the world.

(4) One other subject that needs addressing: the need to end labor imperialism, where labor in one country seeks to dominate labor in another. The foremost, but not only, example of this is the foreign policy of the AFL-CIO.4

So, I am delighted to see the ongoing development of the idea of global labor solidarity, but I want to emphasize that we are not starting from scratch: this work started decades ago and continues today. I thank Munck for such a thought-provoking essay.


1. After participating in the ISA in 1988, I wrote a formal article trying to understand and analyze it: it’s available on-line at http://globalsolidarity.antenna.nl/scipes.html. And I have argued that there is a lot that workers around the world can learn from the KMU: https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol2/iss2/2/.
2. Kim Scipes, ed., Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).
3. My latest peer-reviewed article on the KMU, based on field research, is available here.
4. My 2010 book—AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity Or Sabotage? (New York: Lexington Books, 2010)—gives a strong overview of this over the past 100 years, and provides three detailed case studies of this (from Chile, Philippines and Venezuela).


Kim Scipes
Kim Scipes is a Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest. Scipes has been working to build global labor solidarity for more than thirty-five years. His many publications include the book Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? and the edited collection Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization.


Cite as Kim Scipes, "Planetizing the Labor Movement," Great Transition Initiative (April 2019), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/workers-world-kim-scipes.


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Planetizing the Labor Movement



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