The proposition that the power of global capitalism negates the prospect of a revitalized global labor movement is hard to gainsay. But it is not a good springboard for creative thinking about how the balance of forces might be changed. Ronaldo Munck’s nicely articulated optimistic perspective gives us a more interesting and productive starting point for debate. Having made similar arguments in the past, I applaud Munck’s cogent, effective exposition of the “glass half full” position.1 Over the course of the last few years, however, I have become less of an optimist.
The rise of reactionary nationalist/populist regimes in major countries around the world is a key reason for my increased pessimism. This rise represents a real danger to progressive politics in general and a particularly daunting challenge to transnational labor mobilization. Each of these regimes is a unique product of national circumstances, but they share a modus operandi. Social and economic distress caused by the failures of global capitalism has helped produce them. Yet, they have a curiously symbiotic relation with capital’s agendas, especially when it comes to suppressing the mobilization of labor. Despite their “nationalist” pretenses, they are friendly to foreign capital. Despite their “populist” pretenses, they are unlikely to support labor if it takes on foreign capital. Instead, their reactionary, xenophobic rhetoric shifts political attention away from economic oppression and deprivation and facilitates capital’s political work.
From Duda and Orban in Eastern Europe to Narendra Modi in India, to Duterte in the Philippines to Bolsonaro in Brazil to Trump in the United States, these regimes are surprisingly supportive of global capital and uniformly hostile transnational social movements. To take one example, Narendra Modi finds no problem in allowing foreign manufacturers to run factories that expose Indian workers to hazardous working conditions but is quick to decry progressive transnational NGOs as agents of a sinister “foreign hand” and to impose draconian regulations designed to keep them from operating in India.
As these reactionary nationalist/populist regimes suppress their own national labor movements, they also remind us that strengthening labor organizations at the national level is a key element in building labor’s strength transnationally. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, labor movements in Brazil, Korea, and South Africa became more powerful by helping to spearhead cross-class democratizing national coalitions. Their increased strength made them important contributors to the global labor movement. Now, when the fortunes of national labor movements are going in the opposite direction, prospects for building transnational organizations are correspondingly undercut.
Even if one is less optimistic than Munck, his question—“What would a new international look like?”—remains paramount to any analysis of labor’s future. In answering it, we must ask, “What sorts of workers are likely to form the vanguard of a revitalized labor movement in an era of capitalist globalization paired with reactionary populist regimes?” The differential response of different segments of US labor to the rise of Donald Trump offers a provocative place to start the discussion.
The traditional core of US labor, epitomized perhaps by the leadership of the building trades unions, found elements of Trump’s nationalist patina seductive, especially his fanciful projections of massive investments in infrastructure. Trump’s grandstanding pledges to bring manufacturing back to the US, reinvigorate coal mining, etc., also struck sympathetic chords in traditional labor constituencies. Fortunately, even if Trump’s appeal to traditional labor does not bode well for labor’s ability of to resist reactionary nationalist populism, there are examples of resistance by organized labor that offer grounds for optimism.
In the 2016 US election, perhaps the best example of successful union resistance to the Trumpian version of reactionary nationalist populism was Las Vegas Nevada Culinary Union, Local 226. “The Culinary” is not only the largest union in Nevada; it is also the state’s largest immigrant organization and its largest African-American organization. The Culinary mobilized its 60,000 members, knocked on doors, and talked to voters. Labor ended up being a major factor both in Trump’s Nevada loss and in the election of a new Latina senator from Nevada. The Culinary’s success points to the centrality of workers of color in building revitalized, expanded labor resistance to reactionary nationalist populism.
Stepping back from particular national cases and focusing on the more general question of what a new international might look like leads in a similar direction. The success of a twenty-first-century international will depend on expanding leadership beyond the constituencies that were central to twentieth-century internationals.
The most obvious shift, which is already underway but will need to move forward farther and faster, is making women organizers more central to leadership in the global labor movement. The growing share of women in union membership creates an obvious foundation for this shift. At the same time, unions have begun to recognize the importance of issues that are particularly salient in women’s lives, such as public provision of child care and early education. In the view of at least one prominent analyst (Dorothy Sue Cobble), “unions have become one of the primary global vehicles for advancing gender equality.”
The increasing role of woman organizers needs to extend to precarious jobs and occupations. A host of promising examples demonstrate this possibility. From the classic example of India’s SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association) in building global networks to the formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), women organizers have been central to building new transnational labor alliances, in spite of working in what seemed like highly “localized” jobs.
A transformed new international that reflects the centrality of workers of color to driving progressive trade union agendas and is able to take full advantage of the energy of women organizers is the best hope for global labor. Executing this transformation is a sine qua non of improving labor’s global clout. The toxic symbiosis of reactionary national populism and global capitalism will remain a powerful political and economic cocktail, much more likely to produce catastrophic global collapse than to give way to any kind of progressive transformation, but this is all the more reason to re-double efforts to build a new labor international.
1. See, for example, “Is it Labor’s Turn to Globalize? Twenty-First Century Opportunities and Strategic Responses,” Global Labour Journal 1, no. 3 (2010), https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/globallabour/article/view/1082; and “National Labor Movements and Transnational Connections: Global Labor’s Evolving Architecture Under Neoliberalism,” Global Labour Journal 5, no. 3 (2014), https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/globallabour/article/view/2283.