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For Those Who Know Little or Nothing about Labor: Building Global Labor Solidarity Today

Earlier this year, a collection of papers was published under the title of Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization (Scipes, ed., 2016).  It was a strong effort by seven labor activists and scholars from different parts of the world to think out how workers today can support each other globally; initially…

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Kim Scipes


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Earlier this year, a collection of papers was published under the title of Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization (Scipes, ed., 2016).  It was a strong effort by seven labor activists and scholars from different parts of the world to think out how workers today can support each other globally; initially so as to defend against attacks on workers’ and their unions’ power, but ultimately, to develop ideas on how we could more consciously develop our thinking and our organizations to move toward a more economically- and socially-just world.

This article is being written to share some of this thinking with people who don’t know about efforts to transform labor globally, and/or who might not even care.  Unfortunately, many activists in the United States and Canada today know little-to-nothing about the labor movements in these countries—or, if they know, it is only the bad points (on US labor imperialism, for example, see Scipes, 2000b, 2010a, 2010b, 2012, 2016; see also Bass, 2012; Buhle, 1999; Cox and Bass, 2012; Rahman and Langford, 2014; Sims, 1992).

Yet what has been generally lost in the non-interest or disgust has been the fact that a considerable number of progressive activists have devoted many years and considerable energy to reforming the US labor movement (see, for example, Early, 2009; Fletcher and Gapasin, 2008; for a more complete list, see my “Contemporary Labor Issues” bibliography at, opposing the labor imperialism of the AFL-CIO (, and in trying to build international labor solidarity with workers in our own countries as well as with workers around the world (; my friend, Fred Hirsch, has been doing all of this for over 40 years.

Why this is important, in my opinion, is that looking at the world from the position of progressive labor activists enables us to see and get clear on aspects of the world that are not readily observable or understandable from other positions.  Understand, please, that I am not arguing that a progressive labor standpoint is better or more complete than others’—it has its own strengths and weaknesses, and labor obviously needs to learn from other movements and positions—but it is a position that enables us to see things that many others cannot.  Making this point seems especially important in light of the lack of knowledge about the labor movement that is shared by many of today’s younger activists.

So as to share some of the findings of our collection, I thought I’d go through the Introduction and each chapter to try to pull out in one place some of the most significant findings from the book.  Ideally, this will inspire readers to get the book and try to understand the arguments in greater detail, but at very least, I thought I’d share some of the latest findings from these very experienced labor activists and make them accessible to a wider range of activists engaged in other struggles and movements.  There is, to put it simply, much more to the US labor movement than the AFL-CIO leadership.


Introduction” by Kim Scipes.  Here I take advantage of the editor’s prerogative so as to develop my thinking about some crucial issues—and I note this is my thinking, that other contributor’s might not agree with some or even all of it, so you cannot assume they accept my thinking unless they specifically claim it.

Perhaps the most important part of the Introduction is that I disentangle the concepts of globalization and neo-liberal economics, about which there is much confusion.  Influenced strongly by and following the work of the Netherlands-born scholar, Jan Nederveen Pieterse (1989, 2004, 2008, 2015), I argue that globalization has existed for a very long time—since the beginning of human migration—and precedes capitalism, modernity and “the West.”  In other words, it is not a new or a recent phenomenon, despite what many scholars suggest.  I recognize that the processes of globalization have accelerated since the 1970s, but they are not new.  Further, especially following the work of Vandana Shiva (2005) and Amory Starr (2005), I argue that globalization is not a monolithic force, sweeping the defenseless world like a raging flood of water, but rather is made up of two layers, featuring top-down processes and bottom-up processes:  the top-down processes are based on the values of promoting the uninhibited spread of capitalism and particularly corporations around the world, along with the militarism (and related wars and military operations) needed to ensure that this is possible (thus trying to dominate the world), while the bottom-up is life-enhancing, seeking to build a world based on economic and social justice, and respect for all human beings and the planet.  This bottom-up global solidarity is seeking another world, a better world, based on global solidarity, ecological and economic sustainability, and economic and social justice.  (For one discussion, see Scipes, 2009a.)

Accordingly, Nederveen Pieterse’s perspective that “globalization involves more intensive interaction across wider space and in shorter time than before” (2015: 8) must include the understanding of top-down versus bottom-up layers of globalization.

Neo-liberal economics, on the other hand, is a particular part of neo-liberalism, which is a philosophy that was designed to overcome the limitations of US capitalism that became obvious in the mid-1970s.  Basically, neo-liberalism argues that profitability, or potential profitability, is the only value by which social situations should be measured:  if something contributes to profitability, it is good; if it hinders profitability, it is bad.  In other words, efforts to fight for clear air, or clean water, or to ban fracking, or for workers’ health and safety are bad, because they reduce the chance for profitability.

Central to neo-liberalism is the neo-liberal economic program, which is its foundation.  According to Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui (2013: 7),

The rise and triumph of the corporate neo-liberal agenda did not simply happen because of “market forces” or globalization.  The most powerful corporations in the US—many of them the most powerful in the world—organized to make it happen; they developed their own consensus and mobilized their vast resources and network to make it happen (emphasis in original).


Key to their argument that the well-being of US corporations was central to the well-being of the US economy, and that the key to this was to eradicate any restrictions on US corporations.  Their primary focus on was to eradicate unions in the workplace, or to defang them at least.  And they have reduced the rate of unionism in the private sector to about 6.6 percent, approximately the same level in 1900.

Accordingly, to refer to “neo-liberal” globalization, as some do, we should limit it only to the top-down layer of globalization.

Building off this—and mentioning it in the introduction but elaborating in Chapter 1—I confront the issue of imperialism.   Using earlier work by Nederveen Pieterse (1989), I present a much more robust understanding of the concept than the Leninist version of imperialism, which is generally used by the left (when it is addressed at all).  Nederveen Pieterse starts with the Leninist idea of oppressor-oppressor nations, but goes beyond it, recognizing that some political communities—such as Native Americans in the US and Canada, the Palestinians in Israel, and the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, as well as indigenous societies around the world—have been absorbed into other political communities.  In other words, instead of ignoring these political communities, he includes them in his understanding, so imperialism now is seen as domination across political community borders, with the stronger dominating the weaker unless the latter acquiesces on its own.  Along with expanding the conceptualization thusly, he also recognizes there can be imperialist domination both above and below the nation-state level, such as United Nations troops policing Haitian squatter communities, or labor movements of imperial countries dominating those of developing countries; the latter which theoretically enables the establishment of the concept of “labor imperialism” (see Scipes, 2010a, 2010b, 2012, 2016).

Along with this, he rejects a dichotomy between politics and economics. Nederveen Pieterse recognizes the real issue is which is primary in any particular situation: in one situation, politics might be primary, with economics secondary, and in another, economics might be driving the imperial project, with politics secondary.

And finally, I discuss labor movements.  I point out that labor movements need to be disaggregated, and recognized to be multi-faceted and heterogeneous, having multiple visions and approaches, and being chock full of contradictions.  There is not one singular labor movement.  And thus, when one disaggregates labor, one finds everything from business unions who generally care only about the interests of the dominant members of their union, to unions created by dictators to advance their interests, to unions designed to advance the interests of this political party or that, and yet, there are still a range of unions that want progressive social change, including those that want to change the entire social order and the global political-economic networks in which their country is enmeshed (see Scipes, 2014).  The argument is that we need to identify the progressive unions and work with them to advance the interests of labor and other activist groups; they should not be ignored nor automatically written off.


All of this lays the groundwork by Chapter 1 by Kim Scipes, “Multiple Fragments—Strength or Weakness?  Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity.”

In this first chapter, I focus on three main themes.  First, that we need to understand the real intentions of the elites in the US, and particularly that they have been and continue to try to dominate the world.  I argue that the elites have developed a global empire, the US Empire, and that the United States is the heartland of the empire.  Thus, we must use a robust understanding of imperialism to understand US activities across the world.  Accordingly, we need to join with workers and allies around the world against US imperialism to ensure that the United States or no other country can dominate others.

I argue that the money the US elites are channeling to the war department—I refuse to call it “defense”—and its corporate allies is money that cannot be used to improve health care, expand free education, rebuild our infrastructure, address climate change or meet other desirable social needs of the American people.  I argue that Americans must choose whether their governments should continue trying to dominate the world, or to take care of Americans and good people around the globe:  we do not have the resources to do both (see Scipes, 2009b).

I point out that labor movements can be key actors in creating social change, but in the United States, labor leaders have failed to mobilize labor to fight for a better world, whether having no way of imagining a better world, no idea of how to respond to the myriad of attacks on the labor movement since the early 1980s, or by conniving with US elites to ensure US domination of the world, basically forsaking the interests of their members.  I argue that rank-and-file members as well as staffmembers and allies need to join together to recreate the US labor movement as a powerful “sword for justice” (in Richard Hyman’s words) to fight for workers in the United States as well as workers and their allies around the world.

Second, I discuss solidarity, the traditional weapon of militant workers, and I argue that now we should refer to global labor solidarity instead of the traditional, and very limited, international labor solidarity.  (Global labor solidarity seeks to build solidarity with workers around the world, and can be initiated by workers in any part of the world to help workers in any part of the world; international solidarity developed over time to be generally a one way flow of idea of ideas and resources from the stronger labor movements located in the Global North toward those, generally weaker, in the Global South, and these relationships were overwhelmingly clientelistic instead of solidaristic.)  I discuss how international labor solidarity began, how there are a number of motivations for creating solidarity, that solidarity can emerge from different levels of domination, and especially discuss the scope of sub-state global labor solidarity, and the different levels of solidarity.

And third, I advance a theory of global labor solidarity that recognizes that this solidarity must be based on mutual respect and support, and which precludes concepts of clientelism, a one-way flow of money and resources, and domination of one labor movement over another.  I draw out nine different types of global labor solidarity that has been created over the past 20-30 years, even though most of these efforts are not well known.  It shows that much more has been going on than many people can imagine.


From there, attention shifts to Katherine Nastovski’s “Worker-to-Worker:  A Transformative Model of Solidarity—Lessons from Grassroots International Labor Solidarity in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s.”  Nastovski has a strong historical understanding of solidarity, but she turns to the work of Rebecca Johns (1998) to help her understand the implications of global labor solidarity.  Johns developed the concept of transformative labor solidarity in her article, and Nastovski argues, “It is this transformative potential, the way solidarity and can be a site for building strength and capacity to resist and for challenging hegemonic ideas and social relations that serve capital, that makes it such an important piece on the left” (Nastovski, 2016: 50).

Nastovski recognizes that not all cross-border solidarity is transformative and, after Johns, she compares this with accomodationist solidarity, which can actively help maintain privileged positions within the global political-economic system.  (She dismisses forms of “labor imperialism” as not being even a form of solidarity.)  This comparison helps work to illustrate what kind of solidarity is actually transformative.

From there, she describes “international solidarity” as practiced traditionally by Canadian unions.  And grassroots international labor solidarity emerged to challenge this “traditional” Canadian labor imperialism, and Nastovski discusses these grassroots efforts:

The work of these activists posed a challenge to the existing international practice within the labor movement, engaging in efforts aimed at member education, mobilization, and action inside and outside the workplace.  These included establishing solidarity efforts aimed at combating imperialism (for example, the movements against the war in Vietnam), supporting revolutionary movements, liberation struggles, and fledgling socialist governments (for example, in Nicaragua), as well as encouraging struggles combating internal repression and fascism (for example, in Chile and Guatemala) (Nastovski, 2016: 55).


Key to these efforts was the model they developed:  worker-to-worker solidarity.  In other words, they focused on building cross-border relationships with other workers.  She labels this “grassroots labor internationalism,” so as to include the many efforts in the earlier part of the twentieth century, instead of leaving them out as many more recent writings tend to do. 

Key here, however, is a focus on “class-struggle” unionism.  This “model” sees workers’ and unions’ struggles as struggles for liberation, far beyond just seeking improved benefits from collective bargaining.  Obviously, they don’t disdain the struggle for material gains for workers, but they don’t limit it to such, either:  they want unions to fight for a world where workers and their allies call the shots, not the capitalists.

To theoretically explain the importance of worker-to-worker, class struggle unionism, she turns to the thinking of Antonio Gramsci.  Describing his concepts of “war of position” and “war of maneuver”—wars of position “are the battles over ideas that sustain capitalism, whereas wars of maneuver are those aimed at taking political power and transforming economic and social relations” (Nastovski, 2016: 57)—Nastovski argues that counter-hegemonic efforts such as she was describing were part of the wars of position:

These counter-hegemonic practices of the worker-to-worker model, which derive from class struggle models of union action, are what make this model transformative….  This orientation shapes the movements and types of struggles organizers choose to build solidarity with and the transformative impact this model of solidarity has locally via the strategies they employ.  Critical to this transformative potential of this model of solidarity is the way it operates to support the goals and strategies of different international struggles that challenge the status quo of the global division of labor (and the particulars of the global socioeconomic status quo based on the legacies of colonialism and both past and existing imperialism) (Nastovski, 2016: 57).


With this theoretical framework now established, Nastovski then discusses some counter-hegemonic practices such as “worker power and direct action,” “building relationships,” and “anti-imperialism and class struggle.”  She then tackles some larger issues, discussing issues of class and nation, dependency theory and anti-imperialism, challenging labor imperialism and accomodationist solidarity, as well as worker control of international solidarity, how this resulted in new and revived unions, and openings within the labor movement in general.  In short, she argues, “The worker-to-worker model operated as a significant counter-hegemonic force vis-à-vis the dominant context of institutionalized labor internationalism inside Canadian unions” (Nastovski, 2016: 69).

However, she also knows the barriers these efforts hit, and she doesn’t shy away from taking a critical look at their weaknesses.  There were limits to the counter-hegemonic practices, and limits to sustainability and institutionalization.  She points out that “some of the factors continue to shape the conditions in which we organize today, including neoliberalism, uneven capitalist development, and ideological barriers such as white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, and nationalism.  Examining practices of grassroots labor internationalism in more depth is critical to thinking through possibilities for transformative forms of worker solidarity and coordination across borders today” (Nastovski, 2016: 77).

Katherine Nastovski has shown us how to do serious movement self-reflection and consideration of past practices.  It is now time to focus on current efforts that might guide our efforts in the future.


Jenny Jungehülsing shares some preliminary research that is quite intriguing in Chapter 3, “Building Bridges Between the Labor Movement and Transnational Migration Research:  What Potential for International Solidarity?”  She recognizes the increasing flows of migrants across national borders and recognizes that they are staying in touch with people and organizations in their home country to a much greater and deeper extent than ever before.  She wonders if activists could build upon this reality to build greater international labor solidarity…?

The key limitation she recognizes to building real international solidarity is the lack of what she calls felt solidarity between those trying to establish such efforts.  She recognizes that most of the solidarity built has been between bureaucratized labor organizations, and that much of the so-called solidarity is really a statement here, a document there, but with no real, on-going human contact over time.  She notes, “clearly some sort of shared identity or sense of togetherness is indispensible for stable solidarity relationships, also in the case of unions” (Jungehülsing, 2016: 84).

She elaborates: 

In practice, while not the only challenge, the lack of a felt solidarity often constitutes a serious obstacle to the formation of stable international solidarity relationships.  The lack of a sense of togetherness among workers in different countries often hinders functioning solidarity relationships, as neither union members nor leaders are particularly willing to commit to the continuous support of their partners and assign significant amounts of resources to them (Jungehülsing, 2016: 85).


Recognizing this limitation, Jungehülsing conducted research in local unions of two international unions headquartered in the United States:  SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and USW (United Steel Workers).  “Most specifically, [the research] was conducted at two regional entities of these unions, as it is at the local and regional rather than at the national union level where the role of migrants (as members and low-level staff generally) most likely manifests itself” (Jungehülsing, 2016: 88).  The regions she chose were Region 7 of the USW, which covers the states of Illinois and Indiana, and the California-based United Service Workers of SEIU.

Jungehülsing focused on Mexican and Mexican-descended workers in Northwest Indiana, who were building solidarity with Los Mineros, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Mineros, Metalúrgicos, Siderúgicos y Similares in Mexico, and with Salvadoran members and leaders of the United Service Workers, who had maintained connections with unions and political movements—especially the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional—in El Salvador.

The findings—presented in much more detail in her chapter—were interesting.  “… migrants’ background and transnational identity allow them to establish personal relationships with members of the partner union more easily than their nonmigrant colleagues, thereby overcoming the notorious lack of personal relationships between workers in different countries” (Jungehülsing, 2016: 93).  She claims it is the lower cultural barriers between migrant and those who remained in the home country that facilitated these connections.

She ends this very interesting chapter encouraged but cautious:

Insights from transnationalism and international labor research suggest that in the current era of transnational migration and an increasingly transnational union membership, migrants’ transnational identities and social ties to their origin countries can have an impact on the prospects for international labor solidarity.  Specifically, this chapter has argued that transnational migration can strengthen a felt solidarity and lend practical meaning to solidarity and thus help overcome one of the major problems in unions’ international solidarity relationships.

However, given the exploratory character of this research, the results need to be treated with caution, and further research is needed.  The findings in this chapter cannot be taken as grounds for euphoria.  Nonetheless, they give some initial insights into the ways in which transnational migration may impact on international labor solidarity and potentially help overcome some of its obstacles (Jungehülsing, 2016: 101-102).


From there, we go to Chapter 4, “Labor and Sustainable Development in Latin America:  Rebuilding Alliances at a New Crossroads” by Bruno Dobrusin, which focuses our attention even further south.  Pointing out that

The transnationalization of the local and national economies in the last three decades has pushed labor movements to increase their efforts in building transnational solidarity as a tool of basic self-defense in a context of advancing ideas and policies.  The struggle for workers’ rights has been reshaped in this context, and global solidarity became an integral part of building a movement that can challenge neoliberal globalization both at home and abroad (Dobrusin, 2016: 103).


Dobrusin reflects on efforts that led to the continental-wide rejection of the 2005 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and then uses this understanding to suggest how the “Commodities Consensus” of the mid-2010s could be defeated.  (As explained further below, the “Commodities Consensus” is a development “model” based on exporting primary commodities to further-developed countries, and gathering the proceeds to industrialize at home.)  While recognizing the importance of international labor solidarity, he adroitly points out, “These two movements in recent Latin American union action are essential to understanding the ways in which regional and global solidarity can look according to different circumstances” (Dobrusin, 2016: 103).  To do this, he looks at how unions are building alliances with social movements across the continent, sometimes even regenerating themselves.

The struggle against the FTAA was relatively simple:  US, Canadian and Mexican capital, and their respective states, sought to extend the neo-liberal “benefits” of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) to the entire continent.  Alliances were built across the continent among social movements, community organizations, environmental movements and trade unions, and ultimately with the support of progressive governments—such as those headed by Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Lula da Silva in Brazil and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela—they were able to defeat the FTAA.

The “Commodities Consensus” that emerged afterwards across the Continent grew out of efforts by progressive governments—including those listed above, it has also come to include those headed by Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador—to develop their respective country’s economic system.  Working particularly with corporations from Brazil and China, the strategy was to use the royalties from primary commodities (intensive transgenic agriculture, mining, oil and gas) to redistribute some of the wealth to the poorer sectors of society while developing the economy overall.  And this strategy worked during the first decade of implementation, but “it began to be resisted throughout the region once its impacts and limitations became obvious” (Dobrusin, 2016: 107).

The question at hand is can an alliance similar to the one developed to defeat the FTAA be developed to defeat the “Commodities Consensus”?  It is not a sure bet; Dobrusin discusses some of the issues at hand:

In the debate around the Commodities Consensus, the position of labor is harder to establish for two main reasons:  unions are a central component of the structures supporting left administrations; and the environmental discussion places labor in a defensive mode, due to the presence of strong unions in the so-called dirty industries.  Building transnational solidarity and cross-sectoral alliance has therefore become a challenging action, but one that can be achieved if certain conditions are met—chiefly, the return of social-movement unionism to its roots as a radical conception of labor movements, and the retrenchment from a government-dependent mobilization strategy (Dobrusin, 2016: 107).


This article is a very in-depth examination of the forces and alliances that developed in the struggle against the FTAA, asking if similar alliances can be re-established in this new struggle.  Interestingly, a new force on the continent is the formation of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) in 2007, a continent-wide alliance of labor organizations that joins unions from previously-competing organizations and some that had previously refused to join any organization.  Not only is this a new development, but it also influences the power dynamics within TUCA:

Unions that had been active in the struggle against neoliberalism and free trade were now integrated into a single organization, managing to reorder the direction of the main labor movement at the continental level.  In terms of the Commodities Consensus struggle, what this has meant is that TUCA can now play a leading role in re-creating a decades-old alliance, especially around the issues of development and sustainability.  [TUCA] represents the only regional labor confederation in the world … with the capacity to produce massive mobilization around issues that go beyond specific workers’ demands.  The associational capacity is an asset that is increasingly being incorporated into TUCA’s strategies (Dobrusin, 2016: 116-117).


And Dobrusin sees the trade unions and their multiple alliances with organizations across the continent as being central to the struggle in Latin America.


From Latin America, attention shifts to Bangladesh.  In Chapter 5, Timothy Ryan’s “It Takes More Than a Village:  A Case Study of Worker Solidarity in Bangladesh” focuses on the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and its work in that country; work that Ryan, as Asian Regional Director of the Solidarity Center, over sees.  In a country where the people are very poor, and where the government has tied its shirttail to a single industry—the global garments industry—and which is the second largest garment exporter in the world (behind only China), the Solidarity Center has been trying to support union organizing for decades.

Ryan illustrates the need for vibrant unionism at the beginning of his chapter:  he describes the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in 2012, where 112 workers died.  He then notes, “Since the Tazreen blaze, the Solidarity Center’s Dhaka office has documented seventy fire-related incidents (including false alarms) in which at least fifty people have died and more than nine hundred women and men have been injured” (Ryan, 2016: 123).  He argues that had these workers been members of a union, and had protested worsening working conditions, many of them would still be alive.

Ryan puts the workers’ situation in Bangladesh in a historical context, starting under British imperialism.  An important factor today is that many unions in that country are controlled by political parties that grew out of the struggle against the British, and which still put their party’s interest ahead of their union members’.

The Solidarity Center has been trying to enhance union organizing in that country, by providing technical training to independent unions in that country.  (For another view of this, see Rahman and Langford, 2014.)  Ryan contextualizes the struggle by pointing out the importance of external leverage, opportunism (in the “good sense,” trying to take advantage of unexpected situations), and their long-term presence in the country, which he argues breeds established relationships.  (And one thing the Solidarity Center has done very well is insisting on developing women’s leadership in the unions.)

Ryan suggests that, in his extensive experience, labor organizing in Asia is a slow process, requiring time and dedication.  In an interesting application, he compares the processes by which companies’ and governments’ accept trade unionism to be similar to the “stages of dying” explicated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying:  denial (“we don’t have a problem); rage (this isn’t fair!); bargaining (let’s make a deal, while drawing these processes out longer); depression (oh, nothing can be worked out); and ultimately, acceptance (it’s going to be ok).  He uses this framework to talk about trade relations and labor organizing across Asia. 

Ultimately, he argues that garment workers in Bangladesh are trying to develop a new approach to labor organizing in that country:  “The unions organizing in Bangladesh today have used the political space created by the controversy [over workers’ deaths-KS], the public shaming, the trade pressure itself, the governments’ and brands’ reactions, to push forward an active and aggressive organizing agenda” (Ryan, 2016: 137).  The big question on the table now, however, is whether the Bangladeshi government, companies, multinational suppliers, and brands will accept this or not.


Still focusing on Asia, attention shifts from Bangladesh to the Philippines, as I included my 2014 article—“Building Global Labor Solidarity Today:  Learning from the KMU of the Philippines”—in this collection.  Based on research spanning over 30 years, I argue the KMU Labor Center is one of the most dynamic and developed labor organizations in the world (see Scipes, 1996).  In a country with little industry, KMU members have organized in what industry there is, as well as on agricultural plantations, in mines, breweries, department stores, as well as developed innovative organizing among transportation workers.  They have survived since 1980, when the KMU was founded during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and have withstood tremendous repression, including the arrest and imprisonment of 69 leaders across the country in 1982, the brutal assassination of their national chairperson in 1986, and many, many arrests with much torture and/or killing.

Despite this, they have developed a new type of trade unionism—social movement unionism—which is comparable to that developed in Brazil and South Africa in earlier days (and qualitatively different from the unionism given this name in North America—see Scipes, 2014):  they recognize that to change conditions on the shop floor, that they must challenge the entire social order and the global political-economic networks in which their country is enmeshed (i.e., imperialism).

As I explicate, the KMU has developed organizationally several approaches that have been crucial to their very survival in my opinion.  They have combined the traditional “vertical” organizational structure of national federations (and comparable to organization in North America) with creative “horizontal” organization structures that they call “alliances” at the geographic, industrial and conglomerate levels.  The alliances allow them to educate unions’ and allied organizations’ members, to protect against repression, and to provide support for their particular struggles, whether national political battles or individual local unions’ collective bargaining efforts.  They have established a detailed educational program, and have made sure to provide every member—not just shop stewards or leaders—the basic level of education.  They have built strong connections with other sectoral organizations, such as peasants, women’s, students, urban poor and youth organization:  the epitome of this organization has been what is called the welga ng bayan or “people’s strike.”  This begins with a general strike, but goes far beyond it:  once launched, it includes shutting down all businesses and governmental offices in the affected area, fishing folks refusing to go to sea, and roads and streets being blockaded, so people can only pass after talking with the strikers and learning about their issues.  In an archipelagic country, they have been able to launch several of these historically, although it’s been a while since they could do this.

And combined with all of this, KMU consciously builds global labor solidarity.  As part of a larger, six-part program (see Scipes, 2000a), they have developed what they call the “International Solidarity Affair” or ISA, and they’ve held this every year since 1984.  They invite workers and labor leaders to travel to the Philippines, and experience the conditions of Filipino workers.  While the program begins with formal events in Manila, the heart of the program is taking visitors out to the provinces to meet with workers, visit picket lines, talk with families, etc.  This way, one gets to see the situations they face, learn from them, and then think about the unionism back at home.  (For a report on the 2015 ISA, see Scipes, 2015.)

I suggest there is a lot to be learned from the KMU’s experiences.


With that, we come back to North America for Chapter 7, David Bacon’s “Building a Culture of Solidarity Across the US-Mexico Border.”  Bacon is a working journalist who has covered workers’ struggles along the border, as well as in California and Mexico for decades, and here he shares his thinking about developments since the passage of NAFTA in 1994.  He writes,

The growth of cross-border solidarity today is taking place at a time when US penetration of Mexico is growing—economically, politically, and militarily.  While the relationship between the United States and Mexico has its own special characteristics, it is also part of a global system of production, distribution, and consumption.  It is not just a bilateral relationship.

Jobs go from the United States and Canada to Mexico in order to cut labor costs.  But from Mexico, those same jobs go to China or Bangladesh or dozens of other countries where labor costs are even lower (Bacon, 2016: 154).


Bacon explains the changes for Mexican labor.  It used to be included as an important sector under the governing PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), but that changed after the 2000 victory of the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional):  the old corporatist system had fallen apart, and co-optation of labor was no longer deemed necessary.  It continues today even under the resurgent PRI.

Bacon goes back to the struggle against NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) in the early 1990s.  The major Mexican labor centers lined up behind their government and supported NAFTA, and so unions in the US that had decided to oppose it had no one to ally with.  They had to start building solidarity with smaller labor centers, such as the FAT (Frente Auténtico del Trabajo), and had to try to develop contacts with workers’ support centers around the border; a key development was the creation of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (see Vogel, 2006).  Bacon writes about the learning process of organizers:

The worker rebellion at the huge Sony factory was the first major battle under NAFTA, and the first place where the false promises of its labor side agreement became obvious.  Hundreds of workers were beaten in front on the plant in 1993 when they ran candidates in their CTM union’s election.  When that door was closed, they tried to form an independent union and were blocked by the company and the Mexican government in 1994, the year when NAFTA went into effect.  The treaty contained a side agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, that backers of the treaty promised would provide a means for workers and unions to enforce labor rights.  In a ritual that would be repeated over the next two decades, however, workers and unions in the United States, Mexico and Canada filed charges that Mexico was violating its own labor law in preventing workers from organizing independent unions, but after a series of hearings, the only available remedy was a series of discussions with Mexican government representatives that produced no results on the ground (Bacon, 2016: 158).


Afterwards, Bacon then discusses the growing ties between US and Mexican labor—with a good overview of a number of struggles along the border—and writes about efforts to build support for struggles of workers along the border.  He reports it has take a while for US unions to recognize the importance of these struggles but, slowly, they are coming to better understand these situations.

Bacon then addresses the issue of immigration.  He argues that US unions need to educate their members about what is happening in Mexico—and especially the labor repression—so they see Mexicans coming to the US not as people trying to “steal” their jobs, but as people who are trying to survive and support their families, and who are a potential source of support, experience and determination, who can help build the labor movement in their new country.  Bacon argues that some of these immigrants have decades of experience as labor organizers in Mexico, and need to be recognized for the resources they are.  He also reports of some of the efforts to overcome the distrust, efforts to try to build solidarity across the US-Mexico border.


And finally, we reach Michael Zweig’s chapter 8, “Working for Global Justice in the New US Labor Movement.”  He starts by discussing the September 2013 national convention of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles.

Zweig, a national co-convener of US Labor against War (USLAW), uses his wealth of experience to both report changes in the AFL-CIO’s domestic work, and then to suggest that these experiences can be learned from so as to change its international work.  He starts from the 1995 election of John Sweeney to the presidency of the AFL-CIO, leading to acceptance of immigrants into the “House of Labor” and then to recognizing the need to build much stronger ties with community organizations across the country.

At the same time that the AFL-CIO recognizes that it needs to build stronger connections at home, Zweig reports some of the changes taking place in its international work.  To understand this, however, it must be placed within its historical context.  Using works such as Sims (1992), Buhle (1999) and Scipes (2010a), he discusses some of this work.  He argues that changes start with Sweeney, and especially with the disbanding of the AFL-CIO’s semi-autonomous regional organizations such as AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development—its Latin American operation) and AAFLI (Asian American Free Labor Institute) in Asia, and replacing them with the Solidarity Center in 1997.

He particularly notes the help the Solidarity Center has given USLAW in facilitating its solidarity work with unions of Iraq, even during the war.  (He also notes, in a footnote, that “the Solidarity Center and the AFL-CIO gave support to opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the time of the short-lived coup against him in 2002….)

He talks about changes taking place within the union movement, such as efforts and resolutions passed against the war in Iraq, and then ultimately, to challenge the US’s militarized foreign policy.  (He notes that many labor leaders today came of age during the Vietnam War, as well as during the wars in Central America during the 1980s, and are not as trusting of the US Government as many of their predecessors were.)  He states that union leaders are increasingly becoming aware that we live in a global economy, which is one—instead of one for the developing countries, and still another for the developed countries.  He sees the development of new priorities, moving from a militarized economy to one that provides jobs and high tech skills for workers. 

Conversion of military to civilian production is only one example of the more general transition required to create a just and sustainable economy.  We need conversion from fossil fuel to renewable energy; from low-wage contingent jobs to secure, well-paying employment; from hyperindividualism to mutual regard; from strangled governments serving the needs of their corporate strategists to democratic governments attending the needs of all people; and from an economy that funnels wealth to the very top to one that share prosperity.  All these elements of transition reflect and bolster one another.  All require the concentrated attention and political mobilization of working people (Zweig, 2016: 189).


Building off of comments about USLAW’s work with Iraqi trade unions, Zweig talks about the development of solidarity between US unions and others in different counties.  He then notes, “All of these examples indicate a significant potential for the development of a coherent labor foreign policy that promotes global justice” (Zweig, 2016: 192).

In short, Zweig sees the emergence of a new union culture in this country, and argues that labor must develop a strategic vision that addresses all of these aspects.  He points out the need for labor leadership to develop a broader vision of labor’s agenda; the need to actively educate union members; and the need to reform unions internally so as to encourage “bottom-up member activity and the democratic norms that allow for member initiatives” (Zweig, 2016: 193-194).

Importantly, however, Zweig recognizes the central role of labor’s foreign policy:  “Redefining labor’s foreign policy must be integral to the reorientation of the labor movement as a whole.”  And he argues the time is now:  “The context, history and institutional capacity for this purpose are at hand” (Zweig, 2016:  197).



With this, we come to the end of this account.  What I hope I’ve been able to convey is that there are some important activities and good thinking taking place among labor activists today, in the US and in countries around the world.  I hope, through this process, I’ve encouraged those outside of the labor movement to recognize the important work being done, while encouraging activists to go further.

Obtaining and sharing this edited collection is a good way to start.



Kim Scipes, the editor of Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization, is a long-time labor activist and a member of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981.  He is also the Topic Editor for Labor/Economics for Green Social Thought.  He works as an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, and lives in Chicago.  A podcast of his June 6, 2016 interview about his writings in the collection can be found on the Progressive Radio Network at  His web site is




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