Labour Strategies: Options and Perspectives
(Excerpt on the talking points presented by Dan Gallin in the form of an invitation letter to IFWEA’s roundtable discussion in Oslo. September 19-20, 2002.)
We are members and citizens of the social-democratic and socialist labour movement in its broadest sense that includes political parties, trade unions, workers' education organizations, solidarity and welfare organizations, cultural and leisure organizations, women and youth organizations, and others. We are members and citizens of this movement each in our own countries and also internationally, through the international organizations where we are active.
This movement is facing an existential crisis: it is a crisis of identity, of direction and of purpose. If our original goal was to create, through our joint efforts, a society based on justice, freedom and security worldwide, we are no closer to it than we ever were.
We are losing the struggle for society:
A drastic shift in power relations in favour of transnational capital has taken place: transnational capital is reordering the world economy in its own interests, with the support of the conservative government of the leading world power and of the leading European governments, through the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Trade Organization and the EU institutions;
The immediate consequences have been growing social inequalities, social disruption, the undermining of social protection, the spread of poverty world-wide, and new and growing threats to the environment, potentially life-threatening for humanity;
Technological developments, including biotechnology, are largely under corporate control. They are not only rapidly changing people's lives, but are also raising political and ethical issues which the labour movement has, with some exceptions, failed to address;
The ideological barrage from conservative think tanks, academic institutions and media has successfully promoted the belief that human welfare can best be achieved by individual solutions, thus undermining social cohesion and values like solidarity, compassion and cooperation;
Migration, caused by global inequalities, wars and repressive regimes, has become a major political and social issue in many countries, leading to the emergence of far-right movements; The labour movement has in general failed to adequately address this issue;
Trade union membership is declining, with some notable exceptions, in most industrialized countries, in many underdeveloping countries and in all transition countries: repression accounts for much of this decline, although economic and social developments, and the movement's own internal weaknesses, are also a factor;
The collapse of bureaucratic collectivism and of its totalitarian institutions in the former Soviet Union and its block has not led to a social-democratic revival, as many of us had hoped, but to the expansion of capitalism in its most brutal forms and to the discredit of the concept of socialism – a posthumous victory of Stalinism;
Relations between the trade union movement and social-democratic parties, especially when in government, have become problematic in many countries, and also at international level: trade unions and their traditional political allies often and increasingly diverge in their analysis of the problem and in the solutions they advocate.
Organized resistance to the hegemony of transnational capital has come mostly from the new social movements, which have developed in most cases independently of the labour movement and in some instances in opposition to it.
For us, as members and citizens of the labour movement, these are challenges which engage our responsibility. There is no one else who is responsible for our movement and for its future except ourselves, and the time to act is now.
Our movement still has huge resources at its disposal, if we are able to join the forces available. The labour movement can become a formidable and ultimately successful force for social change. We do not need to lose the struggle for society and we have a fundamental responsibility to make sure that we don't. But we have to ask ourselves serious questions. They range from the general to the specific. Here are some of them, in no particular order:
(1) Many millions of people are struggling for a better life every day, if for no other reason, because they have no alternative. Are we prepared to lead and organize these struggles? If so, by what right and with what credentials? Are we prepared to reaffirm a socialist perspective in these struggles and to challenge the dominant conservative ideology (otherwise known as neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism or the "Washington consensus")? If we are not, do we believe that the struggle for a better society can be successfully conducted within the limits of the "Washington consensus"?
(2) Does the international trade union movement (essentially the ICFTU and the Global Union Federations) have a strategy for social change? If so, what is it?
(3) The labour movement, through its national and international organizations, is spending tens of millions of dollars every year in development aid (mostly public funds). What proportion of this money has demonstrably and measurably contributed to strengthening the labour movement nationally and internationally, and to changing the international balance of forces in favour of labour?
(4) Some social-democratic and labour parties have severed the historical privileged links with the trade union movement, and have declared that, as far as they were concerned, trade unions were just another pressure group among others. How do we deal with this, as socialists, trade unionists, workers educators? The trade union movement is political in everything it does and needs a political dimension. If its historical allies are withdrawing from their old relationship, what conclusions should the trade union movement draw from this? What conclusions for socialists?
(5) Industry-based, enterprise-based trade unionism is shrinking everywhere, largely because of changes in the structure of companies (from producers to coordinators of production carried out on their behalf by others). Are there other forms of trade union organization which can successfully organize the new (and old) unorganized, particularly in the informal economy? What does "social movement trade unionism" mean and what makes it different?
(6) Trade union rights are challenged everywhere. In some countries, trade unions are targets of outright repression (Colombia is the worst example, but there are many others). In most industrial democracies certain rights which are basic human rights (such as the right to strike, especially when it comes to solidarity strikes) are severely curtailed. This is not a problem for the trade union movement only: it is a problem for the whole of the labour movement because it strikes at the root of our collective power. Some of us have campaigned for trade union rights for some time. What can we do to broaden and strengthen such campaigns? What can we do to change the mind of certain labour governments which endorse restrictions of trade union rights decreed by conservative governments that preceded them?
(7) How does the labour movement relate to the new social movements (f.ex. ATTAC, Greens, women's movements)? Are they our allies? If so, under what conditions? Are we prepared and capable of forming coalitions with such movements (i.e. certain NGOs) to create a broad-based popular mass movement for social change (back to question (1))?
(8) The Socialist International is no longer an organization in any recognizable sense but a forum for (mostly European) socialist politicians. By its own choice, it has no relations with the international trade union movement. Many in the trade union movement, also disillusioned by their own social-democratic or labour parties, have given up on the SI as a lost cause. As socialists, we cannot take this lightly. Are those of us who are active in SI member parties prepared to pursue this issue? Is it possible, or even desirable, to seek a new relationship with the SI based on a constructive and practical alliance in pursuit of common goals? If so, what goals? More broadly, what can be expected of the SI today and what can it deliver?
(9) Despite the collapse of the Soviet block and of Stalinism as an ideology, authoritarian regimes remain in place in some of the successor States of the USSR. China has developed a system that can best be described as market Stalinism. Stalinist regimes remain in place in Vietnam and in Cuba and North Korea remains locked into its own bizarre version of totalitarianism. Just as in the past significant parts of the democratic labour movement blurred ideological differences in the name of the "realpolitik" of their governments, so today "constructive engagement" policies are gaining ground, most notably with respect to China and the Chinese State labour organizations, with equally disastrous political results. For many reasons, the political identity of democratic socialism, and its incompatibility with any form of totalitarian ideology anywhere, needs to be reaffirmed.
We do not believe, of course, that a two-day seminar can do justice to such important and complex issues. We do believe, however, that such a discussion needs to be started. So far as we are aware, it is not taking place anywhere, and we believe that these issues can only be ignored at our collective peril.
As the IFWEA already includes in its membership workers education associations, trade unions and Global Union Federations, social-democratic party institutions, labour service organizations, think tanks and labour colleges, we think we are well placed to host a discussion on broad labour movement issues. We are prepared to make this seminar the first of several. However, we are looking at this as the beginning of an open-ended political process, and we would welcome other organizations joining us in moving it along.