Supporting Global Class Struggle Through Labor Internationalism
Portside Date:
Author: Jana Silverman and Paul Garver
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Socialist Forum

Labor internationalism is working class-based transnational solidarity that is not intrinsically linked to national governments. Its leading concepts can be roughly summarized by the slogans “Labor solidarity without borders” and “Workers of the World, Unite!” Since the international workers’ movement has developed concomitantly with global communist, socialist and anarchist movements, its various relationships with those political movements have long been contested by leaders and activists from both left parties and labor organizations alike. Despite this, the theory and practice of labor internationalism remains central to both labor and socialist movements since their joint origin in the early nineteenth century. A catalyst for forming the First International (1864-76) was a response to a concrete issue facing workers in Europe, namely, foreign workers being recruited as strikebreakers.  Congresses of the Second International (1889-1917) were usually accompanied by meetings of workers’ representatives in the same city. The Second International struggled with reconciling international workers’ solidarity with the growing nationalism of the masses of workers throughout Europe, and essentially imploded with the outset of the First World War.

The World Labor Movement Splits

After the war ended, the political representation of workers at the international level was divided along sectarian lines. Most Communists joined the Third, or Communist International (Comintern) after 1919, which retreated from Eurocentrism but at the cost of subservience to the nation-state interests of the Soviet Union. The workers’ soviets, which under different conditions might have become a basis for developing a more autonomous grassroots labor movement, devolved into a transmission tool for Bolshevik control in the newly established Soviet Union. At the same time, social democrats and democratic socialists were not successful in organizing a comprehensive international alternative for organizing workers across borders. However, International Trade Secretariats began to create networks of European workers and unions in the same industrial sectors, laying a foundation for the Global Union Federations of the present era.

For a short period after the Second World War, most national labor centers joined the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), reflecting the global coalition against the Axis. However, as the Cold War between the USSR and the USA developed, that unity collapsed. Most national union federations not led by Communists left to form the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU), while some European and Latin American unions led by Catholics formed the World Confederation of Labor (WCL). Communist union confederations supported the foreign policy of the USSR; the WCL mostly advocated for non-aligned unions in Latin America; the ICFTU fell into a social democratic and anti-Communist camp. Following the merger of the CIO and the AFL in the United States, the AFL-CIO was so ideological that for a decade it boycotted the ICFTU as insufficiently zealous in its anti-Communism. None of the three global confederations demonstrated any sustained interest in the actual practical problems of the working classes.  Nor did any of them develop any effective mechanism for supporting its affiliated member unions in struggles against global corporations. The cause of global labor solidarity seemed lost or at best dormant.

Winds of Change

That sorry situation began to change in the 1980s. Several seemingly isolated developments emerged that eventually merged to begin the transformation of the global workers’ movement into a more ideologically coherent and fighting form. Perhaps most significant was the birth of new, militant, and autonomous unions in several important developing countries. Black-led unions in South Africa formed the backbone for the mass democratic struggle against apartheid. Militant unions in the Philippines, allied to the New Democratic Movement and to democratic socialist organizations, developed mass bases among both industrial and rural workers, and contributed to the overthrow of the first Marcos regime. NSZZ Solidarność organized millions of Polish workers. A new Korean militant union movement broke through savage repression and direct government interference in union structures. And Brazilian unions, many associated with the recently- formed Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT), organized urban and rural workers in their struggle for democratization under the brutal military dictatorship and for union freedoms.

On a smaller scale, but significant in part because of their cumulative impact on union activists in the USA, came the creation of militant unions in Central America, part of left-wing insurgencies that challenged right-wing regimes that were buttressed by the U.S. empire. Even though many of the best worker activists were assassinated by death squads and government forces, and their organizational expressions remained weak, they indirectly helped change the foreign policy of many US unions, and ultimately of the AFL-CIO itself. Over decades of internal struggle, ideological anti-Communism gave way to a more inclusive worker-based strategy based on practical support for union-building and development.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, some International Trade Secretariats (later rebranded as Global Union Federations, or GUFs) began to organize and win organizing and bargaining campaigns against transnational companies in their sectors. Following several assassinations of union leaders at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City, the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) launched a decades-long campaign to force the Coca-Cola Company globally to require its subsidiaries to respect union rights. Building on a clear victory in Guatemala, and some success in reducing worker rights violations in Colombia, the Philippines and other countries, the IUF persuaded the Coca-Cola Company to agree to regular meetings with the IUF and its member unions in Coca-Cola to meet in Atlanta to implement improvements in worker rights.

Practical Solidarity

An important component of our labor internationalism is an emphasis on the need to struggle for a democratic, legal and human rights framework for workers organizing.  This is why we advocate against the governmental repression of trade union activists and leaders in countries such as the Philippines, Belarus and Hong Kong. The struggles for workers’ rights, human rights and self-determination are, as they have always been, the concern of global socialist activists. Worker solidarity across borders only makes sense if built by workers and union organizers from below. Any real gains in global labor internationalism have to be anchored in organized activity from the workers themselves. In this sense, we should prioritize not only building international class-based solidarity movements but also strengthening national-level labor movements that organize from a “social movement unionism” perspective.

As DSA, we lack the imprimatur of the official structures of global union organizations but are following a similar model with our entirely volunteer resources. Some current examples are our support for international worker organizing at Starbucks and Amazon. For example, we have encouraged the global aspect of Starbucks worker organizing, by bringing in the experiences of Starbucks unions organizing in Chile, New Zealand and Canada. Our contacts with the Chilean Starbucks Union grew out of DSA’s observer mission to the second round of the Chilean presidential elections in December, 2021. As part of that mission, DSA International Committee member David Duhalde met with Andres Giordano, then the outgoing President of the Chilean Starbucks union. The Chilean Starbucks union has registered over a decade of struggle against the company and has succeeded in organizing a majority of Starbucks baristas in that country. On behalf of DSA Labor and the International Committee, we then invited Giordano to speak to a “Solidarity is Brewing” webinar with representatives of the Starbucks Workers United and other fast food restaurant workers. Subsequent webinars in this series have included speakers from the New Zealand Unite Union and the United Steelworkers in Western Canada, both also organizing and representing Starbucks and other fast-food workers. The webinar is online at: United in Common Struggle: Solidarity with Chilean Starbucks Union – Democratic Socialists of America. We hope that this global network will help organize a broad scale organizing effort at Starbucks that will complement the organizing by the SBWU in the USA. Likewise, in October 2022 new leaders of the Chilean Starbucks union organized an international conference in Chile at which DSA was represented by a Starbucks barista. DSA sent a message of solidarity to the conference United in Common Struggle: Solidarity with Chilean Starbucks Union.

Likewise, the DSA International Committee endorsed the “Make Amazon Pay” global Amazon protests on Black Friday, which were organized by the UNI Global Union and the Progressive International. Strikes and protests occurred mainly in India, Germany and Italy. Following the lead of the autonomous workers groups organizing at Amazon warehouses in the USA, we supported only those small consumer consciousness-raising actions at Whole Foods and other Amazon businesses that did not expose Amazon worker organizers to the scrutiny of their managers.

Against Labor Repression

There are cases in which we also extend our solidarity to union sisters and brothers who are primarily under attack from repressive governments for their labor activism. One of the most sustained and large-scale efforts from the DSA International Committee has been solidarity with unions in the Philippines. We have partnered with two leftist confederations, the Kilosang Mayo Uno (KMU) and SENTRO, whose leaders for many decades have been singled out for repression by the Philippines authorities for their militant efforts to represent and bargain for their members. The International Committee held a solidarity webinar in March, 2022 that featured leaders of both confederations and members of the PHRA Coalition. DSA is part of this coalition, which has been advocating for the passage of the Philippines Human Rights Act. Kara Taggaoa, the International Secretary of the KMU, an international guest and panelist at the DSA 2021 Convention, was recently arrested by the new Marcos Jr. regime. We expect the repression of militant unions in the Philippines to continue and will be working with our partners to oppose it. Last year a wide coalition of U.S. and Philippine unions joined the union rights group Global Labor Justice/International Labor Rights Forum in filing a joint complaint against the continuation of GSP trade preferences for the Philippines because of its extensive violations of worker and human rights, and the DSA International Committee is following the developments in that case.

Some activists and current leaders of the International Committee have unfortunately not supported our efforts against repression of union activists by governments that claim to be socialist or anti-imperialist. Because the exercise of democratic rights is essential to all effective worker organizing, we do not exempt authoritarian governments from criticism when they fail to respect internationally-recognized labor standards.

Belarus is a case in point. Its long-time authoritarian leader Viktor Lukashenko began persecuting leaders of the independent trade union movement following their opposition during his contested reelection in 2020. In April 2022, the authorities launched a full-scale attack on all independent unions and their members, arresting leaders and activists. Currently, there are at least 23 unionists who are detained or limited in freedom, eight trade unionists are serving sentences in prison, two are under home arrest, while others wait for court trials. Meanwhile, in July the Supreme Court forcibly dissolved the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) and four of its major trade unions, as the authorities labelled independent unions “extremists” and “Western agents” engaged in defamation campaigns with a clear message that anyone who is associated with the BKDP and its affiliates risks being prosecuted. Furthermore, several activists of the strike movement face many years in prison for “treason against the state.” For all these violations of international labor standards, the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) has begun a process that will lead to further sanctions on the government of Belarus. As labor internationalists, we believe that we should strongly advocate for the restoration of independent democratic unions in Belarus, regardless of the geopolitical positioning of the current government of Belarus.

Brazil-USA Solidarity

Another example of successful labor internationalism that can be highlighted are the multiple solidarity campaigns that have linked the US and Brazilian labor movements in recent years, as well as the budding relationship between DSA and the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Brazil’s (and Latin America’s) largest national trade union federation. Despite the fact that during the Cold War the AFL-CIO and its former foreign policy arm in Latin America, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), maintained a lukewarm relationship with the progressive novo sindicalismo (new unionism) movement which was forged out of the historic metalworker strikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these relationships have improved significantly since the AFL-CIO reformulated its international relations and international labor cooperation work in the late 1990s and since the affiliation of the CUT (which was born out of the ebullition of the novo sindicalismo movement) to the ICFTU in 1992. As befitting true labor internationalism, US and Brazilian unions have worked together on solidarity campaigns in defense of worker rights and human rights in Brazil under both the left/center-left governments led by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) from 2003-2016, and the neoliberal, neo-authoritarian governments which succeeded the PT from 2016 onwards.

One example of a robust solidarity initiative which was initiated when the PT exercised power on the federal level was the campaign to strengthen labor rights at the formerly state-run transnational mining company Vale S.A. After the company’s privatization by the Cardoso administration in 1997, it initiated an aggressive strategy to expand its holdings, through both greenfield investment and mergers and acquisitions in Brazil and overseas. Within Brazil, the company began to implement large-scale outsourcing of basic operations, in this way lowering labor costs and further fragmenting union representation. At the same time, the company acquired one of Canada’s largest mining enterprises, formerly known as INCO, and then refused to respect the collective bargaining agreement covering INCO workers affiliated to the United Steelworkers (USW). This provoked a bitter strike at the Canadian operations from 2009-2010. The Brazilian unions and the USW responded by forming a transnational union network, whose activities were funded in part by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, in order to share best practices in negotiating and organizing strategies and to develop joint agendas for collective action. Through this coordinated action, the company was forced to come to the bargaining table with its new employees in Canada and sign a five-year collective bargaining agreement, fully recognizing the union rights of the USW. Despite this, the network was less successful in stopping outsourcing and other anti-union practices which were happening continuously at Vale’s Brazilian holdings.

Solidarity actions between US and Brazilian unions intensified after the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on spurious legal grounds and especially after the imprisonment of President (and former labor leader) Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva on falsified corruption charges by the far-right judge Sergio Moro, with tacit assistance from the US Department of Justice. Shortly after Lula was arrested and sent to prison in the city of Curitiba on April 7, 2018, the PT, CUT and other Brazilian social movements initiated an international solidarity campaign. The international Lula livre campaign carried out actions such as organizing visits of prominent international figures to Lula in prison, presenting a case to the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the violation of Lula’s fundamental civil and political rights, and coordinated global days of action to protest Lula’s politically motivated imprisonment. The AFL-CIO and many of its affiliate unions participated actively in the campaign, carrying out actions including approving a resolution by the AFL-CIO Executive Committee entitled “Defending Democracy in Brazil” at its July 2018 meeting, organizing a delegation to Brazil headed by former AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre in August 2018 to meet with PT leadership and former President Dilma Rousseff, and taking former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to visit Lula in prison in October 2019. These actions played a crucial role in bringing international attention to Lula’s case and in providing solidarity and emotional support to embattled Brazilian labor and political activists, especially in the wake of the rise to power of the far-right after the October 2018 elections.

Over the past year and a half, DSA has also made lasting connections not only to Brazilian left parties but also directly with the Brazilian labor movement, and that relationship promises to continue as the political winds in Brazil shift towards the left. For example, in February 2021, the Labor subcommittee of the DSA IC organized a well-attended online webinar on domestic worker organizing from an internationalist and intersectional perspective, featuring the president of the Brazilian National Domestic Worker Federation (FENATRAD). The NPC-led DSA delegation which visited Sao Paulo in April-May 2022 actively followed up on this solidarity work, by meeting leaders and activists of the Sao Paulo Domestic Worker Union on May Day and conducting a meeting with national-level CUT leaders, to discuss transnational labor solidarity campaigns and youth labor organizing strategies. We can appropriately characterize this work as “labor internationalism” as it is being conducted without the direct oversight of any political party and is focused on building worker power through independent union organizing.

Labor Internationalism and Anti-Imperialism

We can compare this kind of internationalist organizing with the approach that the DSA IC has taken towards building solidarity with Venezuela. DSA rightfully condemns the deadly economic sanctions imposed by the United States against the current Venezuelan government, which have led to a loss of close to US $30 billion in oil export revenue for the state and a 50% average decline in imports, including staple foods and medicine, drastically impacting the quality of life of working-class Venezuelans. However, from a labor internationalist perspective, solidarity with the Venezuelan people in the face of imperialist persecution does not mean that US-based socialists must turn a blind eye to labor abuses that have also been committed by the Venezuelan ruling class and in particular by the government. In 2015, 2016, and 2017 (before the bulk of the US economic sanctions were applied), Venezuela was admonished internationally by the tripartite Conference Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) of the International Labor Organization (ILO) for systematically violating ILO Conventions 87 and 122 on the rights to freedom of association and to social dialogue on employment policy. In particular, the Venezuelan government was criticized by leaders of labor organizations as responsible by action or omission of the murder and arbitrary detention of hundreds of union leaders in the construction, oil and mining sectors. In addition, the tripartite leaders of the ILO decried the practice by the Venezuelan government of establishing parallel union federations in order to undermine the collective bargaining rights of already-existing unions. The ITUC and its member organizations continue to be critical of Venezuela’s labor rights record, listing it as a country where “systematic violations of rights” occur, according to its 2022 Global Rights Index.

As US-based labor internationalists committed to supporting the political and economic struggles of workers around the world, DSA members and leaders should be critical of these grave and systematic civil and political rights violations by the Venezuelan government, but without losing our focus on exposing the shameful role of the US government in exacerbating violations of the fundamental economic and social rights of the Venezuelan population. In this sense, we support the crucial work that the DSA IC is doing to oppose the deadly economic sanctions, but do not believe that labor rights abusers (whether they be part of an “anti-imperialist” regime or not) should be held up as paragons of the global movement towards socialism. For that reason, we lament the unrealized possibility for DSA leaders to meet with independent union leaders in Venezuela during the 2021 IC and NPC-led delegations to the country, and hope that contacts with these unions can be established in the near future.

In conclusion, we believe that our ideology as socialists should be firmly rooted in labor internationalism, given the irreplaceable role of the working class in the fight towards the creation of a socialist society and economy. At the same time, we do not believe that we should shrink from our duty to oppose US imperialism, but our anti-imperialism should be framed and understood as a means to weaken the global capitalist class, not as an end in and of itself. As DSA, our strategy and tactics to oppose US imperialism and to build socialism from an internationalist perspective must be flexible and nuanced. We must learn how to be independent from but not indifferent to left and center-left governments around the world who are committed to ending US imperialism and building a democratic socialist project. We can and should use all the leverage available to us as residents of the dominant world power to influence multinational corporations, global civil society and our own government in order to support political projects around the world committed to working-class liberation, but without unconditional support – or unconditional condemnation – of any particular regime. We directly support our brothers and sisters in the global working class and global union movement, against any far-right authoritarianisms and any faux-left totalitarianisms. Building upon that sentiment, we believe that “our only camp is the workers’ camp,” and we invite other DSA activists who share that opinion to join the International Committee in order to help support the important labor internationalist work being conducted there.

Socialist Forum is an open and wide-ranging venue for thoughtful discussion and debate among DSA members. It is intended to provide a space for political reflection that is theoretical, strategic, and long-term, and aims to help develop a theory and practice of democratic socialism appropriate for the twenty-first century.

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