This was the message which emerged from plenary ‘What should the political vision and strategy of the international trade union movement be?‘ at the GLI International Summer School
The irony of globalisation, argued Sam Gindin of York University, is that the nation-state is now more important than ever. Without coordination by nation-sates at the international level, the global economic order would collapse into chaos. Strong national movements are therefore a prerequisite for an effective international labour movement.
Sam also highlighted how weak national unions often lead to ineffective internationalism, which can be detrimental to national labour movements. Peter Rossman from the International Union of Food Workers provided one example: a labour internationalism focused purely around attempts at lobbying international institutions. Such a strategy is a drain on scarce resources, destined for failure and legitimises international capital.
The role of the international labour movement, therefore, must be to support the strengthening of national unions and cross-national political solidarity of workers. It is crucial for unions to explicitly commit to engaging in nation-state-level political struggle. Collective bargaining is by its nature limited in scope and cannot address many major issues facing workers. For example, in many countries a pressing struggle is the need to increase the level of employment. The state is needed to implement economic policies which benefit labour at the expense of capital, and unions must therefore engage in wider political struggle.
At the international level unions must also commit to spreading political struggle in order to build international solidarity. For example, the inspiring Greek resistance requires the support and solidarity of the German working class to successfully overcome the attacks of the EU Commission, IMF and European Central Bank.
Peter also explained how unlike the 1970s the current crisis is not one of profitability. Companies have made huge profits throughout the crisis and are now sitting on record surpluses. Yet rather than invest in production, which would help reduce unemployment, capital is instead attempting to squeeze more and more profit out of labour through the assertion of property rights over communal goods (for example, water) and the privatisation of public services. This is what David Harvey refers to as ‘accumulation by dispossession’
The reality of this situation is that capitalism will not solve the ongoing social crisis, and therefore the ‘radical is now the practical’. But to achieve radical change, Sam argued, the left needs to reawaken the spirit of the Great Depression where we collectively questioned the old ways of doing things and attempted to find new ways to organise. We must question what sorts of organisations are needed in order to build working class strength, in order for workers to become the social force necessary to achieve the radical transformation of society that we so urgently need.
Alex Wood is a guest blogger for the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.