Last November in Vienna, fifteen years after the demise of the Soviet Union and well into the third decade of corporate-driven globalization, the international trade union movement was reorganized to eliminate its debilitating cold war political divisions and to enhance coordination across industrial lines made obsolete by globalization. The founding of this new organization, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 168 million workers in 153 countries, was hailed as historic by the few dozen people who follow these things, which it may well be, though you probably missed the coverage in your local newspaper.
Earlier this year AFL-CIO president John Sweeney met with Iraqi trade unionists in Jordan (there being no place secure enough in Iraq to hold such a meeting) to support Iraqi union resistance to an array of Bush administration policies, particularly on the privatization and denationalization of the oil industry; Teamster president James Hoffa and Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern were in China with a delegation of Change to Win (CTW) unions, the group that split from the AFL-CIO, meeting with communists and capitalists to exchange views on worker rights in the global economy. In Ottawa, Steelworker president Leo Gerard announced a merger that would bring together nearly three million American, Canadian, British and Irish workers in one union, and Communication Workers president Larry Cohen was in Athens to raise the visibility of an organizing campaign aimed at the world’s largest cell phone service company, which operates in twenty-five countries on four continents.
These events reflect the realization at the highest levels of organized labor that unions have no future if they do not become truly global institutions. What is not said publicly, but known only too well, is that unions may have lost so much ground on the international playing field and have been so weakened over the past half century that they will no longer be able to provide an effective counterweight to the inequities of capitalism.
‘This is a race against time, and the stakes are very high. As weak as it is, organized labor, with its global reach, its billions in assets, tens of millions of members, thousands of employees, and historic vocation for uplifting the downtrodden, is the largest social movement on the planet and perhaps the last, best hope we have for averting the rendezvous with disaster that our profit-crazed economic system seems determined to keep.
Union structures look much as they did a hundred years ago, rigid but not necessarily coherent hierarchies, from the broad, sprawling base of increasingly diverse workplaces to local union hall to national headquarters reaching a pinnacle in the recently formed ITUC. Alongside the ITUC are ten global union federations, previously known as international trade secretariats, entities formed by the last wave of globalization a ce...
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