ICFTU Calls “Global Unions’ Day of Action”

A chance for the movement against capitalist globalization to enter a new phase

by Andrew Pollack


The leaders of the world’s biggest union body, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), have issued a call for action which could dramatically transform the movement against capitalist globalization.

In a press release dated July 19, the ICFTU announced that “trade union leaders from around the world, meeting in a special session of the ICFTU Steering Committee held in conjunction with the G8 Summit in Genoa, took the decision to mark the launch of the next Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Doha, Qatar, by staging a Global Unions’ Day of Action by the Work-places of the World. The Day of Action will take place on November 9, 2001, the opening day of the WTO Conference.”

The federation leaders described the Day of Action as being “coordinated at global level and delivered at a local level, taking the form of diverse actions to be determined in individual countries ranging from stoppages and demonstrations to workplace discussions, public meetings and high-profile media activities.” (Click here for their website.)

The challenge facing activists in the movement is to throw ourselves into building this Day in a way that ensures that the actions maximize their potential to draw in the ranks of labor. The movement as it stands now consists on the one hand of increasingly large and diverse protests at global summits, and on the other of local demonstrations and even general strikes in particular countries against the policies imposed by those meeting at such summits. This Day of Action — especially if it helps us construct an ongoing global network of labor activists — could unite those two strands of the movement, and in the process transform it from one which can shut down or hamper ruling class meetings, impressive as that has been, into one that can actually win concrete victories. And ultimately into a movement capable of taking power.

In saying this I make no assumptions about how well the ICFTU will implement its own call. What’s key is whether rank-and-file activists and progressive officials can seize on this call now to begin talking to each other on an international level to discuss what the day should look like, and whether we can build on the coordinating structures forged in the process to create a permanent global workers’ coalition.

In doing so we can take encouragement from the fact that the movement against capitalist globalization has always had as one of its components—in fact is really a product of—the mass struggles of workers in countries on all continents. More recently we’ve seen increasing labor participation in mobilizations at summit meetings. In a sense therefore the ICFTU’s call is a natural step forward.

The same day the ICFTU call hit the web, for instance, the LabourStart website was reporting on the following actions by workers around the world:

Let me start with the last action to examine what the prospects might be in various parts of the world for the November 9 Day of Action, an examination that will lead in turn to the question of what goals labor is pursuing in this movement, and what that says about our tactics — a particularly timely question after the police assaults in Göteborg and Genoa.

In reporting on the Argentine strike even the mainstream media admitted that 95% of the working class had struck. That means millions of workers on strike against the effects of capitalist globalization. What’s more, this is only the latest in a series of general strikes in that country against IMF-imposed policies in the last two years. Furthermore workers and peasants around the country during that same period have repeatedly blocked roads to protest the same policies.

In the last week the press has been full of speculation about whether the Argentine government will be able to stave off economic collapse, whether it will be able to impose the cuts demanded by the world’s banks and their agencies as the means to do so — and whether Argentine workers will stand idly by. Speculation also abounds about whether Brazil’s economy will be pulled down in the wake of Argentina’s troubles.

Brazil, of course, is the home of several other militant forces in the antiglobalization movement. Its Landless Workers Movement has occupied land and fought battles with the government to protect their land seizures, and during the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre this January, 1,300 farmers occupied a Monsanto farm (along with French activist José Bove) and destroyed genetically-engineered soybeans. And of course it’s the home of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), the main sponsor of the WSF.

Latin America as a whole has been a hotbed of strikes and occupations in recent years. Mass working-class actions last year in Bolivia forced U.S.-based Bechtel to cancel its plans for taking over privatized water facilities, and Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela have been rocked by mass protests by workers, farmers, and indigenous peoples.

Given this record of militant, mass action, what is the November 9 Day of Action likely to look like in Latin America?  If the unions there pick up on the day as a focus for their members, the possibility of a continent-wide general strike is not hard to imagine. And given militant actions over the course of the last decade by peasants and indigenous peoples, such a strike could dovetail with other actions, perhaps looking more like an uprising than a strike.

Nor is it hard to imagine countrywide, and in some cases, continent-wide general strikes, in other parts of the globe. As Patrick Bond pointed out last year in “The African grassroots and the global movement,” “the struggle sites under media glare... have deflected attention from much larger actions in the Third World.”  He then provides a useful list of some of these actions, including: a general strike in South Africa last May “by half the country’s workforce, furious over job-killing neoliberal policies adopted at the behest of the World Bank, and protest marches” which brought 200,000 out into the streets in several cities; “a strike the next day by twenty million Indian workers explicitly to protest the surrender of national sovereignty to the IMF and World Bank,” as well as other general strikes and mass rallies in Ecuador, Argentina, Turkey, Haiti, Paraguay, Nigeria, South Korea, and Brazil. (Click here to read the article in its entirety.)

This working class upsurge has even struck the imperialist countries themselves. Greece has experienced two general strikes in the last year, and memories of the 1996 general strike in France are still fresh. In Italy just a couple of weeks before the Genoa summit hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, and chanted “We’re going to Genoa!” in response to speeches by Genoa Social Forum activists (see article on this website). Naturally this militancy has spilled over into increasing participation by unionists in countersummit actions — including in civil disobedience. Although in Europe, as on other continents, ICFTU affiliates are not always the biggest or the most militant unions, it’s not hard to imagine a unified plan by all, or at least the more radical, unions, for a continentwide action on November 9.

In the U.S. the potential is much less clear. If left to their own devices, the top leaders of the AFL-CIO will no doubt be happy with the Day of Action being marked only by workers signing anti-WTO postcards during their lunch breaks, and showing up for tepid after-work rallies.

On the other hand, some unionists in Seattle threw in their lot with those seeking to shut down the summit, and this April, as part of the run-up to Québec anti-FTAA demonstrations, Jobs with Justice organized actions around the country linking globalization to local struggles such as hospital privatizations, union organizing drives, workfare scams, etc. So links already forged between unionists and the rest of the movement could upset plans by the Sweeney leadership for a well-orchestrated, quiet show on November 9. (And if we can get some help from our Canadian and Québécois comrades, where links are already more advanced, we’ll be ahead of the game; click here for details.)

In New York City the debate over what the Day of Action should look like will probably revolve around whether unionists should participate in a projected shutdown of Wall Street already being organized by local activists. It’s likely that the majority of union leaders will oppose participation, carefully scheduling their rallies miles away. But it’s also likely that, as in Seattle, and later in Québec, some more radical unionists will break with their leaders and join with those seeking to engage in “direct action.”

All of these projections assume that the call for a Global Day of Action in the Workplaces is picked up by a significant segment of the world’s unions — whether ICFTU affiliates or not. I would argue that making sure this happens is crucial for the future of the movement, and will help us resolve the thorny questions posed once again in Genoa about our tactics and goals.

In a way the calling of a global workers action was facilitated by the WTO putting its meeting in “safe” Qatar. That is, the option of trying to get workers to go in large numbers to the summit location was never an option, and locally-based protests was the only option. And the continued relocation of summits to remote places (such as the one planned next year in Canada) means that the question of whether to shut down summits will not come up nearly as often. (Earlier this year in fact the World Bank cancelled its Barcelona meeting altogether in favor of a cyberspace conference!)

On the other hand, the question of civil disobedience, whether “violent” or nonviolent, won’t go away, and is already posed around the projected November Wall Street Action, and will no doubt be argued about in preparations for the late September-early October protests in Washington, D.C., when the IMF and World Bank meet.

The movement’s ability to shut down or at least disrupt several global summits has helped swell our ranks and draw in ever bigger and broader forces, giving the movement more self-confidence and inspiration to continue. It has also encouraged new forms of activity: for instance, the Social Forums held in Porto Alegre and in Genoa, uniting the forces and ideas of thousands of groups from around the world, as well as the pro-immigration march during Genoa and the pro-immigrant actions along the U.S.-Mexico border during FTAA protests.

On the other hand, disrupting these summits has produced no concrete victories, no reversal of capital’s policies (although it has resulted in a flood of crocodile tears by the ruling class for the world’s poor — and attempts to co-opt parts of the movement).

At a certain point, though, the movement will cease to grow solely by virtue of its ability to successfully shut down, disrupt, or force the relocation of these summits. Capital can find other ways to meet to decide how to impose its will in the everyday workings of production and trade.

Even shutting down Wall Street for a day, as projected for November, while it would be a first, and while it would certainly inspire the movement, will lead to a similar dilemma for the movement. Will shutting down the world’s financial capital for one day force capital to grant concessions?  Perhaps, for cutting off a day’s profits on its exchanges is far more of a threat than stopping a meeting of finance ministers or heads of state. But for that very reason capital is far more likely to call on its repressive apparatus to stop such an occurrence, which means in turn that only the organized force of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of workers, could successfully shut down Wall Street, even for part of a day.

Workers in New York have certainly suffered from the same privatization, deregulation, service and job cuts, as workers in other countries, imposed at the behest of the same banks and corporations which shape IMF, World Bank, and WTO policies. But the current level of mobilization and consciousness in New York City, and in the U.S. at large, means we still have much work to do to make such connections, and the consequent need for mass working class action, sufficiently clear in time for November 9 to approach even the size of the April 2000 rally in D.C. — a size nowhere near adequate for shutting down Wall Street.

But Seattle has left a legacy, and furthermore U.S. workers during the buildup for the Day of Action can be educated about the example set by other countries’ workers described above. And this could be the most important fruit of November 9: the chance for workers around the world to compare notes on their needs, on their planned actions, and to set the stage for increasing collaboration after that date — a collaboration which can only increase the militancy of each country’s working class.

In the process workers who’ve participated recently in general strikes have something to teach allies in the broader movement. For those workers already know that to do battle with capital you must be willing to shut off the source of its power at the point of production (and distribution and exchange). Changing capital’s policies, and eventually eliminating capital, means striking at the heart of the capitalists’ everyday power. Capital is upset when its meetings are disturbed.

The protest actions in Seattle, Prague, Québec, etc., have called into question the legitimacy of the capitalist political leaders, their claim to be representing democratic institutions and processes, in the eyes of the majority of the world’s people. But capital only grants concessions when it is afraid that by not doing so it will be unable to continue making profits. Threats to a company’s profits for a day, a week, a month, can scare it into granting a decent union contract or wage increase. Threats to the profits of a national ruling class can scare it into passing laws for new wage and hours laws, creating or restoring social services, or stop it from privatizing companies. And threats to its very right to exist as an economic class and as a ruling (i.e. political) class — threats which can only occur during strikes and uprisings participated in by the majority of the working class — can cause a crisis in self-confidence among the capitalists which, if matched by an equivalent rise in self-confidence by the opponents of capital, can lead to the demise of its rule.

That’s why, for instance, a general strike and road blockades forced Bechtel to back down in Bolivia. A working class willing to shut down a city for several days was not likely to let Bechtel peacefully suck profits out of the country, so they cut and run. That’s why a general strike in France led to passage of a law shortening the workweek to 35 hours.

But the world’s workers already know, both from history and from recent experience, that even an occasional general strike is no guarantee of victory, especially in a period such as this, when the hegemony of neoliberal ideology, and the impact on the working class of economic downturns and crises, emboldens capital to resist such pressures. What November 9 represents, then, is a chance to integrate the damage done to capital’s legitimacy at the summits with the threats to its very profits posed during general strikes and mass uprisings in individual countries. In plain words, if we can mobilize millions of workers on that day — and follow up with even more ambitious plans building on such a victory — we can move from scaring and antagonizing capital to actually winning some victories.

What’s more, since it’s the global system as a whole—not just individual corporations or governments or agencies such as the IMF — which is the context mandating the imposition of job and service cuts and privatizations, only a global working class struggle, with internationally coordinated actions, will be able to take on that system. The recent slump around the globe is not a product of IMF policies, or of any particular free trade agreement. Such agencies and treaties are just institutions and strategies used by the ruling classes to attempt (not very successfully!) to manage its global economy.

The Argentina crisis described above — and its likely spillover not only to Brazil or even just to the rest of the continent, but throughout the world — is reminiscent of the impact of the Asian, Russian, and Mexican crises of recent years on the global economy. The world’s working class faces attacks not only from free trade agreements or country-specific austerity programs, but from the “normal” functioning of the capitalist system, both locally and globally. Thus in confronting layoffs around the world, we must come up with actions and alternatives which confront the system producing those layoffs, and not just particular actions or institutions of the class which profits from that system.

How to Organize for November 9

Many labor activists are already in touch with others around the globe as a result of decades of attempts to forge international solidarity, especially at the rank-and-file level. We are also in touch through labor websites and e-mail lists, and of course by virtue of our participation in summit actions and forums such as those in Porto Alegre and Genoa. We need now to use all those links to begin discussing what should happen on November 9. The exact structure and agenda for those discussions will have to be worked out as we go along, but some guidelines to consider are:

Special websites and email lists could be built, and existing ones expanded, to post proposals for, discussions on, and decisions about local actions and suggestions for internationally coordinated themes and tactics. And on November 9 itself perhaps there could be a global labor teleconference, so that workers could view each other’s rallies in real time.

Hopefully such discussions will take up not only what to do on November 9, but also what to do as a follow-up during future summits of capital. And perhaps even more importantly we can begin to discuss what initiatives to take on dates and issues of our own choosing.

For instance, this March the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) called for this year’s world water day to be declared a day of mourning for the millions of people who are sick and dying as a result of not having access to water. SAMWU demanded that “all commercialization [privatization] be stopped and water be restored as a public service.”

To my knowledge March 22, the target date for such actions (pegged to a UN Water Day), came and went without much activity. But what if that day had been the focus for an internationally coordinated mobilization by all involved in local struggles around the water — such as those fighting on the same issue in Bolivia mentioned above—and by others in solidarity with them?

Could our discussions in the run-up to November 9 create the kind of global working class network that can launch follow-up days of action around specific issues such as water—or around education or health care or other services being privatized and slashed around the globe, and around which workers in individual countries have already mobilized? Could we launch a worldwide general strike demanding the cancellation of the Third World debt (and the end of its First World equivalent, the tax giveaways to banks)? Our failure up to this point to budge the ruling class on this question of debt, despite the protests both at summits and in individual countries, should make clear again why it will take a working-class based movement to win such demands.

Then there’s the question of global actions in support of struggles in one particular country. During the weekend of the Genoa actions, Eric Lee, the LabourStart webmaster, had posted a message to the site’s email list appealing for global action in defense of the leader of South Korea's independent trade unions. Since June 30 Dan Byung-ho, the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, has been living in a tent on a cathedral’ grounds seeking asylum in order to avoid arrest by the regime. Dozens of KCTU members are threatened with arrest for organizing “illegal” strikes.

Now the priests running the cathedral are demanding that Dan leave, regardless of whether the regime arrests him. Lee suggests: “I think it would be fantastic if we could mobilize a global campaign to focus attention on anti-union repression in South Korea.... Let’s get trade unions, churches, and other institutions around the world to say that they’d welcome a great fighter for workers’ rights like Dan Byung-ho into their buildings. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have signs hanging on the front doors of churches and trade union offices everywhere—and not only in South Korea—saying “Dan Byung-ho welcome here?”

A labor network built for November 9 could be just the vehicle to make such international solidarity actions possible. International labor solidarity around specific strikes or defense cases has occurred more and more in the last couple of decades, but for lack of any global labor network, every case requires almost starting from scratch in getting the word out and planning actions.

What We Are We Fighting For

None of this is intended to minimize the barriers in our way — including from the ICTFU and its national affiliates. We can’t assume that the officials running these bodies will necessarily look kindly on independent, ad-hoc bodies organizing around November 9, and we’ll have to carefully balance the need for official endorsement and independent initiative.

On the other hand, the very issuing of the call indicates an official recognition of the desire in labor’s ranks for joint action. During Porto Alegre, Marcello Malentacchi, head of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, one of the ICFTU’s biggest affiliates, took other union leaders to task for flocking to Davos (the meeting of the bosses to which the World Social Forum in Brazil was counterposed). Furthermore, he argued that the “debate about globalisation from a social perspective…cannot and must not be restricted to just the Third World. Trade unions from every continent must participate and contribute to the conference in Brazil.” (click here)

In a follow-up column he encouraged formation of a “tribune for global unions,” writing: “I think the time has come for global unions to take a leading role in the debate on globalization...The fact that many of our affiliates from unions in the South were well represented at Porto Alegre should give us something to ponder…On the other hand, the presence of some of our global unions at the World Economic Forum in Davos indicates that within the global union movement we have differing views on how to most effectively oppose the ill effects of globalization on our members. The IMF [International Metalworkers’ Federation], therefore, calls for an urgent meeting of the global labor movement to debate and discuss these matters.”

Of course union leaders’ presence in Davos, and their eagerness to hobnob with the bosses both at summits and at home, is symptomatic of the fact that most labor leaders, while resisting some of the impact of neoliberalism on their members, have no alternative ideology to it — a fact reflected in the ICFTU call, and in the statement issued by that and other union bodies during Genoa in their appeal to the G-8 leaders. While putting forward various positive demands, they also called for “opening up the WTO system to consultation with trade unions and other democratic representatives of civil society.” Most activists against capitalist globalization, in contrast, call for abolishing the WTO and similar institutions.

Furthermore the unions’ statement boasted: “In Genoa, a large trade union delegation is taking part in a meeting on July 19 with the host of the Genoa Summit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, organized by the Italian trade union movement, together with TUAC, the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD”— the same Berlusconi who organized the murderous attack on the Genoa protesters.

But the organizing of a global labor network in the preparation for November 9 will give a chance for more radical labor activists to explain why the WTO, IMF, et al., can’t be reformed. What’s more, direct discussions between unionists in different countries about their projected actions will inevitably raise the question of how to counter protectionist demands by individual union bureaucracies — and turning such demands, instead, into platforms calling for the right of all workers to protect their jobs, for autonomous but coordinated development under public control.

In fact I would argue that workers who have struck against privatization, for jobs and services, for the very concrete things needed for survival, will, if they become the center of our movement, help us overcome the lack of clarity in goals which affects even the more progressive organizations fighting capitalist globalization. The statements issued in Porto Alegre and Genoa by their respective Social Forums, those of groups such as ATTAC and others who have no illusions about the IMF, WTO, et al., while putting forward many important radical demands, still all too often include vague phrases when getting around to specifying just what their alternative is to capitalism.

In a future article I’ll address this in more detail. The point here is that, should our movement become one led and organized by workers, the articulation in plain words of the only possible alternative — socialism — will become over time less and less of a problem.

When millions of workers march together in coordinated, global days of action to defend or recapture not only their own public institutions, but in support as well of coworkers in other countries fighting for the same goals, struggles will inevitably pass from strikes and rallies aimed at protecting or reclaiming public jobs and services, to occupations and uprisings during which workers and their allies decide they need to manage and even to own the institutions providing such jobs and services — which again means, in plain words, socialism.

Finally, I should add in passing that once labor’s ranks are a regular component of all anti-globalization actions, the question of how to handle Black Blockers — or cops posing as them — will occur in a different context. There will be at every march thousands of union activists with experience marshaling their own demonstrations. Conservative union officials will certainly seek to use such marshals to keep demonstrations away from all confrontations, even from nonviolent civil disobedience. But rank-and-filers and progressive officials can be counted on, over time, to take the lead in organizing — and enforcing — democratic decisions that reflect the will of the majority, whether that will be to launch a particular confrontational action or, if need be, to wait for a more propitious time.