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Yurukoglu Memorial Lecture, London, 221108

Reinventing the Labour Movement in the
                         Light of Globalisation             

Peter Waterman


  1. Introduction: what’s labour got to do with global social emancipation?
    1. Most unions and labour movements have forgotten their early historical inspiration to contribute to or lead the struggle for international solidarity and human social emancipation.
    1. The increasingly-recognised crisis of trade unionism, and the rise of the new global social movements, provides an opportunity for each of these to think about their relationship with each other:
    1. Thus, at a conference of the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR), 2005, the KCTU President said that the trade union movement must

enter a phase of experimentation.  We need to fundamentally transform ourselves....If unions fail in this endeavor to re-organise then we have no future.

    1. Increasing numbers of labour specialists internationally are tending to agree with him (see bibliography and resources below).
    1. Labour is the archetypal historical agent and movement of global social emancipation, and the ‘anti-globalisation’ or ‘global justice and solidarity movement’ (GJ&SM) is the archetypal new one
    1. Labour, in its many forms, remains a defining human activity
    1. Proletarianisation is increasing, and those working for capital – directly or indirectly - are the majority of humankind
    1. However, labour, unlike women or even sexual minorities, is not problematised within the World Social Forum (WSF). Indeed, labour is often still marginalized or self-marginalized within Social Forum events worldwide.
    1. A close articulation of labour with the GJ&SM is in the interests of both sides
  1. Why was labour considered the privileged force for global social emancipation?
    1. Wage-labourers in modern capitalist industry were the new, mass, modern, propertyless, labouring class, without citizenship, with their own organisations and culture, commonly democratic and often internationalist
    1. Socialists, reformist or revolutionary, middle or working class, statist or anarchist, saw these as the privileged agents of social emancipation – and emancipation in terms of social ownership of property, worker control of production, and the rule of the proletariat
    1. Marxists provided the sophisticated theoretical underpinnings, with the human understood as homo faber, the concepts of alienation and exploitation, of class struggle as the moving force of history, of capitalism as the highest stage of exploitation, the state as the executive of the ruling class, of capitalism as spreading worldwide, of internationalism as necessary to surpass this, of a working-class led socialist revolution as the beginning of history
    1. Workers and unions took international solidarity action, also on broader democratic or popular issues, since national laws did not protect them, they were not citizens, they were often immigrants or colonials.  They also provided the base for major international/ist organisations, publications and an international working-class/socialist culture.
  1. Limits of labour as the  emancipatory movement of capitalism
    1. Working-class self-organisation has – as a result of technological development, capitalist expansion and aggression – been increasingly affected by: decentralization, re-structuring and long-distance re-location; by individualization and consumerism; by physically aggressive and/or ideologically seductive strategies of capital-and-state, by union-smashing and union-incorporation.
    1. Socialism, in its three major competing varieties (Communist, Social-Democratic, Radical-Nationalist) has often turned out to be productivist, statist, militarist, patriarchal, racist, and thus part of the problem it was originally conceived as solving
    1. Marxism, inheriting both religious and enlightenment beliefs and behaviours, foisted on the industrial proletariat Promethean qualities, capacities and potentials that it has only partially and occasionally demonstrated
    1. Labour inter-nationalism is etymologically - and turned out to be historically - a relationship between nations, nationals, nationalists and nationalisms. Union internationalism increasingly reproduced or echoed the international relations of capital and state
    1. The very privileging of the labour movement (however identified or defined), has often worked to isolate it from other progressive social movements and the construction of a radically-democratic global civil society.
  1. Problems of the trade union form
    1. The collective self-articulation of labour has a history related to that of the stages of capitalist development and scale of operation
    1. It began with the craft guild and the local scale
    1. Next came the skilled workers’ union and the national scale
    1. Next the general or industrial workers’ union and the international scale
    1. Today we need a form and scale of worker self-articulation (both joining and expression) appropriate to a globalised, networked, computerized capitalism:

‘…Networks have advantages on two fronts: in confronting modern flexible and decentralized management systems, and in mobilizing the energy of new movements.

‘In the past, corporations were able to crush networks.  But the changing context has given networks a new life.  They are potentially stronger than before, both because of growing understanding of how they work best, and because of technological advances that speed decentralized communication…

‘The type of organization and leadership needed to build and sustain networks and netwars is in many ways the opposite of that needed for traditional mass action and large-scale hierarchies...

‘The network approach…requires that labour think of itself as a coordinator rather than a power, as a player in a complex force field rather than as the leader of the forces of social justice.  It is in many ways an attitude of humility, but it may be now that in humility there is strength…in the world of new movements and netwars, it is not always clear who is a member and who is not.  The key question is not how many members you have, but who you can mobilize...

‘The real problem for labor is to grow in influence — in the ability to unite groups outside its own boundaries.  With influence, labor could help to bring together different and shifting communities around key campaigns.  With influence, it could concentrate its efforts on the weak points of the relations among firms. 

‘Influence comes from vision and from the ability to listen without dominating.  It comes from understanding how networks work — the logic of swarms and identities and campaigns — and being able to reflect the values of a large range of social justice groups. 

‘The pursuit of influence would put energy and resources into meetings with far flung groups, into building alliances, into structuring consistent communications systems across diverse organizations, and into Internet capability.  It is a way of acting that is as different from industrial union organization as industrial unions were different from crafts… – and as continuous as both with the core mission of labor. (Heckscher 2006)

  1. The challenge to labour of globalisation and the GJ&SM
    1. Globalisation/informatisation/networking represents the most destructive attack on the labour movement – on workers, unionism, socialism, Marxism - in 200 years of history
    1. The initial union response has varied from concession, attempts to revive at national, regional or global level a junior partnership with capital and/or state – and occasional bitter resistance
    1. The initial international union response to the GJ&SM was defensive/aggressive/dismissive, shifting to recognition, pragmatic or occasional alliance, talk of partnership – tho customarily without abandoning its junior partnership with capital and state.
    1. The international unions are nonetheless active on labour rights, against privatization, increasingly on women’s and child labour, on ‘atypical labour’ (i.e. increasingly typical labour), HIV-AIDS, environmental issues
    1. Whilst the institutionalized international union response has been largely defensive, new kinds of labour have been discovering and asserting themselves, with or without the unions, customarily in local, national international networks, sometimes explicitly within the GJ&SM:
      1. Rural labour (Via Campesina)
      2. Sex workers (Network of Sex Work Projects)
      3. Immigrant labour/unemployed (France and USA 2006)
      4. Women, street, homeworkers (Streetnet International)
      5. Child workers (Global March against Child Labour)
      6. Housewives, domestic and careworkers (IRENE, etc)
    1. Increasing numbers of labour research and resource centres, and socialist intellectuals, are re-thinking labour, unions, labour internationalism, the labour movement, in relation to informatisation, globalisation, sub-contracting, off-shoring, restructuring, etc. (Marxists, Autonomists, Feminists, Ecologists)
    1. The increasing spread and depth of capitalist relations creates a growing multiplicity of experiences of alienation, of collective subjects of such, and of protests way beyond the wage-labour relation, with social movements around, for example:

      1. Environment
      2. Indigenous peoples
      3. Women (Women’s Global Charter for Humanity)
      4. Culture
      5. Cyberspace
      6. Militarism and War
      7. Ethnicity
      8. Commodification
      9. Debt
  1. The ambiguities of the partnership between international labour and the GJ&SM
    1. It is easy to pose an opposition or tension between what are called the old/reformist/bureaucratic/institutionalized/ represent- ative-democratic international unions on the one hand and the new/emancipatory/networked/direct-democratic’ GJ&SM on the other.
    1. However, this undoubted tension can not be reduced to a Manichean opposition between vice and virtue. Such differences and tensions run, unevenly, through both union organizations and social-movement networks.
    1. The tension may be more evident in the trade-union/World Social Forum relationship – i.e. between more-or-less definable entities
    1. The relationship is, in part, one of mutual instrumentalisation – each one using the other for its own pre-defined purposes.
      1. Thus the new International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) explicitly uses the WSF to launch and get endorsement for its ‘Decent Work’ campaign (actually an International Labour Organisation or interstate - project).
      1. The WSF can claim or imagine it has the support of the ITUC’s 170 million members (who do not know how or where the ITUC represents them)
    1. Moreover, we are talking of a relationship between a hierarchical policy-making institution (or set of such) and an event, a space of dialogue, between a definite ‘it’ and an amorphous and changing ‘us’ (or ‘them’)
    1. Yet each impacts inevitably on the parties and individuals involved, the question remaining open of whether the unions will reinforce the old syndrome/tendency within the WSF, or will re-invent themselves as part of the new emancipatory syndrome/tendency within the WSF.
  1. The necessity of an intensive dialectic and dialogue
    1. There is benefit for both parties/tendencies in a close articulation between the international unions on the one side, the WSF and GJ&SM on the other
    1. Even for self-defence unions need to recover and re-invent themselves – locally, nationally, regionally, globally - as ‘a sword of justice’. In this light I have proposed a Global Labour Charter Project for the 21st century (Waterman 2008), inspired by the Women’s Global Charter for Humanity (2004).
    1. The WSF needs to be moved from its 80% university-educated community towards an 80% popular one (attempted at the US Social Forum, 2007) and the general GJ&SM needs to move from the rhetoric of ‘teamsters and turtles together at last’ to a meaningful relationship between these.
    1. There is a need for a new global labour movement that addresses and involves the 80% of un-unionsed and non-unionisable labour, that is open, flexible, networked and capable of effective action against contemporary forms of capital, state, militarism, ecological destruction, consumerism, patriarchalism, racism.
    1. How this is shaping up within the WSF 2007, or is shaping up in the GJ&SM in the future, needs to be attended to with all due haste and energy.

Bibliography and Resources


Grey, Kevin. 2007. ‘Social Movement Unionism and the Korean Labour Movement’, in Korean Workers and Neoliberal Globalization. London: Routledge.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.
Heckscher, Charles. 2006. ‘Organisations, Movements, and Networks’, New York Law School Review, Vl. 5, No. 2, pp. 313-36.
Hyman, Richard. 2002. ‘The International Labour Movement on the Threshold of Two Centuries: Agitation, Organisation, Bureaucracy, Diplomacy’, [online article]. Arbetarrörelsens arkiv och bibliotek, Stockholm
Hyman, Richard. 200?. ‘Democracy and Solidarity’, (search in document list)
Networked Politics. 2007. Networked Politics: Basic Reader. Rethinking Political Organisation in an Age of Movements and Networks. Berlin, June 2007. 26 pp.
Labour’s Platform for the Americas. 2005.
Park, Mi. 2007. ‘The South Korean Trade Union Movement at the Crossroads: A Critique of “Social Movement” Unionism’. Critical Sociology, Vol. 33, Nos. 1-2, pp. 311-44.
Wahl, Asbjorn. 2004. ‘European Labour: the Ideological Legacy of the Social Pact’, Monthly Review, Vol. 55, No. 8. /0104wahl.htm
Women’s Global Charter for Humanity. 2004.


Waterman, Peter. 1998/2001. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London : Mansell/Cassell. 302 pp.
Waterman, Peter. 2004. ‘Adventures of Emancipatory Labour Strategy as the New Global Movement Challenges International Unionism’, Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol. 10, No. 1.
Waterman, Peter and Jill Timms. 2004. ‘Trade Union Internationalism and A Global Civil Society in the Making’, in Kaldor, Mary,  Helmut Anheier and Marlies Glasius (eds), Global Civil Society 2004/5. London: Sage. Pp. 178-202.
Waterman, Peter. 2008. Labour Report on WFA Conference, Caracas, October, 2008
Waterman, Peter. 2008. 'Labour@ESF Malmo September 2008: Work and/or Life?
Waterman, Peter. 2008. 'Needed: A Global Labour Charter Movement' ESF Malmo 0908):


CACIM (India Institute for Critical Action: Centre In Movement).
Choike. ‘About the World Social Forum’, http://www.choike. org/nuevo_eng/informes/4601.html
Decent Work, Decent Life.
E-Library for Social Transformation.
Global Labor Strategies.
Global Working Class Project.
International Trade Union Confederation.
New Unionism.
StreetNet International.
Union Ideas Network.