The Importance of Internationalism and Civil Rights

During the Cold War, many of the people with a radical vision of the world were driven out of our labor movement. Today, as unions search for answers about how to begin growing again, and regain the power workers need to defend themselves, the question of social vision has become very important. What is our vision in labor? What are the issues that we confront today that form a more radical vision for our era?

The labor movement worked hard to elect Barack Obama president and win a new Democratic majority in Congress in the hope of new possibilities for labor law reform, universal health care, immigration reform, and an end to the Iraq war. But to win even these reforms, promised by the Obama campaign, unions will have to do more than simply support the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Labor’s ability to move forward depends on finding a new and deeper relationship with its own members, and their willingness to fight for even a limited set of demands. Our history tells us that when workers have been inspired by a vision of real social change the labor movement grows in numbers, bargaining strength, and political power.


At the heart of any radical vision for our era is globalization—the way unions approach the operation of capitalism on an international scale. In the discussion that led to the creation of the Change to Win federation, the Service Employees made a proposal about how unions should conduct their international relationships. It called on unions to find partners in other countries, even to organize those unions, in order to face common employers. AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka said the same thing in New York ten years earlier, when John Sweeney was elected. At the time it represented a big change from the Cold War—that unions would cooperate with anyone willing to fight against our common employers. It rejected by implication the anticommunist ideology that put us on the side of employers and U.S. foreign policy, and shamed us before the world.

This idea is an example of pragmatic solidarity, and a good first step out of that Cold War past. But it is no longer radical enough to confront the new challenges of globalization—the huge displacement and migration of millions of people, the enormous gulf in the standard of living dividing developed from developing countries, and the wars fought to impose this system of global economic inequality. What’s missing is a response from the labor movement to U.S. foreign policy. International solidarity involves more than multinational corporations. Corporate globalization and military intervention are intertwined, and in the labor movement there’s hardly any discussion of their relationship. In the aftermath of 9/11 this led some unions into support for the “war on terror,” and eventually even into support for the Iraq invasion. Unless unions can begin to see military intervention and corporate globalization as part of the same system, many will support the war in Afghanistan, as a new and popular Democratic president calls for increased intervention.

Unions in the rest of the world are not simply asking us whether we will stand with them against General Electric, General Motors, or Mitsubishi. They want to know: What is your stand about aggressive wars, military intervention, and coups d’état? If we have nothing to say about these things, we will not have the trust and credibility we need to build new relationships of solidarity.

U.S. corporations operating in countries like Mexico and El Salvador are, in some ways, opportunistic. They take advantage of an existing economic system, and make it function to produce profits. They exploit the difference in wages from country to country, and require concessions from governments for setting up factories. But what causes the poverty in El Salvador that they exploit to their advantage? What drives a worker into a factory that we, in the United States, call a sweatshop? What role does U.S. policy play in creating that system of poverty?

Unions need the kind of discussion in which workers try to answer these questions. Labor education is more than technical training in techniques for grievance handling and collective bargaining. It has to be about politics, in the broadest and most radical sense. When unions don’t work with their members to develop a framework to answer these questions they become ineffective in fighting about the issues of peace and war, globalization, and their consequences, such as immigration.

When the AFL-CIO campaigned in Washington against the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), labor lobbyists went up to Capitol Hill to mobilize pressure on Congress. Some unions went to their local affiliates and asked members to make phone calls and write letters. But what was missing was education at the base. Had unions educated and mobilized their members against the Contra war in Nicaragua, and the counterinsurgency wars in El Salvador and Guatemala (and certainly many activists tried to do that), U.S. workers would have understood CAFTA much more clearly over a decade later. But because there’s so little effort to create a conscious, educated union membership, it will be hard to get members to act when labor’s lobbyists in Washington need their support in the upcoming battles over the Colombian and South Korean free trade agreements.

The root of this problem is a kind of American pragmatism that disparages education. We need to demand more from those who make the decisions and control the purse strings in our unions.

Since grinding poverty in much of the world is an incentive for moving production, defending the standard of living of workers around the world is as necessary as defending our own. The logic of inclusion in a global labor movement must apply as much to a worker in Iraq as it does to the non-union worker down the street. The debate over the Iraq war at the AFL-CIO convention in 2005 highlighted more than the effects of the war at home. It proposed that even in the face of U.S. military intervention, U.S. and Iraqi workers belong to the same global labor movement, and have to find common ground in opposing those policies that brought the war about.

The generation of antiwar, solidarity activists who were young marchers and war veterans during Vietnam, and rank-and-file militants during the Central American interventions, are today leading unions. Some of them may have forgotten those roots, but many have not. They’re tired of seeing their movement remain quiet when the U.S. military is used to prop up an economic system they’re fighting at home. The labor movement may be awash in internal dissention, but it has grown surprisingly united in opposition to the Iraq war. U.S. Labor Against the War, which started as a collection of small groups in a handful of unions, has today become a coalition of unions representing over a million members, and represents the thinking of an overwhelming majority. Its resolutions, passed in convention after convention, are the product of grassroots action at the bottom of the U.S. labor movement, not a directive from the top.

Iraqis themselves provided U.S. workers with a new way of looking at the occupation. Iraqi unemployment has been at 70 percent since it started. Order 30, issued by occupation czar Paul Bremer in September 2003 (and still in force), lowered the base wage in public enterprises, where most permanently employed Iraqis work, to thirty-five dollars a month, and ended subsidies for food and housing. Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987 to prohibit unions and collective bargaining in the public sector, was continued under the occupation. The current Iraqi government still forbids the Oil Ministry to formally recognize the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), seizes union bank accounts, and won’t allow unions to function normally.

Iraqi unions see these moves as a way to soften up workers to ensure they don’t resist the privatization of the country’s economy, especially its oil. Iraqi unions, especially the IFOU, are the backbone of the country’s popular movement against oil privatization, without which the multinational oil giants would have taken control of the industry long ago. In Iraq, as in most developing countries, privatization defies the tradition of social solidarity. Iraq needs its oil revenues to rebuild the country, creating a public sector that can put people to work and ensure a self-sustaining national economy.

Therefore, U.S. labor’s call for rapid withdrawal should mean more than just bringing U.S. soldiers home. It should put U.S. workers on the side of Iraqis as they resist the transformation of their country for the benefit of a wealthy global elite. This is a transformation happening in country after country. Iraq is a place where U.S. workers can see it clearly, if the labor movement would give them the information and material they need. They certainly won’t get it from the mainstream press, but they could get this education from their unions.

That education would help workers understand the political and economic objectives of war and intervention. It would help them understand the huge displacement of people caused by the effort to maintain this unjust system. And that, in turn, would help them understand why we see waves of those displaced people moving around the world, including coming to the United States.

Opposing the war means fighting for the self-interest of our members, and being able to identify that self-interest with the interest of workers in Iraq. The money that pays for the corrupt contracts with KBR and Blackwater is money that doesn’t get spent on schools here at home. We won’t have the money for the “New Deal-style economic recovery” programs that some unions are calling for, much less a full-employment economy, without peace. It’s that simple. And to imagine that we can produce millions of jobs at home, and keep people in their foreclosed homes, while fighting yet another war in Afghanistan, is a dangerous illusion.

Union members are not ignorant. They think about the issues of war and jobs all the time. They are becoming more sophisticated, and better at understanding the way global issues from war to trade affect the lives of people in the streets of U.S. cities. A more radical program of labor education would not be swimming against the tide, but with it.

At the same time, however, educating union members alone is not enough. A radical vision should address workers far beyond the formal ranks of organized labor. The percentage of union members is declining, and the organizations union members need to put their understanding into practice are getting smaller. Deeper political awareness alone will not create a larger labor movement.

Just after the Second World War, unions represented 35 percent of U.S. workers. It’s no coincidence that the McCarthy era, when the Cold War came to dominate the politics of unions, was the beginning of the decline. By 1975, after the Vietnam War, union membership had dropped to 26 percent. Today only 12 percent of all workers, and 8 percent in the private sector, are union members. Declining numbers translate into a decline in political power and economic leverage. California (with one-sixth of all union members) and New York have higher union density than any other states. But even here, labor is facing a war for political survival.

While the percentage of organized workers has declined, unions have made important progress in finding alternative strategic ideas to the old business unionism. If these ideas are developed and extended, they provide an important base for making unions stronger and embedding them more deeply in working-class communities. But it’s a huge job. Raising the percentage of organized workers in the United States from just 12 to 13 percent would mean organizing over a million people. Only a social movement can organize people on this scale.

The importance of gaining a fairer process for winning union recognition and collective bargaining agreements, and imposing real penalties on employers for anti-union firings, puts the Employee Free Choice Act deservedly at the center of labor’s political agenda. But a legal process alone will not create strong unions. Only a movement among workers themselves, in which rank-and-file members play a much more active role, can build unions that will survive an employer offensive, and that can fight effectively for social reforms from single-payer health care to true legalization and equality for immigrants.

In addition to labor law reform and structural reforms to make unions more effective, the labor movement needs a program that will inspire people to organize on their own. Unions need to lose their fear of radical demands, and reject the constant argument that any proposal that can’t get through Congress next year is not worth fighting for. One big part of that program is peace. Another is reordering economic priorities.

Today working-class people have to fight just to keep their homes. For the last several decades, many were driven out of cities to lower-cost suburbs, often disproportionately workers of color. Now the families lured into unpayable mortgages are losing their homes to the banks. This certainly calls for a return to the direct action of an earlier era. If we don’t mobilize to keep our members in their homes, what good are we? But beyond direct action, unions and central labor councils need to have a concrete program for economic development, housing, and jobs. That would start to give us something we lack, a compelling vision, and a militant movement in the streets demanding action.

That’s where millions of people have been for three May Days in a row now, in the largest outpourings since the 1930s. To its credit, the labor movement helped raise the expectations of immigrants when the AFL-CIO passed a resolution in Los Angeles in 1999, putting forward a radical new program—amnesty for the undocumented, ending employer sanctions, reunification of families, and protecting the rights of all people, especially the right to organize. The marches and movements of immigrant workers of the last decade demonstrate convincingly the power of a radical political vision.

Congress, however, moved in a different direction, criminalizing work and migration, and proposing huge guest worker programs. While the Congressional bills failed, states passed laws that are even worse. Mississippi made it a state felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, with prison terms of up to ten years. And the Bush administration simply began implementing by executive order the enforcement and guest worker measures it couldn’t get through Congress. In the wave of raids that followed, hundreds of workers, including union members, have gone to jail on bogus criminal charges of identity theft for inventing a Social Security number. And when non-union workers have stood up for a union or a higher wage, raids have been used to terrorize them.

It is time for the labor movement to fight to stop this wave of antiworker repression, and propose a freedom agenda for immigrants that will give them rights and status equal to other workers on the job and with their neighbors in their communities. Instead of holding its finger to the political winds, unions have to convince the new administration that passing such a program is not only politically possible, but politically necessary.

Instead of an alliance with employers based on political calculations, winning immigrant rights requires an alliance between unions, immigrants, and other communities of color. The common ground for building that alliance is linking immigrant rights to a real jobs program and full-employment economy, with affirmative action that can come to grips with the devastation in communities of color, especially African-American communities. And without challenging the wars, the resources for building that alliance will be lost on guns and more intervention.

The labor movement must inspire people with a broader vision of what is possible. Workers’ standard of living is declining, and they often have to choose between paying their rent or mortgage, and going to the doctor. There’s something fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society. Workers know it, and unions have to be courageous enough to say it.
Working families need a decent wage, but they also need the promise of a better world. For as long as we’ve had unions, workers have shown they’ll struggle for the future of their children and their communities, even when their own future seems in doubt. But it takes a radical social vision to inspire that wave of commitment, idealism, and activity.

It’s happened before. The 1920s were filled with company unions, violence, strikebreakers, and the open shop. A decade later, those obstacles were swept away. An upsurge of millions in the 1930s, radicalized by the depression and left-wing politics, forced corporate acceptance of the labor movement for the first time in the country’s history. Changes taking place in our unions and communities today can be the beginning of something as large and profound. With more radicalism and imagination, the obstacles we face can become historical relics as quickly as did those of an earlier era.