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Multiple Fragments--Strengths or Weaknesses? Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity

  • Purdue University Northwest, Westville, Indiana


This article theorizes global labor solidarity for the first time as far as I know. It includes a conceptualization of imperialism that goes beyond Marxist efforts. It focuses on building global labor solidarity, giving history of solidarity efforts, motivations for solidarity, discusses solidarity across different levels of domination, presents scope of global labor solidarity and its multiple actors, and notes different levels of global labor solidarity. After presenting theorization of global labor solidarity, it identifies nine different types of global labor solidarity carried out to date, and provides suggestive references for each.
Multiple Fragments—Strength or Weakness?
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity1
--Kim Scipes
After five labor movements played leading roles in overthrowing dictatorships and
greatly expanding popular democracy during the mid-1980s to early 1990s,2 labor movements
are again emerging in a number of countries across the Global South, including China, Egypt and
Iran. Further, new developments are taking place within labor movements in places such as
Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa and Venezuela.
How do we understand these developments, and how can working people and/or their
organizations support these movements?
Although there has been a considerable amount of writing and thinking about
international labor solidarity over the years—see, in particular, Bieler, 2014; Bieler and
Lindberg, eds., 2011; Bieler, Lindberg and Pillay, eds., 2008; Cornfield and McCammon, eds.,
2003; Evans, 2010, 2014; Featherstone, 2012; Hanagan, ed., 2003; Hathaway, 2000; Kay, 2005,
2011, 2015; Moody, 1997; Munck, 2010; Nissen, ed., 2002; Roman and Velasco Arregui, 2013;
Scipes, 1988, 2000a; Scipes, ed., 2014; Waterman, 1998; Waterman and Wills, eds., 2001; and
references to articles therein—so far there is no theory of global labor solidarity (Scipes, 2014a;
Waterman, 1998). This article is an attempt to overcome this deficiency, proposing a theory of
global labor solidarity, so as to help inform projects designed to support workers wherever in the
world they may be struggling for a better future.
This chapter argues that we need to need to build solidarity among and with workers,
both locally and globally. To do this, we need to do three specific things:
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First, we in the US need to extend our conceptualization of solidarity beyond the nation-
state to include workers around the world. We Americans need to recognize that there are other
countries in the world that matter—in fact, each country matters—in addition to the United
Key to this is the necessity of recognizing the existence of a global level of power
networks (i.e., there is a level of power that exists above each nation state, encompassing all
nation states), whereby one nation state seeks to dominate others. Accordingly, we must directly
confront the concept of “imperialism,” which is used herein to represent empirical reality and is
not used as a rhetorical term. Confronting imperialism has a number of practical consequences;
most importantly, it distinguishes different levels of political domination.
For American workers, we need to confront the fact that the United States is, in fact, the
heartland of a global empire (the US Empire) that seeks to dominate the other nations of the
world. Rarely put so clearly, you can find the truth in this as analysts refer to the United States as
the sole “superpower,” “the hegemon” of the global system, or the leader of a uni-polar world:
these all add up to the reality that the US has been trying to dominate the world since at least the
end of World War II (many argue it goes back to at least 1898), and it continues to try to
dominate the world today.
This is bad for workers and poor people around the world. It sometimes leads to the US
overthrowing democratically elected governments or supporting military/political coups, as most
recently in Honduras (2009), Egypt (2013) and Ukraine (2014); it often leads to the US
supporting dictatorships and other repressive regimes—each which oppose genuine labor
organizations; and it usually leads to adoption of economic development models that attack
workers and peasants, leaving them poor and impoverished, while supporting foreign and
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 3
domestic investment that is designed to benefit only respective elites and corporate
It is also bad for American workers and poor people: besides engendering a culture of
militarism and US nationalism, which celebrates violence while undermining personal freedom
and liberty, the money spent by the US for its military to try to dominate the world means that
money cannot be spent on creating jobs, providing health care and education, rebuilding our
infrastructure, addressing climate change, etc., here in the US. It also undermines any real form
of democracy in our country: empire is counterposed to popular democracy.3 Thus, US elites can
either try to dominate the world, or they can take care of people in our country: they cannot do
both. It is argued herein that we Americans and good people around the world need to reject
empire, and all efforts by the US or any other country to dominate anyone else in the world.
Second, we need to focus on “solidarity.” Working people traditionally have challenged
different levels of domination through the concept of “solidarity.” We seek to build solidarity
among and with all workers of the world, not only to support workers challenging domination
within their own specific workplace or particular nation state, but also to challenge domination
of the world by any nation state or group of nation states. This chapter focuses on solidarity,
discussing the historical emergence of international labor solidarity, motivations of solidarity,
solidarity across different political levels of domination, and the scope of global labor solidarity,
with multiple actors. It then proposes different levels of global labor solidarity.
And third, and finally, we need to build global labor solidarity with working people
around the world. Key to this, which this chapter presents, is developing a theoretical
understanding of global labor solidarity. This is followed by presenting nine different types of
such solidarity, each which has been identified and built globally over the past 20 or so years. It
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cautions that global labor solidarity is both a process and a strategy, but is not an end in itself.
Further, it argues that global labor solidarity must be developed in conjunction with other global
movements, including those of women, students, peasants, the urban poor, indigenous, etc.
Ultimately, however, it sees strengths in this multiplicity of efforts, not weakness.
While editing a thematic issue for Working USA on “Global Labor Solidarity,”4 this author was
asked by other labor activists why was he focusing on international labor issues: “why not focus
on North America, where our unions are in bad shape and really need help?”
Putting the choices this way—into an “either/or” dichotomy between the local and global
—distorts the issue. The answer need not to be one or the other, forcing researchers to focus on
either the global or the local, but involves both and the interaction between the two. In other
words, instead of “either/or,” a better approach is “both/and.”
That our unions in North America are in bad shape does not mean there is only one way
to address the problem.
Business Unionism
Despite the massive amount of thinking/researching/writing by both labor activists and scholars
that has been done and published—particularly between 1995 and about 20125—there has been
all-too-little innovation that has taken place in our unions, especially in the United States (see
Buhle, 1999; see also Fletcher and Gapasin, 2008).6 It is uncertain how much of this the new
literature has been read by labor leaders at all levels, or even union research directors, whom one
would assume/hope would be drawing leadership attention to important studies. Union
insurgents seeking to revitalize labor, and/or those seeking union office might have visited this
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research but, even then, it’s not certain even how much they are reading/considering. It does not
seem a rash statement to say there is a huge gap between what scholars and activists have found,
and what the labor movement has done to take advantage of this recently-created knowledge.
Tied to that, however, is similarity. With few exceptions—the ILWU (International
Longshore and Warehouse Union) and the UE (United Electrical workers) come immediately to
mind, at least in some ways, but there may be a few others—trade unionism in the US is
generally practiced similarly; what we see is the implementation of “business unionism.”
Business unionism is not new in this country, as it goes back to the late 1800s, a specific product
of craft unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In many cases in the past, it has
succeeded brilliantly, at least economically: unionized American workers once had the highest
standard of living of any workers in the world.
The problem with business unionism, however, is that it is a very narrow form of trade
unionism (see Roman and Arregui, 2013: 103-05; Scipes, 2003, 2014d), and it provides no vision
other than “more of the same” to its members, despite de-accelerating rates of economic growth,
massive expansion of US militarism, and worsening of economic and social conditions in the US
(as well as around the world). It focuses on improving the wages, benefits and working
conditions of its own members, with little or no consideration for other working people, and how
unions’ struggles might affect them, negatively or positively. In fact, this form of unionism not
only has alienated Labor from many of its allies, but because it has often operated hierarchically
within the union—with power generated at the top and then projected downward toward the
members—it has alienated many of its own members; relatively few former union members who
have lost their jobs over the years, for any one of a myriad of reasons, have tried to unionize their
subsequent workplaces (see Buhle, 1999; Fletcher and Gapasin, 2008).
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This approach has led to a plunging rate of unionization: private sector unionization in
the United States at the end of 2014 (latest data available) is at 6.6 percent, which is
approximately what it was in the year 1900; public sector unionism is at 35.7 percent. This gives
a total unionization rate of 11.1 percent, about one-third of its high point in 1954.7
Arguably, the largest reason for this plunge in unionization rate is the on-going and
intensifying attacks on labor, especially by corporations and corporate-related interests (see
Bluestone and Harrison, 1982; Harrison and Bluestone, 1988; detailed in particular struggles, for
example, in Ashby and Hawking, 2009; Rhomberg, 2012).8 This has been supported if not
initiated by various levels of governments, especially at the territorial state level. This has been
joined by a diminution of interest in working people and especially unions by politicians and the
media, and particularly a lack of support for the work of the National Labor Relations Board and
its efforts to provide a relatively fair process for unionization, as well as direct attacks on it by
conservative politicians and judges. Combined with that—and more—is the escalating off-
shoring of production, while replacing remaining workers with new technology whenever
feasible.9 Added to that are widening attacks on labor—such as in Indiana, Michigan and
Wisconsin (for the latter, see Buhle and Buhle, eds., 2011; Yates, ed., 2012). The labor
“movement” in the US has been under direct assault for more than 40 years—see, among others,
Bluestone and Harrison, 1982; Early, 2009, 2013; Fletcher and Gapasin, 2008; Goldfield, 1987;
Greenhouse, 2008; Harrison and Bluestone, 1988; Scipes, 1984, 2009.
However, what must also be put into the equation—one “thing” most labor advocates do
not want to do—is that we must recognize the all-but-total failure of national-level labor
leadership to counter this attack.10 As Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui point out:
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The union movement prepared the ground for its own defeat and that of
the working class by an almost exclusive focus on the economic interests of its
own members and the neglect, if not the abandonment, for fighting for class-wide
interests. This model of unionism did not grasp the ideological and political
character of the class war unleashed on the working class by neo-liberalism. Most
unions continued to respond in narrow, sectoral ways that did not promote class-
wide solidarity and consciousness. These policies isolated unionized workers
from the non-unionized poor and precariously employed whose interests seemed
marginal to unions. This narrow approach to workers’ struggles unintentionally
facilitated the divide-and-rule attacks of the corporate offense. It left both the
organized and unorganized sectors of the working class vulnerable to isolation
from each other, as the corporate offensive picked them off segment by segment,
private versus public, ‘respectable’ workers versus the stigmatized poor, citizen
versus non-citizen. The narrow, economistic and sectional focus of most unions
contributed to the demise of solidarity and class consciousness (Roman and
Velasco Arregui, 2013: 63).
These labor “leaders” have no idea as to how to stop or even restrict the escalating attacks
on Labor, much less how to counterattack. Their sole “response” is to depend even more heavily
on the Democratic Party, whose leaders—such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—have either
attacked Labor (through NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement) or have failed to
keep promises to help the movement (e.g., the Employee Free Choice Act).11 However, not only
have top-level labor leaders not had any clue about how to mobilize their people to fight back
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and then take to the offense, but senior leadership has collaborated—behind the backs, without
the consent, but in the name of their members—with top-level governmental and corporate
“leaders” against workers around the world, projecting and maintaining the US Empire against
numerous challenges (Scipes, 2010a, b, 2015; see also Bass, 2012; Buhle, 1999; Cox and Bass,
2012; Rahman and Langford, 2014; Sims, 1992).
Thus, we’ve seen an almost complete immobilization of domestic Labor, whether by
attack, lack of imagination, or connivance. This has not only been a tragedy for unions and their
members, but it has affected millions of people across our country.
It is time for activists, lower level officials and union staffers to join together to revive
the US labor movement. We need to join together with and organize American workers and
allies to build labor solidarity at home.12 We also need to drop our sense of American
superiority, and unite with workers around the world, to learn from them, to support them and
their struggles as we seek their support, and to build worker power globally to fight for a better
world for all. It is clear that we can no longer wait for senior level leadership to inspire workers
to fight for a better world; we need to initiate change from below.
Domination: From the Individual to the Global
To make sense of the following, we have to shift gears, and take a trip “around the tree” (as
opposed to going in a straight line). As a professional sociologist, when people ask a very
common question, “what is sociology?,” I cannot provide a simple answer. The major reason is
that any society (or societies) is too incredibly complex to answer simply. Also, sociologists look
at different levels of society, and each has a different perspective. We also are not trained the
same way, we’re trained at different times, and our theoretical approaches vary extensively. Plus,
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not only our professors but each of us bring our different skills, knowledges and experiences to
the task, as well as our various interpretations of each. In short, there is not one simple answer to
the question.
Still, especially when teaching students who are starting out in the field, taking an
“Introduction to Sociology” course, this issue must be directly addressed. So, it is pointed out
that there are three levels of understanding: macrosociology, which looks at the big picture;
mesosociology, which looks at the intermediate picture; and microsociology, which focuses in on
the smallest interactions, even as limited as between two people or between one person and
her/his personal communication device. (These are relative terms, but they give some idea of
their scope of interest for each level.) This researcher’s work focuses on the macrosociological
level; i.e., the “big picture.”13
With that delineated, students are told that each person is located within a network of
power relations that extend from the individual to the family, to the neighborhood/community, to
the town or city, to the state/province, to the nation, and to the world. (These networks of power
are represented by an expanding ring of circles, from the individual outward, but one can add or
subtract levels as deemed appropriate; there are approximately six different levels of power
relations in which each person is embedded.) The impact of one or more of these power
networks on any individual varies by the situation under consideration. Further, individuals are
socialized to accept domination by each of these networks, initially by our parents/family
members, but also, over time, by school, church, peers, bosses and often work mates, etc.
However, each person has the personal power to decide—at each level—whether to accept the
socialization given us, reject it, or accept some and/or to modify the rest—and yes, there are
consequences to the decisions, but each person can make these decisions.14
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So, in short, there are approximately six different levels of power relations that affect
each of us, and we each can decide how we want to respond. Obviously, the more people that
challenge domination at any one level, the more room to maneuver at that level, especially as
they join together collectively, ultimately affecting the chances of developing counter-power
against the status quo, and increasing opportunities to make social change.
However, while it is doubtful that things are often put out this clearly, nonetheless and
over time, people get a sense of different levels of power networks in any society, and often
understand how they are affected by each.
Unfortunately, though, we are cheated: even when delineated this clearly, rarely does the
analysis include the global level. Think about how Americans are taught US History in school:
we are taught that the US is “exceptional,” that the US is better than other countries, and thus
does not have to act with the standards and mores of the other countries of the world. Historians
even have a formal name for this: “American Exceptionalism.” And this presentation, this
argument, is designed to separate Americans from the other peoples and countries of the world
(see McCoy, 2015).
The fact of the matter is that while the United States is an amazing country—as probably
is each country of the world—it is not “exceptional” in this sense: it has strengths and it has
weaknesses, just like any other country. And by honestly looking at these strengths and
weaknesses, we can compare this country to the strengths and weaknesses of others, and evaluate
But one thing is for certain: the United States is not separate from the other countries of
the world. The US has been a global project from the arrival of the first Europeans until today,
effecting the world and being affected by it.
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Yet, while all of this is true, this is not taught in our schools, especially in K-12 schools,
and probably not at most colleges and universities. So, in effect, American students are denied
knowledge of something that should be included in each of their educations: understanding the
global level of power networks because, while distant to each one of us, events at the global level
can and often do affect each of us on an individual level.15
However, there is even a larger issue when focusing on the global level. Americans in
general have been taught to think of the United States as just another country, a geographically-
based nation state, consisting of 50 territorial states. We are taught that the US has always been a
benign power on the global level. However, the reality is that especially since World War II, the
US has tried to dominate the world. Limited initially by the Soviet Union and its Empire until it
disintegrated in 1991, but generally unfettered afterward, the US elites were able to actively try
to dominate the world, and were generally able to do so until President George W. Bush invaded
Iraq in March 2003.
This reality—seeking to dominate the world—means that it must be recognized that the
United States is not just a country, but is the heartland of the US Empire. Now, admittedly, the
US Empire is different from the Roman Empire, which was based on conquering and
incorporating territories; the US has discovered that political and especially economic control of
other countries is generally more efficient and less costly than territorial expansion, and has
operated accordingly (see, among others, Blum, 2000; Chomsky, 2003; Grandin, 2007; Johnson,
2000; Klein, 2007; McCoy, 2009; Nederveen Pieterse, 1989, 2004, 2008; Robinson, 1996;
Scipes, 1984, 2010a; Stone and Kuznick, 2012).16
However, by not including the global level of power networks, US elites have been able
to preclude discussion by most Americans about the United States’ role globally: our incredible
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and all-but-uncontrolled spending on military equipment that is intended to kill—in 2014, the US
spent almost three times as much as China, and almost as much that year as the next 13 then-
closest military “competitors” combined, and at a level comparable in real terms as during the
late 1980s, before the Soviet Union collapsed (Perlo-Freeman, et. al., 2015); as well as global
surveillance networks (as revealed by Edward Snowden); and US willingness to act as “the
police force of the world.” It also means the vast resources, especially money and people, used
for global dominance cannot be used to address needs and concerns of Americans like providing
jobs, health care, education, infrastructure, dealing with climate change, etc. So, of course, US
elites do not want most Americans to consider the US in a global context, as they might not
accept the political, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual costs of the US Empire, and the
elites fear the resulting dissent that might emerge domestically should that happen.
In other words, US elites do not want Americans to ever consider the global level power
networks but, should they do so nonetheless, they should never try to understand post-World
War II US behavior though the concept of “empire,” even though it is the most appropriate
This author disagrees. Not only should Americans recognize these global power
networks, but he argues that we cannot understand US global behavior since WW II without
using this concept of the US Empire.
Further, this author argues—as mentioned above—that efforts to try to dominate the rest
of the world has had deleterious affects, especially upon those attacked, but also on Americans,
and especially working people in this country. In short, the US has the resources to try to
dominate the rest of the world, or to take care of Americans: it cannot do both (see Scipes, 2009).
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Accordingly, this author rejects the elites’ approach, arguing we need to reclaim and
understand global power networks, using the concept of empire, and recognizing that building
global labor solidarity is natural, not an aberration; i.e., of course, we should build labor
solidarity, globally as well as locally, as it is one of the best ways to challenge the empire.
To be able to do this, however, we must understand, really understand, the concept of
Imperialism: A Conceptualization17
The term “imperialism” generally refers to dominative relations between countries that take
place at the nation-state level. These dominative relations are often hidden by euphemistic
language used in academia, and certainly in public discourse—such as “mutual defense”—that
hide the nature of these relationships. Nonetheless, imperialism is based on the understanding
that all nations do not have equal political–economic power, that they have differing levels of
power, and that the stronger dominates or will try to dominate the weaker when the weaker does
not acquiesce to the stronger on its own. Traditionally, this domination takes place specifically
across nation-state borders—as distinct from domination within the same nation-state—and has
developed for the benefit of the specific nation-state that is dominating one or more other
countries. Another way to think about this is as an oppressor–oppressed relationship between
different nations.
It has been the Marxists who are generally seen as having developed the concept of
imperialism to the greatest degree. Lenin, in his important theoretical understanding, claims that
imperialism is “the highest stage of capitalism” (Lenin 1916/1987).
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However, this approach collapses the motivation for imperialism to economic gain; that
is, it approaches imperialism economistically.18 Additionally, Lenin and subsequent Marxist
writers have located imperialism at the level of the nation-state only; they have argued
imperialism results when one nation-state dominates another.
The path-breaking work of Dutch scholar Jan Nederveen Pieterse challenges Marxist
interpretations, arguing that imperialism is domination extended across political community
borders (Nederveen Pieterse, 1989). And he develops the concept of imperialism far beyond that
of the Marxists.
A political community usually refers to a nation-state; however, while including nation-
states in this category, Nederveen Pieterse’s understanding of imperialism extends beyond the
nation-state level. He recognizes that because of external domination during past history, groups
who share common culture, traditions, languages, and political organization (i.e., “political
communities”) may have been incorporated within the boundaries of other political communities.
Examples of this include Native American nations having been incorporated into the US and
Canada, the Palestinians into Israel, the Kurds into Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, and certainly
this is also true of the indigenous peoples around the world. Thus, instead of ignoring these
peoples or making them irrelevant by confining the understanding of imperialism to only nation-
states, Nederveen Pieterse broadens the conception of imperialism to include the domination of
one political community over another, and this can exist within the current boundaries of a
nation-state: these cross-political community border relationships are based in unequal power
relations, with the stronger dominating the weaker.
In addition, Nederveen Pieterse extends the concept of imperialism “vertically” to include
different levels of domination. He not only focuses on dominative relations at the nation-state
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level, but he includes dominative relations at levels higher and lower than the nation-state level.
For example, at the suprastate level (at a level higher than nation-states/political communities),
dominative relations can be established, such as between the United Nations (UN) and people of
any particular country (such as UN “peacekeeping forces” and Haitian slum dwellers). Likewise,
dominative relations can be established at a substate level (at a lower level), such as between a
labor organization in the US and labor organizations in other countries. In other words,
Nederveen Pieterse not only expands the concept of imperialism on a horizontal axis through
broadening it to include domination across political community borders, but he also extends it
vertically by including different levels of domination.
Further, Nederveen Pieterse’s is not an economistic view of imperialism. It recognizes
that the motivation for imperialism has at least two possible origins: yes, like the Marxists have
argued, imperialism can be initiated for economic gain, that is, profit. Additionally, though,
Nederveen Pieterse recognizes that imperial domination also can be implemented to achieve
political power in the global realm, such as through geostrategic positioning, and through
mobilizing and/or controlling social forces in other countries for the benefit of the imperialist
force. And, while these two aspects of imperialism can be separated for analytical purposes, in
reality, they are often in some combination. Thus, the issue is not a dichotomous categorization
and choice between economics or politics, but rather is a search for primacy at any one time and/
or situation: in some situations, economic motivations may be primary with political ones
secondary, and in others, political control may be primary, and economic ones secondary.
At the same time, however, the concept of imperialism is not just limited to politics or
economics. It can refer to any activities that seek to dominate other groups across political
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community boundaries, and this can be on the cultural level, the spiritual level, the social level,
In short, Nederveen Pieterse’s conceptualization of imperialism is much more
sophisticated, more accurate, and, as shown below, provides a much more robust understanding
of imperialism than do Marxist explanations; it is the understanding used herein.19
Practical Consequences of Understanding Imperialism
Again, imperialism is based on the understanding that all political communities do not have
equal political–economic power, that they have differing levels of power, and that the stronger
dominates or will try to dominate the weaker when the weaker does not acquiesce to the stronger
on its own. This term is not being used rhetorically, but to describe empirical reality (Nederveen
Pieterse, 1989).
This understanding—that the term imperialism is used to describe empirical reality—has
practical consequences. It gets to the heart of the differentiation between countries seen as
“developed,” and those seen as “developing.”
Analysts commonly divide all countries in the world into two categories: developed and
developing countries—and while these relationships currently are changing and are in flux, this
is one way to begin. The “developed” countries are those of Western Europe, the US, Canada,
Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and their respective populations have a qualitative higher
standard of living than those of the “developing” countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and
the Middle East.
Why do a few countries have a higher standard of living than most? The reason is that,
through military might and colonization, they stole the natural resources, raw materials and, in
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some cases, the peoples of these militarily weaker lands of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the
Middle East, and brought them back to the imperialist “home” country, to be used for the latter’s
development.20 Along with this, the imperialist countries forced colonized countries to provide
military bases and troops to help maintain imperial domination in subjugated and neighboring
Accordingly, for example, the US industrialized, and industrialized as quickly and
thoroughly as it did, off the stolen lands of Native Americans (and later, those of Mexico, Hawaii
and Alaska), and immense profits that were derived off the labor and bodies of African slaves
(for the latter, see Baptist, 2014), allowing capitalists to build factories and provide millions of
jobs for European immigrants, who then were super-exploited to create huge profits, for
consumption and further investments.22 Out of the great wealth generated by these processes,
some was channeled into raising the general standards of living—although delivered on a
racially stratified basis—which included providing for public education, public health, roads and
highways, etc., as well as financing later the most powerful military and dominating force
(including the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA) that the world has ever seen.
However, this wealth was not shared to any great extent with working people in this
country until after World War II. It was only after industrial unionism was established in the
1930s and ‘40s, and then striking to prove a political point that this wealth had to be shared if the
corporations wanted the production to expand globally—over 116,000,000 days of production
were lost to strikes in the first year after the war, as North American-wide strikes took place in
auto, steel, meatpacking, and the electrical parts industries, along with similar strikes in
particular firms across the US and Canada, and general strikes took place in cities like Stamford,
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Connecticut and Oakland, California (Lipsitz, 1994; Murolo and Chitty, 2001; see Scipes, 2009)
—that unions had established themselves as a socio-economic power in US life.
During the post-World War II period, and especially after the US-supported military coup
in Brazil in 1964, US capital—later followed by Western European and Japanese capital—
expanded into the “third world” on a qualitatively more extensive basis than ever before, initially
targeting Latin America. (This was in addition to expansion beyond the previously high levels
existing in other already “developed” countries.)
This influx of capital—seeking enhanced profit opportunities, and/or access to raw
materials and natural resources; as well as being efforts to soak up excess labor, preluding or
reducing chances that people would take the Cuban “revolutionary option” and/or to prevent
expansion of “revolutionary” states—led to the further development of “national capital” that, in
turn, and often with foreign partners, financed industrialization in some of these “developing”
countries (see Petras and Engbarth, 1988). The exporting of capital expanded with a shift into a
number of countries in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, and then into China in the 1990s (see
Dicken, 2003; McMichael, 2011).23
This large scale entry of capital into a number of these “developing” countries has, in
turn, resulted in these countries developing economically to the extent that some of their
corporations can complete today with “developed” country corporations, both at home and, in
some cases, in the developed countries.24 These countries also are showing—especially when
acting in concert—that they can challenge politically the ambitions of the developed countries;
e.g., the defeat of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in 2005 as advocated by the United
States, along with Canada and Mexico (see Dobrusin, 2014, 2016).
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 19
While trade unions have long existed in various developing countries’ ports, railroads and
shipping industries (see, for example, Cohen, Gutkind and Brazier, eds., 1979), this intensified
development had led to the expansion of independent unions in a number of countries such as
Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa and South Korea (see, for example, Southall,
1988; for the Philippines, see Scipes, 1996, 1999).25
This combination of economic development in some developing countries, and changes
in relations—at least in part—between developing and developed countries, along with
expansion of unions within and across these countries, has led to a shift in power relations within
the global labor movement.26
Using the empirical reality of imperialism as a starting point to help understand the global
situation today, and after delineating the different levels of domination that extended across
political community boundaries around the globe, it is now time to try to understand how
workers and their organizations have tried to overcome these divisions to support workers
around the world.
There is no theory of global labor solidarity to date, so what people who are trying to build
international labor solidarity are working off of is a moral prescription, initially made by the
French socialist, Flora Tristan, but more famously by Marx and Engels: “Workers of the World,
Unite!” (Armbruster-Sandoval, 2013: 614). Can we give this more grounding?
Historical Development of “International” Labor Solidarity
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 20
Before discussing what global labor solidarity “is” today, it seems important to at least
acknowledge understandings of it in the past. For that, we turn to the work of Peter Waterman
(1998), who approaches the subject via the concept of internationalism. Waterman argues that
internationalism developed in response to capitalists’ efforts to cross national borders, usually to
try to undercut workers’ efforts to collectively organize and limit or prohibit capitalist production
in the home country. Workers organized across national borders to keep the capitalists from
playing workers in one country against workers in another, harming workers in both countries;
hence, the term “international labor solidarity.”
Most forms of this cross-border solidarity took place in Europe, at least initially. Yet as
worker activists came to understand that capitalism expanded through colonial subjugation and
acquisition into those countries of the so-called developing world of Africa, Asia, Latin America
and the Middle East—and here, Marxists played a key role in developing this understanding (see
especially Lenin, 1916; but see also Post, 1997)—then these activists (and their organizations)
recognized the importance of building solidarity between workers in the so-called developed
countries and those in the developing countries. As Ken Post (1997: 1) so well put it, “the
‘colonial and semi-colonial’ periphery [i.e., the developing countries-KS] … still remains the
soft underbelly of an otherwise triumphant capitalism.”
Accordingly, 27
In the nineteenth century, Marxists presented labour and socialist
internationalism as internationalism, or at least as the primary internationalism,
with all others subordinate to it. Anti-capitalist internationalism was understood
as the negation of nationalism. . . . The aim of such an internationalism was the
creation of a world socialist community, understood as the desirable and
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 21
necessary future society, one which would replace hostile relations between
nation- states with peaceful co-operation. It was understood that there was one
bearer of such internationalism, the industrial proletariat (Waterman 1998: 1).
After critiquing the statist turn that this took in the twentieth century, Waterman (1998: 2)
then suggests that we could have an alternative concept, “drawing on the nineteenth- and
twentieth-century values of liberty, equality and solidarity.” And he argues quite strongly for the
creation of new internationalisms (plural).28
Waterman gives us an important understanding when he argues that “[a] contemporary
internationalism—based on recognition of the interconnections between capitalism, racism,
sexism, statism, etc.—would need to be at least implicitly critical of all of these” (Waterman
1998: 51). However, his most important point regards “solidarity”:
By solidarity, I mean a community of interests, feelings and actions. This
is the more general ethical value and human relationship underlying
internationalism. International solidarity should be taken to mean not only an
expression or striving for human identity, but also reciprocity (mutual advantage),
affinity (shared feelings), complementarity (differential contribution), and
substitutionism (taking the part or place of the other) (Waterman 1998: 52).29
In other words, the decision to act in solidarity with workers across political
community boundaries can be across any political community boundary, and is not
limited to only imperialist country boundaries; these decisions to build solidarity can be
made by workers in any political community and can be made toward workers at any
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 22
political level.30 However, individuals who work to build cross-boundary solidarity can
also work to build communities of solidarity in their own home country, to create
solidarity with workers and allies at home, while eventually seeking to win organizational
support for the project of building global labor solidarity (see Nastovski, 2016).
Accordingly, recognizing these relationships can develop in any direction, we need a
change in terminology. Previous efforts to build cross-border labor solidarity, especially in the
post- World War II period, have been done under the rubric of international labor solidarity.
When this has happened, much of this has been between two labor movements at a time, and has
generally proceeded from the stronger to the weaker, in a clientelistic manner than a solidaristic
one, and this has generally been from labor movements in the Global North toward labor
movements in the Global South (see Waterman 1998). And that is when this “solidarity” was not
really labor imperialism (see Scipes, 2010a, 2010b, 2015).
This author (Scipes, 2014a: 150-151) believes that we are in a new period, when labor
solidarity can include multiple labor movements, workers’ organizations and/or their allies, can
originate in the South or the North, and be directed toward either southern or northern labor
movements, workers’ organizations and/or their allies, and is based on respectful, solidaristic
relations. Accordingly, he argues that these efforts should be considered global labor solidarity
to differentiate them from previous efforts. Following, therefore, it is suggested we change our
terminology for this cross-border solidarity from international labor solidarity to global labor
Motivations of Solidarity
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 23
Even though we argue for the use of the term “global labor solidarity,” we have to address the
concept of solidarity. Waterman defines solidarity as “a community of interests, feelings and
actions.” This does not seem sufficient: it seems to be what Waterman would like it to be (i.e., a
normative prescription)—and perhaps what each of us would like it to be—but it leaves out what
often is. In other words, this author sees there being a continuum of motivations for building
solidarity, and these range from pure self-interest to pure altruism, with many in-between
However, if one reads Waterman closely, there is an implicit assumption included in his
definition: he writes as though solidarity, this “community of interests,” already exists. This
author believes this needs to be reconsidered. Following Alberto Melucci (1989, 1995), it is
argued that solidarity must be constructed, not assumed to be already existent.32 Accordingly,
one never reaches a solid state of “solidarity-ness,” but that energy must continuously be devoted
towards creating solidarity or at least, towards maintaining it (see Scipes, 2012: 304-305).
Nonetheless, there are many calls for “solidarity” that are designed to meet one’s own
self-interest (as individual and/or organization), and have nothing really to do with the altruism
or even the mutuality suggested by such a historically-based term. Basically, these are pleas for
assistance on one’s own terms, with no intention of reciprocity: “please help me pull my
chestnuts out of the fire, and I’ll be eternally grateful.” And then after the “crisis” ends, “thank
you very much.” We can label this kind of “solidarity” as “self-interested” solidarity.33
Mutual solidarity suggests that we will each present our views of the situation, including
honestly recognizing our own self-interest, and deciding that we can gain more—including
developing feelings of satisfaction through having helped someone else while helping ourselves
—by working together for our mutual benefit. Mutual solidarity also enables continuation in hard
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 24
times. Perhaps by working together we can gain more of what we want than we can by working
on our own, and yet by working together, we not only can get more of what we want but we can
build trust over time that we can again establish mutual solidarity in the future. In other words,
development of mutual solidarity enables us to learn who we can trust, it allows us to be
confident that we won’t get “used” in the future, and it gives us confidence over time that we can
speak freely and know it won’t get used against us.
And finally, there is “altruistic” solidarity, where one sacrifices one’s self-interest for the
good of others. This does not often happen in the real world, although obviously it is very
inspiring to see it when it happens. This type of solidarity, even when it happens, is often limited
by one’s collective evaluation of how much can be given, and of course, that is often dependent
on the understanding of the situation in which it takes place.34
A clear example of this in the relatively recent past took place among workers of ILWU
(International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Local 10 members in San Francisco during
1984. After much internal organizing and education within the Local about apartheid and the
situation at that time in southern Africa, members collectively decided they were not going to
handle any cargo headed for or shipped from apartheid South Africa. After a Dutch ship, the
Nedloyd Kimberly, docked with cargo for South Africa, longshoremen (“dockers”) unloaded
other cargo on the ship but they refused to unload the South African-bound cargo, each
sacrificing a couple of hundred dollars of pay. However, when the shipping company took the
case to court, and the Judge threatened the Local Union with fines of $10,000 a day for each day
the cargo was not worked, the workers decided to unload the ship; the limits of their altruistic
solidarity had been reached (Cole, 2013; see also Scipes, 1985).35
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 25
Solidarity Across Different Political Levels of Domination
Let us turn Nederveen Pieterse’s thinking around, and argue that global labor solidarity can be
built at different political levels, including the suprastate, nation-state and substate levels. What
does this mean in reality? At the suprastate level, this could be a national-level labor center36 or
group of labor centers could seek to build global labor solidarity by pressuring global
organizations [e.g., the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the International Labor
Organization (ILO), or one or more Global Union Federations (GUFs)] and/or multi state-based
regional labor organizations [e.g., European Trade Union Congress (ETUC)] to act in support of
workers and unions in other political communities.
At the nation-state level, this could include a national labor center supporting one or more
labor centers in other political communities. An example could be where a national labor center
supports struggles against oppressive national legislation in the “other” political community.
At the substate levels, this could be a union or unions supporting workers and unions who
are being oppressed in another political community. Here the work of the United Steelworkers in
North America supporting Colombian unions who are under violent attack is inspiring, as has
been the work of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, in refusing to load/unload
ships carrying goods and/or weapons to oppressive states (e.g., apartheid South Africa,
Pinochet’s Chile, etc.) or South African dockworkers refusing to handle Chinese ships carrying
weapons for Zimbabwe (Cole, 2013).37 Included in this category is the long-standing work of the
United Electrical (UE) workers with workers in other countries, especially those in Mexico (see
Hathaway, 2000).
Scope of Sub-state Global Labor Solidarity: Multiple Actors
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 26
However, it is at the substate level that things get most interesting: our understanding of creating
global labor solidarity includes actions by unions or bureaucratic labor organizations, but it
cannot be confined to them (see Scipes, 2014a; see also Featherstone, 2012); hence, global labor
solidarity instead of global trade union solidarity.
Broad efforts to build global labor solidarity have emerged, developed by a wide range of
actors, both those within unions as well as those outside of unions, including labor, political and
religious activists; these efforts can be referred to as efforts to build “shopfloor internationalism”
or “grassroots labor internationalism” (see Bacon, 2016; Dobrusin, 2016; Jungehülsing, 2016;
Nastovski, 2014, 2016; Scipes, 1988, 2012; Waterman, 1990, 1998; Zweig, 2005).38
Accordingly, we must broaden our understanding to include efforts such as rank and file and/or
staff initiatives from within unions, worker/labor activist initiatives outside of unions,
progressive activist initiatives initiated to help workers, etc. These efforts could include
establishing cross-border “alliances” of unions, workers’ organizations, worker solidarity groups,
etc., either in coalition or separately, with workers and/or their organizations in other political
communities. It includes “solidarity campaigns” as workers and activists in one country support
the efforts by workers to establish their own unions (see Bacon, 2004; Williams, 2003).
Examples include networks such as the Southern Initiative on Globalization and Trade Union
Rights (SIGTUR),39 the Labor Start/Union Book network, the European Dockers’ network,40
Asian Labour Monitor and Australian Asian Workers’ Links, each which connects worker
organizations and unions across Asia, as well as the Maquila Solidarity Network (US, Canada
and Mexico) and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (US and Mexico) (see Vogel,
2006, for an account about the latter); international “solidarity campaigns” such as among
garment workers and consumers (Armbruster-Sandoval, 2005; Brooks, 2007; Kumar and
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 27
Mahoney, 2014; Ross, 2004), or to establish relationships with workers through putting material
pressure on their oppressors, as Canadian workers support Palestinian workers through
developing the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel’s apartheid
regime (Nastovski, 2014). Other examples include establishing and maintaining Workers’
Support Committees (such as the Philippine Workers’ Support Committee-PWSC), etc., which
have enabled information to be passed from the Philippines to supporters, while helping
supporters arrange visits in that country or sponsor visits by Filipino labor leaders and activists to
the United States.41
In addition to these organizational networks—and we have to recognize the internal
communications that take place between and among these unions and/or worker-support
organizations—there are also external communication “nodes” and their related networks, where
information is passed more widely, both to unions and/or their members, as well as to activists
globally.42 Two that played important roles in the 1980s—International Labour Reports (ILR)
and Newsletter of International Labour Studies (NILS)—are no longer with us,43 although their
founders and staff members are still actively building labor solidarity around the world. Asia
Labour Monitor has played an important role in communicating in Asia, as has Australian Asian
Workers’ Links. Labour Start, and its associated network, Union Book, has played an exemplary
role in communicating and mobilizing labor activists to support a growing number of labor
struggles around the world.
A very important initiative that has not received the attention that this author believes it
deserves has been the conscious effort by the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Labor Center of the
Philippines to build global labor solidarity. In an effort believed unique in the world, the KMU
has built an elaborate, six-part program that involves leaders, staff and members, and which is
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 28
used to build support for the KMU and workers and their unions worldwide, strengthen its own
organization internally, and to communicate its vision of trade unionism globally, as well as
share news and information about labor struggles particularly in the Philippines, but not limited
to their country. Centerpiece of this project is their annual “International Solidarity Affair”
(ISA), where workers and union leaders are invited to spend 10 days every April-May with
Filipino workers, including both formal programs in Manila and across the country, and to where
visitors are introduced to the day-to-day reality of Filipino workers—the ISA has been taking
place every year since 1984 (see Scipes, 2000, for building and communicating international
labor solidarity including the ISA; see Scipes, 2014b, for an article about what can be learned
from the KMU in general).44
In addition to all of this, there are efforts by activists to build global labor solidarity. One
of the most developed projects in North America is US Labor Against the War (USLAW), which
has done exemplary work in building solidarity between American and Iraqi trade unionists
(Scipes, 2012: 313-314; Zweig, 2005), and has now advanced a program for a new foreign policy
for the AFL-CIO (Zweig, 2014, 2016). Canadian workers have built important organizations to
campaign in solidarity with workers in South Africa during the 1980s—through the South
African Congress of Trade Unions Solidarity Committee (SSC)—and today, through Labor for
Palestine (L4P) (Nastovski, 2014, 2016). American labor activists have also built the Worker to
Worker Solidarity Committee to campaign against the foreign policy program of the AFL-CIO,
and particularly its connection with the US Government’s National Endowment for Democracy
(Scipes, 2010a: 96-105; 2012: 314-316).
But another realm of work has been by artists and especially writers—both those who are
and are not activists, some who are scholars and some whom are not, some who have been doing
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 29
this a long time and some just beginning—to build, understand and communicate global labor
solidarity.45 This obviously includes this author as well as those cited herein. Included in this are
writers who write about unions and labor struggles globally, so as to inform people of these
projects. Others write to encourage and develop solidarity, while others write to analyze efforts
and some even to try to develop theory about how we can advance these projects. And still others
write to expose misbehavior and/or oppressive behaviors of labor leaders who act against the
interest of workers in other parts of the world.
Other artists also contribute to this work. I think particularly of videographers/film
makers, photographers, photojournalists, and visual artists. Yet there are also singers/song
writers, who also travel around the world, crossing borders and spanning worlds to communicate.
In short, this new global labor solidarity has broadened far beyond just trade union
internationalism/solidarity.46 Central to this is the recognition that “the politics of coalition and
alliance are evidently and increasingly critical to the future of trade union and labor
internationalism” (Waterman and Wills, 2001: 307), but it is argued this is true in expanded
form. In other words, instead of transcending the fragments and confining them into a unified
whole under a specific concept (such as “socialism”) (Waterman and Wills, 2001), it is argued
herein that we can build unity and power by finding more and more opportunities to connect
across political community boundaries and, out of these global connections, we can seek a
project determined by all of us.
Different Levels of Global Labor Solidarity
Although Peter Waterman advanced “13 Propositions” toward building international labor
solidarity (Waterman, 1998: 72-73; reprinted in Scipes, 2014a: 148-149), this author (Scipes,
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 30
2000; 2014a: 148-150) challenged his “smorgasbord” of proposals, while still appreciating
Waterman’s clarity and sophistication:
Rather than limit our understanding of labor internationalism to a
“shopping list” of propositions, such as the [13] that Waterman advances but that
imply none are any more important than others, it seems helpful to recognize that
there are different levels of labor internationalism and they should be prioritized.
By suggesting that some efforts are more developed (or even more desirable!)
than others, I am not suggesting that those less desirable should be negated—as in
saying, if they don’t meet my standards, they’re “bourgeois,” harmful or even
worse—but rather it implies that they should be appreciated for what they
accomplish, while suggesting more can be done.
With that understanding, I suggest there are three levels of labor
internationalism, which I list from the lowest to the highest, although they are on
a continuum and not discrete. And each successive level incorporates efforts at
the lower level(s). The first [and lowest] level is where workers cooperate with
each other across international boundaries: this can include everything from letter
writing and donating funds up to and including taking direct action (sabotage,
“hot cargoing”/black-listing of goods and equipment, strikes) in support of other
workers’ labor and democratic struggles. The second level is where workers help
people in the “target” country change their social order: thus workers supporting
social movement unions which are specifically fighting to change their social
order; workers supporting different social sectors such as women who are
struggling to change the social order, as well as workers supporting liberation
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 31
struggles as a whole, would be forms of this level of labor internationalism. And
the third level is where workers in one country struggle to change their own social
order so as to be able to both support peoples in other countries struggling to
change their respective social orders and to live in solidarity and on a more
equitable level with people throughout the world.
Approaching labor internationalism in this manner recognizes the reality
of imperialist (oppressor/oppressed; dominator/dominated) power relations in the
world and suggests that ending them is better than allowing them to continue to
exist. And approaching labor internationalism in this manner validates the
struggles by workers in an oppressed nation—such as Brazil, the Philippines or
South Africa—as being just as important as those by workers in an oppressor
nation—such as the United States—when they struggle to change their respective
social order: by challenging their social order to no longer allow itself to be
dominated by others or to dominate others, workers confront dominative power
which is ultimately the very basis for their own subjugation (Scipes 2000).47
We need to learn from the approaches both of Waterman and Scipes. The three levels
delineated by Scipes allow us to understand similarities among and differences between
solidarity efforts. Accordingly, we see that most global labor solidarity today takes place at the
first, or lowest, level. That being said, however, this allows us to address the propositions put
forth by Waterman.
We must apply this thinking to the larger social context today. As stated above, new labor
movements are currently emerging across the Global South; this is happening in countries as
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 32
disparate as China, Egypt, and Iran. New developments are taking place within labor movements
in places such as Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa
and Venezuela.
Accordingly, we can see that the larger sense of Waterman’s proposals is already being
made real: the struggle of workers is increasingly seen in a global context, and links by workers
and their organizations across political community borders are being made, and to a greater and
greater extent (see also Evans, 2014). And as the articles in the special issue of Working USA
have shown, the relationships are changing: no longer dependent upon “Northern” labor
movements for resources or, perhaps more importantly, ideas, “Southern” labor movements are
emerging and are trying to find ways to build real labor solidarity across the globe.48
Concurrently, however, activists in a growing number of “Northern” countries are pushing for
their unions, and ultimately their nation-states, to create new, non-oppressive relationships with
those of the Global South.
Thus, workers, their organizations and their allies around the world are seeking new ways
to build global labor solidarity, and are not waiting for the “big boys and girls” at the “top” of
labor to come save them; they have learned clearly that no one will “save” them but themselves,
acting in solidarity with their brothers and sisters from around the world (Scipes, 2014a: 150-
151; see also Ness, ed., 2014, and Van der Walt, 2014).
Perhaps most importantly of his “13 propositions,” Waterman argues for mutual respect
and shared resources, including political support, information, and ideas.49 This, in fact, gets back
to the point made above: there is more interaction, more sharing, and more political support back
and forth than ever before. What I think is new, however, is that a growing number of activists
are getting involved, whether joining and working within established international networks or
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 33
creating their own, and not waiting for the “international office” of their union to mobilize them.
The work developed by the Canadian activists in challenging Israeli apartheid is exemplary;
likewise US Labor Against the War (USLAW). And I would say that the communications and
solidarity work being done by Eric Lee and his “Labour Start/Union Book” network are exciting
and commendable, as is the work being done by Australian Asian Worker Links and Asian Labor
And now that we have considered historical and contemporary efforts to build global
labor solidarity—discussing motivations of solidarity, solidarity across different political levels
of domination, the multiple actors involved in sub-state global labor solidarity, and different
levels of global labor solidarity—it is time to provide a theoretical understanding of global labor
Global labor solidarity is an act, or an on-going set of actions, by workers and/or their
organizations, and/or their allied organizations, as well as by writers, artists and other activists to
support workers and/or their organizations across political community borders in their efforts to
enhance workers’ lives, wages, working conditions, and/or their very existence as determined by
those affected. It is desirable in that to strengthen the power and well-being of workers globally,
workers must develop solidarity across political community borders in addition to developing
solidarity with workers of their own country; global labor solidarity does not undercut solidarity
by workers in the same country, but enhances the power, well-being and knowledge of workers
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 34
This solidarity must be on the basis of mutual respect and support, which precludes
concepts of “clientelism”; a uni-directional flow of ideas, money and other resources; and
domination by one labor movement over another (i.e., labor imperialism). This solidarity can
emerge from either southern or northern workers or their organizations, can include multiple
labor organizations, and can be directed toward either southern or northern workers and their
organizations. As indicated above, we should now utilize the term global labor solidarity to
replace international labor solidarity.
This solidarity may be between workers/organizations on the same level of political
organization, or between workers/organizations at different levels of political organization.
This solidarity may be motivated by self-interest, mutuality or altruism.
There are a number of types of global labor solidarity, with references to illuminative
items, although this list will probably need to be expanded:51
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in their struggles to establish
and maintain unions, to improve wages, working conditions, security and other
workplace-related issues, see Armbruster-Sandoval, 2005; Bacon, 2004, 2016;
Barchiesi, 2001; Evans, 2010, 2014; Hathaway, 2000; Kumar and Mahoney,
2014; Lambert and Webster, 2001; Moody, 1997; Ness, ed., 2014; Novelli, 2011;
Rahman and Langford, 2014; Roman and Velasco Arregui, 2013; Ross, 2004;
Ryan, 2016; Waterman, 1998. See also Herod, 2000,52and for a very interesting
series of case studies, see Bieler and Lindberg, eds., 2011.
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in struggles against common
multinational or transnational corporations, see Anner, 2003; Armbruster-
Sandoval, 2005; Bacon, 2016; Bronfenbrenner and Juravich, 1999;
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 35
Bronfenbrenner, ed., 2007; Brooks, 2007; Evans, 2010, 2014; Herod, 1995, 2000,
2001, 2003; Johns, 1998; McCallum, 2013; Young and Sierra Becerra, 2014.
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in struggles to improving the
lives of workers and their families outside of the workplace, such as in their
communities, see Bacon, 2004, 2016; Dobrusin, 2016; Jungehülsing, 2016;
Lethbridge, 2011; Lindell, 2011.
To support workers’ efforts through innovative legal strategies and tactics, and
utilization of treaty “side agreements,” to try to protect workers from
victimization through the legal and political institutions (regarding the NAFTA
“side agreements,” see Kay, 2005: 736-42; Stillerman, 2003: 592-595; Williams,
2003),53 and for impact of struggle against NAFTA on subsequent trade
negotiations, see Kay, 2015.
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, struggle against global
and/or regional political-economic plans [e.g., NAFTA (the North American Free
Trade Agreement), FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas)], or the
“commodity consensus” and other projects that are deemed detrimental to their
self-interests (as defined by them)], see Bacon, 2004; Dobrusin, 2014, 2016;
Dreiling and Robinson, 1998; Stillerman, 2003.
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in struggles against
militarism and/or invasion, see Zweig, 2005, 2014, 2016 for work of USLAW
(US Labor Against War); see Cole (2013) for a discussion of black African
longshore workers’ boycott of a Chinese ship carrying arms and ammunition to
Zimbabwe in 2008.
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 36
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in struggles against imperial
activities, see work of WWSC (Worker to Workers Solidarity Committee) in
Scipes, 2010a, but particularly 78-82; 2012;54 see also Nastovski, 2016.
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in struggles to support
oppressed peoples, see Nastovski, 2014, 2016 for Labor for Palestine, and the
South African Congress of Trade Unions Solidarity Committee; for labor support
committees, see Waterman, 1998: 132-136; for activities by the International
Longshore and Warehouse Workers, see Cole, 2013; Scipes, 1985, 2014c.
To help workers, their organizations and their allies, in struggles to liberate
themselves, see Baskin, 1991; Friedman, 1987; Kraak, 1993; MacShane, Plaut
and Ward, 1984; Scipes, 1996; Seidman, 1994; Waterman, 1998.
It is exciting to recognize that there have been a considerable number of efforts, and so many
types of efforts, to build global labor solidarity in the late 1990s-early 2000s, despite the general
lack of knowledge about these efforts outside of those involved with specific projects.
Working people and some unions, along with progressive allies, have been reaching
across political community boundaries for a number of years to try to develop global labor
solidarity with other workers, their organizations and their allies. Some of these projects have
been established by labor confederations, international unions, and Global Union Federations
(GUFs); some have been by national unions and labor centers; and a growing number are by
union members and staffers as well as by those outside of the labor movement—what can be
called “grassroots labor internationalism” (Scipes, 1988; Waterman, 1998)—each who want to
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 37
build support for workers, their organizations, and their allies. The increasing willingness to do
so is hopeful.
While workers building global labor solidarity has primarily been presented herein in a positive
manner, a caution must be added: global labor solidarity is a process, and a strategy, for
improving working people’s lives around the planet; it is aimed at increasing workers’ power to
determine their lives, both inside and outside the workplace. But it does not provide the goal to
which workers’ collectively aspire.
That discussion, which started in the 1840s in Europe, continues.
However, what this paper argues is that this discussion must be done from a global
perspective, and it must be developed democratically from the grassroots: it cannot be imposed
from above. Following Waterman (1998), it must be done in conjunction with other global
movements, such as women’s, students, peasants, the urban poor, the indigenous, etc. It must, in
short, seek liberation for all—but what that means remains to be determined. Whatever goal
chosen, however, it must be done in conjunction with the planet, not separately.
This chapter has argued that we need to not confine efforts to build solidarity to national-level
projects, but that we need to expand our efforts globally, and then discussed efforts to build
global labor solidarity. This was done by presenting a conceptualization of “imperialism” that
surpasses Marxist understandings, examining previous efforts to build international labor
solidarity, and then discussing motivations of solidarity, levels of solidarity, and then scope of
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 38
sub-state global labor solidarity, recognizing multiple actors. Differing levels of global labor
solidarity were advanced. Finally, a theoretical understanding of global labor solidarity was
presented, and nine different types of global labor solidarity were delineated.
However, while arguing that any future alternative has to be developed from a global
perspective, and be developed democratically from the grassroots, it points out this alternative
cannot be imposed from above. Following Waterman (1998), it argues that development of an
alternative must be done in conjunction with other global movements, such as women’s,
students, peasants, the urban poor, the indigenous, etc., seeking liberation for all—but
recognizing that what that means is still to be determined. Finally it has argued that any
alternative must be done in conjunction with the planet, not separately.
Theorizing Global Labor Solidarity Page 39
1 This chapter has been written by an American trade unionist, long-time activist and labor
scholar who has been trying to build global labor solidarity with working people and their
organizations around the world for over 30 years. This is written from his position in the United
States simply because it is the case he knows the best, and because he thinks the US perspective
is important, while arguing it is only one of a number of perspectives worthy of consideration.
He hopes this will be joined subsequently by analyses and writings from multiple other
There are already two different perspectives that have been published. One, which is quite
interesting, is Roman and Velasco Arregui (2013). Another, from still another perspective but
deserving consideration, is McIlroy and Croucher (2013).
2 While the emergence and developments of labor movements are important in and of
themselves for their expansion of popular democracy in the workplace and limiting exploitation
and oppression of workers, this author knows of five situations in which labor movements
played a key, if not the leading, role in over throwing dictatorships and expanding democracy
across the respective society over the past 30 years: Philippines, 1986 (see Scipes, 1996); Brazil,
1987 (see Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010); South Korea, 1987 (see Koo, 2001); Poland, 1989 (see
Bloom, 2014); and South Africa, 1990 (see Baskin, 1990). Regardless of subsequent
developments, the role of these labor movements in the fight for democracy has been
exemplary, and should be recognized by scholars.
3 In the US, we have been told that there is only one kind of democracy: the idea of one
person, one vote; that everyone has an equal say in public decision-making; and that when an
issue affects them, every person who wants to speak on the issue can so do. William I. Robinson
(1996), based on earlier work by Robert Dahl, calls this “popular democracy,” and he
counterposes it against “polyarchal democracy,” which means there are two types of democracy,
not just one.
Polyarchic democracy—also referred to as “elite” democracy, or constrained democracy—is
where only a few, elite people get to define the situation and/or select possible candidates for an
electoral position, and then “ordinary” people are allowed to choose, but only from the possible
options established by these elites (see Scipes, 201a: 191-192, endnote #10).
Here, I’m talking about popular democracy.
4 Working USA, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2014.
5 The most complete on-line bibliography of labor writings during this period that this author
is aware of is his “Contemporary Labor Issues” bibliography, which is on-line and free, at http:// (Accessed March 1, 2015.)
6 Peter Waterman (2001: 312-315) has discussed also the lack of innovation in the ICFTU
(International Confederation of Free Trade Unions), which was the dominant international trade
union confederation between 1949-2006, a “Western”-oriented and anti-communist
international collection of national labor centers. Waterman implies that this lack of innovation
applies to all established global trade union organizations. [In November 2006, the ICFTU and
the World Confederation of Labor, another confederation, merged to become the International
Trade Union Confederation (ITUC): I presume his comments remain generally relevant.]
One Global Union Federation (GUF—formerly known as International Trade Secretariats)
that has shown innovativeness and initiative has been the International Transport Workers’
Federation (ITF), and the development of its International Action Day program around health
and safety issues for not only its bus, truck and railroad workers, but the public. For an inspiring
account, see Urata (2011). “An impressive feature of this campaign is the mobilization of the
rank and file members, often en masse, to rallies and demonstrations. Altogether, unions in
some 70 countries have taken part in such actions” (Urata, 2011: 67).
7 See US Labor Department, Union Members 2014, dated January 23, 2015, and on-line at (accessed March 1, 2015).
8 Roman and Velasco Arregui (2013: 6-15) detail the corporate attack on working people:
“The rise and triumph of the corporate neo-liberal agenda did not simply happen because of
‘market forces’ or ‘globalization’. The most powerful corporations in the US—many of them
the most powerful in the world—organized to make it happen; they developed their own
consensus and mobilized their vast resources and networks to make it happen” (p. 7). This
specifically included attacking the National Labor Relations Board.
9 Andrew Herod (1995: 343-346) discusses the literature about the shift of capital offshore
through his critical evaluation of “Workerless Theories of the Geography of FDI” [Foreign
Direct Investment]. For an early discussion of the “Changing International Division of Labor,”
see Frobel, Heinrichs and Kreye, 1980, and Southall, 1988; see also Scipes, 1984; for a more
recent study, see Scipes, 2009.
10 Herod (1995: 348-358) discusses in detail the innovative global campaign organized by
United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 5668 of Ravenswood, West Virginia, the
USWA, the Industrial Union Department (IUD), and the AFL-CIO against union busting by the
Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation. This certainly shows vision, imagination and leadership,
especially by the USWA and the IUD. See also Bronfenbrenner and Juravich, 1999. This quality
of formal leadership has been incredibly rare in the US labor movement, especially over the past
40 years.
Herod (2001) revisits the Ravenswood campaign and compares it to the struggles by United
Auto Workers (UAW) Local 659 in Flint, Michigan, which shut down extensive amounts of
production by General Motors, to see what would be revealed by comparing the two different
Herod is one researcher in the US who has worked diligently to show American workers and
their unions that by careful examination of corporate production chains, they can find
weaknesses upon which they can attack corporate power. Herod’s work—1995, 2000, 2001,
2003—has been exemplary in trying to show the power of workers in affecting global capital
operations, and in understanding the need to find “sites” within the global production system—
despite the onslaught of “globalization”—upon which workers can act.
11 For a detailed discussion of the inadequacy of the elite-dominated Democratic Party, see
Street, 2014.
This point becomes even stronger after watching President Obama work with Republican
leadership to garner “fast track” authority, so that when presented, his “Trans Pacific
Partnership” (TPP) can only get an “up or down” vote from Congress, precluding any
modifications or changes (Weisman, 2015; see also Baker, 2015). The TPP is widely seen as a
gift to the global corporate world, at the direct cost of American workers—and, I would add,
workers across the world.
12 Richard Hyman (2011) wrote a very interesting chapter on “Trade Unions, Global
Competition and Options for Solidarity” in a book just recently discovered by this author (Bieler
and Lindberg, eds., 2011). Hyman did not discuss “business unionism,” for he was focusing on
European unions, but I think his thinking is of considerable importance for American unionists.
He was arguing that supporters of unions—especially labor activists, leaders and labor scholars
—needed to transform our unions so they could adequately represent the members today, who
he suggests are quite different from trade unionists in the past. “My argument is that trade
unions need to redefine, indeed reinvent, their understandings of solidarity; and to do so, they
need to rediscover how to behave proactively and strategically” (Hyman, 2011:19).
Hyman then discusses how to operate strategically: “A theme … has been that trade union
strategic capacity can be, and needs to be, enhanced through internal dialogue, discussion and
debate” (Hyman, 2011: 24). He then argues that, “unions must turn (or return) to a self-
conception as organizations campaigning for rights and engaging in ‘contentious politics’….
This involves an assertion of unions’ identity as a ‘sword of justice’ …: contesting oppression,
inequality and discrimination” (Hyman, 2011: 25).
Ultimately, he’s arguing that we must internally transform our unions: “If interests are to be
conceived and redefined in ways which highlights complementaries and encourage new
solidarities, the bureaucratic, hierarchical politics characteristic of much traditional trade
unionism must give way to more participative, interactive processes. For unions to survive and
thrive, the principal of solidarity must not only be redefined and reinvented, workers on the
ground me be active participants in this redefinition and reinvention” (Hyman, 2011: 29).
Further discussion is beyond the scope of this chapter, although it is a continuing theme in
the “labor revitalization” literature since 1995—see the “Contemporary Labor Issues”
bibliography at However, having done considerable
work on the relationship between labor leaders, activists and union members—and comparing
these factors between two different unions (Scipes, 2003)—I think Hyman’s chapter is rich,
important, and deserving of serious consideration and reflection.
13 To get a better idea of what this means, see Stanley Aronowitz’ recent biography of the
macrosociologist, C. Wright Mills (Aronowitz, 2012).
14 This understanding—incorporating individual choice into macro level analysis—is a crucial
aspect of Scipes’ Polyconflictual Model of Society. See Scipes (2010a: 130-150) for
15 An example to illustrate my point. For most of the time that the US was at war with Viet
Nam, the US drafted young men into the military. This, obviously, affected those drafted (while
affecting those not drafted, albeit in very different ways). The draft also affected parents and
grandparents, spouses, “significant others,” and friends, as well as the children (when present)
of those drafted. Thus, US engagement at a global level affected individuals and their personal
networks of family and friends all across the United States, not to mention Vietnamese,
Cambodians and Laotians.
16 While the US has tried to dominate the world, it has not always been successful. Politically,
the first major challenge after World War II was the Bandung Conference in Indonesia during
1955, where a number of “third world” countries sought to escape control of both the US and
the Soviet empires. Obviously, a number of countries won their independence through armed
struggles—particularly China, Cuba and Vietnam—and have paid terrible prices for their
“ungratefulness.” (For Vietnam, see Turse, 2013.) And subsequent development has been
“uneven,” at best.
After the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself in 1991, the US
was referred to as “the sole superpower.” In political science terms, global power relations were
referred to as a “uni-polar” world.
Fall out from the “quagmire” of Iraq and later Afghanistan, and later the US defeats, has
included the emergence of a number of countries—most notably those referred to as the BRICS
(Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)—who individually at times but sometimes
together seek to impede and/or ultimately surpass US power at a global level. This period—
shifting from a uni-power to a multi-power world—is inherently dangerous, as the declining
imperial power (the US) seeks desperately to defeat this challenge.
17 This section is drawn from the Preface of Scipes, 2010a: xxv-xxvi.
18 This point could be debated, as many Marxists have a broader understanding of imperialism
than mere economics. However, on a theoretical basis, this author argues that Lenin’s approach
is economistic, and it is on a theoretical basis that this is being discussed here. In other words, in
practice, the conceptualization has not been so limited, but practice has extended beyond what
the theory includes.
19 In fact, Nederveen Pieterse’s conceptualization allows us to speak of labor imperialism in
theoretical terms for the first time. It is in recognizing that domination can take place at a level
below nation-state domination that allows Labor’s across-political-community-borders
domination to be included within the concept of imperialism. This author presents a theory of
labor imperialism as a way to show what we do not want to take place (Scipes, 2014a: 145-147;
see also Scipes, 2010b, 2015).
20 In what are generally referred to as “settler” colonies—the United States, Canada, Australia,
New Zealand, South Africa and Israel—Europeans simply invaded and “settled” (i.e.,
conquered) indigenous people’s lands. Initially acting as imperialist colonizers, these settlers
eventually established their own nation-states on the backs and the bodies of the indigenous;
these new nation-states were thus imperialist from their respective “founding.” At least in these
new nation states, their “development” differed from traditional imperialist activities in that they
did not take things away from each colonized land; they just stole them and the land itself, using
it for the interest and advantages of the “settlers” themselves. Most of these settler countries, in
turn, expanded outward themselves, becoming imperialist in the sense highlighted by
Nederveen Pieterse (1989).
21 With the single exception of Japan, itself imperialist, the imperialist countries were
populated overwhelmingly by whites, and certainly led by whites, and they plundered countries
populated with black, brown, red and yellow peoples. This racial component of imperialism
must be recognized.
To my knowledge, of all the developing countries in the world, only three—Ethiopia, Iran
(formerly known as Persia) and Thailand (Siam)—were never colonized by the imperialist
22 The importance of this to the colonized countries can be seen by asking counterfactual
questions: had the Europeans and Americans not stolen approximately 15 million Africans from
that great continent (along with their descendants over the centuries), would the countries of
Africa likely be in the shape they are in today? How about had California—something like the
sixth most economically powerful “country” in the world today—remained part of Mexico?
23 This literature is voluminous. For an extensive yet partial on-line bibliography, go to
UNTRIES:__SOC_403. (Accessed March 1, 2015.)
This offshore transfer of investment and ultimately production by US corporations—to
counter increased global economic production (i.e., competition)—has hurt US workers, both by
eradicating jobs and by threatening the loss of remaining jobs in the face of unionization efforts,
while reducing wage hike pressures (Bronfenbrenner, 2000). By 2003, estimates of job loss due
to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) were 879,280 (Scipes, 2009: 23, citing
Scott, 2003: 3); by 2007, estimates of job loss due to free trade with China totaled 2,166,000
(Scipes, 2009: 39, FN #13, referring to Scott, 2007). Many American workers, as well as the
AFL-CIO itself, blamed foreign workers for “stealing their jobs,” a project denounced by Scipes
(2006), who argued blame should be properly placed on US corporate managements. For
arguably the fullest account to publication date, examining the changing global economy and
its’ effects on the United States, see Scipes, 2009. A quick look at the website of the Economic
Policy Institute finds that this same researcher reports that since China joined the World Trade
Organization in 2001, the US trade deficit with China has cost the US 3.2 million jobs, with 2.4
million of these lost in manufacturing (Scott, 2014).
24 As these countries continue to develop economically, they are demanding equal access to
the greater US market through free trade agreements in exchange for politically accepting the
lead of the US in world affairs. To date, this has been an agreeable exchange to US elites, even
though it increases competition within the US markets, helping to undercut jobs for American
25 Another labor movement that played an important role in political developments is Poland’s
Solidarnosc. In addition to having a totally different dynamic, and with Poland now being part
of the European Union, it was decided not to discuss their efforts herein; nonetheless, their
impact should be noted. For an excellent recent monograph on Solidarnosc, see Bloom, 2014.
26 Peter Evans (2010) discusses the expanded possibilities opened up by globalization, offering
a counter-narrative to those who see top-down globalization only a disaster for labor. Evans
discusses a number of campaigns in the 1990s, arguing that even defeats have contributed to
“institutional learning” for the labor movement. He suggests that globalization has caused the
AFL-CIO to reconsider its historic “labor imperialism”—arguing Scipes’ (2010a) views are
now in the minority—and that “Viewed in a historical lens, the current level of solidarity
between North American unions and their Latin American counterparts is extraordinary”
(Evans, 2010: 366).
Ronaldo Munck (2010), writing at roughly the same time as Evans, generally agrees:
“Globalization clearly signaled the end of ‘business as usual’ by the labour movement, and has
generated a whole range of innovative responses. This flourishing of innovation has been seen
at the local, national, regional and global levels. Sometimes the turn has been pragmatic and
sometimes advances have only been partial…. However, we could now in the main agree that
globalization has opened up as many doors as it has closed for labour.”
In a subsequent article, Evans argues that “the fierce attacks on labor … have stimulated the
emergence of new transnational perspectives and strategies in the US labor movement” (Evans,
2014: 260). He discusses a number of transnational labor campaigns carried out by US unions in
conjunction with “southern” unions. He also notes that changing role and increasing importance
of southern unions in transnational alliances. He refers to these changes in the title of his article:
“Global Labor’s Evolving Architecture Under Neoliberalism.”
For more on changing relations between labor movements in the Americas, see Collombat,
2011; for a very interesting collection of case studies on “transnational” solidarity, see Bieler
and Lindberg, eds., 2011.
27 This following section, discussing Waterman’s thinking. is based on Scipes, 2014a: 147-
28 Thus, Waterman (1998) sees the internationalism of workers to be in parallel with the
internationalism of women, students, peasants, etc., ultimately arguing that each should join
with the others to create a better world.
29 David Featherstone (2012: 5) defines solidarity “as a relations forged through political
struggle which seeks to challenge forms of oppression.” He sees these relations as
transformative. Further, he writes:
Solidarity has often been understood as being about likeness. This approach obscures
the importance of solidarities in constructing relations between places, activists, diverse
social groups. This can involve the cementation of existing identities and power
relations. It can, however, as frequently be about the active creation of new ways of
relating (Featherstone, 2012: 5).
30 Rob Lambert and Eddie Webster (2001) discuss the situation where Australian workers, in a
dispute with a state government in 1995, were supported by boycott threats by workers in
COSATU in South Africa and by workers in CITU (Center of Indian Trade Unions) in India.
They write, “Here was solidarity of historical import, for it was possibly the first time ever that
seriously exploited workers from developing countries had led mass protest action in solidarity
with workers’ struggles in a developed industrialized nation” (Lambert and Webster, 2001:
However, an action had taken place previously in February 1986, where 3 M workers in
South Africa took mass action in support of victimized 3 M workers in Freehold, New Jersey,
USA. See Associated Press, 1986.
31 This continuum of motivations would seem to apply to any solidarity relationship, within or
across political community boundaries.
32 This is the understanding with which Featherstone (2012: 4) approaches his study of
solidarity: “This is a book about the creation of solidarities from below” (emphasis added).
33 Herod (2003: 513-514) discusses Rebecca Johns’ concept of “accomodationist”
international solidarity, where some workers use international solidarity to protect their
privileged position within “the global spatial dimension of labor.” See Johns, 1998. Bieler
(2014: 121) discusses this self-interest. Featherstone (2012) does not consider this in his,
nonetheless, very innovative study.
Kim Scipes has long opposed the foreign policy program of the AFL-CIO (see Scipes, 1989,
2010a, b, 2012), including the work of its Solidarity Center, arguing that its labor imperialism
has been an impediment to developing international labor solidarity. However, in his 2014a
article (p. 153, note 2), he now recognizes that there are some cases of where the AFL-CIO
might be playing a helpful role, and he refers to writings by Armbruster-Sandoval, 2013; Kumar
and Mahoney, 2014; Rahman and Langford, 2014; and even some evidence from his own work:
Scipes, 2010: 73, 218, endnotes 12 & 13. See especially Timothy Ryan, 2016, but some of their
work in Mexico is mentioned in Bacon, 2016. However, Scipes remains skeptical about the
motivations of the AFL-CIO—he refers to writings by Michael Barker (2011), G. Nelson Bass
(2012), and Ronald W. Cox and Bass (2012)—and hopes others will examine this issue in much
more detail. [See Scipes, 2014a: 153, note 2, for further discussion.]
Nonetheless, Scipes (2014a: 153, note 2) writes, “while I’m glad to know they are doing
some things in some places that are progressive or at least not totally detrimental, as long as the
Solidarity Center is integrally tied to the National Endowment for Democracy—see Scipes,
2010a: 96-105—then the charge of engaging in labor imperialism, regarding the overall
program, remains.”
34 Featherstone (2012: 1) argues the “classic” case of solidarity is the support given to the
Union by British textile workers during the US Civil War. These workers, inspired by the
writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass, who traveled widely in England, opposed their
own government’s support for slavery and the cotton import trade, even though “Between
November 1861 and November 1862, full-time employment in the Lancashire cotton industry
fell by over 300,000” due to this being “a direct product of the cotton blockade of the Southern
states by forces loyal to the Union.” Actions such as this are what is being called “altruistic”
35 This is not to criticize the workers or the union for making the decision to drop their
boycott; it remains a high point of international labor solidarity in the US with the workers of
South Africa during their struggles against apartheid. Cole (2013) reports that Nelson Mandela
specifically saluted these longshore workers and thanked them during his 1990 visit to Oakland
after he had been released from prison. It is used simply to point out that there are limits as to
how long or how far altruistic solidarity can be extended in any situation.
36 “Organizationally, the heart of a labor movement are trade unions and agglomerations of
trade unions that are joined by a labor center which, in turn, works to further unify and
strengthen the member unions. The number of labor centers vary by country: some countries,
such as Australia, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, each have one labor center;
others countries, such as Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa,
South Korea, and Sweden, each have at least two different labor centers, if not more. In the US
context, but using international labor terminology, the AFL-CIO is a ‘labor center’” (Scipes,
2001: 4).
37 During the summer of 2014, ILWU Local 10 in the San Francisco Bay Area refused to work
ships carrying goods for the Israeli-owned Zim Lines. Because this appears to be different—
Local 10 members seem to be responding to community efforts, rather than initiating them—
this is seen as a different situation than the earlier boycotts. See Scipes, 2014c.
38 Featherstone (2012) refers to this generally with the term “subaltern” solidarities.
39 For SIGTUR, see Dobrusin, 2014; for an earlier piece that focuses on the first 10 years of
SIGTUR’s development, see Lambert and Webster, 2001.
40 New research is currently being done on this network. For previous work on the efforts by
European dockworkers, see Fitz (1990), Waterman (1990, 1998: 79-110), and Weir (2004: 153-
41 Waterman (1998: 132-136) discusses the work of the PWSC as well as others in support of
the KMU, which gives some idea of their work, but his extreme bias against the KMU (as
discussed below) requires reading his account very critically.
42 As technology advances, it becomes more difficult to place activities into different types.
For example, while writing about regional or global networks, they obviously communicate
between organizations within their respective network. Some global networks (such as
SIGTUR) do not communicate widely outside of their networks; some communicate widely
outside (Asian Labour Monitor); and some communicate widely while trying to build their
networks through episodic conferences or assemblies (Labor Start/Union Book; Australian
Asian Worker Links). So, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between
organizational networks and communication networks, and I’m not sure that it is necessary
except, perhaps, for intellectual analysis of their respective activities.
43 This author served as the North American representative to ILR from 1984-89; published in
NILS (Scipes, 1989); and then worked and studied with Peter Waterman, founder and editor of
NILS, in 1990-91.
44 In late April-early May, 2015, this author attended the KMU’s 31st Annual International
Solidarity Affair. This will be written up in a subsequent article.
45 There are very many people who have written or have otherwise contributed to building
global labor solidarity through their artistry. Obviously, there are those whose work I cite.
However, there are others, some I know and many whom I don’t. Accordingly, I’ve decided not
to try to list everyone in this section who deserves to be mentioned because I’m afraid I will
unfairly miss many.
46 Much of the academic literature has limited itself to trade union internationalism; for
example, Andreas Bieler (2014: 123), focuses on “the fundamental dynamics of exploitation” in
his latest article. He is writing from a Marxist viewpoint. This author sees that viewpoint as too
limited, and argues for a much broader and inclusive approach; see also Van der Walt (2014).
47 In the above quote, the term “social movement unions” was mentioned. This term has been
used in many confusing ways over the years, leading to intellectual disembowelment. For an
effort to disentangle the intellectual goulash, to return the power of the conceptualization, and to
understand how progressive unions in the contemporary US should be understood, see Scipes,
48 For a theoretically sophisticated account of a victorious struggle by workers in Colombia,
see Novelli (2011).
49 Scipes argues there is a lot to be learned from the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU-May First
Movement) Labor Center of the Philippines. [Waterman and Scipes have strong disagreements
over who controls the KMU: the Communist Party of the Philippines (Waterman, 1998: 125-
127) or the members (Scipes, 1996)]. Scipes, who has done the only in-depth nationwide study
of the KMU, argues that the KMU has developed a new type of trade unionism (similar to
COSATU [Congress of the South African Trade Unions] and CUT [Central Única dos
Trabalhadores] of Brazil in previous years), referred to theoretically as “social movement
unionism.” (For his latest thinking on this, and comparing it to progressive unionism in North
America, see Scipes, 2014d.) The KMU, a democratically-controlled, member-run labor center,
has created a new organizational structure that combines both vertical (hierarchical) and
horizontal networks; has fostered widespread rank-and-file education; has fashioned ongoing
relationships with sectoral organizations of peasants, women, students, urban poor, etc., which
has led to the development of powerful “people’s strikes”; and has established a conscious
program to build international labor solidarity, including a unique annual program where unions
and workers are invited to visit the Philippines to learn from their experiences. (For a detailed
examination of KMU’s six-part program to build international labor solidarity, see Scipes, 2000;
for a discussion of what he thinks could be learned in general from KMU, see Scipes, 2014b.)
50 The one situation where this claim might be challenged is when a corporation attempts to
close down a production operation in one country (say in a “developed” country) to move to
another (say in a “developing” country), in its on-going efforts to increase its rate of profit. In
this situation, jobs are at stake in two different countries, not just one. This author thinks one
strategy would be to fight for the jobs threatened in the developed country, but not to fight to
retain more than those threatened, allowing jobs to be created in the “receiving” country. Should
those threatened jobs be “lost” by the developed country workforce, then the fight should be to
ensure workers who loose their jobs maintain full wages and benefits until each worker reaches
retirement age, and then receives pension benefits comparable to the rest of the workforce with
jobs; certainly with the enhanced profitability from the new operations, the corporation could
afford to take care of released workers.
In any case, it is incumbent on the “losing” workforce NOT to blame job loss on workers in
other countries, as they do not make the disinvestment/reinvestment decisions: corporate
management does. The blame should be put in management, not other workers. See Scipes,
51 Obviously, there can easily be overlap here, but I’m trying to pull these apart for analytical
purposes. These are references that are considered to be important. For a larger, more complete
list of articles regarding “global labor solidarity,” which is periodically updated, see “Global
Labor Solidarity from the Grassroots and Formal Labor Organizations” on-line at (Accessed March 1, 2014.)
52 For a very interesting discussion of the geographies of space in affecting such organization,
see Herod, 2003. For a discussion of “Labor Activism [by US unions] Before NAFTA,” see
Stillerman, 2003: 582-586; for other forms of cross-border solidarity efforts against NAFTA
(solidarity groups, church-initiated projects), and during the same time period, see Stillerman,
2003: 586-589.
Down the road, researchers may want to separate out maritime workers’ solidarity—and
specifically, that of port workers—from this type, as there is something unique about maritime
workers. Further research is needed to determine the desirability or not of this.
53 Although recognizing the weakness of the NAFTA labor side accord, Stillerman (2003: 592)
points out, “The alliances both prior to and during the NAFTA fight would endure into initial
efforts to file grievances under the NAFTA labor side accord and subsequent mobilizations
against the Multilateral Accord on Investments (MAI) and the WTO” [World Trade
Organization-KS]. This author would also add that this knowledge has also been used to
challenge “free trade” projects in general. This point has strongly been made by Kay, 2015.
Williams’ (2003) article is a very detailed, and very useful, in-depth account of the struggle
at Han Young plant in Tijuana, Mexico that points out that, despite activist development of their
campaigns, the complexity of cases may work against them. This article deserves attention.
54 This author discusses the AFL and then the AFL-CIO’s labor imperialism, beginning in the
early 1900s, where top-level labor “leaders” have actively worked to dominate labor movements
in other countries (Scipes, 2010a). Besides an extensive bibliography in general, in Chapter 3,
he discusses efforts by workers within US unions and their efforts to counter these reactionary
projects and to build international labor solidarity—see Scipes, 2010a: 69-76. In his 2010b
article, he theorizes this labor imperialism. And in his 2012 article, he discusses theoretically
how labor activists have joined together to challenge the AFL-CIO foreign policy program.
... I have examined how the KMU seeks to consciously build international labor solidarity (Scipes, 2000(Scipes, , 2015. I have specifically tried to learn from the KMU, to suggest what others could learn from it (see Scipes, 2014a), as well as having used the experiences of the KMU to develop the concept of 'social movement unionism' (Scipes, 2014b), as well as have used KMU to help theorize global labor solidarity (see Scipes, 2016c). Through my latest field research, I have checked to see if the KMU still is based on the conceptualization of social movement unionism, or has it changed (spoiler alert: it hasn't changedsee Scipes, 2018c). ...
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Workers in East Asia have shown over the past 50 years that they are capable of challenging capital, despite facing vehement opposition by corporations, oftentimes joined by governments and their militaries, and sometimes even armed thugs. They have built some of the most dynamic labour organizations in the world. This article is designed to put these developments into a global and historical perspective. It identifies today’s movements of capital as the continuation of processes that developed to a new level in the 1700s, and which continue today. It also discusses struggles of workers under the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU-May First Movement) Labor Center of the Philippines, and shows how valuable research conducted to date has identified a number of lessons learned from these struggles, and how they have been communicated to workers worldwide.
... Another is the Australian-Asian Worker Links, which covers Asia and Australia. For more information, and put into a theoretical context, see Scipes, 2016. ...
Global labour studies scholarship has increasingly recognized the importance of building global solidarity of workers and their unions in response to globalization. Despite this, the labour movement’s embrace of global solidarity as a response to globalization has been incomplete, and at times contradictory. The more common response to globalization has been labour nationalism, which has commanded far less attention in the literature. This paper considers labour nationalism from the perspective of emerging theories of global solidarity, offering a 2016 rank-and-file-driven campaign to save a General Motors plant in Ontario as a case study in labour nationalism. Although nationalism continues to be a relatively effective mobilizing device, Unifor Local 222 has had very little success ‘keeping good jobs in Canada.’ Instead, the union has entrenched a collective action frame that makes space for more xenophobic and racist expressions of nationalism and undermines the prospects of building solidarity abroad and, paradoxically, at home.
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Arguing there are alternatives to the generally moribund trade unionism currently found in the United States, this article presents the Kilusang Mayo Uno Labor Center of the Philippines, an exemplar of social movement unionism, as providing one alternative developing among labor organizations in the Global South. It presents a theoretical discussion of social movement unionism. It seeks to ascertain if the KMU is still conducting social movement unionism, or it has reverted back to economic or political unionism. It reports a 2015 trip across the three major regions of the country by this researcher—after six trips between 1986 and 1994—where the situation is detailed and the KMU's efforts are examined. It finds that the KMU is still implementing social movement unionism. It illustrates one alternative to U.S. trade unionism, and suggests that the workers around the world might consider learning from a southern labor center such as the Kilusang Mayo Uno.
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