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From corporate globalisation to a global social solidarity unionism

erstellt von dave — zuletzt verändert: 28.06.2011 13:44
Propositions from Peter Waterman and Dave Hollis


In the past few years workers in Western Europe and North America – factory and office, low-tech and high-tech, men and women – have been increasingly confronted with ‘offshoring’ and ‘outsourcing’. The first means moving production abroad or overseas. The second means procuring inputs or services from outside/abroad. These processes have many effects. The most obvious are 1) the disappearance of jobs to countries like China, India or the ex-Communist countries of Europe, and 2) consequent employer or state pressure to make ourselves ‘more competitive’ so as to avoid this fate.

(Oh, and we now hear that call-centre jobs may be moving from India to an even lower-waged Pakistan. And that factories may move from the Chinese coastal regions to the cheaper interior).

Being ‘more competitive’ customarily implies ‘concession bargaining’, with unions bargaining away previously established employment, wages, conditions and rights in exchange for employer promises to retain (reduced numbers of) employees or remain in the locality. There is, of course, no guarantee that the employers will keep their promises, nor that they will not return for another round of such concessions later.

We are clearly living in an increasingly globalised and networked world of increasingly unrestrained corporate growth, competition, movement and change. The benefits go to the rich, at the cost of workers communities and the poor worldwide. Outsourcing and offshoring are just two aspects of the current attacks.

Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable that corporations could coordinate their businesses on a truly worldwide scale.

Informatisation, e.g. computer networking, is what makes such globalisation possible. Not only has steel or shipping been largely outsourced to China, Korea or Brazil. Call centres can and do go to the Anglophone Caribbean or South Africa. Software development and production can and does go to India or China.

There is taking place a worldwide ‘race to the bottom’. The winners of an offshoring deal today can be the losers tomorrow. With wage differentials for the same job ranging from 1:3 to 1:10 there is no way that richer workers can win by competing with - or seeing enemies in – poorer workers. Especially when government – from the national to the global level – is losing its previous power to the corporations, or even facilitating the global rat race.

What is increasingly evident is that the traditional means of worker self-defence and assertion, the national-industrial trade union, the works council, the local, national and international institutions, procedures of collective bargaining, and the ideology of ‘social partnership’ are being put into question, undermined or circumvented by globalisation.

If offshoring is just one aspect of globalisation and informatisation, then we obviously need to understand the latter more generally. Neither globalisation nor informatisation is evil. It is true that we might not be able to defend ourselves against them, nor return to some pre-globalisation utopia. But we can certainly assert ourselves on this new terrain, fighting for a ‘globalisation from below’ and developing ‘international communication from below’.

What is presented in this paper should be seen more as a set of propositions to be discussed than correct answers to current problems. It is clear that the dramatic current transformation of capitalism demands an equal and opposite transformation of our understanding of the world of work, of our means of defence or counter-assertion, our strategies for establishing such. But it is up to readers of the text to consider how this relates to their experience of work, their present means of organisation, their view of the world or worldview, their hopes and aspirations for the future.

The new world of work and workers

The traditional model of the worker and work is something like this: a male wage-earner and family bread-winner, lifetime employed, with possible breaks of unemployment, involved in large-scale extraction, production, distribution or services, in either the private or the public sector. The ‘typical worker’, for the trade union movement, has long been the nationally-identified - Russian, German, Indian - miner, autoworker, docker, agricultural or plantation labourer, shop assistant, railway or office worker. What women typically did or do, housekeeping, food-production or shopping, was or is not considered ‘work’.

Due to dramatic increases in productivity, in what is produced and how it is produced, in the shift from production to services, from local to global markets, in production for mass markets to ‘niche’ markets, there has been a dramatic reduction in this kind of work, workplace and worker. There has been, thus, also a dramatic decrease in the kind of workers that unions traditionally represent.

Workers, moreover, decreasingly live in ‘working-class communities’, are decreasingly identified by or with work. They are, on the contrary, increasingly differentiated by occupation, employer, security, contract-type, residence, non-work interests and identities. ‘Proletarianisation’ may continue apace worldwide, but without producing a model 19th-20th century ‘proletariat’. Indeed, recognition of the increase in different kinds of precarious labour has led some to talk about the new ‘precariat’.

All this does not, yet, mean an abandonment, by workers of the old ‘ideology of work’. It is common for workers to think that the more we work the richer and happier we will be. So accustomed are we to the work ethic that we tend to think ‘I have a job therefore I am’. This is why we still tend to look down on the unemployed, the ‘welfare mother’, the housewife and, particularly, the househusband! Many of us accept the notion that of Margaret Thatcher – ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA) to privatisation, globalisation, capitalism, individualisation, and to dog-eat-dog competition, whether between individual workers or workers of different ethnicities or nationalities.

Today we have to recognise as work a range of such: not only the traditional type of wage work and wageworker - increasingly female! - but also such ‘a-typical’ labour as that of sub-contractees in sweatshops or ‘self-employed’ homeworkers, as well as housekeepers, since women here provide unpaid labour to keep the wage-worker going. ‘A-typical’ work has always been typical of countries like India or Peru. But it is increasing, relative to ‘typical’ work, in the industrialised capitalist world.

Trade unions are confronted with the alternatives of 1) defending the decreasing number or proportion of traditional wage-earners, or of 2) recognising and taking on board the problem of work - plus overwork and worklessness - as a whole. We need to be involved in the struggle for socially-useful, ecologically-friendly, work controlled by the producers and consumers for self-determined purposes. And we need to remember that one of the original demands of the labour movement was not for more work but to put an end to wage-slavery as a whole. The problem is, of course, that in distributing available work fairly, and ensuring we all work less hours, we are increasingly confronted by a globalised and informatised capitalist economy.

Globalisation and informatisation: theirs and ours, from above and from below

‘Globalisation’ actually means simply the increasing spread of social relations, economic, political, communicational, cultural, and the increasing intensity of impact that these have on previously separate, distinct or isolated communities. Globalisation means at least as dramatic a transformation of our world as did national industrialisation one or two centuries ago.

But globalisation is not neutral, nor is it necessarily bad or good.

The globalisation of the capitalist economy, of globalisation from above, affects every aspect of the lives of everyone, in every part of the world. For workers it means being confronted by the growing power of a small number of global corporations, and thus by ruthless global competition. Workers have to now sell themselves in a global labour market.

Traditional forms of action, through trade unions, works councils, collective bargaining and political parties, appear incapable of effective defence, far less of winning victories, in this situation.

Globalisation is both an effect and cause of ‘informatisation’. Informatisation refers to computerised communication, products, services. Informatisation includes the Internet, the World Wide Web, cyberspace, computerised processes, such as supply-chain management, worldwide financial movements, computer-aided design, call-centres, computerised products, such as mobile phones, digital cameras, DVDs, video-games, toys.

It is informatisation that allows companies to free themselves of a particular location or country, or even the earth as we have known it. They can operate in cyberspace, in what has been called ‘virtual reality’. Thanks to this, corporations can change their shape, their labour force, their sites, whilst increasing their control and amassing unimaginable profits.

Any labour effort to confront, influence or control globalisation – to create globalisation from below - is going to have to develop democratic, labour-controlled informatisation practices, and to operate in cyberspace.

Given that computerisation is based on the feedback-principle, pn the continuing exchange of ideas and information (many-to-many communication), it implies an unlimited potential for equality, solidarity, democratisation and emancipation. But a potential has to be released.

Globalisation and informatisation make a new kind of unionism both necessary and possible.

Putting the movement back into the labour movement

Unions were once a part of, or even the leaders of, national and international social movements for democracy, equality and solidarity. But they have increasingly become ‘car clubs for workers’, possibly defending the interests of specific wage-worker categories, whilst losing sight of the interests of working people and society as a whole. They have been losing their membership base, their members, and even the commitment of the members they retain.

Labour organisations need to move beyond being ‘economic’ or ‘political’ or ‘political-economic’, and to move in the direction of a ‘new social unionism’. This has be simultaneously economic, political, social and cultural. It has to recognise all the interests of wage-workers, whilst being open to all kinds of workers, to the un- and under-employed, and to all other democratic social movements.

Globalisation and informatisation both require and facilitate the surpassing of the company, industrial, category, bureaucratic and national frontiers of unionism. The principle and practice of networking can allow the union to become internally democratic, socially open and global in reach.

A unionism reinvented for the period of globalisation will need, amongst other things, to address:

  • All forms of work, all kinds of workers, and the worker as human-being;
  • What work and products, under what conditions, are socially necessary and useful;
  • Education, culture and communication, so as to support a labour, democratic and popular culture;
  • Shopfloor democracy and horizontal relations both between workers and between the workers and other popular and democratic social forces;
  • All other social issues and movements, such as peace, anti-racism and the environment, concerned with humanising the world workers live in.

Such a new kind of unionism would therefore also have to be a global solidarity unionism.

A new kind of internationalism: a global solidarity unionism

Whilst once international labour solidarity belonged to and was carried out by the workers themselves, it has increasingly come to mean the ‘international relations’ of unions, carried out by union officers. The international union organisations often deal with issues about which workers are uninformed, or which are irrelevant to them, or which are ineffective in advancing or even defending worker wages and conditions.

A new kind of labour internationalism has to be relevant to a globalised and informatised world. It has to be a new kind global labour solidarity. Amongst other things this implies:

  • Being controlled by union members rather than their leaders;
  • Being carried out by workers themselves;
  • Being carried out together with other global solidarity movements;
  • Surpassing a one-way or top-down union solidarity, from the ‘rich’ to the ‘poor’ workers or unions, by a multi-directional one, meaning also South to North and East to West);
  • Utilising computers and networking to circumvent bureaucratic procedures, political bias and pyramidical structures, by an unmediated worker-to-worker communication.

A new kind of global solidarity unionism will have to also surpass the old labour party and union politics by a new kind of politics.

A new kind of politics: a local-to-global civil society

We have seen the end of the Cold War, the decline or collapse of the old Communist, Social-Democratic or Radical-Nationalist projects or regimes, (as in Egypt and Peru, at different moments). Yet union politics are still commonly self-subordinated to the ‘national interest’, to national or international political parties, to national or inter-state principles of procedures of ‘social partnership’, in which the unions are permanent junior partners. Labour and Social-Democratic parties are increasingly introducing neo-liberal policies and either calling the unions to heel, or ignoring them. The old politics means dependence on political parties, on states or inter-state institutions – even on friendly multinationals.

A new politics would mean, an empowering of workers and their real social partners in ‘civil society’. Civil society, here, refers to those areas and aspects of social life independent of corporations and states, and/or to those activities aimed at extending ‘the democratic sector’ in and against capital and state.

The very concept of civil society was (re)invented alongside the (re)invention of democratic social movements in Eastern Europe and Latin America. It was picked up in Western Europe and then globalised by the so-called ‘global solidarity and justice movement’ (GJ&SM;). This has found expression in the Zapatista movement in Mexico (1994), the great cross-movement mobilisations against the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, World Trade Organisation, in places like Seattle 1989, Genoa 2001, and the worldwide anti-war demonstrations of February 2003.

The traditional national and international trade unions have been increasingly taking part in the most well-known international expression of this new movement, the World, European, National and Local Social Forums (2001 to 2005 and ongoing). But, whilst this participation reveals a certain recognition by the international union organisations of the new politics, they are still simultaneously investing in the old politics of the World Economic Forum, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank.

An increasing movement of trade union energies from the old politics to the new would re-invigorate the unions, as well as ensuring labour questions are fully represented within the GJ&SM.;

The new movements are ‘global’ rather than ‘international’, meaning that the world is seen as one society rather than a collection of competing nation-states or blocs, their parties, unions, etc. This helps to also overcome the opposition between the local and global that still limits traditional trade unions.

The local and the global as interdependent

Companies or corporations, in the past, were tied to or dependent upon certain sites such as mines and ports, certain towns, regions or nation-states. It was therefore possible for labour to fight on these terrains, to either defend or assert itself, by protest, reform or revolution. With the increasing globalisation/informatisation of capital, defence of a particular locality, like defence of particular skills or types of labour, is decreasingly effective.

One response of labour to globalisation has been to try to defend the locality, the nation-state or even such regions as the European Union. In the US auto-industry workers used to organise quite ineffective Toyota-crushing ceremonies. Steel-industry workers tried to prevent steel from low-cost Chinese workers being imported into the USA. Globalisation here is not seen as a new terrain on which it is necessary and possible to fight, but an evil empire opposed to the virtuous, or anyway familiar, local.

Another response, of some of the new social movements, has been to say ‘Think Globally; Act Locally’. This meant recognising the need for solidarity, but still considering the local, or the national, the regional, as either the only or the privileged terrain for struggle.

Labour movements are, however, increasingly recognising that workers have multiple socio-geographic identities, interests, communities, as – simultaneously - Nürnbergers, Bavarians, Germans, Europeans, global citizens. Local protests, like that against water privatisation in the isolated provincial city of Cochabamba, in isolated Bolivia, inspire global events, such as those against the World Bank in Washington. Conversely, events at global level, or processes in cyberspace, literally inform local ones. If the labour movement is to be effective in the era of globalisation, the slogan will have to be ‘Think Locally/Globally; Act Locally/Globally’. And, of course, Act Cyberspatially! What we still have to work out with our fellows everywhere is what kind of locality, city, nation, region, world we want.


This paper has dealt with the changing nature of work, with globalisation and informatisation (from above and below), with the necessity for and possibility of a new model of unionism and politics (from the local to the global), with the consequent recognition of the local and global as interdependent.

Whilst all this might seem to be utopian, in the negative sense, we should remember what Oscar Wilde said: ‘A map of the world that does not show utopia is not worth looking at’. It is possible to witness labour movements in general, or trade unions in particular, beginning to move in the direction of some kind of global social solidarity unionism. Making the model explicit can help to bring it about. The alternative is to continue in the old way and be confronted by dystopia, the opposite of utopia.

This does not mean that what is proposed above is a ready-worked out and complete ideology or strategy, which workers have to then absorb, believe and follow. On the contrary, the paper is simply meant to provoke thought and action. As the Spanish saying goes, ‘The road is made whilst walking’.

Here are some ideas for how the ideas sketched above might be fruitfully responded to:

  1. Discuss now their pros and cons. Argue against them, if you wish, in favour of an existing model of unionism, or challenge them with one or other alternative;
  2. Read the background materials and seek others in print or on the web;
  3. Discuss the crisis of trade unionism and possible alternatives to such within your works council, within your union and, of course, with your workmates;
  4. Find out where your company has branches, contracts out, has subsidiaries, what kind of worker organisations they have and how these work;
  5. Encourage contacts with workmates worldwide, using existing possibilities for such, but creating alternatives where necessary;
  6. Consider the meaning of solidarity under and against globalisation-from- above, organise common multi-directional solidarity actions and evaluate them as they take place;
  7. Identify potential allies for your struggles, identify with struggles presently or potentially compatible with your own, from the local community to the global level;
  8. Encourage your workmates, union and works council members to act both autonomously (meaning self-determination) and collectively (by dialogue with others);
  9. Recognise and take advantage of the power of informatisation, particularly of labour and democratically-controlled media like the web and cheap multimedia;
  10. Make ‘work’ a matter of discussion, consider how production, the production process and consumption could be made socially useful;
  11. Politics is too important to leave to politicians, develop alternative forms which you can own and control;
  12. Remember, another world of labour is not only possible but necessary…and urgent!


Arquilla, John and Ronfeldt, David, 2001. ‘Networks and Netwars: The future of terror, crime, and militancy’, Rand, USA.

Bellal, Selma et. al. (eds). 2003. Sydicats et société civil: des liens à (re) découvrir. Bruxelles : Éditions Labor.

Barbrook, Richard. 1999. 'Frequently Asked Questions: Digital Workers and Artisans: Get Organised':,

Bibbey, Andrew 2003. The Global Mobility Revolution, Union Network International. Mobility.pdf

Brecher, Jeremy and Costello, Tim 2004. ‘OUTSOURCE THIS!, American Workers, the Jobs Deficit, and the Fair Globalization Solution’, The North American Alliance for Fair Employment.!.pdf

Brecher, Jeremy, Costello, Tim and Smith, Brendan 2000. ‘Globalization from below: the power of solidarity’, South End Press

Escobar, Arturo. 2003. `Other Worlds Are (already) Possible: Cyber-Internationalism and Post-Capitalist Cultures´.

Gorz, André. 1999. `A New Task for the Trade Unions: The Liberation of Time from Work´, in Ronaldo Munck and Peter Waterman (eds), Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alterantive Union Models in the New World Order, Houndmills: Macmillan. Pp. 41-63.

Grubacic, Andrej and David Graeber. 2004. `Anarchism, or the Revolutionary Movement of the 21st Century´.§ionID;=41

Hollis, Dave.2004. Offshoring – A Global Approach

Hyman, Richard 1999. Imagined Solidarities: Can Trade Unions Resist Globalization?

Hyman, Richard. 2004. `Agitation, Organisation, Diplomacy, Bureaucracy: Trends and Dilemmas in International Trade Unionism´, Labor History, 45(3).

Huws, Ursula. 2003. The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World. London: Merlin.

Massey, Doreen. 2000. `The Geography of Power´, Red Pepper (UK), No. 73, pp. 18-21.

Patkar, Medhar and Sanjay Sangvai. 2004. `Meeting Point for Trade Unions and Environmentalists´, Labour File, (Special Issue: Labour, Environment and Community), Vol. 2, No. 6, pp 20-26.

Waterman, Peter and Jill Timms. 2004. ‘Trade Union Internationalism and A Global Civil Society in the Making’, in Kaldor, Mary, Helmut Anheier and Marlies Glasius (eds), Global Civil Society 2004/5. London: Sage. Pp. 178-202.

Waterman, Peter. 2004. ‘The World Social Forum and the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement: A Backgrounder’, in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman (eds). 2004. The World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: Viveka.

Relevant texts in German

Bibbey, Andrew 2003. Strategie in einem zunehmend globalen Arbeitsmarkt. Die globale Mobilitäts-Revolution. Union Network International. German.pdf

Brenner, Johanna. 2004. `Transnationaler Feminismus and Kampf um globale Gerechtigkeit´, in Sen et. al. 2004.

Escobar, Arturo. 2004. `Andere Welten sind (schon) möglich: Selbstorganisiering, Komplexität und postkapatalisctische Kulturen´, in Sen et. al. 2004.

Graeber, David. 2004. `Das Zwielicht des Avantgardismus´, in Sen et. al. 2004.

Hardt, Michael und Negri, Antonio 2004. `Multitude’, Campus Verlag,

Heine, Hannes. 2005. `Gewerkschaft neuen Typs´, Junge Welt. 03.02.05.

Hollis, Dave 2004. Anmerkungen zum Offshoring,

Holloway, John, 2004. `Die Welt verändern, ohne die Macht zu übernehmen’, Westfälisches Dampfboot

Hyman, Richard. 2002. `Grenzen der Solidarität´, Eurozine,

Lenz, Ilse. 2003. `Veränderungen der Geschlechterverhältnisse in der Globalisierung der Wirtschaft´ (Changes in Gender Relations under Economic Globalisation), 39th session of the International Conference of Labour and Social History, Linz, Austria, September 11-14, 2003: `Labour and New Social Movements in a Globalising World System´.

Sen, Jai, Arturo Escobar, Anita Anand and Peter Waterman (eds). 2004. Ein andere Welt: Das Weltsozialforum. Berlin: Dietz Verlag/Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. 504 pp.

Unfried, Berthold and Marcel van der Linden (eds., assisted by Christine Schindler). 2004. Arbeit, Arbeiterbewegung und neue soziale Bewegungen im globalisierten Weltsystem (Labour and New Social Movements in a Globalising World System). (ITH Conference Proceedings, Vol. 38) Akademische Verlagsanstalt Leipzig.

Waterman, Peter. 2002. ‘Emanzipation des ArbeiterInnen-Internationalismus’, Kurswechsel, (Gewerkschaftliche Erneuerung und Globalisierung), Heft 2.

Waterman, Peter. 2004. ‘Die Bewegung für globale Gerechtigkeit und Solidarität und das Weltsozialforum’, in Sen et. al. 2004.

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