The global labour movement is at a crossroads.
That’s the verdict of Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s International Summer School in Barnsley this week. Workers are being hit by neoliberalism across the world – that much is obvious – but politically, the issue is this: how are unions to respond in the face of supposedly left-wing parties that have conceded to many of the neoliberal policies unions despise?
It’s question being asked while the populist right soar in much of the global north – filling the void where previously socialist politics would have existed.
Fletcher sees the current attacks on workers – from privatisation to public sector cuts – as representing the ‘obliteration of the social contract’ that emerged following the Second World War. But it was a social contract that was also ‘historically specific’ – built amid fear of the red threat.
It’s a message echoed by Asbjørn Wahl of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees. For him, the tripartite state-union-employer relationship dominant across much of Europe following World War Two was the ‘child of class compromise’ – a child that’s now left home. In other words, there’s no going back. But neither should we. Capitalist and union cooperation dampened the radicalism of working class in an attempt to bolster support for the Cold War.
While it did lead to several decades of social progress in the West, social democracy became a mere ‘mediator between classes’. Such mediation became the final aim of the labour movement. And in capitulating to this, they gave up on socialism, contributing to an ideological crisis on the left.
Yet the end of the social democratic accord in the 1980s has made nation states less and less responsive to popular demands, while the stresses of neoliberal globalisation turn populations against one another. For Fletcher, the system’s weakness has created a breeding ground for a right-wing populism – what he amusingly calls ‘the herpes of capitalism’ – that is now on the rise across Europe and elsewhere. At the same time, any resistance to the neoliberal project is met with repression.
There is clearly a strong sense of alienation among people however. It’s up to the left to politicise this discontent. To do this will require broad new social alliances, concrete alternatives, and unions taking on broader political responsibility amidst mainstream party capitulation, Wahl claims. Such alternatives must be built on a minimum programme that includes standing against austerity, taxing the rich, cancelling public debt, socialising finance and defending democracy.
The current crisis is of course political. The response must also be political – rebuilding labour movement and rebuilding left must go hand in hand. There’s no going back to the corporatism of the 1970s. But Fletcher argues unions can be a ‘civilising force amid the current chaos’ – if they go through a reformation.
Such a reformation must involve the re-radicalisation and re-politicisation of unions instead of continuing a business or servicing model. And that’s no small task. But if the labour movement is to get out of this current conjuncture, we can’t depend on doing the same and expecting different results. Nor can we rely on revivalism and nostalgia for some by-gone social democratic past. Instead, we need a fresh start if we’re going to have any chance of challenging the ‘capitalism on crack’ that is the current paradigm. That will include working with social movements like those that organised the millions-strong Madrid march against austerity in March. If we do this, Wahl says, ‘we have a chance to avoid extinction’. It is, therefore, a chance we can’t afford to miss.
Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘Capitalism, Anti-Capitalism and the Trade Union Movement’.