“We have survived to fight another day, and that day is today”.
Drawing on a lifetime of  work and experience in the union movement, most of it at international level, network member Dan Gallin* looks at the big picture — how did unions end up where they are today? What can we learn from our mistakes? And where should we be going from here? This article is condensed from Dan’s welcome address to the Global Labour Institute summer school in Manchester, July 2012.

We are labour movement activists because we believe our movement is the first line of resistance, as well as the last, against the cold darkness of transnational corporate power. This power is advancing to impose its own brand of order on the world, with gated estates of privilege protected by militarized States, in a sea of miserable, exploited and repressed humanity, pillaging and destroying life-sustaining resources.

Must the labor movement save the world? Yes, of course. Who else is there? If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when? No other force in society has the potential to achieve this goal, which is the only goal that matters today.

Having said this, we have to admit that our starting point is not the best one we could have wished. Our movement is in a deep crisis, a two-fold crisis: a crisis of the trade union movement and a crisis of socialism, and we should be aware that these are related, so much so that it is impossible to deal with them separately.

Let’s try nevertheless  to untangle the connections.

First, the trade union movement. What is striking in the present situation of the trade union movement is not so much the violent onslaught from corporate power and conservative governments against its position in society, although that is a remarkable development,  but its passivity in the face of this onslaught.

There are two reasons for this passivity:  the objective decline of union power since WWII in its heartland, Europe and in North America, and the ideological disarmament that has accompanied it.

To understand what has happened, we need to do a flash-back, about seventy years ago or more. Fascism in Europe, whatever else it may have been, was a gigantic union-busting exercise. Its consequences, and the consequences of WWII, are too often forgotten. A whole generation of labour activists disappeared in concentration camps, in the war, or did not come back from exile.

At the end of the war, the labour movement re-emerged, superficially strong, because it was part of the Allied cause, and had won the war, whereas capital was on the defensive, having largely collaborated with fascism in the Axis countries and in occupied Europe.

In reality, the labour movement had been greatly weakened, with a decimated leadership and its capacity to act as an independent social force severely undermined. Since all democratic governments in post-war Europe were initially supportive of the labour agenda, the trade unions, in their weakened condition, gratefully developed an over-reliance on the State. No longer was there any aspiration to represent an alternative society. Amidst the newfound peace and prosperity, the labour movement had disarmed ideologically and politically.

In the USSR and in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe under its domination, it was a different story. All traces of an independent labor movement were erased. Nearly all the cadres and activists of the socialist, syndicalist, or dissident communist movements who had survived the war perished in the labor camps and prisons of the system. A new class of bureaucrats took total control of society. In that system, so-called trade unions were in fact State agencies of labour administration.

With Eastern Europe frozen in a Stalinist paralysis for fifty years, there remained the movement in Western Europe. But the labour movement that emerged in the post-war period was not the kind of labour movement to meet the challenges of an entirely new world situation.

After three decades of complacency, its ideological and political heritage had been diluted and trivialized. Its priorities had been distorted by the Cold War. Still powerful trade union organizations were led, far too often, by leaderships geared towards administering the gains of earlier struggles, rather than to organizing and engaging in new struggles, generally unquestioning in their acceptance of the ideology of social partnership and bereft of political imagination.

What I am describing here of course not only applies to Europe but, for different reasons, to North America and to other parts of the world as well, such as Japan. While the labour movement was asleep, the world changed dramatically. New communications and transport technologies led to an unprecedented mobility of capital, while labour remained a prisoner, mentally and institutionally, of the nation-State.

The working class was also changing. Traditional bastions of the trade union movement in the mass-production industries and in the public sector were falling, while the largely unorganized service sector was expanding.

The informal economy, once thought to be a remnant of archaic forms of production destined to disappear, has, on the contrary, grown everywhere, including industrialized countries. If we are talking about services and the informal economy, we are talking about women workers. Women represent a huge, and largely invisible, part of the new working class.

With the fall of the dictatorships in their own countries, a more militant labour movement arose in Brazil, Spain, South Africa and South Korea. However, its international impact remained modest, because of domestic priorities and unclear politics.

In the 1980s and 1990s, workers from China, India and the former Soviet block entered the global labour pool. This meant that about 2 billion new workers joining the global system of production and consumption — almost tripling the size of the world’s now globally-connected work force.

These workers are, for practical purposes, unorganized. In China, what passes for trade unions are in fact State agencies of labour administration and do not represent their captive membership. In India, over 90 percent of the labour force is in the informal sector, where organization is still weak, and the existing trade unions, divided into eight or more national centers, represent a fraction of the remaining few percent. In the former Soviet bloc, the collapse of the system in the 1990s exposed the hollowness of the so-called State trade unions and left behind a weak, divided and disoriented labour movement.

Here we have the real reason for the global shift of power relations in favor of transnational capital: organized labour no longer represents a statistically significant proportion of the global labour force. With a global labour force of approximately 3 billion, and organized labour representing globally 170 million at the most, we get a global union density that is just below 6 percent.

At the same time, most of organized labour lost the plot.  The pre-war trade union movement, at least its majority, had a common narrative about society: broadly socialist, based implicitly or explicitly on a Marxist interpretation of history, with a perspective of social transformation. This was no longer the case after the war.

This brings us to the crisis of socialism, which is a crisis of the meaning of socialism. In most West-European countries the trade unions remained connected to social-democracy, to social-democratic or labour parties, but many of these parties very soon started abandoning their identity as class parties of labour.

The reconstruction of capitalism through the Marshall Plan, followed by thirty years of the social welfare State, removed any sense of urgency for social transformation.  And then there was the Cold War.

What the Cold War did, was two things: it compromised the concept of socialism by equating it with Stalinism. Both sides colluded in this operation, the Soviet side, with its self-described “socialist countries”, seeking to legitimize its system as an embodiment of historical socialism, and the conservative side, totally agreeing that the so-called “socialist countries” were indeed socialist, rather than the opposite of everything socialism had ever stood for, seeking to discredit the concept of socialism by equating it with Soviet reality.

The other effect of the Cold War in the West was to demonize not only communism but the entire socialist Left as irrelevant sectarians or communist fellow-travellers. Anti-communism became a substitute for historical memory and for critical thought, at national and international level. On the communist side, the same principle applied: those who are not with us are against us, most likely as agents of the other imperialism.

In the United States, the purge of radicals in the CIO and its merger with the American Federation of Labor in 1955 deprived the trade union movement of an independent political compass, opening the way to its collusion with the American government in its imperialist ventures – that story has been told often enough and I need not elaborate here.

Those of us who were independent socialists at that time, opposed to both sides of the Cold War, did not have an easy time. But we fought and we survived to fight another day, and that other day is today.

In retrospect, the principal casualty of that period, with the most fateful consequences,  was social-democracy as a bearer of the socialist heritage.

The flagship of European social-democracy, the German SPD, was the first to recast itself as a Volkspartei, a peoples’ party, at the notorious congress of Bad Godesberg, in 1959, by a majority vote of 324, including many former left-socialists, against 16 far-sighted and courageous opponents.

Other parties followed, some going much further in distancing themselves from socialism than the SPD had done. I will not entertain you with a review of this sad decline, most of you will have experienced it in your own countries or heard about it: who hasn’t heard about “New Labour” or the “Third Way”, as promoted by con artists like Blair, Schröder and Clinton?

I want to focus on the outcome. What happened here, was the acceptance of capitalism, not only in practice but also in theory, as the ultimate form of economic and social organization. The purpose of the party was reduced to the  opportunistic goal of winning elections on whatever terms: capturing the vote of the conservative opposition by adopting most of their policies. Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher, when asked what she regarded as the greatest achievement of her tenure, reply: “Tony Blair”.

And then, in the middle of this process, the roof started falling in. In 1989, the Soviet block collapsed, in 1991 the USSR disintegrated. None of us had expected this to happen so soon, and so fast. Had we seen it coming, we would have prepared better, but we hoped anyway that some form of a democratic socialist society would emerge from the wreckage.

These expectations were not totally groundless. Most of the dissidents in the Soviet block were left-wingers, ranging from democratic socialists to revolutionary syndicalists in Russia.  No popular movement had called for the restoration of capitalism. Even Polish Solidarity, later hijacked by Catholic conservatives, initially had a Left leadership core, including independent Marxists like Kuron and Modzelewski and socialists like Jan Józef Lipski.

What we got, of course, was the very opposite of social democracy. What we got was the so-called “shock therapy” and wholesale integration in the capitalist world economy. In Russia and a few other countries, the ruling power elite recycled itself as a new capitalist ruling class, as ruthless and lawless in their new role as they had been before, but much richer through the looting of public assets. Millions of people suffered a drastic collapse of their living standards, through unemployment, insecurity, and the loss of social services that had been provided by the old communist governments.

So what went wrong? What went wrong was the disappearance of social-democracy in the West. A strong, self-confident and principled social-democracy in Western Europe, not necessarily in government, might have had an impact on political developments in the East. A social-democracy, on the other hand, which had interiorized neo-liberalism had no credibility left. It could only confirm what the Right had been telling us all along: there is no alternative.

There is a tragic irony in this. At the very moment where its historical rival and enemy on the Left – Communism in its Stalinist form – finally collapsed, social-democracy, together with its own historical identity, had left the scene.

There were also consequences at trade union level. Many European and American unions, mostly with the best of intentions, rushed to assist and advise the unions which had survived or emerged in the former Soviet block. Without any identifiable common ideological foundation, and without a common narrative, and generally ignorant of what had been a Eastern European labour movement as old as their own, all they could do was to offer technical advice and recommend their own (widely different) national practices as an example to follow, thereby adding to the confusion.

The same vanishing social-democracy, for the same reasons, is now unable to deal with the manufactured financial crisis of world capitalism, and with the onslaught against its own historical achievements – the social welfare State – as well as against what had been, and should have remained,  the true basis of its power: the trade union movement.

Social-democratic parties are losing elections all over Europe for having endorsed “austerity” packages, in the best of cases replaced by previously hardly known left-socialist parties, or, like in France, exceptionally winning an election on the expectation of resisting such “austerity” policies. In many countries a gap has been widening between the trade union movement and the social-democratic parties that were its historical allies.  Yet the trade union movement still needs to recover the political dimension it has lost.

How do we get out of this hole? We are facing a huge task, and let us remember to be modest. We will not come up with big answers and big solutions, not yet, because the problems are many and complicated. But we can make a beginning with a discussion which, as far as I am aware, is not taking place anywhere else.

The issues are at the same time ideological, political and organizational. Let us look at some of them:

Whilst capitalism is the environment we work in, it is not the end of history. This system cannot last and will not last. Socialism remains our goal. Instructed by experience, we know that the meaning of socialism must be radical democracy: real power, democratically exercised, by the real people, at every level,  not by any substitutes, no vanguard parties, no “progressive” dictators. When trying to reconstruct what might be independent labour politics, let us have a new look at our forgotten heritage, including that of our own dissidents, guild socialism, revolutionary syndicalism.

We need to reconstruct the identity of our class, the working class. We are not a “middle class” as, unfortunately and opportunistically the AFL-CIO is pretending, nor are we, as trade unionists, a “special interest group”, as our enemies would have it. The “occupy” movement got it right: we are the 99%. However, unions that endorse this view must move beyond the interests of their own members, narrowly defined, and move towards class responses in new organizational forms and renewed organizations.

The international union movement we have is not the one we need and deserve. The ETUC is a deer caught in headlights; the ITUC still a bureaucracy in search of a cause; the WFTU is a Stalinist dead-end. We need not dwell on this a great deal, there is not much to be gained by shooting the piano player. We should remain critical of the hype that accompanies international union “mergers” that are actually no more than co-operation agreements, we should be aware that “global unions” do not as yet exist, and keep working for real global unions to come into being.

Marx observed that all labour struggles are international in substance but national in form. The most effective internationalism is often to fight where we stand and thereby supporting advances by workers in other countries (rather than undermining them by our own concessions).

We want to build international networks where we can, with our comrades of the New Unionism Network, Socialist Register and others, together with Global Union Federations wherever possible, outside of them where necessary, even if with their help, as some of us have done with the domestic workers.

We need to remain aware that women represent a huge proportion of the as-yet-unorganized working class, with enormous reserves of energy and courage, much of it still untapped and dormant. Don’t you realize that the gender issue is even more fundamental than the class issue? It goes back to the roots of humanity, long before society was organized into classes. After all this time, and despite undeniable progress, much of the labour movement still doesn’t get it. In the Global Labour Institute’s mission statement fifteen years ago, we wrote: “Justice for women, and equality on the job and in society, requires not only alliances between unions and the women’s movements, but the feminization of the trade union movement: the massive influx of women workers into unions, all the way to leadership levels. Only by changing this aspect of its inherited culture can the trade union movement become fully representative and gain the power to carry out its mandate.” This remains our commitment. Our allies are Women in  Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO),  the Self Employed Women’s Association of India, the largest women workers’ organization in the world, and the thousands of women organizing in unions everywhere.

And after all this: let’s go out and work and fight, with courage and passion. And let’s keep together. We may be the start of a community of solidarity, thought and struggle. As our Austrian comrades used to say: “Friendship!” Thank you for your attention.

This article has been condensed from Dan’s welcome address to the first summer school of the Global Labour Institutes, held at Northern College, near Manchester U.K., from July 9-13, 2012. The Global Labour Institutes are based in Manchester, New York/Cornell University and Geneva.

* Dan Gallin
Dan is currently chair of the Global Labour Institute (GLI), a foundation established in 1997 with a secretariat in Geneva. The GLI investigates the consequences of the globalization of the world economy for workers and trade unions, develops and proposes counterstrategies and promotes international thought and action in the labour movement. Prior to this, he worked for the IUF from August 1960 until April 1997, since 1968 as General Secretary. He was born in 1931 as a Romanian citizen, became stateless in 1949 and was granted Swiss citizenship in 1969. He studied political science and sociology in the United States and in Switzerland and since 1953 has lived in Geneva. He joined the socialist movement as a student in the United States in 1951 and has been a member of the Swiss Social-Democratic Party since 1955. He is a member of the Swiss General Workers’ Union UNIA and has been a member of one of its predecessors, the Swiss Commercial, Transport and Food Workers’ Union, since 1960. He served as President of IFWEA from 1992 to 2003 and was Director of the Organization and Representation Program of WIEGO from June 30, 2000 to July 31, 2002. He continues to serve on the WIEGO Steering Committee. He is currently researching union organization of women workers in the informal economy, labour movement history and issues of policy and organization in the international trade union movement.