AFL-CIO Goes Global

Seattle changed many things, and one of them is American labor. Nothing lifts the spirit or one's vision like winning. Rank-and-file members returned home exhilarated by their victory, and so did their leaders. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, already prodded by manufacturing unions to stake out a tougher response to globalization, recognized in Seattle a "historic turning point." His response in February--a multi-front, long-term campaign for reordering the global economy--transforms the labor federation's priorities and puts globalization at the top of the list.

"American unions need to build a new internationalism," Sweeney told union presidents at their midwinter executive council meeting, "one focused on building international solidarity around a progressive, pro-worker, pro-environment and pro-community international economic policy. We need to make human concerns--and not just corporate interests--a driver in the global economy."

Is this just more boilerplate? Or does organized labor really intend to revive its original idealism and purpose and try to make it work as practical politics? I'm convinced it's the latter, which is not the same as predicting that the AFL will succeed or that anything major about the global system is going to change soon. But this feels like a significant turn--a turn quite different from the insider politics labor has played through the years in Washington. The commitment can lend considerable skill and energy to this new movement that announced itself with a splash in Seattle. Once labor puts itself in motion around Sweeney's agenda, particularly toward building alliances with workers elsewhere in the world, people may begin to see it as a smart, resourceful lodestar (one of many worldwide) in the struggle to impose human values on corporate-led globalization. And if labor heads down this road, it is bound to change the labor movement, too. The mobilizing energy that unions hope to inspire among local members, joining students, churches and others in confronting multinational corporations, may take on a life of its own--a democratizing force union leaders can't control.

Sweeney's new agenda involves many other pieces meant to succeed by interacting with one another. Promoting new global rules and standards for workers' rights and collateral issues requires challenges to finance and business in many forms: from grassroots activism to Congressional action to reform aimed at power centers like the IMF and the WTO. Building solidarity with developing countries means convincing them of labor's intentions by supporting Jubilee 2000's debt-relief for poor nations, building joint campaigns with infant labor movements against official repression, adopting a pro-immigrant policy at home. The campaign for corporate accountability may be the most visible element at the outset, since AFL unions intend to bring the global demands into their bargaining relations with major multinationals and target some of them with very public corporate campaigns, including pressure from union-controlled pension funds.

If my optimism sounds jarring, the skeptics are entitled to their doubts. The labor movement no longer looks like a movement so much as a big, slow-moving ship that's stalled in a rough sea. Turning it around will not be done easily or overnight, though revival is what motivated the rebellion that elected Sweeney five years ago. Like many government agencies, the AFL is a bureaucratic institution constantly pulled in different directions by its own varied constituencies. It speaks for janitors (Sweeney's old union) but also for airline pilots, with very little authority to tell any of its member unions what to do. Over the last generation, as manufacturing jobs were ravaged and big labor shrank, the movement hunkered down in a defensive crouch, trying to protect what remained and depending ever more on the Democratic Party to hold off antilabor assaults on such prosaic matters as pension rights. Playing defense doesn't mix with leading on aggressive reforms and may even threaten them.

But the AFL is a very effective organization in the politics it does. Sweeney's language and ideas provide the larger vision. Organized labor, unlike other important institutions, is finally getting beyond the cold war--recognizing that the integrated global economy changes everything about how the international labor movement has functioned for fifty years and that it's time to think anew. Sweeney proposes a broad search for new structures, new alliances and strategies. If that reform seems late, it puts labor a giant step ahead of the Democratic and Republican parties, not to mention the US government.

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