Contribution to a Roundtable: Planetizing the Labor Movement
Bill Fletcher Jr.
Ronaldo Munck's essay was a thrilling read. It was thought-provoking, concrete, and optimistic. It is precisely the sort of piece necessary to encourage genuine strategic thinking within the broader global labor movement. As such, I hope that the essay receives broad circulation.
I wish to raise four issues, however, where I believe that I may have some differences with Munck or where I believe that some thoughts need further elaboration.
First, technology is not a major piece of Munck’s essay (and I do not wish to belabor the matter), but I think that the essay tends to downplay the impact of robotization and other forms of new technology. While Munck makes a strong and convincing case that the working class is not evaporating anytime soon, the impact of new technology on the transformation of what we think of as work and the elimination of entire industries is difficult to dispute. Further, what is not happening is the production of replacement work for those sectors of the working class that have been devastated, at least replacement in the sense of anything comparable. There has been the growth of the informal economy, which Munck mentions, but there has also been redundancy. Redundancy should be a source of concern for multiple reasons, not the least being that it plays into the “genocidal gene” inherent in capitalism whereby populations are considered not only unnecessary, but irrelevant.
Second, and related, while there has been a growing basis for genuine working-class internationalism, right-wing populism has emerged as a major competitor to progressive and left-led trade unionism. This movement, whether in the Global North or Global South, has played into the fears of so-called majority populations as they have witnessed their living standards decrease. Additionally, right-wing populism can and frequently does utilize the language of the Left in order to win over segments of our base. Right-wing populism and right-wing nationalism, a subset of which is fascism, are a grave danger to our future and must be actively combated, which means that the new labor movement must not fall prey to the illusion that addressing right-wing populism is somehow destructive or a distraction from the alleged real work of labor unions. If we do not succeed in defeating right-wing populism, right-wing populism will overtake us. Thus, we must appreciate that workers of the world have twin enemies in the form of neoliberal globalization (and authoritarianism) and right-wing populism.
Third, implicit in Munck's essay is a call for not only transnational unionism but also what I would term “social justice unionism.” There are many terms that have arisen over the last 30 years to describe an alternative form of unionism. My co-author in Solidarity Divided—Dr. Fernando Gapasin—and I chose “social justice unionism" in that the objective is not solely member mobilization, nor mass organizing, but the additional shift in the objectives of trade unionism themselves. Social justice unionism must be organizing the informal economy, as well as building alliances for transformational, structural reforms. It needs to be a form of unionism that is thoroughly internationalist, as well as anti-sexist. In fact, social justice unionism needs to be an anti-oppression unionism that, among other things, embraces the emancipation of women and the need to obliterate all forms of gender and sexual oppression and discrimination.
Fourth, the concern I have with Munck’s formulation of a new international is that the objectives are not as precise as I believe that they should be. The prior internationals were explicitly anticapitalist. I would argue that a Fifth International—as raised by individuals such as the late Hugo Chavez or the late Samir Amin—should be anti-capitalist as well. Yes, as Munck argues, there are broad progressive issues that a Fifth International should advance. But that is not enough. We need a Fifth International that will advance an alternative to the capitalist barbarism which billions are experiencing. The reality is that labor unions, as institutions, are not radical political parties, even if radicals on the Left lead them. They are united front bodies that incorporate workers of various ideological orientations, religions, etc. Under specific circumstances, they can become anticapitalist bodies, but that would reflect, more than anything else, an alteration in the conjuncture and the move towards a revolutionary situation. As such, I do not believe that unions should be the leading force in a Fifth International, though I sincerely believe that they can contribute to such a process.
Again, I applaud Ronaldo Munck for this tight and provocative essay.