Roundtable

Planetizing the Labor Movement
A contribution to an exchange on Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Immanuel Ness

These are most pessimistic times for the world’s working class. Not only has global capitalism tangibly defeated working-class organizations through neoliberal policies that have eroded their capacity to defend wages, jobs, and the rich tradition of working-class solidarity built through two centuries of struggle; but also the very idea of the laboring class as a force for social transformation fails to capture the imagination of those who seek human liberation at a time when the population of proletarians is larger than ever.

Ronaldo Munck’s intervention is a welcome reminder that workers and unions must remain resilient under the most adverse political and economic conditions. In the absence of working-class parties, trade unions are unable to restrain the national chauvinism and racism that have dangerously erupted in Europe and North America and amongst the bourgeois and comprador classes in the Global South. Indeed, as global solidarity has waned since the 1970s, the most privileged sections of workers in metropolitan and settler countries have promoted nationalism and intensified global poverty and inequality.

We must credit Munck for his abiding commitment to global labor solidarity, his careful delineation of the growing divisions in the working classes within countries, and his attempt to precisely characterize the nature of the working class in its myriad permutations. With a keen understanding of the desiccated labor movement that has grown under neoliberalism, Munck has clarified the significance of differentiating standard, informal, contract, and precarious work in today’s world. Munck’s prodigious scholarship is built upon a resolute rejection of the latest fads that captivate labor intellectuals, which only confuse and distort a vivid conceptualization of the stark divisions that are appearing globally. There are no new inventions to be discovered about the nature of labor. He rejects the dominant view that the working class is disappearing as a social force through the introduction of new technology. Digitization and robotization are the latest iterations, but they will not change the calculus of class antagonism and the necessity for working-class and peasant organization.

Globalization and technological change are accelerating at unprecedented speed, and employers are relentlessly seeking to lower wage costs. Marx and Engels were cognizant that these developments would bring new challenges to working-class solidarity. These challenges are formidable in stymieing class unity on a local and regional basis—for example, the recent resistance to placing Amazon’s vaunted second headquarters that pitted construction workers against retail and government employees. Likewise, the Keystone pipeline controversy showed that trade unions are often indifferent to the ecological impact of new development. Twenty years ago, the Battle in Seattle displayed a faint possibility of cooperation.

It is an even more formidable task to develop international working-class solidarity. Munck marshals compelling examples of valiant trade unions and labor organizations mobilizing and organizing for power, presenting specific examples of international solidarity in logistics and labor markets vulnerable to the strike. Best practices come and go, but we all know that a commitment to advancing the interests of the working class is rooted in class struggle and a commitment to class solidarity. However, under neoliberalism we have not seen “workers of the world unite” through existing labor organizations.

We do have a historical legacy of global working-class solidarity. While Global Union Federations and the International Trade Union Confederation are periodically challenging multinational capitalists to improve conditions, these labor organizations will not transform the calculus of ruling-class domination on a national and global level. The 200 million members of ITUC represent about 5 percent of all global workers, and their militancy varies along national and sectoral lines, reflecting the significance of states and global capital.

The potential for building international working-class solidarity in the transport and logistics sectors, from air transport and rail to shipping, provides a new redoubt for organization. But the cases, while impressive in themselves, are nebulous, and do not define the dominant impediment to global solidarity in the present era. We surely should support worker strikes at Ryan Air, NGO advocacy campaigns for worker rights, and temporary migrant labor organizing in Malaysia, but these examples are anemic and few and far between, and do not collectively build a major movement for transnational working-class solidarity. Indeed, similar campaigns have been waged in the last forty years of neoliberal capitalism, which, while impressive, do not build a strong case for an emergent movement for a nascent transnational labor solidarity. To build working-class solidarity, we cannot rely on technocrats and trade union administrators. Though competence and commitment are crucial in building workers’ organization, most of these new formations do not provide the basis for a new transnational solidarity.

Munck should be given credit for his call to workers of the world to unite. We need to foster hope rather than criticize without a solution. But history does provide powerful examples of international working-class solidarity.

We must start with identifying the divide between rich and poor as the most powerful working-class force for global solidarity over the last century. Global North workers must understand and act on the oppression that undergirds the capitalist system: the divide between workers in affluent regions and the 90 percent of the global working class living outside Western Europe, North America, and the rest of the settler world. This is why Imperialism and the Third World are still crucial concepts and realities. The problems encountered by First World workers pale by comparison to the reality faced by workers in the Third World.

What examples can we draw on? How can we build unity between the Global North and Global South? International working-class solidarity has always required socialist political organization. We can expect workers to engage in autonomous self-activity, innovative struggles, and strikes, but these forms of militancy can only succeed with cohesive leadership that arises from a revolutionary political perspective. Out of the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions, new movements and organizations emerged dedicated to the struggle against global capitalism and imperialism. At the moment, no such organization or movement exists. Thus, while agreement exists among Marxist trade unions in the Global South on the necessity for social transformation and anti-imperialism, few organizations have emerged with the capacity or will to challenge state power to build a broader movement against monopoly capitalism propelled by the imperialist states. If a communist or socialist party intent on building socialism takes power in the Global South, it will boost the spirits of workers on a global basis. 2019 is the hundredth anniversary of the Comintern, which sought to build an internationalist movement. Challenging global capitalism was initiated by first taking power in key regions of the colonized world.

Today’s socialists and workers can learn critical lessons that the most important struggle is against capitalist and imperialist oppression. The question then emerges: what kind of workers’ movement? Munck takes solace in the existing architecture of labor organizations in the contemporary capitalist system. But they do not possess the capacity or the willingness to change the calculus of state and world power as the Bolsheviks and Chinese Communists did. Both were intent on openly resisting capitalism and imperialism. Marx and Engels recognized the vast inequality between British and Irish workers. Lenin and Mao clearly identified the vast gap between the metropolitan countries of Europe and North America and workers and the peasantry in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They recognized that the most glaring struggle was between the imperialist countries and workers in oppressed nations. Yet ending European colonial domination was only the first step in a broader struggle for economic equality for the impoverished masses today in the Global South that live on a fraction of the wages of workers in the developed North.

Munck is correct to note that the size of the world’s working class is growing dramatically, more than doubling in the last twenty-five years. However, the absolute number of industrial workers is not declining but growing as it moves from North to South, where nearly 600 million labor, mostly as informal, irregular, and temporary workers—often migrating from rural to urban, and back again. Today, the aspirations of workers and peasants in the Third World to satisfy basic needs remain unrequited as the disparity between North and South widens. While we are living in an urbanizing world, the population is continuing to grow in rural areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as they continue to struggle for land.

Global working-class solidarity must require recognition of this vast disparity in wealth and income between North and South. Although it is true that good jobs are disappearing from the North too, the global chasm is growing far more rapidly. To build international solidarity, we cannot fight for First World internationalism, but for global socialism.

First World workers and their leaders must join with popular worker and peasant struggles in the South. The only concrete, non-utopian hope is for the construction of a major socialist state (or entity) in the South that can galvanize working class support on a global level.

The Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions captured the imagination of workers worldwide and triggered the major upsurge in labor mobilization and organization in Western Europe and North America and the major reform movements that followed. Thus today, as Torkil Lauesen suggests, if a resurgent working-class in China were to reject capitalist forms and reembrace socialism and collective ownership of factories, land, and commerce, this could embolden laborers worldwide to follow.1

To be sure, there will be socialist revolutions in the twenty-first century. But labor solidarity cannot be built on the shoals of higher consumption and living standards in the North at the expense of poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation in the South. This requires a socialist movement propelled by militant anti-imperialist political organization in the South. Today’s privileged Global North unions, which Zak Cope shows represent a labor aristocracy, will not willingly support a redistribution of the world’s resources to the majority of the planet.2 They will be pushed reluctantly to recognize that the future of humanity depends on a struggle against economic imperialism and monopoly capitalism.


1. Torkil Lauesen, The Global Perspective: Reflections on Imperialism and Resistance (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2018).
2. Zak Cope, The Wealth of (Some) Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer (London: Pluto Press, 2019).


Immanuel Ness
Immanuel Ness is Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Senior Research Associate, Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg. He is the author of Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class and co-editor of the quarterly periodical Journal of Labor and Society.


Cite as Immanuel Ness, "Planetizing the Labor Movement," Great Transition Initiative (April 2019), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/workers-world-immanuel-ness.


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Planetizing the Labor Movement



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