Roundtable

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

Stephanie Luce

It is refreshing to hear voices of optimism in these difficult times, and I am grateful for Ronaldo Munck’s essay. Bill Fletcher and Peter Evans rightly raise alarms about the growing nationalist and right-wing populist movements that pose a serious challenge for labor internationalism. We can debate the data and voting patterns, but the fact remains: Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and Duterte would not be in office if large numbers of working-class people, including union members, hadn’t voted for them.

There is much to be pessimistic about. But what choice do those of us who work in or with labor organizations have but to keep fighting despite the pessimism? Politicians still take the labor movement seriously enough to court it and attack it. Employer organizations strategize about how to relate to worker organizations. We need to do the same. As Ronaldo Munck and others point out, labor organizations still have large numbers of members and resources. Workers still have the power to strike, resist, and vote as a block. And so we have no choice but to fight to direct labor organizations and movements towards an internationalist social and economic justice direction.

In fact, as Munck points out, there are some positive developments. And some interesting ones. A growing number of employers, elites, and policymakers acknowledge the flaws of neoliberalism. Whether we talk about structural adjustment, austerity, or “flexibilization,” the evidence is clear: these policies have led to massive unsustainable inequality. Inequality is bad for economic growth, and it is bad for political stability. From the IMF to the OECD to the Financial Times, we now see former cheerleaders of neoliberalism calling to raise working-class income.

This shift has created space for unusual and unexpected alliances, as well as surprising policy outcomes. Clearly, there are employers and politicians who see a need to raise wages—perhaps as a Keynesian intervention, and perhaps to ward off protest and unionization. Politicians on the left and right still see workers as a key voting bloc. In the UK, over 4,700 employers voluntarily pay their employees and all subcontracted employees a living wage, working with the Living Wage Foundation. Also in the UK, it was the Tories that raised the national minimum wage to a “living wage” in 2015. In the US, politicians who have been hostile to unions (such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo) have come around to pass significant increases to the minimum wage and approve legislation benefitting workers such as sick pay and parental leave.

These are reforms, not very revolutionary. But they are openings. How can unions and working-class movements navigate these openings so that they win gains that are enforced and concrete? And how do they avoid making dangerous alliances and compromises that buy into a nationalist agenda or a neoliberal one? The Second International collapsed in part due to internal differences on working within capitalism for reform. We cannot fall into the same traps. Munck says that in order to build a new international, we need a vision and agenda. I agree. But I think it must also strive for shared principles and strategy on how to relate to reform movements. In other words, the difference between a reformist and non-reformist reform isn’t just about the content of the demand, but in the way in which we organize for it. That could include the following:

(1) As criticism of neoliberalism spreads, we must argue that the underlying problem with neoliberalism is capitalism, and not necessarily globalization. It is possible, and I think desirable, to construct a democratic, people-centered globalization. It is not possible to create a democratic, people-centered capitalism. When unions understand globalization as the key problem, they form alliances with domestic employers and politicians to limit trade and migration. Instead, they must frame the problem as capitalism, in which case they must form alliances with other workers inside the country and in other countries.

The unions that have allied with Trump to raise tariffs and target China are fighting the wrong enemy. We have plenty of other demands that we can make to save jobs or create new ones that do not promote economic nationalism. For example, raising taxes on corporations and the rich and using the money to create jobs rebuilding infrastructure and environmental retro-fitting, child care, health care, and teaching. As Munck says, we could call for a six-hour working day and spread the work. IG Metall in Germany just won a 4.3% wage increase along with the right to reduce their workweek to 28 hours per week for two years, such as for child care or elder care. The ITUC has supported a version of a Green New Deal, which could create tens of millions of new jobs (and if labor doesn’t make a serious shift towards prioritizing environmental justice, none of the rest matters much!).

(2) Unions must tackle nationalism, xenophobia, and white supremacy head-on. While we may engage in lowest-common-denominator politics (such as a demand to raise wages) to build initial alliances, we have to move beyond the easier conversations and engage in education and discussion about the factors that have historically been used to divide us. Munck, for example, writes about some of the unions that are “making common cause with migrant workers” in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.

Unions must confront racism and nationalism if they are to survive. It isn’t just about opportunities to organize new workers, or increase diversity in the abstract, but to dig deep into our unions’ history and practice and understand the ways in which workers have been divided. Of course, it is difficult and risky work. Union leaders may be more comfortable stressing similarities between workers: indeed, much of labor organizing is about trying to build cohesive class consciousness. But we cannot, and do not, have to choose between organizing based on class or race. For example, the Fight for $15 campaign and Black Lives Matter organizations have worked closely together in many cities in the US, putting racial justice up front with the demand for higher wages and a union. In Canada, Unifor was founded in 2013 as a merger of the Canadian Autoworkers and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers unions. It made a commitment to diversity and inclusion from the outset. They conducted an internal equity audit within the union, and established an Aboriginal and Workers of Colour Standing Committee which conducts education and trainings to deal with discrimination within the union as well as in the workplace and community.1

(3) Unions must engage in fights that are inclusive rather than exclusive. Inclusive fights go beyond narrow demands that raise wages only for members, and building movements that include other workers—and, ideally, community members—in the demands. In the US, for example, “Bargaining for the Common Good” is a network of unions, community and racial justice leaders, and student groups, building campaigns that go on the offensive to win broad demands for workers and communities. The recent teacher strikes that fight for gains for teachers as well as students. In Slovenia, unions, students, and pensioners allied to block a bill that would authorize the “mini jobs” Germany introduced in 2003. Similarly, around 2011-2013, unions in Chile joined with students to protest neoliberal policies like the introduction of college tuition.

(4) In order to build inclusive struggles that see capitalism as the root problem, unions should frame their struggles as challenges to the dominance of “free market” ideology, or the ideas that human and ecological needs must be subjugated to the needs of the market.

For example, some activists promote higher minimum wages on the basis that they are good for businesses and the economy: they help firms reduce turnover and increase productivity, and they give workers more money to spend. These arguments may be useful tactically, but they miss the larger point: people’s lives should not be contingent on the needs of market. Another way to frame the demand for a higher wage is to start with human need and exploitation. For example, in Indonesia, unions such as the FSBKU (Federasi Serikat Buruh Karya Utama) run night classes: workers teaching workers. Participants first learn how to calculate the living wage based on the national formula that uses a basket of items. They then learn about exploitation and surplus value and learn how living wages are not just a technical issue but a political one. In this way, workers come together in a fight for higher wages, but their demand is not contained within what is good for business. Their ultimate demand is for an end to labor exploitation.

(5) Finally, unions must deploy all tactics and strategies available, from traditional strikes to protests to knocking on doors. And while many of them must lobby and ally with governments, they cannot rely on inside relationships to carry them through. This may seem obvious, and perhaps we all know this in theory. But unions continue to forget this in practice, particularly when electing supposed allies to office.

Marc Doussard and Jacob Lesniewski argue that Chicago living wage activists were able to win a $13 minimum wage in 2014 despite the anti-union mayor (Rahm Emmanuel) precisely by turning away from the “inside game” of lobbying around a specific bill, to a “persuasion game” aimed at broad community organizing around a broader agenda. This organizing work wasn’t enough on its own: they also needed national networks and the luck of political openings, but if they had continued with the “inside game,” it is unlikely they would have won such a big victory.2

There are countless examples of unions that gain enough power to elect a “friend” to office, or get pro-union legislation into debate in Congress, but then fail to follow through with on-the-ground, in the streets organizing. We can’t forget that on-the-ground organizing isn’t just strategic; it is what the labor movement is about.


1. Unifor National, Building Solidarity in Diversity: A Report on Unifor’s Equity Audit (Toronto: Unifor National, 2017), www.unifor.org/sites/default/files/documents/document/equity-audit-report-en-web-final_20170730.pdf.
2. Marc Doussard and Jacob Lesniewski, “Fortune Favors the Organized: How Chicago Activists Won Equity Goals Under Austerity,” Journal of Urban Affairs 39, no. 5 (2017): 618-634.


Stephanie  Luce

Stephanie Luce is a Professor of Labor Studies at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, and a Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage and Labor Movements: Global Perspectives.



Cite as Stephanie Luce, "Planetizing the Labor Movement," Great Transition Initiative (April 2019), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/workers-world-stephanie-luce.


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Planetizing the Labor Movement



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