AFL-CIO strategy: "nonsense"

Patrick Bond pbond at
Sat Mar 4 21:15:45 PST 2000

> From: "Nathan Newman" <nathan.newman at>

Comrade Nathan, at the end of your post you say this:
> it seems incredibly destructive to
> have the Left joining in with the capitalists to denigrate the labor
> alliance made in Seattle.

Have you been listening?

>From the top, then...

> Clinton's and the WTO's plans were to launch a new WTO trade round. And
> Clinton has a second plan to pass the China WTO deal.
> The goal of the Seattle protesters were to disrupt the launch of that trade
> round.

The criticisms of the AFL-CIO labour aristocracy are purely against the Washington leadership's conservative visions and strategic orientation, Nathan. No one wants to prevent an alliance of radicals from the various movements. Are we in agreement that the goal of Sweeney-Hoffa was to get a seat at the table, to lobby for Social Clause reforms (notwithstanding their unpopularity amongst the better Global South leftists) that even if approved (unlikely) would mainly have the effect of empowering WTO trade-rule gatekeepers--which is why Sweeney-Hoffa only held a rally, and didn't want to contribute materially to the WTO's disruption?

> So the next analytic step is what was needed by the protesters to disrupt
> the trade round...
> Would a few more unionists getting tear gassed and arrrested have helped...

I'm not in agreement with your other points here about the tactical circumstances facing the Seattle sit-downers, partly because in discussing this a few weeks ago with some SF-based organisers I got the distinct impression that reinforcement from the rally would have substantially altered the outcome in favour of continued disruption, perhaps for days (not just hours). But I wasn't there and would rather let someone like Jeff St.Clair reflect on this again if he feels it necessary. So on we go...

> But this really brings us to this horror image you conjure of "the table"
> that everyone must avoid sitting at at all costs. The point of every
> organizing drive anywhere in the world is to force the opposition to the
> table to negotiate, in the ideal to negotiate surrender but in the interim
> to negotiate the sacrifice of plans that improve your sides position. The
> Sun Tzu point is that any warrior who belittles diplomacy and negotiation in
> favor of the romance of unmitigated battle is ultimately a poor and losing
> strategist.

You're a former anti-apartheid activist, comrade Nathan, so let me turn this back around (if I haven't already weeks ago... I fear we're spinning a broken record). You get to the negotiating table--let's say, "Codesa," the deal-making process in South Africa in 1991-92--by enhancing your street power and other means of disrupting business-as-usual (even sanctions/disinvestment against the multinational corporations which gave Pretoria legitimacy and taxes). You do that by demanding an END to an unjust system, not incremental reform. In South Africa, the regime offered such reforms during the 1980s (a "tricameral parliament" and "black local authorities," as well as multinational corporate "Sullivan Principles" for int'l audiences). The democratic movement was correct in rejecting all of these, and intensifying the campaign to abolish apartheid, rather than (as Tutu put it) shining its chains. For that, black SAns got more than they would have were, as the National Party wanted and tried, protected "cantons" and other undemocratic state forms set up and legitimised during the 1980s-90s. In other words, only through an abolitionist platform did the movement arrive at the one-person, one-vote unitary state considered the basic foundation for democracy.

In relation to capitalist globalisation, I think that's where we are today: a maturity amongst people of conscience that there have been enough incremental reforms (the WB has been playing these tricks for nearly two decades now) and that radical change is the only way forward. In the process, of course, we need to not just make an abolitionist statement about the WTO/WB/IMF, but ratchet up the pressure (mainly defunding, as well as the direct action we can expect on April 16) so that shutting these institutions down isn't merely a moral statement, but becomes increasingly practical. (Smart movement people like yourself should be on the cutting edge of this task, Nathan.)

> Now, your real concern is not the negotiations itself, but the likely
> product- "the inexorable neoliberal outcome." Fine and if negotiations
> happen and that is the result, that would be worth criticizing. But you
> seem to have premature antilaborism, attacking them for a sellout that
> hasn't happened yet.

The AFL-CIO sellout HAS happened, in repeated attempts to strengthen and whitewash the core instruments of global capitalist oppression, whether giving more money to the IMF or more Social Clause faux-legitimacy to the WTO or its endorsement to Gore. Until there's a much more fundamental shakeup of power relations inside the AFL-CIO, we can expect movements like the A-16 WB/IMF shut-downers and WB bond-boycotters to be opposed by AFL-CIO bureaucrats (I gather precisely this happened a few days ago, in part because like Sierra in Seattle, there are inside-Beltway development NGOs that like working WITH the WB/IMF and are really scared that an abolitionist movement take off). At an A-16 planning meeting I attended in January, there were quite a few folk there opposing slogans like "Close the Bank" and "Run on the Bank" because it would unnecessarily divide the reformers from the abolitionists.

Just like during the 1980s stage of anti-apartheid mobilisation, precisely that clarity is now required, precisely a clear division is needed between people's movements and Co-Opted NGOs which can bring activists much more quickly to a sense of the futility of reforming the embryonic global economic state, and to the point at which their work truly threatens int'l economic power.

> But what amazes me is people who despite a clear announced alliance between
> AFL types with other progressive forces and actions at Seattle that
> demonstrate the alliance (however much you may criticize the specifics),
> there is this band of odd lefty folks going out of their way to try to
> divide that alliance

What if--with all humility (and years of frustration with reformist cul-de-sacs)--we odd lefties are just ahead of the curve? I'll close debate on this matter by adding to that motley crew the following increasingly militant labour leaders who apparently disagree with the desire of Sweeney (and yes, SA's corporatist trade union leader as well) for a seat at the table:

(From David Bacon's article which Doug posted a bit of yesterday)

Disagreement among U.S. unions

Inside the AFL-CIO, a number of unions don't think it's possible to make the WTO enforce workers' rights. "It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse," says Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union,. "There has to be another mechanism outside the WTO to police workers' rights worldwide." He points out that the U.S. government itself has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions, and is unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements it doesn't itself recognize.

The dockworkers union owes its existence to international trade, but also inherits a tradition of working-class internationalism from its radical past. It left the CIO in the late 1940s at the beginning of the coldwar, and only rejoined in the late 1980s. Over the decades it's used its power on the docks to defend unions and workers in Central America, Chile, Korea and South Africa. During the WTO demonstrations, it shut down every west coast U.S. port on November 30. While unions which oppose the WTO process are often called protectionist, McWilliams retorts that "we're not against fair trade, we're against free trade."

The ILWU president points out that the definition of labor standards should be broadened to include those which would impact the U.S., including the prohibition of strikebreaking, the right to free health care, living wages, and protections for the rights of immigrants. As long as the gap in living standards between developed and developing countries exists, he says, jobs will leave high wage countries, with our without WTO agreements. Therefore, U.S. unions should "take a critical position toward U.S. economic and military policy that plays a role in enforcing that living standards gap," McWilliams emphasizes.

George Becker, president of the steelworkers union, calls the WTO and the trade structure fundamentally flawed. "There's nothing in it for working people ... There's no way that you can put a comma here or change a word there to make it compatible. It's not our law. Scrap it."

In November, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney signed a letter from the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, endorsing administration goals for the WTO talks, including gaining greater access for U.S. corporations and investors abroad. Sweeney sits on the committee with heads of major corporations.

Sweeney said he'd gained assurances from the administration that it would press in return for a working group on labor issues. An AFL-CIO statement calls the commitment "a sharp departure from the business community's previous position that workers' rights are in no way the domain of the WTO," and calls for a hard fight "to make the WTO a more democratic and accountable institution."

The Canadian Labour Congress was blunt in differing with the AFL-CIO approach. "The struggle by unions, social justice groups and environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat at the table, or a 'social clause' or environmental rules," a CLC statement declared. "We're determined to change the entire trade regime."

Sweeney's move stunned many U.S. union leaders as well. Steven Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chair of the AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest. "I'm as cynical as I can be about putting the WTO in charge of enforcing labor standards," he said in Seattle. "It's nonsense."

Patrick Bond email: pbond at * phone: 2711-614-8088 home: 51 Somerset Road, Kensington 2094 South Africa work: University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Public and Development Management PO Box 601, Wits 2050, South Africa email: bondp at phone: 2711-488-5917 * fax: 2711-484-2729

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