May 1, 2000

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Wed May 3 08:18:21 MDT 2000

May 1, 2000

May Day: Making Internationalism A Reality

By Bill Fletcher, Jr. <bfletcher4 at>

In a recent trip to South Africa I recalled the solidarity
efforts which many African-American activists have engaged
in over the years. The efforts, particularly with the end of
World War II, to support anti-colonial struggles in Africa
marked an important intervention by Black America. In the
60s and 70s efforts emerged with a new generation of
African-American activists to support the struggles against
Portuguese colonialism (which until 1975 controlled Angola,
Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands), and
against the white supremacist regimes in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
and South Africa. These efforts led to different
organizational forms, such as the African Liberation Support
Committee and years later the Free South Africa Movement.
The sources of this support tended to be drawn from
ideological orientations, moral concerns and/or racial

There is something very different emerging on the world
stage. A recent congress of the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions (held, I should add, in Durban, South
Africa), a grouping which represents labor federations from
countries around the world, illustrated these changes
remarkably. The ICFTU was created at the beginning of the
Cold War, largely as a vehicle in the union movement to
fight the influence of communists and radicals. With the end
of the Cold War, however, all sorts of alignments have
altered. Old enemies have often found themselves interacting
in a new and different way, in large part because of the
impact of globalization. Indeed, I think that it is safe to
say that the ICFTU has been pushed forward by the currents
of globalization into a role its founders probably never
would have anticipated.

When we talk about globalization one should not think of
this as the same as Global economy. Globalization is an
orchestrated process by governments and economic elites to
address many of the problems which capitalism has been
facing over the last 20-30 years by reorganizing the world
economy at the expense of working people. This has been made
that much easier by the end of the Cold War, but also the
developments of new technologies which make cross-border
communication and exchange that much easier, and that much
faster. Globalization involves the hyper-mobility of capital
(financial transactions at the push of a button), the
internationalization of production (multi-national
corporations which can and do produce commodities across
borders or shift production from one country to another for
any number of reasons), and the interpenetration of markets,
usually under the banner of "free trade" (everything is up
for investment it often appears).

The process of globalization has been advanced by an
ideological battering ram called economic neo-liberalism.
This is the ideological justification for the changes
underway, particularly the attack on the public sector and
the worshiping of the private sector.

What was striking at the ICFTU World Congress is that
country after country finds itself the victims of this
process of globalization. Not only that, but union members
in most countries find themselves facing the same or similar
opponents, and certainly facing the same ideological

By way of example, privatization and subcontracting, which
many of us tended to think of as a local problem, or perhaps
a national phenomenon, is quite international. Globally,
privatization is not limited to a department in a government
agency. Entire portions of economies which had previously
operated within the public sphere, and which had been
subject to public accountability, are now being turned over
to private entrepreneurs, individuals and companies which
face little oversight.

Efforts, such as privatization, are being sold to us as a
way of making work more efficient and encouraging
development. Yet little is said about the loss of jobs and
the impact that this has on entire communities.

At the ICFTU World Congress the menace of privatization was
a matter under discussion by all the delegations. Not only
that, but it became obvious that workers in many countries
found themselves at odds with the same companies. The
multi-national or transnational corporations try to play off
workers against one another. If they cannot get a good deal
in the USA, they go or threaten to go to Mexico. If the
Mexican workers do not budge and do not offer enough
concessions, perhaps they relocate to Paraguay. This is not
to say that each and every company can or will move, but the
multi-national corporations have so buffaloed millions of
workers into believing that fighting back is fruitless and
that the best that they can do is make the beating a little
less rough.

I was struck by the unions in Africa, many of which have
emerged from periods of military dictatorships, colonial
rule or neo-colonial sham democracies. In meeting with these
union activists I took note of three basic points. One, the
willingness to fight. Two, the interest in solidarity.
Three, the importance of the union as an organization which
can bring workers together across various divides.

What was clear from the South African unions, as well as
representatives from other federations, such as the Nigerian
Labor Congress, is that they see themselves as speaking for
working class people, whether those workers are in unions or
not. As such, their notion of fighting back is not only
fighting back when workers in a particular workplace which
is represented by a union is under attack. Rather they are
attempting to speak to what is happening to the workers in
their countries.

The second noteworthy point is the interest in working with
workers across borders when facing a common opponent. Most
glaringly this takes the form of common employers
multi-national corporations which are spread across the
globe. The consciousness of the need for solidarity across
borders was not limited to the leaders, but was something
which one encountered at other levels of the organization.
Many of these union activists found it hard to grasp why
workers in the USA so often fail to understand that their
interests [those of US workers] lie in reaching out to
workers in other countries rather than in viewing such
workers as opponents.

Three, is the importance of the union as an organization
which can bring workers together. In an era where ethnic and
racial antagonisms have flared up at an alarming rate and
where genocide has become the method of choice in
eliminating potential competitors, unions such as the
Nigerian Labor Congress see their role quite explicitly as
bringing about inter-ethnic unity. I thought about the
situation in the USA with the rivalries which take place,
not only across the racial divide between African-Americans
and whites, but also between African-Americans and other
workers of color. The beneficiary of these rivalries is
never one or the other group, but rather our common
oppressor. This single fact is central to the consciousness
of many of the union activists I encountered and served as a
point of profound inspiration.

So, we are celebrating May Day 2000 and I think that it is
time for Black activists to rethink this day. This needs to
be a day for a different sort of solidarity than we have
often practiced in the past. The enemy is not as obvious as
a Portuguese fighter plane strafing villagers in Mozambique,
or an apartheid era police officer unleashing dogs and
bullets on demonstrators. The enemies which we face in
common more often than not sit tens of stories up in
wonderful offices, cut off from the rest of the world except
electronically. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors,
speaking a myriad of languages. They share in common a
contempt for workers, and a desire to enrich themselves with
our blood. The type of solidarity needed now is between
those of us who are ravaged by these agents of

What struck me is that this solidarity goes far beyond moral
platitudes. It really goes to survival and answering the
basic question of who will decide our collective future:
those behind those plate-glass windows, or the people who
work every day in order to survive. The developing labor
movements in Africa and other parts of the so-called
underdeveloped world are far in advance of us in answering
that question.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Assistant to the President of the
AFL-CIO, and the National Organizer of the Black Radical
Congress. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Copyright (c) 2000 Bill Fletcher, Jr. All Rights Reserved.

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