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Proposal/invitation to sponsor an international labour event at the 4th World Social Forum, India, 2004

Does a Globalised Capitalism Require a ‘New International Social Movement Unionism’?



This is a public proposal for a one- or two-day event on ‘international social movement unionism’ (ISMU), to be held at the Fourth World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, January 16-24, 2004. The proposal is open to discussion and action by anyone who receives it.

Whilst this event could be sponsored by any national or international union body, or international labour network, it would be best so proposed by a network of such, including unionists, researchers, labour support groups (NGOs, publications). The closing date for such proposals to the Indian Organising Committee is September 25, 2003 http://www.wsfindia.org/event2004/

The idea

The idea is to stimulate discussion on a transformation of unionism that goes wider and deeper than the current transformation of capitalism itself. And which, as such, simultaneously looks for an alternative to capitalist globalisation and provides a base and point of reference for effective defensive strategies.

The notion of ‘Social Movement Unionism’ was first applied in South Africa in the 1980s, where it had both political and research impact. It was then adopted and applied by researchers to unionism in Brazil, the Philippines, the USA and internationally. It received its best-known formulation in a piece by Kim Moody (1997), in an extract from a book, entitled ‘Towards an International Social Movement Unionism’. This was, however, before the word ‘globalisation’ had really entered the union vocabulary. Whilst, therefore, some unions might have been influenced by such ideas, the notion remained largely of interest to union-oriented researchers.

The precise meaning of ISMU cannot be specified here. Suffice to say that there are two major tendencies, one which tends to stress alliance between the union and community or popular movements, another which tends to stress an intimate articulation between unions and other ‘new social movements’ movements more generally. Yet another approach has been to see unions as ‘citizenship movements’. The possible meanings of the term are precisely what needs discussion. For some participants, computer communication, networking and cyberspace are central to ISMU, for others not. Some participants stress the continued centrality of the workplace, the local or the national arena, others stress the global – and the unavoidable articulation between this and the local, national, regional.

The rising impact of globalisation and neo-liberalism around the millennium has had a disorienting, if not devastating, impact on work, workers and unionism internationally. This impact was felt, however, equally by those national union movements previously considered to have exemplified social movement unionism! Globalisation seems, on the one hand, to have driven the international union movement into largely defensive positions. Recently, however, it seems to have provoked – sometimes simultaneously - a search for counter-assertion, for a reaching out beyond traditional workplaces, unions, the traditionally unionised, and to be seeking alliances with citizens and civil society more generally.

The development of what has come to call itself ‘global justice and solidarity movement’, symbolised by the ‘Battle of Seattle’, 1999, and the World Social Forum process since 2001, is now putting such matters dramatically on the national and international trade-union agenda. Increasing numbers of international union bodies are addressing themselves to ‘social movements’, to democratically-inclined and labour-friendly NGOs, and to ideas of ‘civil society’ - locally, nationally, regionally, globally. ‘International social movement unionism’, and related ideas, are being increasingly discussed amongst labour-oriented researchers.

This is, surely, an appropriate time, and the WSF the appropriate place, in which to discuss the possible meanings of ISMU.

Is this a matter of a new policy within otherwise unchanged national and international union structures? Does it mean a new relationship between unionised and non-unionised workers? Is it a matter of alliance, or of a more intimate articulation, between unions and social movements/NGOs? Does it require a breach with traditions of ‘social partnership’ and practices of collective bargaining? Does it mean inventing another ‘new model’ unionism, nationally and internationally? What relationship does it imply between the ‘organisation’ and the ‘network’? Does it raise all these matters? Or quite other questions and answers? (See Hyman 2002, Waterman 2003).


[To be added to if and as further signators come forward].

Originator of this note. A retired academic, an initiator of the discussion on social movement unionism, a longtime specialist on labour and social movement internationalism, and on communications and culture in relation to such. Since 2002 he has concentrated on the World Social Forum, particularly in relation to labour.


Selected bibliogray

[This is intended to highlight the historical development and the increasingly global interest around the subject, as well as recent international union interest here. For further bibliography see Waterman 2003 below].

Akça, Ismet. 2003. ‘"Globalización", estado y trabajo: Hacia un sindicalismo en el movimiento social’, http://www.rcci.net/globalizacion/2003/fg350.htm.

Alliance of Progressive Labor/Labor Education and Research Network. 2001. Fighting Back with Social Movement Unionism. Manila/Quezon City: Alliance of Progressive Labor/Labor Education and Research Network. 94 pp.

Biyanwila, Janaka. 2003. ‘Resistance to Globalization: Social Movement Unionism’, Chapter 4 of ‘Trade Unions in Sri Lanka under Globalisation: Reinventing Solidarity’. Draft PhD. University of Western Australia, Perth. Email received May 23.

Bramble, Tom and Neal Ollett. Forthcoming. ‘Social Movement Unionism, Coporatism, And Neoliberal Restructuring : A Comparative Study of South Africa and South Korea’, 5th Asian Regional Congress of the IIRA in Seoul from June 23 to 26, 2004. http://ns.kli.re.kr/iira2004/papers/main_55.htm

Dietrich, Gabriele and Nailini Nayak. 2001. 'Exploring Possibilities of Counter-Hegemonic Globalization of Fishworkers' Movement in India and its Global Interactions'. Contribution to the Project on Reinventing Social Emancipation, Center of Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. www.ces.fe.uc.pt/emancipa/research/en/ft/fishworkers.html

Hyman, Richard. 2002. ‘The International Labour Movement on the Threshold of Two Centuries. Agitation, Organisation, Bureaucracy, Diplomacy@. Paper to the Workshop on ‘The International Labour Movement on the Thresholds of Two Centuries’, Swedish Labour Movement Archives and Library, 24th and 25th of October. http://www.arbarkiv.nu/pdf_wrd/Hyman_int.pdf

International Metalworkers Federation. 2003. ‘Trade Unions and Social Movements: Remarks on the Subject of "Trade Unions and Social Movements: New Alliances against New Forms of Capitalism". http://www.imfmetal.org/main/index.cfm?id=47&lid=2&olid=2&cid=7840

International Transportworkers Federation. 2002. ‘Globalising Solidarity: The Popular Movement to Reform the Globalisation Process . Draft Resolution No. 5, ITF Congress, Vancouver’. http://www.itf.org.uk/congress/2002/pdf/motion_5.pdf

Johnston, Paul. 1994. Success While Others Fail: Social Movement Unionism and the Public Workplace. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 262 pp.

Lambert, Rob and Webster, Eddie. 2001. ‘Southern Unionism and the New Labour Internationalism’ in Peter Waterman and Jane Wills (eds.) Place, Space and the New Labour Internationalisms. Oxford:Blackwell. Pp.33-58.

Moody, Kim. 1997. ‘Towards an International Social-Movement Unionism’, New Left Review, No.225, pp.52-72.

Novelli, Mario. 2003. ‘SINTRAEMCALI and Trade Union Renewal: A Case Study of Bottom-Up Globalisation in Colombia’, Workshop on ‘International Trade Unionism in a Network Society: What’s New about the "New Labour Internationalism"?’ Leeds, May 2-3, 2003.

Scipes, Kim. 1992. ‘Understanding the New Labor Movements in the "Third World": The Emergence of Social Movement Unionism,’ Critical Sociology, Vol.19, No.2, pp.81-101.

Seidman, Gay W. 1993. Manufacturing Militance: Workers’ Movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970-1985. Berkeley:University of California Press.

Von Holdt, Karl. 2002. ‘Social Movement Unionism: The Case of South Africa’, Work, Employment and Society, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 283-304.

Waterman, Peter. 1989. ‘Social Movement Unionism’: A Brief Note. 1988’, in Trade Unions, Movementism and Internationalism/Sindicatos, movimientismo e internacionalismo. A One-Day Workshop, Institute of Social Studies, 12.2.89. Workshop Texts: Session 1: Trade Unions and Movementism. 8pp.

Waterman, Peter. 2003. ‘Adventures of Emancipatory Labour Strategy as the New Global Movement Challenges International Unionism’ http://www.labournet.de/diskussion/gewerkschaft/smu/smuadvent.html.

Webster, Eddie. 1988. ‘The Rise of Social-Movement Unionism: The Two Faces of the Black Trade Union Movement in South Africa’ in Philip Frankel, Noam Pines and Mark Swilling (eds.) State, Resistance and Change in South Africa. New York: Croom Helm. Pp.174-96.

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