Radical media, politics and culture.

Peter Waterman, "After Naiobi: Labour at the WSF 2007"

Peter Waterman writes:

Labour After the World Social Forum, Nairobi, January 20-25, 2007
Can the Unions Become Again a Sword of Justice?
Peter Waterman

"It seems clear that in many countries, unions have lately come to be widely perceived as conservative institutions, primarily concerned to defend the relative advantages of a minority of the working population. One of the challenges which confront trade unionism in the twenty-first century is therefore to revive, and to redefine, the role as sword of justice." — Richard Hyman, UK (1999)

"Transformative politics needs to be firmly anchored in ethics. We need to rethink our strategy, our structures of organisation, our goals… everything, in relation to a radical ethics of equality. This means an ethics of care for the other. This is important because so much left politics has traditionally rejected the relevance of ethics. In the past, dominant traditions of left politics were more about organising and struggling for the sake of a Truth, than for the sake of myself and my equals. Left politics was – and still often is – more inclined to be faithful to an Idea (or to a programme or party) than to the people around us…For obvious reasons, this faithfulness to ideas and not to other people creates serious problems when it comes to co-operation for shared political goals." — Ezequiel Adamovsky, Argentina (2007)

"Reality is for people who lack imagination." — http://www.geocities.com/Wellesley/2052/grafitti.h tml


The increasing participation of the ‘old, institutionalised, inter/national trade union organisations’ within the ‘new, networked, World Social Forum’ raises problems for the latter as well as the former. This report and reflection on the Nairobi WSF, January 2007, argues the existence two trends in labour’s participation. The major and dominant one comes from the traditional international unions, promoting ‘Decent Work’. The other comes from new unions, base organisations, labour networks, or other left bodies, for which the name proposed is the ‘Emancipation of Labour’. It is not difficult to trace the dependence of Decent Work on the hegemonic International Labour Organisation, on 20thC West-European notions of social (i.e. capitalist) partnership, on Keynesianism and collective-bargaining unionism. But the relationship of the Emancipation of Labour concept to a few recent, marginal and minor projects at Nairobi remains speculative. It is proposed that any EofL project would need to advance not simply new policies and a networked form but a new ethic. Whilst considering such elements to be present within the WSF, it is argued that these and other necessary elements are here only ambiguously present. There is also a certain complicity between the traditional unions, mediating between workers and inter/national hegemons, and a WSF dominated by non-government organisations (NGOs) of a mixed and often ambiguous nature. Whilst placing hopes on the WSF and on the emerging labour projects, the paper ends with reference to a Global Labour Charter Movement of a radically-democratic and utopian nature.Introduction

The World Social Forum (WSF), represents a global pressure-cooker of contemporary progressive and emancipatory social movements and ideas. This is the case also for the international trade union and labour movements, regardless of their still somewhat marginal position within the WSF. What follows are reflections on such matters, including, eventually, the reasons for distinguishing between ‘progressive’ and ‘emancipatory’, ‘unions’ and ‘labour’. And for that relative marginality. As reflections, these experiences and thoughts may not be too structured. But I hope they will still make some kind of sense. And enough of such sense to provoke response from others concerned with labour internationally and with labour internationalism — not to speak of the global emancipation of labour.

A couple of days (daze?) into the stimulation and confusion of the 7th World Social Forum, Nairobi, January 20–25, 2007, I had a background item on labour published in the semi-official Forum daily, Terra Viva (Waterman 2007a). This suggested a tension between a dominant trade-union tendency, propagating ‘Decent Work’, and a marginal one which I dubbed the ‘Emancipation of Labour’. Reading my piece, in cold print, in Nairobi, I had a flashback to the World Festival of Youth and Students, Moscow, 1957, 50 years earlier…

….these festivals were organised by the world Communist movement, of which the International Union of Students was a prominent part. Aged 21, I was the English Editor of its magazine, World Student News. In Moscow I was expected to be part of the team producing the Festival’s daily paper. I turned up for duty a couple of days before the Festival began and was asked to do a report on the International Student Day which was – evidently — yet to occur. Questioning this Soviet journalistic practice I was informed that the production process did not permit us to report events after they had occurred. ‘But what,’ I asked, ‘if it rains?’. ‘Don’t worry, came the reassuring reply, ‘If it doesn’t rain in the newspaper then it didn’t rain’.

Candidates for Categories

Back to Nairobi. My little anxiety attack was about whether my speculative piece was in danger of being rained on by reality.

It turned out that the pre-Forum assumption about the dominant role of Decent Work (DW) was borne out in the Forum. This strategy was energetically promoted, top-down, by the new International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). DW appeared to be the pensée unique (single idea) to which all union events were subordinated, whatever they were actually about (children, women, migrants, petty-production and trade, worker rights…). Indeed, this concept or strategy was being enthusiastically endorsed and promoted even by Southern unions, by labour-oriented NGOs or autonomous labour movements, such as StreetNet (Streetnet International Report 2007, see URLs below).

But did the Emancipation of Labour (EoL) tendency exist outside my fevered imagination? EoL proved to be scarcely trumpeted by the body which had funded my participation in the Nairobi WSF. This was the Swedish NGO, Agora/Arena, itself supporting a book project co-edited by Andreas Bieler (Germany/UK), Devan Pillay (South Africa) and Ingemar Lindberg (Sweden) (Global Working Class Project, URL). The project had, actually, no political pretensions. But the book may nonetheless make an original contribution to the EofL in so far as it addresses not only the unionised or unionisable working class but also that growing proportion of the world labour force outside the ‘formal sector’ and therefore non-unionised or un-unionisable:

'The global working class has been widely perceived to be on the retreat towards the end of the 20th century under the conditions of neo-liberal restructuring of the global economy. The objective of this project is to analyse this situation and assess the possibilities for a revival of labour internationalism.

The aims of the project are threefold (1) to provide a general overview of the situation of the working class around the world through a selection of countries in all the major regions, (2) to map out the responses of trade unions to the challenges of neo-liberal globalisation and (3) to assess possible strategies for a revival of labour internationalism based on transnational solidarity.

The majority of the global working class does not consist of regular wage earners in the core sector of the labour market. Large parts of the working class are employed in the periphery of the labour market – on insecure, temporary contracts, self-employed, selling merchandise or personal services, or simply unemployed – and are usually not organised in unions of a traditional kind. The project therefore includes a specific emphasis on the formal-informal divide.

The project was initiated by Samir Amin and the World Forum of Alternatives. It has been worked out in discussions connected to the World Social Forums in 2004 (Mumbai) and 2005 (Porto Alegre) and will be discussed and further developed at the WSF in Nairobi in January 2007'. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/gwcproject/in dex.php.

My own contribution to the collection is on the implications of globalisation and the global justice movement to the future of labour internationalism (Waterman 2007b). But despite a well-attended and often lively three-session seminar at the Forum, this research project turned out to have no common theoretical orientation or distinct strategic implications, and no clear political orientation. Or, rather, it seemed to have one foot in the Thirdworldist Marxist project of Samir Amin (Bamako Appeal 2007), one foot in (ex-) social-democratic Scandinavia, and toe-holds in South Africa and Nottingham, UK (ideologically unqualifiable). This may all shape up, of course, as a result of the Nairobi exchanges, or possibly of comments on its Nottingham website. At the moment of the WSF, however, the project seemed to be balancing, or caught, between various New Left (1968) paradigms, either explicit or implicit. It would be a contribution to both the current revival of global labour studies and the global labour movement if the editors were to either opt between alternatives or at least identify them so that putative readers might be confronted with such.

My second candidate for the EoL logo was Labour in Movement: Facing the Challenge of Globalisation, an initiative coming from a group of WSF-friendly unions and unionists, and ‘base’ movements of unions, mostly in Western Europe. It has some connection with a network called Transform! (URL). I had been in correspondence with Marco Berlinguer, the coordinator of this initiative, for some time and had understood that this WSF effort was a primarily political one, however cautiously expressed. If, however, it is to be reasonably characterised as an EoL project, then it has to be further understood as an emancipation that began at the Nairobi WSF with a whisper rather than bang. After several rounds of informal discussion (part of it under a shade tree, symbolically placed outside the Decent Work pavilion?), what appeared was a proposal short enough to be here quoted in full:

'Proposal for a Labour Network on and in the World Social Forum Process

Neoliberal globalisation implies the most vicious attack on labour in living memory.

Yet labour has so far had neither the necessary centrality, nor even visibility, within the WSF process.

We propose for this purpose to build a labour network on and in the WSF process. This network will link different experiences, understandings of and skills engaged in every place and every aspect of work.

We believe that such a network can help us to:

• Give more centrality and visibility, in this crucial historical phase, to labour issues and workers’ rights in the WSF process

• Develop a permanent exchange of experiences, information and knowledge

• Discuss a new and enlarged understanding of labour, considering not only productive but also reproductive work; not only formal, but also informal work

• Strengthen the alliances between unions, movements, intellectual forces and citizens

• Go beyond defensive, isolated and – for that matter – failing struggles and find a new transnational capacity for action

• Find common global objectives for such action

• Confront the question of the meaning of production (what to produce, how, for whom)

• Map all the different labour actors so as to enlarge the network'

This document was then submitted to a morning workshop that was impressively well attended. My rough guess is that there were 200-250 people there — including several from my first EofL candidate. What this initiative amounts to is no more – or less — than its title. The modesty of this proposal, and the caution with which it is being launched upon the WSF and the wider world of work, should not be under-estimated. If this network/website does come into existence, it will not only be the first labour body to address itself to labour ‘on and in the World Social Forum’. It will also, I believe, be the first global network on, and of, ‘labour-in-general’! There exist, of course, endless union websites, as well as many autonomous labour-support networks and websites. But, with welcome exceptions, the union websites tend to reproduce the pyramidal structure of the unions themselves, with no feedback possibility, far less open discussion. And the ‘alternative’ labour websites, including those for solidarity on particular issues, with particular countries, or for particular categories (e.g. contingent, casual, day or precarious labour) — even on Global Labor Strategies (URL) — do not have the holistic potential of this proposal.

It may be because of the breadth and openness of the initiative that the workshop response was so positive, receiving the support of speakers, for example, from the Italian CGIL, the Quebec-based World March of Women, the South Africa-based StreetNet, the New Trade Union Initiative, in India, various European ‘base’ organisations, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT-Brazil), the Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA Argentina), and even from officers of some of the traditional trade-union internationals present. In any case, the proposal then went forward to a chaotic afternoon session, at which all proposals on labour were supposed to be discussed and eventually forwarded to…the WSF-in-General?...the Closing Ceremony?...the International Council of the WSF…? Here, in a tent divided by canvas from even noisier others, with no sound equipment, with interpreters valiantly struggling to make sense of speakers behind them and facing the opposite direction, just two proposals were submitted to a largely bemused and uncomprehending audience. One was Decent Work, submitted at length, in French, by a woman unionist from Haiti. I understood only that there was going to be a three-year campaign internationally on DW. The other proposal was the Labour Network one, presented in English, under the same constraints. Whilst reassured, to some extent, that reality had provided at least two candidates for my two Terra Viva categories, I was disappointed that there were only two proposals to go forward and that those that did were being forwarded under the conditions of what has to be called Chaotic and Incomprehensible Democracy. In the event, the Labour Network proposal, if not the Decent Work one, was forwarded further, landing in the tent of the Social Movement Assembly (2007).

Actually, I should have identified a third EoL candidate at the Forum, the Bamako Appeal of 2006 itself, since Ingemar had apparently drafted the challenging labour chapter (actually half-page) of that 2005 project, and Samir Amin was apparently the inspiration for the book itself. But Samir only turned up to briefly and vaguely bless the book project. And I missed either attendance at or verbal reports of the 10-session World Forum of Alternatives (WFA) events that were in some way the follow-up to his Bamako Appeal. The first WFA conference of this NGO was entitled (in caps):


My non-attendance (due to the timetable clashes inevitable when 1,200+ events occur in three days) is regrettable, since there were a number of major organisations and speakers listed, including Ingemar himself. But despite the promise of this event, the WFA failed to make an appearance or take a stand at the final collective event on labour strategy. So unless and until something issues from it, the nature and purpose of the WFA labour project remains unclear (as also in Amin 2007). There may well have been other such initiatives occurring in corners of the enormous Forum site. If so, they might appear on the web or on such a site as Labour in Movement might set up.

The Meaning of Decent Work and the Emancipation of Labour

I have elsewhere dealt at some length with Decent Work (Waterman 2005). Depressingly, indeed, a search suggests I am one of maybe only two people who has criticised it at any length (compare Vosko 2003). So a repetition may not be out of place: DW is a projection at global level of the kind of social partnership (i.e. a junior partnership of labour with capital and state) that existed for working people in certain West European countries under National Keynesianism, around the third quarter of the last century: the model is, was, Scandinavia (for the decline, see Bieler and Lindberg 2007, International Union Rights 2007). DW deals with labour and social rights and conditions but raises no question about whether the work that is decent is also useful, and necessary, it raises no question about capitalist or state ownership and control, nor does it consider whether the DW strategy increases the power and autonomy of labouring people. DW, moreover, did not originate with the trade unions, with some latter-day Karl Marx, or the labour movement at all: it was thought up by Juan Somavia, Director General of the International Labour Organisation, the UN’s inter-state body for labour questions. Whilst no one can possibly reject the notion of improving wages, rights and conditions, neither can one assume that this global Neo-Keynesian project is 1) possible, and 2) will not be eventually dumped in the same garbage bin as national Keynesianism. DW is, further, being promoted top-down by the inter/national unions concerned, without any preliminary discussion of such challenges (and many hypothetical others) by either unions, labour NGOs, labour researchers, or, of course, workers themselves. Moreover, the Decent Work coalition actually consists of the ITUC, like-minded union internationals (ETUC 2007), and three or four Social- or Christian-Democratic NGOs, all from the West, the majority based, like the ITUC, in Brussels (base also of major DW inter-state funder, the European Union). No one, finally, has even considered whether this new social-partnership project is not going to reproduce the failure – after 15 years of effort – of its forerunner, the ‘Social Clause’ campaign. This was intended to lobby international labour rights out of the World Trade Organisation and its predecessor – bodies that were destroying them. It has been quietly retired: no funeral, no flowers, no obituary…no accounting of costs (Waterman 2001).

As for the Emancipation of Labour, this is a rather more problematic concept since it began in my mind simply as a provocative slogan. True, it is inspired by the early labour movement, at a time when this was intimately related with democratic, international solidarity and national independence movements, and often led such. The word ‘emancipation’ is older and wider than the historical labour movement, having been used, of course, by the movement against slavery, by the women’s and other such movements. Applied to labour, ‘emancipation’ reminds us of that historical tradition that considered wage-labour as wage-slavery — something to be liberated from. As with the women’s movement, ‘emancipation’ could suggest to labour the necessity for collective self-activity against alienation: in this case the alienation of human productive and creative capacities to the benefit of capital and state (not to speak of patriarchy, imperialism, consumerism, racism, competitive individualism and ecological destruction). ‘Emancipation’, for me, also has to do with self-transformation, with the transformation of one’s own behaviour and identity, and of the ineffective means by which one has previously expressed oneself collectively. Which is what I have been concerned with when writing on the ‘emancipation of labour internationalism’ (Waterman 2004a).

Progressive or Radical?

Another reason for caution about the epithet EoL is uncertainty about how Labour in Movement (or anything from either the World Forum of Alternatives or the Global Working Class projects) will be seriously radical rather than generally progressive. My feeling is that the emancipation of labour, or even its effective defence, requires subversion of the dominant ideology, the use or invention of new language, new ways of doing things, and forceful assertion. It eschews diplomacy, which is, after all, a code of behaviour for international elites. (It means shaking hands so that the daggers fall out on the floor before discussions begin). Emancipation is not simply a new policy or strategy – which many around the Forum are certainly advancing — but a new ethic or culture. For myself, ‘emancipation’ implies not simply a leadership or policy challenge to those who have hegemony within the international labour movement, but the creation of a new culture, ethic, modes of relating to workers, union members, other union leaders – and ‘labour’s others’ – that vast majority of the world’s working people beyond the reach of unions (Jha 2007). Here I recall both older and more recent expressions of such an ethic or culture:

‘The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house’
(Audre Lorde),

‘Truth will conquer’
(Jan Hus),

‘Speak truth to power’
(The Society of Friends, or Quakers),

‘Live in truth’
(Vaclav Havel),

‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’
(Amilcar Cabral),

‘Criticise everything’
(Karl Marx).

And, of course,

‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am not for others, what am I?
And if not now, when?’
(Rabbi Hillel).

All this could be dismissed as high falutin’ moralisin’, irrelevant to actually-existing workers in actually-existing organisations. So let us bring the matter back to trade unionism.

Consider a recent exposure of union corruption in the USA (Fitch 2006a, Yates 2006). Bob Fitch’s work on union corruption has not been welcomed either by the union establishment, or by many left critics of such. He is, they say (amongst many other critical things), playing into the hands of the enemy. Fitch’s response indicts also the socialist left in his country:

'For well over a century, various leftists -— orthodox Marxists, Trotskyists, independent socialists, communists -- have all tried to reform the AFL and its successor the AFL-CIO. "Boring from Within" they called their strategy of seeking to transform the organisation from within while accepting its authority, obeying its rules, following its protocols, and soaking up its norms and culture. Not surprisingly…the longer they stay, the more they resemble their adversaries rather than vice versa […] I call it the roach motel syndrome. The leftists go in but they don't come out'. (Yates 2006)

Bob Fitch may be bending the twig too far. But it does seem to me that, from Maoists to Christian Democrats, the dominant international labour culture is one that does not question things that really need to be questioned: neither the contemporary trade-union form of labour representation (Tucker 2007), nor legalistic/formalistic collective bargaining as either the normal or the privileged procedure for relating to capital-and-state. (For even the most radical unions, ‘revolution’ has been reduced to occasional inspirational rhetoric). Of course, US trade unions provide an extreme and exceptional case: European and, particularly, Third World, unions are not like this. But Fitch is well aware of the difference between the business unionism typical of the USA and the bureaucratic unionism typical of Western Europe (and, as they are ‘normalised’, of the South?). He has, however, said things about the nature of the AFL-CIO that have never been said publicly by, for example, the members or leaders of the old International Confederation of Trade Unions. What Fitch is actually saying is: ‘it’s raining’.

Now, there is no binary, far less a Manichean, opposition between the two tendencies I identify above: StreetNet (2007), for example, identified itself with both in Nairobi. On the one hand, I think that Decent Work has to be recognised as a step forward from the pathetic Social Clause lobbying campaign, and as representing an assertion where years of ‘concession bargaining’ and state-dependent protectionism represented retreat. It appears, moreover, from Nairobi as if DW is to be a matter of union campaigning, thus engaging rank-and-file unionists, who may then question what kind of pig there is in this poke. And, on the other hand, the emancipatory — or at least innovatory and adventurous — tendency I have identified, is itself an unknown quantity. Bearing in mind, moreover, the monolithic nature and hegemonic claims of the Decent Work project, it does seem to me that its origins, its assumptions, its implications simply have to be subject to open discussion, and then within several concentric agoras, the crucial one being the most distant and difficult: that of workers themselves, where they work and live. (As Nairobi demonstrated, most working people outside the capitalist core may be more concerned with their rights as inhabitants than their rights as workers (Oloo 2006a).

The Privileged Place/Space for Dialogue on Labour Globally

The privileged place and/or space for dialogue on the re-invention of a global labour movement under contemporary conditions is at present the World Social Forum and the wider Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJ&SM). I mention the second of these entities, however problematic it might appear, because we must remember where the WSF comes from, where it is situated and that many union organisations and other labour movements are active within the latter, even when they might not be present in the former. The privilege I accord the WSF is due to the principles underlying its formation. These could be traced back to an ecumenical document of the 1980s, attached to the latest defence of the Forum-as-Space by Forum founder, Chico Whitaker. Arguing the necessity for ‘intercommunication’ in emancipatory struggle, this document lists its necessary characteristics:

'freedom of expression,

liberty of information,

equality of opportunity,

mutual respect and openness toward the others,

mutual confidence,

active co-responsibility,

acceptance of heterogeneity

and of the dynamic of conflicts that go with it'.

The aim is to transform ‘domination power’ into ‘service power’. The latter implies:

'First of all, the exercise of the power each of us disposes in terms of COUNTER-POWER, that which aims to neutralise the power of the dominated over the resources that they dispose of as the stopping of a factory or the denouncing of a lie. In the second place, the exercise of an ALTERNATIVE POWER, which aims to eliminate our dependence on the dominating when for example we discover the ways to satisfy a given need without using resources owned and controlled by the dominating'. (Whitaker 2007: 239)

I would consider such principles to be represented and promoted, if not hegemonic, within the WSF and the broader GJ&SM. They are also a matter of self-reflection within and around such (Wainright et. al. 2007).

The reason why I here say that a new way of being, thinking and acting is not hegemonic within the Forum is revealed by the relationship between the inter/national trade union organisations and the WSF in the period leading up to Nairobi. Full knowledge about this is so far restricted to those at the centre of the WSF process, and to officers of certain inter/national union bodies. So my account is subject to correction by those involved. (Indeed, saying this here is the best way I know of obtaining the fullest information). What is publicly known is that there was tension between the Kenyan Confederation of Trade Unions (COTU) and the organising committee, with COTU initially complaining of exclusion but later reporting a settlement and, indeed, a certain satisfaction with the Nairobi WSF. The tension was at least in part due to the international unions’ desire to get all WSF activities under the banner of Decent Work. There was resistance by members of the International Committee to having this inter-state organisation (ILO) policy stand in place of ‘Labour’ in the official programme (Oloo 2006a). According to one account, the union side (local? regional? international?) threatened a boycott of the Nairobi WSF if the ILO/ITUC language was not used. And the relevant committee felt it had to back down in the face of the threat. According to another, overlapping, account,

'Come January [2007] the wrangling was still simmering under the surface. For instance at a Secretariat meeting that took place at Kasarani [the WSF site] a few days before the opening ceremony it was clear that the trade unionists did not understand the format/procedures of the WSF because they were demanding that THEY be in control of even the WORDING of the joint/co-organised activities [specified by WSF to be participant-controlled]. They went further and insisted that they would have to choose the facilitators of the sessions!'

'A member of [a WSF committee] who also happens to be leader of one of the biggest unions in his home country pointed out two things: one, trade unions represented a MINORITY of workers — less than ten percent of the work force in many regions in Asia and Africa. Secondly he stated that it was NOT ONLY workers who were concerned about ‘work’: otherwise there were housewives talking about unpaid domestic labour and other categories as well. This did not go down very well with the trade unionists and the controversy migrated to the email listservs with the Kenyan trade unionists issuing veiled warnings if they did not get their way'. [Bracketed text mine – PW]

All this politicking explains why in some parts of the published WSF programme the word ‘labour’ is used and in other parts ‘decent work’ (uncapitalised?). It seems, in any case, as if a certain amount of dirty work was involved in the advancing of Decent Work. The labour question in Nairobi was thus surrounded by clouds of complicity and compromise which make it difficult to see any little swords of justice around.

Petty and insignificant as this affair might seem in the light of what publicly – and promisingly – occurred in Nairobi, it surely still requires public clarification. Because, if that kind of pressure was exercised and the WSF did feel obliged to quietly concede, then this surely exemplifies the old way of doing (labour or left) politics. And this is surely in contradiction with the necessary new ethic as variously expressed above by Chico Whitaker (from Liberation Theology in the 1980s), Ezequiel Adamovsky (from the 21st century autonomists) or myself (from Moscow 1957).

If I still argue that the WSF is a privileged place for the reinvention of the international labour movement, then how do I explain the latter’s relatively low profile? So far, it seems to me, the WSF and the trade union organisations have had an instrumental rather than an affective relationship. This means that each has used the other for its own predetermined purposes — the ITUC most recently for promoting Decent Work, the WSF for demonstrating its inclusion of what is, after all, the major organised body of the popular classes globally. The unions have, traditionally, run a full programme in their own WSF space, but this is one which simultaneously concentrates and isolates. Thus, despite formal ITUC urgings that unionists participate in other events, this is more likely to be on group or individual initiative of the unionists (Bonin 2007, de Schryver 2007a, b) than anything more structural, effective and visible. Now, many feminists continue to complain of the low profile or even marginalisation of women within the WSF. This is not my impression, either from their autonomous activity in preparation for the Forum (Feminist Dialogues. URL), or their activity in its International Council, or their presence in public Forum events and its open spaces (Vargas 2007). I would argue that the higher profile of women compared with labour has been a result of the determined activity of feminists and women’s networks, recognising their affinity with the Forum but systematically pressing their issues within and upon it. There has also been much more reflection on the Forum from the women’s movement than from the labour one. The reasons are not far to find. The trade unions and even the broader labour and socialist movement are children of early/mature capitalism. The women’s movement and feminism are, in their present incarnation, the children of mature or late (I live in hope) capitalism. They were, indeed, a major force in the New Social Movements of the 1970s–80s. Without them one cannot understand the nature of the WSF and the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement. Thus, we see a leading male organiser publicly reflecting on the position of women within the Forum (Oloo 2006b), but we do not yet see middle-class Forum organisers (male or female) seriously reflecting on the role of labour there.

The WSF’s Chickens Come Home, and Not Only to Roost

I have not really discussed the ‘WSF as a whole’. Nor considered it as the first full Forum in Africa. Nor those informal meetings, with old friends and new, which had more directly to do with the emancipation of labour. Nor have I mentioned why I went to Nairobi despite an earlier decision to confine myself to following the process only locally and cyberspatially.

For the Nairobi event as a whole, I remind readers of the virtual impossibility of producing an overview, and refer the interested to the reactions, being collected and reported by CACIM, Choike and other such websites (see URLs, plus the extended bibliography below). Nairobi has definitely been the most criticised WSF to date. And I would like to think that this is due less to any predictable shortcomings in Nairobi than to a certain coming-of-age of the Forum process. Immanuel Wallerstein (2007) picks up, I think, the process by which network-formation is occurring (hopefully on a World Scale). Shannon Walsh (2007) stresses the contradiction between a WSF concerned with the poor, and those unruly, unorganised Nairobi slumdwellers (or their advocates?), breaking in and intervening in the otherwise middle-class managed, if not dominated, Forum process. The chickens I had noted at the European Social Forum, Florence, 2002, were here coming home, and not only to roost (Ngwane 2007, People’s Parliament 2007, Waterman 2004c:92-3).

And then I have to report the limited presence of Africans at the alternative or marginal labour events I have mentioned above. The Kenyan and other unions were well represented in the Decent Work tent. African unionists were clearly present at the opening ceremony and in numerous union stalls surrounding the stadium (International Transportworkers Federation 2007). They were certainly present at other events about labouring people, such as concerning urban and rural land and habitation. But, apart from some South Africans and an articulate Haitian, black unionists appeared to have been either unapproached or uninterested in attending those events I have identified under the EofL category. This was somewhat sobering for me in so far as it was with African unions that I started my political and academic commitment to Third World labour in the 1960s-70s. During and immediately following the independence struggles, African unions had often played crucial or even leading roles – and were certainly recognised as swords of justice. Indeed, the trade unions of Guinea, in West Africa, were playing this role whilst we were meeting in Kenya. The repression unleashed against them led to protests at the Forum and by the ITUC (URL). Nigerian unions have repeatedly played this kind of role (Obono 2006). At regional or international level, however, the African trade unions have commonly been followers rather than leaders, this dependence being revealed in membership of the Eurocentred internationals, or in state-dependent regional internationals. Whereas it has been possible to witness, for example, lively Latin American discussion on the new ITUC (Consejo Consultivo Laboral Andino 2005), this has not been the case in Africa. And whereas one can witness a New Trade Union Initiative in India, I am not sure whether any such phenomenon can be found in an African country.

What of my personal motives for going to Nairobi? I have, for some 20 years been promoting the notion of Social Movement Unionism (SMU), also known as the New Social Unionism (Waterman 2004b). Let me say of this only that it represents an attempted articulation of classical labour movement theory and practice with those of the new social movements of the 1970s-80s. Although the phrase ‘social movement unionism’ now has over 28,000 references on Google, and although there has been over the years some lively dialogue around the concept, its impact on trade unions has been limited, brief, ambiguous, or all three. This may have been because it appeared just as the unions, worldwide, were being confronted by the most violent capitalist and state assault in living memory. It may be because SMU was more generally understood as a ‘union-popular’ alliance than a ‘labour-new social movement’ one!However, one of those informal but intensive chats I had in Nairobi was precisely around the proposal of some experienced European leftists to research and publicise cases that appear to relate to the concept. Possibly, but only possibly, its time has come. We shall see…at the next WSF in 2009?

But I had not really intended to promote SMU at the WSF. However, one of the reasons for which I had agreed to come to Nairobi had been the opportunity of quietly publicising a new project, a Global Labour Charter Movement (Waterman 2007c: Appendix 1). The Global Labour Charter (GLC) is my response to, on the one hand, the labour chapter of the WFA’s Bamako Appeal and, on the other, to Decent Work and other such recent union manifestos. The GLC project is not intended to be either ‘progressive’ nor ‘realistic’. It is intended to be radical and utopian. By ‘radical’ I mean that it attempts to address the roots of labour’s present impasse. And by utopian I mean what Oscar Wilde did when he said that a map of the world that did not show utopia was not worth a second glance. Utopia, literally, means both a non-existent place and a good one. It implies the imagination of a world both necessary and desirable and the surpassing of a realism determined by conventional calculations of power. In so far as the GLC is a discussion document, addressed to the bases, to the margins, and to the labour movement, rather than to the dominant international union leaderships, it seems to me compatible with the spirit of the World Social Forum. I reduced it to two sides of an A4, ran it off in multiple copies (in Spanish as well as English) in a Nairobi copyshop. And circulated it as seemed appropriate at the WSF. My conviction is that, given the limitations of Decent Work on the one hand, the growth of autonomous labour networking on the other, and the infinite reach of cyberspace, well, that if an idea is worth anything, it may eventually take off. This notion occurred many years ago to the Peruvian internationalist, Juan Carlos Mariátegui (1973/1923). Reflecting on the international media of his day he said:

'A new idea that blossoms in Britain is not a British idea except for the time that it takes for it to be printed. Once launched into space by the press, this idea, if it expresses some universal truth, can also be instantaneously transformed into an internationalist idea'.

More sceptical about British blossoms than Mariátegui, more modest in ambition, I live in hope. And, in any case, my proposal at least increases, within the international labour movement, the presence ‘of heterogeneity and of the dynamic of conflicts that go with it’.

The Hague
February 2007


Thanks to the following for feedback on previous drafts or related writings. Dan Gallin, François Houtart, Paul Garver, Andreas Bieler, Marco Berlinguer, Ingemar Lindberg, Mac Urata and others. The usual disclaimer applies.

Extended Bibliography and URLs


Adamovsky, Ezequiel. 2007. ‘A Radical Ethics of Equality’ in Hilary Wainright et.al. (eds). 2007. Networked Politics: Rethinking Political Organisation in an Age of Movements and Networks. Amsterdam: Trasnational Institute. Pp.7.

Aguiton, Christophe. 2007. ‘FSM 2007: De Nairobi, le Septième FSM’ (WSF 2007: From Nairobi, http://www.alternatives.ca/article2766.html?var_re cherche =aguiton.

Amin, Samir. 2007. ‘Le Forum Social Mondial est-il utile pour les luttes populaires ? Les formules des forums sociaux le sont-elles?’ (Is the World Social Forum Useful for Popular Struggles? Are the Social Forum Formulas Such?), http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/free/wsf/ nairobi2007/0201le_forum_social_mondial.html.

Bamako Appeal. 2007. ‘The Bamako Appeal’, in Jai Sen and Madhuresh Kumar (eds), A Political Programme for the World Social Forum? Democracy, Substance and Debate in the Bamako Appeal and the Global Justice Movements: A Reader. New Delhi: CACIM and Durban: Centre for Civil Society. Pp. 151–76.

Bieler, Andreas and Ingemar Lindberg. 2007. ‘Swedish Unions and Globalisation: Labour Strategies in a Changing Global Order’. Global Working Class Project. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/gwcproject/in dex.php.

Bonin, Marie-Hélène 2007 ‘World Social Forum: Stronger Alliance of Unions with Social Movements’. http://www.alternatives.ca/article2784.html?lang=e n.

Consejo Consultivo Laboral Andino. 2005. Reflexiones sobre la unidad internacional sindical (Reflections on International Trade Union Unity). Lima: Consejo Consultivo Laboral Andino/Programa Laboral de Desarrollo.

De Schryver, Marc-Antoon. 2007a. ‘De Belgen op het WSF (1): Luc Hamelinck van het ACV’, 260107. www.indymedia.be/nl/node/6885.

De Schryver, Marc-Antoon. 2007b. ‘De Belgen op het WSF (2): Eddy van Lacker en Caroline Copers van het ABVV’, 280107. www.indymedia.be/nl/node/6919.

ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation). 2007. ‘7th World Social Forum (Nairobi, Kenya, 21–25 January 2007)’.

Fitch, Robert. 2006. Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labour Movement and Undermined America’s Promise. New York: Public Affairs Press.

Flanders, Alan. 1970. Management and Unions. London, Faber.

Hyman, Richard. 1999. ‘An Emerging Agenda for Trade Unions?’, Labour and Society Programme. Geneva: International Labour Organisation. http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inst/pape rs/1999/dp98/index.htm

International Transportworkers Federation. 2007. ‘Transport unions’ active role at World Social Forum’, 26 January 2007. http://www.itfglobal.org/news-online/index.cfm/new sdetail/1156

International Union Rights. 2007. ‘Focus on Labour Rights in the Nordic Countries and Baltic Region’, International Union Rights, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 2-23.

Jha, Praveen. 2007. ‘Globalisation and Labour in India: The Emerging Challenges’. Global Working Class Project. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/gwcproject/ index.php.

Khanya. 2007. ‘The Road to Nairobi’, Khanya: A Journal for Activists (Nairobi Edition).

Mariátegui, José Carlos. 1973. ‘15ª Conferencia: Internacionalismo y nacionalismo’ (15th Lectura: Internationalism and Nationalism), Historia de la crisis mundial (Conferencias años 1923 y 1924). [Ediciones populares de las obras completas de José Carlos Mariátegui. Toma 8]. Lima: Amauta. Pp. 156-65.

Ngwane, Trevor. 2007. What Happened in Nairobi. http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/free/wsf/ nairobi2007/what_happened_in_nairobi.html.

Obono, Danielle. 2006. ‘Nigeria: Unions Lead Popular Resistance’, IV Online Magazine, IV 376 – March. http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?art icle989.

Oloo, Onyango. 2006a. ‘Social Movements Set to Assert Their Presence at WSF Nairobi 2007’, http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/38952.

Oloo, Onyango. 2006b. ‘Gendering the WSF Nairobi 2007 Process: A Contribution to a Debate by Onyango Oloo, National Coordinator, Kenya’, www.nigd.org/nigd/nigd-wsf-area/wsf-material/WSFAr ticles.

People’s Parliament. 2007. ‘The World Social Forum 2007: A Kenyan Perspective’, http://www.cadtm.org/article.php3?id_article=2437.

Sen, Jai and Madhuresh Kumar (eds). 2007. A Political Programme for the World Social Forum? Democracy, Substance and Debate in the Bamako Appeal and the Global Justice Movements: A Reader. New Delhi: CACIM and Durban: Centre for Civil Society.

Social Movement Assembly. 2007. ‘Full Report of The Social Movements Assembly: World Social Forum, Nairobi, 16h-18h, 24 January 2007’, http://www.focusweb.org/full-report-of-the-social- movements-assembly.html.

Streetnet International Report. 2007. ‘Streetnet International Report on the World Social Forum (WSF2007), Nairobi, Kenya, 20–25 January 2007’. 10 pp.

Tucker, Greg. 2007. ‘Britain — Trade Unions: Left Needs New Year Resolution to Stiffen Fight for New Leadership’, IV Online Magazine: IV 385 — January 2007. http://www.internationalviewpoint.org.
Vargas, Virginia. ‘Una mirada al FSM de Nairobi’ (A View of the Nairobi WSF). Email received 160207.

Vosko, Leah. 2003. ‘“Decent Work”, The Shifting Role of the ILO and the Struggle for Global Social Justice’, in Marjorie Griffin Cohen and Stephen McBride (eds), Global Turbulence: Social Activists’ and State Responses to Globalisation. Aldershot: Ashgate. Pp. 174-90.

Wainright, Hilary et.al. 2007. Networked Politics: Rethinking Political Organisation in an Age of Movements and Networks. Amsterdam: Trasnational Institute. 72 pp.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2007. ‘The World Social Forum: From Defence to Offence’, Commentary No. 202, Feb. 1, 2007, http://www.binghamton.edu/fbc/commentr.htm.

Walsh, Shannon. 2007. ‘We Won't Pay to Discuss Our Own Poverty! Activist Interventions into the “Open Space” of the World Social Forum’, http://shannoninsouthafrica.blogspot.com/
Waterman, Peter (ed). 2001. ‘Labour Rights in the Global Economy’, Working USA (Guest-Edited Special Issue), Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer. Pp. 9-86.

Waterman, Peter. 2004a. ‘Emancipating Labour Internationalism’, Centre for Global, International and Regional Studies, University of California Santa Cruz. http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1030&context=cgirs

Waterman, Peter. 2004b. ‘Adventures of Emancipatory Labour Strategy as the New Global Movement Challenges International Unionism’, Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol. 10, No. 1. http://jwsr.ucr.edu/index.php.

Waterman, Peter. 2004c. ‘The European Social Forum, Florence, November 6-10, 2002: Globalisation from the Middle? Reflections from a Margin’, in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman (eds). 2004. The World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: Viveka. Pp. 97-93.

Waterman, Peter. 2005. ‘From “Decent Work” to “The Liberation of Time from Work”:

Reflections on Work, Emancipation, Utopia and the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement’, http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=05/03 /24/170247&mode=nested&tid=4

Waterman, Peter. 2007a. ‘Trade Unions, Labour and the World Social Forum’, Terra Viva, January 2, www.ipsterraviva.net/tv/Nairobi/en/viewstory.asp?i dnews=777

Waterman, Peter. 2007b. ‘Trade Union Internationalism and the Challenge of Globalisation: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?’, Global Working Class Project. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/ gwcproject/ index. php

Waterman, Peter. 2007c. A Global Labour Charter Movement. www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/files/A%20GLOBAL%20LABOUR%20CHA RTER%20MOVEMENT.pdf.

Whitaker, Chico. 2007. ‘Annex 12: For an Evaluation of the International Study Days Project: Why it is Necessary to Continue it?’, A New Way of Changing the World. Nairobi: All Africa Conference of Churches. Pp. 225-46.

Yates, Michael. 2006. ‘What's the Matter with U.S. Organised Labour? >An Interview with Robert Fitch by Michael D. Yates’, MRzine. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/yates300306.html.


CACIM (India Institute for Critical Action: Centre In Movement). http://cacim.net/twiki/tiki-index.php?page=CACIMHo me

Choike. ‘About the World Social Forum’, http://www.choike. org/nuevo_eng/informes/4601.html

Decent Work, Decent Life. http://www.ituc-csi.org/spip.php?rubrique69

E-Library for Social Transformation. http://www.openelibrary.info/main.php.

Feminist Dialogues. http://feministdialogues.isiswomen.org/.

Global Labor Strategies. http://laborstrategies.blogs.com/

Global Working Class Project.

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/gwcproject/in dex.php

International Trade Union Confederation. www.ituc-csi.org/
StreetNet International. http://www.streetnet.org.za/

Transform! European Network for Alternative Thinking and Political Dialogue. http://www.transform-network.org/index.php?id=395

Appendix 1

Towards A Global Labour Charter Movement

Starting with the World Social Forum 2007!

The idea of a Global Labour Charter Movement comes out of both desperation and hope. The desperation is due to seeing the labour movement, in North, South, East or West, floundering under the multiple attacks delivered by contemporary capitalism, and by labour’s lack of any such socially unifying and mobilising vision as inspired it in the past. The hope comes from seeing such energy and vision within the so-called global justice and solidarity movement (GJ&SM).

1. The idea of a GLCM is to develop a charter, declaration or manifesto on labour, relevant to all working people, under the conditions of a radically transformed and highly aggressive capitalism, neo-liberalised and globalised.

2. The idea of such a charter has been provoked by a couple of recent international labour declarations (Bamako Appeal 2006, Labour Platform for the Americas 2006). A common limitation of these otherwise very different documents is that each was produced and issued for acceptance or endorsement, by union leaderships or intellectual elites, without discussion by union members, shopfloor or community activists themselves. The GLC notion is, however, also inspired by a recent women’s one, the Women’s Global Charter for Humanity (2004), produced after worldwide discussion by a new mobilising social movement.

3. In so far as this project is addressed to the emancipation of life from work (work here meaning labour for capital and state, empire and patriarchy), it implies articulating (both joining and expressing) labour struggles with those of other oppressed and exploited social categories, people and peoples – particularly that majority of workers, women. The existence of a growing global justice and solidarity movement (GJ&SM), best known through the World Social Forum (WSF) process, makes such articulation increasingly possible.

4. Its title could be the ‘Global Labour Charter Movement’ (or GLCM21). 'Charter' reminds us of one of the earliest radical-democratic labour-popular movements of industrial capitalism, the British Chartists. ‘Movement’ reminds us that the development of such a declaration requires a process and the self-mobilisation of workers.

5. Such a process needs to reveal its origins and debts. These are to the new forms of labour self-organisation (within and beyond unions), to the shopfloor, urban and rural labour networks (local, national, international), to the labour NGOs (labour service organisations), and to a growing wave of labour education, communication and research responding to the crisis of the labour movement.

6. The novel principle of such a charter should be its conception as a ‘virtuous spiral’ — that it be conceived not as a single, correct, final declaration, which workers, peoples and other people simply endorse (though endorsement could be part of the process), as for its processal, dialogical and developing nature. This notion would allow for it to be begun, paused and joined at any point. Such a process would require at least the following elements: information/communication, education, dialogue, (re-) formulation, action, evaluation, information...

7. It is the existence of cyberspace (the internet, the web, computerised audio-visuals) that makes such a Global Labour Charter for the first time conceivable. We have here not simply a new communications technology but the possibility for developing non-hierarchical, dialogical, equal relations worldwide. The process will be computer-based because of the web’s built-in characteristics of feedback, its worldwide reach, its low and decreasing cost. An increasing number of workers and activists are in computerised work, are familiar with information and communication technology and have web skills. Given, however, uneven worker computer access, such a process must also be intensely local, imply and empower outreach, using the communication methods appropriate to particular kinds of labour and each specific locale.

8. Networking can and must ensure that any initiators or coordinators do not become permanent leaders or controllers. There is a growing international body of fulltime organisers and volunteer activists, both within and beyond the traditional inter/national unions, experienced in the GJ&SM, who could provide the initial nodes in such a network. Networking also, however, allows for there to be various such charters, in dialogue with each other. Such dialogue should be considered a normal and even necessary part of the process and avoid the authority, dependency or passivity associated with traditional manifestos.

9. If this proposal assumes the crisis of the traditional trade unions, it should be clear that it simultaneously represents an opportunity for them. This is for a reinvention of the form of labour self-articulation (again: organisation and expression), as has occurred more than once in the history of capitalism (from guilds to craft unions, from craft to inter/national industrial unions). By abandoning what is an increasingly imaginary power, centrality or privilege, unions could simultaneously reinvent themselves and become a necessary and significant part of a movement for social emancipation worldwide. The form or forms of such a reinvention will emerge precisely out of a continuing dialogue, the dialectic between organisational and networking activities.

10. Starting with the first edition(s) of any GLC, there could be a list of globally-agreed demands and campaigns, with these having emancipatory (demonstrably subversive, empowering, socially transformatory) implications for those involved. Rather than increasing their dependence on capital, state, patriarchy, empire, any GLC must increase their solidarity with other popular and radically-democratic sectors/movements.

11. Any such campaigns must, however, be seen as not carved in stone but as collective experiments, to be collectively evaluated. They should therefore be dependent on collective self-activity, implying global solidarity, as with the 200-year-old (but never completed!) campaign for the eight-hour day. There is a wide range of imaginable issues (of which the following are hypothetical examples, in no necessary order of priority):

• A Six Hour Day, A Five Day Week, A 48 Week Year, thus distributing available work more widely, reducing overwork;

• Global Labour Rights, including the right to strike and inter/national solidarity action, but first consulting workers — including migrants, precarious workers, unpaid carers (‘housewives’), the unemployed — on their priorities; and secondly by prioritising collective struggles and creative activity over leadership lobbying;

• A Global Basic Income Grant, in the interests of women, of the unemployed, etc ;

• A Centennial Reinvention of the ILO in 1919, raising labour representation from 25 to 50 percent, and simultaneously sharing the raised percentage with non-unionised workers;

• A Global Campaign for Useful Work, reaching beyond conditions of, or at work (‘Decent Work’) to deal with useful production, socially-responsible consumption, environmental sustainability;

• All in Common, a campaign for the defence and extension of forms of common ownership and control (thus challenging both the privatisation process and capitalist ownership in general);

• A reinvention of Mayday as a Global Labour and Social Movements Solidarity Day (as being done by precarious workers in Europe and by immigrant labour in the USA);

• Support to the principle of Solidarity Economics and the practice of the Solidarity Economy, i.e. production, distribution, exchange that surpasses the competitive, divisory, hierarchical, growth-fixated, wasteful, polluting, destructive principles of capitalism.

• A Global Labour Forum, as part of, or complementing, the World Social Forum, an assembly organised autonomously from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the Global Unions, whilst open to all);
12. This proposal is clearly marked by its origin, in terms of its author, place and language. It is, however, issued under the principle of CopyLeft. It can therefore be adapted, replaced, challenged, rejected and, obviously, ignored. Its only requirement or hope is that it be discussed.


Bamako Appeal. 2006. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/bamako.html

Labour’s Platform for the Americas. 2006. http://www.gpn.org/research/orit2005/index.html.

Waterman, Peter. 2006. ‘Hacia un movimiento para una carta laboral global’, Revista Cultura y Trabajo (Medellín), No. 69, October. http://www.ens.org.co/articulos.htm?x=20150756&cmd [111]=c-1-69

  Women’s Global Charter for Humanity. 2004. http://www.worldmarchofwomen.org/qui_nous_sommes/c harte/en