The enduring relevance of the classical transnational labour movement and the ‘global justice’ movement

By Donnacha DeLong

This essay was written as part of my studies in 2010/2011, reading a Masters in PoliticalCommunication in City University, London. The essay was the assessment in the course GlobalCivil Society and answered the question: Compare the relevance of the classical transnational labour movement and the ‘global justice’ movement.

Definition of terms:

Union types:

Craft-based: Trade union organisations of skilled workers engaged in a particular craft, often small and concentrated on a particular workplace.
Reformist: Trade union focussed on improving conditions for workers without challenging the dominant economic system.
Syndicalist: Trade union organised on non-hierarchical, federalist principles, independent of political parties and open to all workers.
Revolutionary syndicalist: Syndicalist trade union organised around the idea of the trade union movement as the primary vehicle for revolutionary activity.
Anarcho-syndicalism: Revolutionary syndicalist trade union specifically organised around anarchist principles of opposition to capitalism and the existence of the state.
“It is too soon to say.” – Zhou Enlai, first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, reputedly said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789. Measuring the relevance of two major social movements of the past 120 years is difficult. Depending on when one was to ask the question, the answer would be very likely to be different. If asked in 1998, as the Liverpool dockers lost their long-running strike, many would have argued that the labour movement had failed and was over. The Liverpool dockers were an important part of the powerful Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers (Holton, 1976, pp.172-175). However, other unions were reorganising and all but stopped the long-term decline in union members. Few in the period from 1998 to 1999 would have predicted the central role trade unions would play in the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. And in January 2011, who would have predicted a trade union uprising in Wisconsin, USA, or a mobilisation of up to 500,000 people on a trade union march in London? The trade union movement has a long history of unexpected bursts of radicalism that instantly redefine its relevance for that moment in time. The global justice movement (GJM) existed for a shorter period (arguably 1994-2005), but its relevance is also very hard to judge. In 2003, the movement was largely overtaken and subsumed by the anti-war movement. The failure to prevent the bombs falling on Iraq led to widespread disillusionment and,at that point, the relevance of the GJM seemed minimal.

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