Building Global Labor Solidarity

I’m not a labor historian, but I grew up in a long-time union household that instilled a strong sense of working-class values. For most of my adult life, I’ve thought about labor unions, how they could better organize, and how those of us not organizing on the shop floor could aid such efforts.

Indeed, there’s much to learn from any movement or organization that’s been able to stand the test of time, regardless of the sectoral, geographical, or political context in which they emerge, organize, and fight.

Unfortunately, in my experience, activists and organizers in the U.S., particularly those in trade unions, rarely seek advice, lessons, or to better understand trade union movements in what some might refer to as the ‘Global South.’ This, of course, is a major problem, and one of the reasons why U.S. labor organizing, mobilization, and activism has been so abysmal.

Kim Scipes, in his latest book, Building Global Labor Solidarity: Lessons from the Philippines, South Africa, Northwestern Europe, and the United States, adds a significant and meaningful contribution to our understanding of trade unionism, how we might better theoretically understand the concepts of “labor movements” and “social movement unionism,” and how labor centers such as the KMU in the Philippines and others in South Africa embody these understandings and practices.

Scipes takes us on a fascinating and inspiring personal and political journey, from San Francisco in 1984 to Northwestern Europe during the fall of 1985, experiences in the Philippines in 1986, and reflections on trade union organizing in South Africa during the late-1980s and early-1990s. Without question, Scipes’ personal history and tails from his international travels are as engrossing as the intellectual content contained in his latest book.

For the sake of time, I’ll limit my reflections to the latter, in the hope that activists and organizers of all stripes can take away important lessons from this lengthy review.

Shop Floor Internationalism

“Shop floor internationalism is workers joining together across national boundaries to support each other through concerted action on the shop floor.” As an example, Scipes references the experiences of Larry Wright, “a key organizer of the Liberation Support Committee in the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) in San Francisco.” In 1984, Larry and members of the ILWU Local 10 stopped a Dutch ship from carrying South African cargo for three days during November-December of that year.

A few key points: first, the action was led by rank and file workers; second, a robust and long-term educational program laid the ideological groundwork for such an action to have any level of success (leaders within the union spoke openly about and stood in solidarity with workers abroad); and third, the union actively sought support from different unions and community organizations — three points that come up routinely throughout the book.

One of the key components to building shop floor internationalism is the ability to communicate and convey a sense of internationalism. As Scipes points out, “One of the first efforts to communicate and theoretically develop the concept of shop floor internationalism was the establishment of NILS, Newsletter of International Labour Studies.”

Other important journals such as International Labor Reports (ILR), based in England, a project Scipes actively worked with from 1984–1989 as ILR’s North American representative, the Asian Labour Monitor (ALM), published in Hong Kong, LABOUR, Capital and Society, located in South America, the South African Labour Bulletin, and the KMU’s journals, KMU Correspondence and KMU International Bulletin, have all played significant roles in communicating the vital and important role of internationalism in trade union struggles.

Films have also played a significant role in shaping the ideological contours of working-class people and the communities in which they live. Scipes suggests viewing Controlling InterestThe Global Assembly Line and Bringing It All Back Home, to name a few

For Scipes, one of the keys to understanding successful trade union movements is their ability to educate and mold member consciousness, values, and worldview, a point we’ll return to later. Scipes is correct when he claims identity and ideology must be developed. The methods mentioned above — education, films, and journals — play a vital role in this process.

Theoretically Understanding Labor Movements

In Part Two, Scipes poses the question, “How do we theoretically understand labor movements and worker mobilization?” Here, I’ll do my best to summarize some dense and reasonably complicated concepts.

To begin, he argues that “using broadly comparative methods to understand global unionism is…a necessity, as it is not enough just to use case studies of single labor movements or even narrow comparisons: doing so, we find that a structural analysis cannot provide the level of analysis needed [to understand the emergence of ‘social movement unionism’].”

In this section, he clearly and convincingly rejects the notion that structural based analyses can explain the surfacing of social movement unionism and distinguishes between three types of trade unionism: economicpolitical, and social movement unionism.

While Scipes accepts “that structural changes can account for changed conditions leading to the emergence of militant labor movements,” he’s very explicit that, “structural changes cannot account for the emergence of any particular type of trade unionism, thus specifically cannot account for the emergence of social movement unionism.”

In other words, a nation’s changing political-economic landscape — Neoliberalization, rapid industrialization, trade agreements, financialization, broader economic restructuring, etc. — cannot account for the birth of “social movement unionism.” For instance, the percentage of Filipinos working in the manufacturing sector in 1990 (9.7%) was less than in 1960 (12.1%), yet social movement unionism emerges in the Philippines in 1980, during a decline in industrialization.

So, what accounts for the emergence of the KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno, or May First Labor Movement)? Before we answer that question, let’s examine some of Scipes’ definitions and conceptualizations. Labor movements, in Scipes’ view, are simply one example of social movements, though an important one due to their proximity to economic production and exchange.

Social movements are defined as “a collectivity acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional channels, for the purpose of promoting or resisting change in the group, society or world order of which it is a part.” Trade unions are at the heart of labor movements. Labor centers seek to “unify and strengthen the unions.” Intellectuals, individuals, and various other organizations, educational institutions, allies (progressive churches, for instance), together, “mobilize into a mutually-reinforcing social network, that comprises a labor movement.”

In short, “labor movements derive their power from their ability to mobilize large numbers of people as a unified force to disrupt production, distribution and/or exchange, and to withstand counterattacks from capital and/or the state.”

According to Scipes, there are three types of trade unionism: economicpolitical, and social movement unionism. Economic unionism is defined as “unionism that accommodates itself to, and is absorbed by, the industrial relations system of its particular country,” and “engages in political activities within the dominant political system for the well-being of its members and its institutional self but generally limits itself to immediate interests.”

Political unionism, though somewhat similar in its overall posture and relation to workers’ autonomy and democracy, is defined as a “unionism that is dominated by or subordinated to a political party or state, to which the leaders give primary loyalty — and this includes both the Leninist and ‘radical nationalist’ versions” and “results in generally but not totally neglecting workplace issues for ‘larger’ political issues.”

Social movement unionism, on the other hand, differs qualitatively from both economic and political trade unionism:

Social movement unionism is a type of trade unionism that differs from the traditional forms of both economic and political unionism. This type seeks workers’ struggles as merely one of many efforts to qualitatively change society, and not either the only site for political struggle and social change or even the primary site. Therefore, it seeks alliances with other social movements on an equal basis and tries to join them in practice when possible, both within the country and internationally.

Social movement unionism is trade unionism democratically controlled by the membership and not by any external organization., and recognizes that the struggles for control over workers’ daily worklife, pay and conditions are intimately connected with and cannot be separated from the national socio-political-economic situation. This requires that struggles to improve the situation of workers confront the national situation — combining struggles against exploitation and oppression in the workplace with those confronting domination both external from and internal to the larger society — as well as any dominating relations within the unions themselves [race, gender, sexuality]. Therefore, it is autonomous from capital, the state, and political parties, setting its own agenda from its own particular perspective, yet willing to consider modifying its perspective on the basis of negotiations with the social movements that it allied with and that it has equal relations.

Drawing from the work of Alberto Melucci, Scipes argues that researchers must seek to “recognize [and better understand] the constitutive processes by which they [social and labor movements] are constructed.” Put differently, one must not treat movements as a given, an empirical reality, “but rather focus on the process of how [such movements] have been built.”

Here, collective identity plays a key role. Developing a collective identity is an ongoing process. First, the collective identity must be developed, then the collective group of people who commonly identify must choose to take collective action and maintain that identity. Again, none of this is a given. In some places, movements have arisen in the context of rapid industrialization, while in other places with a similar socio-political-economic context, no such movements developed. Individuals, in the end, must choose how they respond to changing structural circumstances.

Scipes agrees with Carol Mueller who claims that “the status quo must be challenged at the cultural level in terms of its claims to legitimacy before mass collective action is feasible.” Mueller suggests four levels of analysis: “public discourse, persuasive communication initiated by movement organizations, consciousness-raising from participation in episodes of collective action, and the creation of collective identities in submerged [social] networks.”

That said, the author is very clear: “we also have to recognize, especially in labor struggles, that collective identity is not solely created through conscious, rational, or cognitive processes — it can also be created through partaking in collective action.” In other words, the emergence of collective identity is not always a deliberative process.

The ramifications of this new conceptualization are threefold:

First, it consciously conceives of workers’ struggles as being directed against dominative power and consciously joins workers with all other people in the struggle for emancipation. Second, it sees workers’ struggles as integrated with all other struggles against dominative power — thus, the separation of labor from other social movements is ended. And third, it does not limit this model of trade unionism to workers in the LEDCs [less economically developed countries]; it is one that allows workers anywhere to adopt it.

Clearly, building labor movements around the world based on the model of social movement unionism would greatly benefit trade unions and labor struggles. Most importantly, workers in what is called the ‘Global North’ could learn much from the experiences of labor organizers and activists in the ‘Global South.’ In Scipes’ view, the KMU in the Philippines provides the best example of social movement unionism in the world — quite a claim.

The Legacy of Colonization and Imperialism in the Philippines

In order to truly appreciate and understand the brilliance, courage, and resiliency of the KMU, one must first understand the context in which it arose. The Philippines has been colonized in one form or another for over 499 years. Starting with the Spanish in 1521, and continuing through a neo-colonial/imperialist relationship with the United States following the end of the Spanish-American War (1898) until the present day.

Additionally, the Philippines was utterly devastated during the Second World War, which, of course, allowed the U.S. an opportunity to establish its neo-colonial relationship, a brutal and horrific affair that’s been well-documented by historian Alfred C. McCoy in his book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State.

In the late 1940s, an economic crisis hit the Philippines that threatened to bankrupt the country. As a result, the Filipino ruling class responded with an industrialization program that provided minimal gains for ordinary people, but nothing of the sort that would alleviate the economic, social, and political pain and suffering that plagued the country.

In 1961, Diosado Macapagal was elected President of the Philippines. This period, from 1961–1965, included intense deregulation of the economy at the behest of the U.S. Scipes writes, “This [deregulatory policy] was supported by U.S. President Kennedy, who arranged for the Philippines to immediately receive a $300 million loan from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to cover the repatriation of $300 million of U.S. corporate profits.” This ushered in a new era of “debt dependence,” as Scipes notes.

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was elected as a “reformer” who ran on a platform of restructuring the economy that had been so badly damaged by the IMF’s and World Bank’s Neoliberal program. By 1972, Marcos placed the entire country of the Philippines under a state of Martial Law. Years of red-baiting and repression created a violent political context for workers: enter the KMU — founded on May 1st, 1980 (a symbolic and historical recognition of their connection to the Haymarket Affair of 1886).

The KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno, or May First Labor Movement) 

Scipes identifies three reasons why the KMU was founded: first, because workplace conditions were so deplorable, so heinous, leaving most workers at the complete mercy of their bosses, that they had to organize; second, because “traditional unions had sold out workers;” and third, due to the “clear need for a workers’ organization that would organize against foreign domination.”

How did the KMU survive under the savage Marcos regime? According to a KMU leader Scipes interviewed in 1986 (who did not want his name used) because the KMU is genuine, militant, and nationalist:

By ‘genuine,’ we mean that the KMU is run by its members. The members are given all the information and decide the policies that run the organization. By ‘militant,’ we mean that the KMU will never betray the interest of the working class, even at the risk of their own lives. The KMU believes workers become aware of their own human dignity through collective mass action. By ‘nationalist,’ we believe the wealth of the Philippines belongs to the Filipino people and that national sovereignty must never be compromised. The KMU is against the presence of the U.S. [military] bases.

“Along with being genuine, militant and nationality,” Scipes writes, “the KMU has developed because of three other factors: an organizational structure that combines vertical and horizontal connections, an extensive educational program, and its relations with other sectoral (peasants’, women’s) organizations.” The author provides a substantive and detailed account of the KMU’s organizational structure (too much to include), but the most important dynamic is the KMU’s ability to integrate both vertically centralized national federations with horizontally structured workers’ alliances.

In 1982, Marcos launched an effort to decapitate the KMU, arresting 69 “key leaders, including the chairperson and the secretary-general.” Scipes argues that this effort failed precisely because of the KMU’s decentralized organizational structure, among other important factors, all of which tie together, including the KMU’s education program and willingness to form cross-sectoral alliances.

Within the KMU, “there is also an organization of women workers, the Kilusang Manggagawang Kababaihan (KMK: Women Workers’ Movement), which is affiliated with the KMU and is another type of alliance, this one based on gender.” Other alliances include cross-sectoral cooperation with workers in different industries and/or geographical locations. The author reminds us that “Alliances are a totally new development in Filipino trade unionism, having just been established in 1982.”

In addition to a dynamic organizational structure, the KMU has survived due to its quite developed and empowering educational program called ‘Genuine Trade Unionism.’ This program is composed of three courses: PAMA, GTU, and KPD.

“PAMA is a one-day introductory course, which is short enough that organizers can give basic educational training even on picket lines.” Workers are taught about political economy, rights, and responsibilities. Surplus labor value is explained in a way that all workers can understand. Filipino workers also take a course on imperialism and the importance of national sovereignty. GTU is a three-day course that goes into much greater detail. Workers debate and discuss more detailed issues concerning labor/capital, “yellow unionism,” and deeper history of the Filipino labor movement. The third and last course, KPD, articulates a “national democratic program,” emphasizing the need for “national democracy” and how to join with different political forces to form a democratic coalition government that includes “various sectors of society, such as peasants, workers, fisherfolk, women, urban poor, students, etc.”

As Scipes notes, “Education centers have been established throughout the country.” In fact, “Each KMU federation has an education department, as do most KMU geographic alliances…This education process is one of the main differences between KMU organizations and those controlled by other labor groupings.”

The KMU has also developed what they call the welgang bayan, a tactic that “includes a general workers’ strike, but much more…all public transportation is stopped, all shops and stores are closed, and community members set up barricades to stop still-operating private vehicles.” The first welgang bayan took place in 1984 in Davao City, then twice more in 1985. “The third peoples’ strike was so successful that when the island’s military commander asked the leaders to call it off after one day, they refused.” The military had no Plan B.

Another factor contributing to the KMU’s long-term survival is its communications strategy and ISA (International Solidarity Affair). Both of these approaches help the KMU develop its sense of “labor internationalism.” In Scipes’ view, “labor internationalism” operates on three levels. Level One consists of workers cooperating “with each other across international boundaries,” which could include everything from symbolic actions (letter-writing campaigns, marches) to direct actions (solidarity strikes, work refusals). Level Two includes workers consciously seeking to change the “social order” in their respective countries, and Level Three is the recognition that changing the “social order” is necessary in all countries in order to live in a more solidaristic global society.

To achieve these goals, the KMU has developed and implemented a six-part alternative communications strategy that’s aimed at building consciousness among workers and potential allies, educating the public, and providing an alternative view of the world — this includes alternative publications, international travel by KMU members, encouraging solidarity committees abroad, and perhaps most importantly, the ISA (International Solidarity Affair), which Scipes has attended on several occasions and writes beautifully about in the book.

Without question, the KMU experience provides many lessons and examples for workers throughout the world to critique, emulate, and improve upon.

Lessons from COSATU in South Africa 

In Chapter Eleven, Scipes transitions from the experience of the KMU in the Philippines to the development of new trade union organizations in South Africa between 1973–1992. In this section, he again illustrates that labor movements at the stage of inception are similar to social movements, hence the utility of using social movement theory to better understand their development.

Since South Africa’s economy developed in a much different fashion than the Philippines, industrializing at a far greater pace and with more intensity, and within the context of racial apartheid, Scipes once again proves the point that a “structural analysis” is insufficient in explaining the emergence of “social movement unionism,” something South Africans did, in fact, achieve.

Without the experience of the “Black Consciousness” movement, the prerequisite conditions for the creation of a collective identity wouldn’t have existed. Again, this was an intentional process, not a given. Structural factors played a role, but do not account for the rise of “social movement unionism” in South Africa. Black students and black workers helped develop the consciousness necessary to build a collective identity and they often did so not on the shop floor.

Cultural norms and the status quo social order was challenged, not only by union members, but by women, students, and various other actors from civic and cultural society. South African trade unionists in what would become the COSATU, were not only able to achieve all of the above, but they were also able to repel constant assaults from the apartheid regime, another key ingredient for “social movement unionism” to be realized.

To conclude his thoughts on South Africa, Scipes writes:

It seems unquestionable that the type of trade unionism created and carried out by COSATU and its affiliated unions qualify as social movement unionism: they see trade unions as only one site of struggle, not necessarily the only one or even the preeminent site, although they would probably argue that unions are the ‘most important’ site, and they ally with other social movements when possible.; they see te unions as being controlled by their members and not by any external organizations; they see conditions in the workplace as being intimately linked with the national political-economic situation; they fight exploitation and oppression in the workplace along with the domination from within and without the larger social order; and they are autonomous from other political organizations.

This section contains a lot of vital information and worthwhile lessons. While much of the book focuses on the experiences of the KMU, this chapter detailing the experiences of trade unions in South Africa not only clarifies and justifies Scipes’ definition of “social movement unionism,” but also reinforces his theoretical assumptions about how to understand, compare and contrast the emergence of “social movement unionism.”

Chicago Steel and Packinghouse Workers (1933–1955)

In the final chapter, Scipes shifts focus to the U.S. labor movement with the aim of better understanding changes at the theoretical level and “within the context of developments in three labor centers in developing countries that have far surpassed American efforts.”

In this section, the author illustrates the qualitative difference between not only two labor unions operating in the same context during the same period (packinghouse workers vs. steelworkers, 1933–1955, Chicagoland), but also compares and contrasts the better example of the two (packinghouse workers) to “social movement unionism” expressed by groups such as COSATU and the KMU. The conclusion is that neither the packinghouse nor steelworkers were able to meet the criteria of “social movement unionism.”

In fact, both groups fall under the type of trade unionism Scipes refers to as “economic unionism.” Within the “economic unionism” type, two sub-forms exist: “business unionism” and “social justice unionism” (which shouldn’t be confused with “social movement unionism”). Unfortunately, as the author notes, far too many labor scholars have incorrectly applied the concept of “social movement unionism” in the context of the U.S., causing even further confusion at the theoretical level.

Scipes clearly makes the case that both the packinghouse and steelworker unions “were of the economic type.” Consequently, “both accepted the industrial relations system of the particular country (the U.S.), and both engaged in political activities within the dominant political system for the well-being of their members…they did not challenge the established social order, nor did they challenge the legitimacy of the established industrial relations system.”

While not achieving the status of “social movement unionism,” the experiences of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (1937–1943), eventually the United Packinghouse Workers of America (post-1943) show a qualitative improvement over the experiences of the United Steelworkers Union who operated in the same geographical location during the same period.

In fact, Scipes argues that the UPWA “developed further than almost any other union within the CIO…[and] was by far the best on addressing racial oppression — by 1961, 100 percent of all UPWA collective bargaining agreements banned discrimination based on race, creed and national origin, either in employment applications or in employment — and one of the better unions in addressing gender oppression, although their work on gender was not as strong as on race.”

To conclude, Scipes notes that “labor writers and theorists should no longer use the term ‘social movement unionism’ to describe union activities in North America, but rather replace that term with ‘social justice unionism.’” By doing so, the author argues, “This allows us to recognize the different practices among unions in a number of countries, and to theoretically understand the form of trade unionism currently developing among some unions in North America.”

Many Lessons to be Learned 

Trade unionists, activists, and labor scholars from around the world would greatly benefit from reading Kim Scipes’ latest work. The lessons he provides are unmatched in terms of their theoretical implications, depth of analysis, and geographical breadth. In the end, workers in the ‘Global North’ have much to learn from trade unions in the ‘Global South.’ Far too often, scholars favor labor histories and lessons from North America and Europe while avoiding critical wisdom from trade unionists in developing nations.

History, political, economic, and organizing processes are infinitely complicated. As a result, structural changes in the economy cannot explain the emergence of “social movement unionism.” Developing “social movement unionism” is a constitutive process, and one that’s constantly changing, ebbing, and flowing. And one done consciously. Successful trade unions empower, educate, and value member-driven practices. Further, triumphant trade union movements find ways to work with a wide variety of workers, non-workers, and incorporate struggles beyond the workplace while articulating a vision that directly challenges the social order of their own nation, and other nations.

Internationalism and autonomy are also important factors, as is a well thought out alternative communications strategy that helps build the sort of international consciousness required to build genuine “social movement unionism.” And to think, workers in South Africa and the Philippines were able to accomplish the unimaginable under circumstances far worse than the ones we encounter in the U.S. For me, this is a source of great inspiration.


Vincent Emanuele is a writer, antiwar veteran, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of PARC | Politics Art Roots Culture Media and the PARC Community-Cultural Center located in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of Veterans For Peace and OURMC | Organized & United Residents of Michigan City. He is also a member of Collective 20. He can be reached at