Can Workers Overseas Provide: Tips for U.S. Labor Organizers?

The worldwide spread of Covid-19 created major challenges for workers and their unions throughout the globe. Very similar pandemic disruptions provided a timely reminder of the inter-connectedness of the global economy—and the need for cross-border links that enable workers to share information about their own struggles and learn from organized labor in other countries.

What are some of the “best practices” abroad that might be reproducible in the U.S. to help strengthen workplace protections here? Two labor-oriented academics, Kim Scipes and Robert Ovetz, have recently published collections of case studies that answer that question in great detail. Their new books will be useful to both union organizers and campus-based observers of comparative labor movements.

In Building Global Labor Solidarity (Lexington Books), Scipes brings together his own past writing on international labor struggles over the last four decades. A retired professor of sociology at Purdue, he is the author of several previous books, including KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994 (New Day Publishers, 1996) and AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, 2010). Earlier this month in Philadelphia, he was involved in efforts to inform national AFL-CIO delegates about what’s wrong with their federation’s continuing dependence on U.S. government funding of its international operations.

Shop Floor Internationalism

With a focus on “social movement unionism” that overlaps with Ovetz’s, Scipes describes workplace organizing by South African and Filipino workers—and how it was supported by left-leaning unions like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). As Scipes explains, U.S. workers are far more likely to embrace what he calls “shop floor internationalism” if their own union has a tradition of militancy and democracy like the ILWU. But many labor organizations are not as rank-and-file oriented. And changing their leadership or structure is not easy, at home or abroad. “While building global labor solidarity is a necessary task,” according to Scipes, “it is not sufficient: we must revitalize our domestic labor organizations.”

In Workers Inquiry and Global Class Struggle (Pluto Press), Ovetz showcases the work of trade union researchers and organizers engaged in this project, in different ways, on four continents. They report on shop floor organizing and/or strike activity by truckers in Argentina, teachers in Mexico, tech workers in the U.K., auto makers in India, and other manufacturing workers in China and South Africa. Drawing on his own experience in the California Faculty Association (CFA) at San Jose State University, Ovetz critiques past contract campaigning in America’s largest public university system which, in his view, failed to produce a “credible statewide strike threat.” The result has been “modest wage gains cancelled out by concessions on productivity, two-tier medical coverage, and the growth of contingent lecturers.”

Other contributors to Workers Inquiry also try, in Ovetz’s words, to identify “new organizational forms, tactics, and strategies that can be deployed by workers to win, be it in their workplace, community, sector of the economy, or as a class.” In Mexico, public school teachers could not depend on their notoriously corrupt national union to defend them from neo-liberal “education reform.” So, in 1979, they created a grassroots network which expanded to 100,000 union activists around the country, particularly active in rural areas. This dissident caucus, known as CNTE, has maintained its political autonomy and continues to resist “privatization of a vital and highly lucrative public service,” even under the more labor friendly government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Under conditions of far greater repression, Chinese factory workers, as described by Hong Kong labor researcher Jenny Chan, have found ways to fight for better conditions with or without the support of the country’s only legal labor organization, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). As reported by Marxist scholar Anna Curcio, highly exploited immigrant workers in Italy’s logistics sector—many of them female and non-white—have resisted harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence in warehouse jobs by using “their disruptive power” and forging alliances with “students and other precarious workers.” In post-apartheid South Africa, workers have used wild-cat strikes and sit-ins to confront former allies, like Cyril Ramaphosa. He led the South African miner’s union before becoming one of his country’s richest men and then a successful African National Congress candidate for president.

A Social Movement Union

In Building Global Labor Solidarity, Scipes returns to the subject of insurgent unionism in the Philippines. He recounts the history of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a radical labor federation that developed during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (whose kleptocratic family just returned to power via the election of his son, Ferdinand, Jr. as president of the country). KMU was the product of militant union organizing in manufacturing plants, copper mines, sugar plantations, and other forms of agriculture. When founded forty years ago, the new labor center had only 50,000 members. But, as an alternative to traditional unions that sold out their members and failed to organize against foreign domination of the economy, KMU quickly expanded to include nearly 750,000 workers by the late 1980s-early 1990s.

By 1989, KMU had played a catalytic role in several nationwide general strikes, while surviving the arrest, detention, and, in some cases, murder of key militants. Its organizing model, according to Scipes, emphasized “rank-and-file member, not just steward level, education, building new relationships with sectoral organizations across the social order; and uniting with workers and labor organizations around the world.” In addition to putting thousands of workers through a 3-day popular education course on “Genuine Trade Unionism,” the KMU was a key part of BAYAN. This broader community-labor coalition included several million people involved in women’s rights campaigns, organizations of the urban poor, and opposition to U.S. military bases.

In the Philippines during this period, KMU activists not only experienced state-sanctioned violence under the original Marcos regime. They also had to compete with the AFL-CIO-backed Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), which championed “Christian values” and fervent anti-communism. Created with government support during a period of martial law, the TUCP received millions of dollars from the U.S. labor federation’s Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI). This cold-war institution was far more concerned about reducing radical labor influence than challenging the exploitation of Filipino workers by multi-national companies.

As a leading U.S. backer of the KMU for four decades, Scipes has helped educate fellow trade unionists here about the negative role played by AFL-CIO operatives in the Philippines and other less developed countries, during the Cold War and today. As noted above, he’s part of a new pressure group, called the Labor Education Project on AFL-CIO International Operations (LEPAIO).

Its members are trade unionists opposed to US government funding of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center or the international work of any individual affiliate, via grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Instead, LEPAIO calls for “direct worker to worker links” with union members throughout the world and solidarity actions that target the multi-national companies that have become their common adversaries. That’s a common sense approach whose feasibility and effectiveness is well documented in both Building Global Labor Solidarity and Workers Inquiry and Global Class Struggle.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at