The new globalism is global labor

The Battle of Seattle’s other shoe drops.

Cory Doctorow
11 min readMay 20, 2024
Abraham Bosse’s 17th century etching of David with a defeated Goliath. In the original, David marvels at his sling while standing astride the giant head of Goliath, which has been severed and sports a notable forehead-dent. The image has been modified, replacing the rock in David’s sling with the Earth, and adding a monocle and top-hat to Goliath’s severed head.

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Depending on how you look at it, I either grew up in the periphery of the labor movement, or atop it, or surrounded by it. For a kid, labor issues don’t really hold a lot of urgency — in places with mature labor movements, kids don’t really have jobs, and the part-time jobs I had as a kid (paper route, cleaning a dance studio) were pretty benign.

Ironically, one of the reasons that labor issues barely registered for me as a kid was that my parents were in great, strong unions: Ontario teachers’ unions, which protected teachers from exploitative working conditions and from retaliation when they advocated for their students, striking for better schools as well as better working conditions.

Ontario teachers’ unions were strong enough that they could take the lead on workplace organization, to the benefit of teachers at every part of their careers, as well as students and the system as a whole. Back in the early 1980s, Ontario schools faced a demographic crisis. After years of declining enrollment, the number of students entering the system was rapidly increasing.

That meant that each level of the system — primary, junior, secondary — was about to go through a whipsaw, in which low numbers of students would be followed by large numbers. For a unionized education workforce, this presented a crisis: normally, a severe contraction in student numbers would trigger layoffs, on a last-in, first-out basis. That meant that layoffs loomed for junior teachers, who would almost certainly end up retraining for another career. When student numbers picked up again, those teachers wouldn’t be in the workforce anymore, and worse, a lot of the senior teachers who got priority during layoffs would be retiring, magnifying the crisis.

The teachers’ unions were strong, and they cared about students and teachers, both those at the start of their careers and those who’d given many years of service. They came up with an amazing solution: “self-funded sabbaticals.” Teachers with a set number of years of seniority could choose to take four years at 80% salary, and get a fifth year off at 80% salary (actually, they could take their year off any time from the third year on).

This allowed Ontario to increase its workforce by about 20%, for free. Senior teachers got a year off to spend with their families, or on continuing education, or for travel. Junior teachers’ jobs were protected. Students coming into the system had adequate classroom staff, in a mix of both senior and junior teachers.

This worked great for everyone, including my family. My parents both took their four-over-five year in 1983/84. They rented out our house for six months, charging enough to cover the mortgage. We flew to London, took a ferry to France, and leased a little sedan. For the next six months, we drove around Europe, visiting fourteen countries while my parents homeschooled us on the long highway stretches and in laundromats. We stayed in youth hostels and took a train to Leningrad to visit my family there. We saw Christmas Midnight Mass at the Vatican and walked around the Parthenon. We saw Guernica at the Prado. We visited a computer lab in Paris and I learned to program Logo in French. We hung out with my parents’ teacher pals who were civilian educators at a Canadian Forces Base in Baden-Baden. I bought an amazing hand-carved chess set in Seville with medieval motifs that sung to my D&D playing heart. It was amazing.

No, really, it was amazing. Unions and the social contract they bargained for transformed my family’s life chances. My dad came to Canada as a refugee, the son of a teen mother who’d been deeply traumatized by her civil defense service as a child during the Siege of Leningrad. My mother was the eldest child of a man who, at thirteen, had dropped out of school to support his nine brothers and sisters after the death of his father. My parents grew up to not only own a home, but to be able to take their sons on a latter-day version of the Grand Tour that was once the exclusive province of weak-chinned toffs from the uppermost of crusts:

My parents were active in labor causes and in their unions, of course, but that was just part of their activist lives. My mother was a leader in the fight for legal abortion rights in Canada:

My dad was active in party politics with the New Democratic Party, and both he and my mother were deeply involved with the fight against nuclear arms proliferation, a major issue in Canada, given our role in supplying radioisotopes to the US, building key components for ICBMs, testing cruise missiles over Labrador, and our participation in NORAD.

Abortion rights and nuclear arms proliferation were my own entry into political activism. When I was 13, I organized a large contingent from my school to march on Queen’s Park, the seat of the Provincial Parliament, to demand an end to Ontario’s active and critical participation in the hastening of global nuclear conflagration:

When I got a little older, I started helping with clinic defense and counterprotests at the Morgentaler Clinic and other sites in Toronto that provided safe access to women’s health, including abortions:

My teens were a period of deepening involvement in politics. It was hard work, but rewarding and fundamentally hopeful. There, in the shadow of imminent nuclear armageddon, there was a role for me to play, a way to be more than a passive passenger on a runaway train, to participate in the effort to pull the brake lever before we ran over the cliff.

In hindsight, though, I can see that even as my activism intensified, it also got harder. We struggled more to find places to meet, to find phones and computers to use, to find people who could explain how to get a permit for a demonstration or to get legal assistance for comrades in jail after a civil disobedience action.

What I couldn’t see at the time was that all of this was provided by organized labor. The labor movement had the halls, the photocopiers, the lawyers, the experience — the infrastructure. Even for campaigns that were directly about labor rights — campaigns for abortion rights, or against nuclear annihilation — the labor movement was the material, tangible base for our activities.

Look, riding a bicycle around all night wheatpasting posters to telephone poles to turn out people for an upcoming demonstration is hard work, but it’s much harder if you have to pay for xeroxing at Kinko’s rather than getting it for free at the union hall. Worse, the demonstration turnout suffers more because the union phone-trees and newsletters stop bringing out the numbers they once brought out.

This was why the neoliberal project took such savage aim at labor: they understood that a strong labor movement was foundation of antiimperialist, antiracist, antisexist struggles for justice. By dismantling labor, the ruling class kicked the legs out from under all the other fights that mattered.

Every year, it got harder to fight for any kind of better world. We activist kids grew to our twenties and foundered, spending precious hours searching for a room to hold a meeting, leaving us with fewer hours to spend organizing the thing we were meeting for. But gradually, we rebuilt. We started to stand up our own fragile, brittle, nascent structures that stood in for the mature and solid labor foundation that we’d grown up with.

The first time I got an inkling of what was going on came in 1999, with the Battle of Seattle: the mass protests over the WTO. Yes, labor turned out in force for those mass demonstrations, but they weren’t its leaders. The militancy, the leadership, and the organization came out of groups that could loosely be called “post-labor” — not in the sense that they no longer believed in labor causes, but in the sense that they were being organized outside of traditional labor.

Labor was in retreat. Five years earlier, organized labor had responded to NAFTA by organizing against Mexican workers, rather than the bosses who wanted to ship jobs to Mexico. It wasn’t unusual to see cars in Ontario with CAW bumper stickers alongside xenophobic stickers taking aim at Mexicans, not bosses. Those were the only workers that organized labor saw as competitors for labor rights: this was also the heyday of “two-tier” contracts, which protected benefits for senior workers while leaving their junior comrades exposed to bosses’ most sadistic practices, while still expecting junior workers to pay dues to a union that wouldn’t protect them:

Two-tier contracts were the opposite of the solidarity that my parents’ teachers’ union exhibited in the early 1980s; blaming Mexican workers for automakers’ offshoring was the opposite of the solidarity that built transracial and international labor power in the early days of the union movement:

As labor withered under a sustained, multi-decades-long assault on workers’ rights, other movements started to recapitulate the evolution of early labor, shoring up fragile movements that lacked legal protections, weathering setbacks, and building a “progressive” coalition that encompassed numerous issues. And then that movement started to support a new wave of labor organizing, situating labor issues on a continuum of justice questions, from race to gender to predatory college lending.

Young workers from every sector joined ossified unions with corrupt, sellout leaders and helped engineer their ouster, turning these dying old unions into engines of successful labor militancy:

In other words, we’re in the midst of a reversal of the historic role of labor and other social justice movements. Whereas once labor anchored a large collection of smaller, less unified social movements; today those social movements are helping bring back a weakened and fragmented labor movement.

One of the key organizing questions for today is whether these two movements can continue to co-evolve and, eventually, merge. For example: there can be no successful climate action without climate justice. The least paid workers in America are also the most racially disfavored. The gender pay-gap exists in all labor markets. For labor, integrating social justice questions isn’t just morally sound, it’s also tactically necessary.

One thing such a fusion can produce is a truly international labor movement. Today, social justice movements are transnational: the successful Irish campaign for abortion rights was closely linked to key abortion rights struggles in Argentina and Poland, and today, abortion rights organizers from all over the world are involved in mailing medication abortion pills to America.

A global labor movement is necessary, and not just to defeat the divide-and-rule tactics of the NAFTA fight. The WTO’s legacy is a firmly global capitalism: workers all over the world are fighting the same corporations. The strong unions of one country are threatened by weak labor in other countries where their key corporations seek to shift manufacturing or service delivery. But those same strong unions are able to use their power to help their comrades abroad protect their labor rights, depriving their common adversary of an easily exploited workforce.

A key recent example is Mercedes, part of the Daimler global octopus. Mercedes’ home turf is Germany, which boasts some of the strongest autoworker unions in the world. In the USA, Mercedes — like other German auto giants — preferentially manufactures its cars in the South, America’s “onshore-offshore” crime havens, where labor laws are both virtually nonexistent and largely unenforced. This allows Mercedes to exploit and endanger a largely Black workforce in a “right to work” territory where unions are nearly impossible to form and sustain.

Mercedes just defeated a hard-fought union drive in Vance, Alabama. In part, this was due to admitted tactical blunders from the UAW, who have recently racked up unprecedented victories in Tennessee and North Carolina:

But mostly, this was because Mercedes cheated. They flagrantly violated labor law to sabotage the union vote. That’s where it gets interesting. German workers have successfully lobbied the German parliament for the Supply Chain Act, an anticorruption law that punishes German companies that violate labor law abroad. That means that even though the UAW just lost their election, they might inflict some serious pain on Mercedes, who face a fine of 2% of their global annual revenue, and a ban on selling cars to the German government:

This is another way reversal of the post-neoliberal era. Whereas once the US exported its most rapacious corporate practices all over the world, today, global labor stands a chance of exporting workers’ rights from weak territories to strong ones.

Here’s an American analogy: the US’s two most populous states are California and Texas. The policies of these states ripple out over the whole country, and even beyond. When Texas requires textbooks that ban evolution, every pupil in the country is at risk of getting a textbook that embraces Young Earth Creationism. When California enacts strict emission standards, every car in the country gets cleaner tailpipes. The WTO was a Texas-style export: a race to the bottom, all around the world. The moment we’re living through now, as global social movements fuse with global labor, are a California-style export, a race to the top.

This is a weird upside to global monopoly capitalism. It’s how antitrust regulators all over the world are taking on corporations whose power rivals global superpowers like the USA and China: because they’re all fighting the same corporations, they can share tactics and even recycle evidence from one-another’s antitrust cases:

Look, the UAW messed up in Alabama. A successful union vote is won before the first ballot is cast. If your ground game isn’t strong enough to know the outcome of the vote before the ballot box opens, you need more organizing, not a vote:

But thanks to global labor — and its enemy, global capitalism — the UAW gets another chance. Global capitalism is rich and powerful, but it has key weaknesses. Its drive to “efficiency” makes it terribly vulnerable, and a disruption anywhere in its supply chain can bring the whole global empire to its knees:

American workers — especially swing-state workers who swung for Trump and are leaning his way again — overwhelmingly support a pro-labor agenda. They are furious over “price gouging and outrageous corporate profits…wealthy corporate CEOs and billionaires [not] paying what they should in taxes and the top 1% gaming the system”:

They support universal healthcare, and value Medicare and Social Security, and trust the Democrats to manage both better than Republicans will. They support “abortion rights, affordable child care, and even forgiving student loans”:

The problem is that these blue-collar voters are atomized. They no longer meet in union halls — they belong to gun clubs affiliated with the NRA. There are enough people who are a) undecided and b) union members in these swing states to defeat Trump. This is why labor power matters, and why a fusion of American labor and social justice movements matters — and why an international fusion of a labor-social justice coalition is our best hope for a habitable planet and a decent lives for our families.

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