As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Carolyn Kazdin delivered a presentation on her experiences in the international solidarity movement and the links between the American labor movement and the international context. The following is a summary of the key points she presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.
To understand the possibilities for international labor solidarity, it is first essential to understand that the American labor movement has traditionally been a reactionary one on the international stage. The U.S. trade union movement has been known for engaging in “trade union tourism” in visits to other countries, rather than building relationships and forging solidarity. While progressive unions around the world have already been working together, U.S. unions have largely been left out of the picture.
Fortunately, this is beginning to change. And as the American labor movement begins to explore international possibilities, it is worth taking a look at the trends already unfolding across the world.
The Brazilian labor movement is an important place to start, as they elected one of their own as President of the country with the election of Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT). In his 8 year tenure, Lula and his movement lifted 40 million people out of extreme poverty, and created 20 million jobs. While the movement has since faced significant setbacks under the Bolsonaro administration and the corrupt trials that jailed Lula and his associates, their successes are an important reminder of what a robust trade union movement can achieve when it wins power.
International solidarity work also offers an important illustration of the ways that global capital works. During NAFTA struggles, for example, amid all the anti-immigrant rhetoric a number of U.S. workers were sent on delegations to Mexico to see where their jobs went. Those American workers saw firsthand what had happened to their jobs with heightened exploitation, which is why these jobs were offshore to begin with: to exploit workers in the Global South, where their governments would allow it. And when they came back, those workers were able to speak to other workers across the U.S. to explain what was really happening with NAFTA, why Mexican workers are allies not enemies, and why global capital is at the root of the issues they face.
When these international bonds are forged, they pay dividends. When Brazilian companies bought steel mills in the U.S. and mines in Canada, workers across these countries resisted the union-busting efforts and launched campaigns forcing those companies to respect unions and right to bargain. When the UAW attempted to unionize Nissan workers in Canton, MS, they recognized that the U.S. is the only country where Nissan workers are not unionized, and brought in unionized Nissan workers from other countries to show why their unions are so important to them. And when the tire maker Firestone opened new sites in Liberia, the Steelworkers union sent delegates to the Liberian workers to help them in collective bargaining.
International solidarity work also casts an important light on the intersection of class and race. As the U.S. and Brazilian labor movements have built relationships, they’ve also been able to explore how racial struggles fit into the labor struggles both domestically and internationally. Brazil’s is over 50% Black, home to the largest Black population outside of Africa, and Black Brazilians face many of the same struggles as Black Americans. In particular, Black Brazilians suffer from an epidemic of police murders and a growing prison-industrial complex. With that in mind, Black Brazilian workers have been inspired by the recent resurgence of racial justice movements in the U.S., and have been eager to learn more about how the Black Lives Matter movement was launched so that they could develop their own.
All told, international solidarity work offers an important reminder that the labor movement is a global struggle. And in building relationships between labor movements across countries, we can both strengthen our own campaigns at home and gain new insight into how we can advance our shared struggles.
Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.