Trade Unions and Social Forums
Since 2001, trade unions and other social movements, ranging from environmentalists to women’s organizations, from urban youth movements to indigenous peoples fighting for land rights, have come together at the World Social Forum (WSF) to debate and promote alternatives to the race-to-the-bottom, corporate model of globalization. While participation from U.S. trade unions has been limited, the WSF, and the regional, national, and local social forums that have been organized on the same model, have been taken very seriously by labor movements in the rest of the world. Brazil’s powerful labor federation CUT was one of the initiators of the WSF, and the forums have seen significant participation from some of the most powerful and dynamic labor organizations in the world, including COSATU (South Africa), the CGT (France), the NTUI (India), and many, many others.
The Social Forums are designed to be both a “space” to promote the integration of different movements, rather than a decision-making body, and a “process” that allows different movements to work together and build trust and shared understanding of the challenges we face. They consist of a wide mix of speakers, conferences, seminars, workshops, and cultural performances, with no one event dominating, and with no pressure to come to exact agreement; there are no behind-the-scenes deals on the exact wording of resolutions. In practice, this makes them excellent spaces for informal networking, in many ways reminiscent of the best large-scale labor gatherings in the U.S., the Jobs with Justice annual meetings and the Labor Notes conferences, but with participation from other movements as well. They are a place where a worker who works for GE building locomotives, for example, has the possibility of meeting not only other GE workers from around the world, but also transportation activists who fight to maintain the viability of the public transit systems who purchase the locomotives. The social forums are both a space where the “labor/community alliances” and the “movement vision” that labor activists regularly proclaim the need for are actually built, and a process that strengthens them.
The U.S. Social Forum
Attempts to bring the social forum process to the U.S. have been mixed. In the absence of strong leadership from working-class organizations such as trade unions, many local “social forums” have been dominated by primarily white intellectuals and policy organizations talking to each other, which is of limited use for rank-and-file working people and communities of color. A recognition of this potential problem has guided Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), a national alliance of community and labor organizations (including Jobs with Justice, UE, and FLOC) in setting up the organizing process that will lead to a U.S. Social Forum (USSF) being held in Atlanta, Georgia in June of 2007. One of the outcomes of this process has already been a highly successful Southeast Social Forum, held in Durham North Carolina in June of 2006, where over 700 people, primarily workers and people of color, gathered to build a movement for justice in the southeast, and the Border Social Forum, held in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (just across the border from El Paso) in October of 2006, which drew over 900 people from the U.S. and Mexico.
The U.S. Social Forum will be important because working people in the U.S. are desperately in need of some kind of unified political movement. While the November, 2006 elections provided a measure of relief from the Bush/Republican onslaught, the Democratic Party’s track record should make it clear that working people cannot look to them for the kind of aggressive, principled leadership that we need. The crises working people face — many of which were exposed starkly in the Katrina disaster — are numerous: the health care crisis, the endless “war on terror,” the destruction of manufacturing jobs, the systematic looting of the public sector, and the racism that still permeates American society, just to name a few. The U.S. Social Forum will not be a magic bullet to solve these problems, but it is one of the best ways to move forward towards developing the movement we need.
Practical Proposals for Labor at the U.S. Social Forum
Beyond the big-picture reasons why it is important that trade unionists participate in the U.S. Social Forum, it could also offer a valuable space for labor in numerous other, more practical ways:
Industry/Sector Meetings: Organized workers, whether organized in trade unions or other forms of workers’ organization such as workers’ centers, clearly need to share notes and strategize with other workers in the same companies, industries, and sectors. While some in the labor movement believe that this is best achieved through mergers into single union structures, for the foreseeable future such industrial and sectoral formations will have to be multi-union. The USSF offers an opportunity not only to hold such meetings, but also to foster dialog with communities who are affected by the industry or sector as recipients of services, customers, or dumping grounds for pollution.
Platform to Strengthen and Launch Campaigns: Many labor activists realize that we need a real national campaign for universal health care, but so far none of the networks or organizations working on this issue have gathered sufficient critical mass. The AFL-CIO’s campaign for the right to join a union has never really taken off outside the ranks of union officials. As our pension and retirement “system” crumbles, we will increasingly see the need for a campaign for real retirement security. The USSF offers an opportunity to coalesce and push forward these campaigns as part of a broader movement for social justice.
Trade Union Education: One of the victims of the mergers, federational feuding ,and loss of membership which have plagued many unions has often been trade union education programs. Basic trade union education work like campaign strategy and stewards’ training is needed now more than ever, and is especially valuable when workers from different unions get a chance to share their experiences. The USSF offers an opportunity to do practical trade union education in an overall environment of movement-building, which would be an incredibly worthwhile experience for all trade unionists.
Jonathan Kissam is a part-time customer service worker and Secretary-Treasurer of UE Local 221 in Burlington, Vermont. He is one of UE’s co-representatives on the coordinating committee of Grassroots Global Justice, a national alliance of community and labor organizations that has taken the lead in organizing the U.S. Social Forum.