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Labour solidarity across borders

Faline Bobier

April 26, 2013

“Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” This is the ringing exhortation at the end of The Communist Manifesto. But some might ask, “How can workers from the global South unite with their sisters and brothers in the global North?” After all, isn’t it true that workers in the advanced capitalist countries—in North America and Europe—benefit from the low wages and sweatshop conditions of their counterparts in poorer countries?
We need to pick apart this argument, to see how valid it really is, because the answer to this question will determine strategy and tactics for the workers’ movement generally.
Contrary to the myth of the even and free flow and exchange of capital, capitalism develops unevenly. Economic competition concentrates and centralizes capital in powerful corporations, intertwined with geopolitical competition between states.
As the Russian revolutionary Lenin described a century ago, “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries. And this ‘booty’ is shared by two or three world-dominating pirates (America, England, Japan), armed to the teeth who embroil the whole world in their war over the division of their booty.”
The resources, and sometimes even the people of other countries, have been harnessed to make Western powers rich. But the wealth of the ruling classes in the ‘privileged’ nations is not shared out between all citizens. There is a privileged class in all countries, including in so-called Third World countries—the Mubaraks of Egypt, or Mugabes of Zimbabwe—that has an interest in maintaining the inequality inherent in the system. And there is a working class in all countries—in Bolivia, Spain, Portugal, China, South Africa, Britain, the US, Canada, etc.—that sees their labour and their lives appropriated by their own ruling class.
Capitalist reforms
The fact that capitalism developed first and most fully in Europe and then North America, has meant that in general the standard of living in those countries has been higher than for most of the working class in countries of Latin America or Africa--though there are also global south conditions imposed on indigenous people.
Part of the higher living standard is due to industrial capitalism’s own needs for a workforce with a certain degree of health and education to fuel economic and military competition. Part of this is also from working class struggle—like the Rand Formula for union dues, won from the 1945 strike wave that began in Windsor, or the fight for Medicare in the 1960s. Britain granted its National Health Service after soldiers returning from WWII went on strike for better conditions—prompting the British Prime Minister to declare, “We must give workers reforms, or they will give us revolution.” So workers in the Global north have raised their living standards not at the expense of workers in the Global south, but by challenging their own states and corporations.
These reforms were won during the long boom of capitalism. However, since the return of the typical boom-slump cycle in the 1970s, much more characteristic of capitalism, we have seen a slow chipping away at the social safety net. And since 2008 and the return of serious crisis to the global system, that process has been accelerating at an alarming pace—undermining the 99% around the world.
Resistance and solidarity
But we have also seen the globalization of resistance, with mass strikes in the global south (like Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and India) and the global north (like Greece, Portugal, Britain)—along with an Occupy movement that spread from the belly of the beast in the US around the world.
Solidarity among the global 99% is essential. When workers in Alma, Quebec , went on strike against Rio Tinto in their small northern community they inspired workers in other parts of Canada and in other parts of the world, who were also exploited by Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto wanted to substantially slash the starting wage for new hires and to create a two-tiered work force. The international solidarity for Alma workers was not just a selfless gesture of support on the part of workers in other countries, but an understanding that if Alma workers went down to defeat, other Rio Tinto workers in BC, in the US, in Australia, in Africa would suffer the same fate.
Bosses and governments will always try and convince us that we are suffering because of other working class people—because of immigrants ‘stealing’ our jobs, because of workers in Mexico who will work for lower wages, because of Chinese workers undercutting the market for Canadian or US-made goods—but the reality is that it’s a shell game, where they hold all the cards, as long as we play by their rules.
We need to break down the barriers that separate us from each other, building solidarity with indigenous people fighting colonial Canada, making links between workers in Quebec and English Canada, opposing ‘right to work’ legislation in the US and Canada which would see all of us in a race to the bottom, fighting the racism against migrant workers and supporting them getting status and unionization rather than threats of deportation and wages 15 per cent less than so-called ‘Canadian’ workers. We go up or we go down together—that, finally, is the message of Marx’s famous slogan.
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend-long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "Why is capitalism in crisis", "The origins of racism", and "Fighting fascism: an eyewitness account from Greece."

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