There’s been a lot of discussion in MR about the implications of “globalization.” We don’t intend to repeat the arguments here, but we recently received a communication that brings into focus one major aspect of this much debated issue: what it means for workers to “think globally, act locally.”
In the Spring, just after the Socialist Scholars Conference, at a time when we always have a particularly interesting and varied influx of visitors to the MR office, among the international guests at our regular Wednesday brown-bag lunch were two representatives of the Liverpool dockers who, as many readers may know, had been engaged in a long drawn-out struggle since 1995. Our visitors gave us a compelling history of the struggle and its aftermath.
In September of 1995 the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company locked out 500 workers who refused to cross a picket line set up by dockers fighting lay-offs and casualization. That lock-out set off a prolonged dispute, and though the action ended this year without the dockers achieving their immediate objectives, it promises to have more lasting effects in other ways.
The most remarkable thing about the Liverpool dispute is that, while the press coverage in Britain itself was very muted, the dockers’ action had reverberations throughout the world. A very wide solidarity network developed, with support for the dockers in, among many other countries, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Japan, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, the USA, and New Zealand.
Today, the Liverpool dockers are continuing to develop that international network, and they recently sent us an update on their activities. This included a statement about the “Initiative Factory” they’ve established, which seeks “to build the widest possible alliances,” not only with labor organizations but also with academic organizations and labor studies programs. Among the things they want to do is to establish an international research facility, and especially “a historical archive of the 1995-98 dispute and its impacts in each country, studying contemporary developments around dockworkers’ struggles worldwide, the impact of globalisation on the working class and responses to this. The archive…would encourage the building of electronic links, which over time could be supplemented by physical exchanges.” Among the materials included in this archive would be “histories of working class disputes or materials relating to current disputes, discussions on globalisation and the impacts on the working class movements….” They also propose “to set up international study circles with like minded groups in the communities, trade unions, colleges/universities, adult education sector.”
These are all interesting and creative initiatives. (Anyone wanting more information can contact the Initiative Factory, Bishop Goss School, Everton, Liverpool, UK. Their email address is dockers [at] gn.apc.org.) In an increasingly integrated world economy, workers are more and more interconnected. Their various conditions and struggles are often directly related to each other and, even when not directly connected, workers at very great geographical distances from each other, and in very different economic and cultural conditions, increasingly share a common experience.
Naturally, in the case of dockers, at the heart of international trade, the interconnections are very immediate and obvious, and so are the opportunities for generating solidarity among dockers elsewhere who can, in effect, refuse to cross a picket line thousands of miles away by refusing to unload any ships implicated in the conflict. (The “wharfies” in Australia, whose struggle is discussed in this issue, also garnered international support.) But even granted the very specific conditions of dockers, they clearly have much to say to other workers about the necessity and possibility of international solidarity. And their experience speaks volumes about the continuing, and growing, importance of trade unions, not despite but because of “globalization.”
But this is only one side of the formula, “think globally, act locally.” In our preoccupation with “globalization,” we may forget the other side. The dockers and their supporters were, and are, displaying international solidarity in fruitful and innovative ways. At the same time, however much they relied on support from workers at the other end of the world, their struggle was a local one, against not only their particular employer but also against their national state, the state that had brought them the “free market” and neoliberalism in a very concretely national form, Thatcherism and its successors (including “New Labour”), the state that had imposed the anti-union legislation which had compelled them to break the law in order to carry on their struggle, and so on.
The global integration of the economy is, always and everywhere, experienced by workers locally and is, always and everywhere, mediated by their national states. “Globalization,” in fact, is constituted by, and couldn’t exist without, a complex of national policies implemented by national states (this is, by the way, something that we’re finding out in unexpected ways, as some of its most avid participants retreat to their national bunkers in the face of global crisis, and even the Financial Times considers the virtues of capital controls). The point is simply that there’s still much scope, in some ways more than ever, for acting locally and nationally against the forces of global capitalism.
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