Sunday, September 09, 2007

How Can We Organize Across National Borders?

by Susan Rosenthal
September 09, 2007

In “Their Globalization or Ours?” (ZNet, August 27, 2007), I stated that free trade and protectionist policies both serve the capitalist class and that working people must unite across national borders to raise their living standards. In response, one reader wrote,

I also believe that if all unions in the world work together we can achieve more, but many countries don't have unions, and in some that do, like my birth country Iran, union leaders get arrested all the time. So, my question is, how can we support unions in other counties?

The answer to that question lies in two basic principles of the labor movement: self-determination (what we wish for ourselves, we want for all) and solidarity (an injury to one is an injury to all).


“What we wish for ourselves, we want for all” means that all people must have the right to determine their own affairs. That includes dealing with their own leaders and governments, however corrupt.

The more the U.S. threatens Iran, the more the Iranian government can silence internal dissidents by claiming they are American agents. To support workers in Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, Columbia, Africa, Asia, etc., American workers must oppose any U.S. intervention in those nations for any reason.

In The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo, Noam Chomsky documents how NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia “in the name of principles and values.” The actual goal was to take control of a portion of eastern Europe that was formerly under Russia’s influence.

Imperialism presents itself as humanitarian intervention in order to override domestic opposition to war.

The U.S. invaded Iraq on the pretext of protecting the world from nuclear attack, protecting the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator and establishing democracy. These have all proved to be lies. The majority of Iraqis want U.S. troops out of their country, and the majority of Americans and American soldiers agree. Yet, Washington continues its military occupation because, from the beginning, this has been a war for oil.

It is impossible to support workers in other nations and also support our own government invading or meddling in those nations. Capitalism forces us to choose: be loyal to your nation and betray your class or be loyal to your class and betray your nation. (By “nation,” the capitalist class means its own interests, not those of the majority.)

The loyalty of the labor movement is divided. Without the awareness or consent of their members, top executives in the AFL-CIO have helped Washington to overthrow democratically-elected governments, prop up anti-union dictators and support right-wing unions against progressive governments. When the AFL-CIO backed the short-lived coup against Venezuela’s democratically-elected President, Hugo Chávez, many rank-and-file workers were outraged. As the South Bay (California) Labor Council protested,

There’s no solidarity when labor becomes a go-between, laundering funds and resources from the Bush administration and passing them to groups abroad. That role is more appropriate for government agents — agents of empire…We believe that international labor solidarity must come from the heart of the workers in one country to the heart of workers in another country — a…reciprocal relationship.

Solidarity actions

My first demonstration was at the U.S. embassy in Toronto in the spring of 1965. It was a solidarity rally, protesting police violence against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. I was amazed that a group of predominately White people would stand for hours in a cold rain to defend the rights of Black people in another country.

Mutual aid (solidarity) is basic to human nature. Over 70 percent of Americans think that the government should ensure that no one goes without food, clothing or shelter. More than three-quarters of the billions of dollars raised by U.S. non-profit organizations every year is donated by individuals. In every disaster, 9/11, Katrina, the Asian tsunami, ordinary people rally to provide aid.

Worker solidarity has a special power. In the fall of 2003, thousands of dockworkers shut down ports in Los Angeles in solidarity with striking grocery workers. In Brazil, unionists organized a solidarity campaign against U.S. intervention in Colombia and supported striking Volkswagen workers in South Africa.

As the world becomes more integrated, the need for solidarity grows. An increasing number of goods are now manufactured by Chinese workers, assembled by Mexican workers, sold by American workers and serviced by Indian workers. Although workers are divided by national boundaries, global capitalism is forcing them to unite to defend their common interests.

Building solidarity

United we stand. Divided we fall. The political relationships we build today make possible more effective solidarity actions tomorrow.

American unionists are sponsoring Iraqi unionists to tour the United States. Talking person-to-person about what’s really going on in Iraq helps break through the web of self-serving lies spun by the people in power.

Every year, people from around the globe gather at World Social Forums and demonstrations against the G-8 summits. Last year, I attended a Labor Notes conference in Detroit. The most memorable meeting was the one where union activists from more than 17 different countries met in one room.

Workers from Northern Ireland, Iraq and Palestine shared their experiences of organizing under military occupation. Auto workers from Germany, France and the U.S. exchanged tactics on fighting assembly-line speedups. Despite language barriers, our similarities were overwhelming. After the meeting, people traded names and email addresses with great excitement.

An Irish nurse and I found much in common and began writing to each other. One by one, we have included other health workers in our discussion. There are now six of us, from three different countries, corresponding by email. The challenges we face on the job and in our lives are remarkably similar. We want to build an organization of international health workers.

You might be wondering what six people in three different countries could possibly do. Knowing that you are not alone, that others are struggling with the same rotten system, is essential to staying sane and continuing the fight. That, alone, is priceless. But we want more than that. The relationships we are building today will be the foundation of tomorrow’s solidarity actions.

There is only one world. Economic booms and slumps spill over national borders and ripple around the globe in synchronous waves. Internet technology allows people to communicate from anywhere on the planet in seconds.

To keep us divided, our rulers insist that we are more different than similar. We are discovering that the opposite is true. And in the process, we are beginning to build a very different world based on sharing and cooperation.

Susan Rosenthal is a practicing physician and author of Market Madness and Mental Illness (1998) and POWER and Powerlessness (2006). She belongs to the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She can be reached through her web site: or by email

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