Globalization in its present form has cast old issues of social and political struggles in a new context and has exacerbated human suffering on an unprecedented scale. World society is again facing barbarism, in defiance of the universal values around which the post-war consensus had been built. The struggles to resolve these issues are interlinked and are all facets of a single struggle and of a single issue: what kind of society we will all live in twenty years’ time.
Power: in two decades, transnational corporations have enormously increased their power at the expense of the nation-state. International trade agreements and economic and social policies, including massive privatisations and structural adjustment programs, imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions on governments who are not in a position to refuse the terms they are given, are transferring authority from democratically accountable governments to TNCs which are accountable only to their shareholders. A virtual world government has come into existence, backed by a consensus of the conservative governments of the leading states who control most of the world’s economic, political and military power and, ultimately, by transnational corporate power. This de facto world government is not subject to any form of democratic control or accountability. The democratic accountability of international capital and the democratisation of global governance is the central issue of the 21st century.
Money: neo-liberal policies deliberately and provocatively pursued by conservative governments have polarised society. Wealth created by labour is systematically redistributed to the benefit of the rich and to the detriment of the poor. Not since the early days of the century have social inequalities been so crass. Low-wage employment and insecure employment is spreading through actualisation, outsourcing and subcontracting, temporary and part-time jobs. Even employment no longer provides protection against poverty and, as unemployment grows, so does an already vast informal sector where workers are without rights and protections.
Exploitation and oppression: on the eve of the second millennium, child labour is widespread as never before, sweatshops are back where they had been banished by successful union struggles of the past, millions of workers without rights are moving through continents in search of economic—and sometimes physical—survival, dictatorships hold entire peoples in bondage. The struggle against exploitation and oppression is closely linked to the struggle for human and democratic rights and requires alliances between trade unions, human rights movements and single issue movements defending indigenous peoples and other religious, national or cultural minorities.
Industrial democracy: even in countries where democracy prevails, it generally stops at the work place. Authoritarian work place relationships and structures are held in place by fear of losing one’s job to the vast and growing mass of the unemployed. Where workers have gained a measure of influence on their work and on its purpose, these gains are under attack as so many “rigidities” to be abolished in the name of competition. Unions must demonstrate that democracy is indivisible, and that industrial democracy is not principally an industrial, but a democratic issue, at enterprise and at global level.
Human rights: for the labour movement, the fight for human and democratic rights is not only a moral obligation but a fundamental class issue. The issue is to broaden this fight beyond basic trade union rights such as freedom of association and expression and the right to strike, including the right to strike in solidarity, to achieve, in alliance with other progressive forces, the democratization of the world and to defeat politically the present bastions of forced labour and reaction.
Equality: despite gains in consciousness and impressive struggles, women have been the principal victims of deregulation, casualisation and social darwinism. They constitute a majority of the unemployed, the agricultural workers, the migrant domestic workers. They are among the victims of the most brutal and destructive forms of exploitation. Justice for women, and equality on the job and in society, requires not only alliances between unions and the women’s movements, but the feminization of the trade union movement: the massive influx of women workers into unions, all the way to leadership levels. Only by changing this aspect of its inherited culture can the trade union movement become fully representative and gain the power to carry out its mandate.
Ecology: no effective global response to the destruction of the environment has yet been found. Local struggles have been partially successful. Legislation at national level is often regarded by transnational corporations as an obstacle to profits and a reason to relocate production to countries where such protective legislation does not exist. A comprehensive global policy to protect the environment requires the emergence of an alternative global world order which requires the joint efforts of trade unions, political parties and environmental activists.
War: although the Cold War has ended and the power blocs that conducted it have largely disintegrated, many countries in Africa, Asia and Europe are ravaged by war and military conflict threatens in others where an uneasy peace still prevails. The leading powers are indifferent to wars that do not directly threaten their interests. Exclusionary and extremist nationalism, religious fanaticism, new and old forms of fascism, are on the rise. They are the mortal enemies of the labour movement which must become the driving force of a democratic alliance against right-wing extremism and war.