The New Movement for Global Justice

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Dan La Botz

A NUMBER OF aspects of global capitalism changed rapidly at the end of the 1980s.  The most obvious was the collapse of most of the Communist states and the initiation of their integration into the world capitalist system.  While the impact of this has yet to be fully felt in the West, it is in effect a giant “enclosure” (privatization) movement on a scale and at a speed never before seen in the transition to capitalism anywhere.[See note 1]

THE NEW MOVEMENT for Global Justice arose in the last few years out of the convergence of groups concerned with environmental, human rights and trade issues, and the labor movements.  While this article will focus on the United States, we might pause to remember that we form part of a broad international movement against neoliberal globalization.

This movement already can take pride in a great achievement: We have taken what had been thought of as the obscure topics of world trade and financial issues and made them subjects of debate and discussion among millions of people, most of whom, according to recent polls, agree with us that the U.S. government’s trade policy harms the environment and contributes to the exploitation and oppression of workers. [See note 1]

The movement has been from the beginning an international one, with a strong sense of international solidarity.  If so many American students took up the cause of the Zapatistas in Mexico, it was because they recognized in that struggle against NAFTA, Mexican President Salinas de Gortari and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a symbol of the fight against corporate power the world over.

On January 1, 1994 with the Chiapas Uprising led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the indigenous Mayan peoples and other communities in Chiapas marched out of the jungle to demand that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari step down as president, that the Mexican government repudiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The rebels called for the establishment of socialism in Mexico.  While the Zapatistas—faced with the overwhelming might of the Mexican military—gave up the armed struggle and dropped references to socialism, they continued as a movement in defense of the indigenous peoples and their autonomy, while they fought within Mexican society for democracy and against neoliberalism.  The Zapatistas’ resistance to the Mexican government was also clearly a challenge to the U.S. government and to the international financial institutions such as the WTO (then called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT), the IMF and the World Bank.

Almost one year later, in December 1995 French public employees and railroad workers struck against the neoliberal policies of the government of Jacques Chirac.  These were national strikes, that is, general strikes, which shut down services throughout France, the largest strikes since the general strike of May and June of 1968.

In 1998 the crisis erupted in Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world and largest Moslem country, where the Asian financial crisis of 1997 had caused enormous suffering.  The International Monetary Fund intervened, but only worsened the situation.  Students began to organize in opposition to the government of Suharto that had been in power for thirty-two years.  In the space of a year they created a movement of tens of thousands of students, later joined by other citizens, who succeeded in May 1998 in forcing Suharto’s resignation.

The struggle against Suharto was also implicitly a fight against those who had helped to keep him in power for over three decades: the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Most Americans know little about Indonesia, but a small international solidarity movement developed in the United States and other countries.

As this short sketch of only a few recent international events suggests, this has been a global movement of peasants, workers and students.

In the United States the new movement for global justice may be said to have begun with the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the first time—after years of friction—that an alliance developed between the labor unions and the environmental movement.  The labor unions argued that NAFTA ignored workers’ and labor union rights, while the environmentalists were concerned that there were no environmental protections.

NAFTA triggered a broad national discussion about what workers could expect from their government in terms of economic security, and about what citizens could expect in terms of the long-term health and sustainability of our national and continental environment.

While NAFTA passed, the labor-environmental alliance succeeded in winning side agreements on labor and environmental issues.  The side agreements have proven to be a dismal failure, and some would argue worse than worthless since they provided a cover for those Democrats who wanted to vote for NAFTA.  But at the same time the labor-environmental alliance had proven capable of working together for improvements in the law, laying the basis for future joint projects.

Unions, environmental and human rights organizations succeeded in forging another alliance a couple of years later to confront the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), another international agreement that would have benefitted investors and corporations at the expense of working people.  The anti-MAI alliance, involving groups from Canada and Mexico as well as the United States, succeeded in stopping the MAI that had been scheduled for passage in 1998.  Stalling the MAI represented the first big step for the new movement, consolidating the labor, environmental, human rights alliance.

The Makeup of the Alliance

The new global justice movement has involved two sorts of organizations.  Organizations such as the Rainforest Action Network, The Ruckus Society, United Students Against Sweatshops and Direct Action Network, Art and Revolution, and the Third Eye Movement have the character of movement organizations.  While some of them may be not-for-profits with board, staff and office, they tend to be activist organizations made up of younger people, principally students.  The other groups tend to be NGOs, often with older staff members, sometimes longstanding organizations with stability, resources, publications and well-developed programmatic ideas.  Here we think of Public Citizens, Citizens Trade Campaign, and the Global Trade Watch (GTW), the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), Fifty Years Is Enough Network, and Global Exchange.

The division here is somewhat artificial—RAN or Global Exchange could fit in either category—but I think useful: movements and think-tanks.

While this new movement has many different roots, it owes its origins principally, I think, to the environmental movement.  Groups like Greenpeace developed the militant confrontational approach and the sense of camaraderie among the activists that created the spirit, style, and much of the politics of this new movement.

The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), founded in 1985 to protect rain forests and the human rights of those living in them, has been one of the leading groups in the coalition.  In the 1990s RAN created local chapters called Rainforest Action Groups (RAGs), and has called upon them to join in the movement.  Young people in this new movement have a deep commitment to environmental issues that forms the foundation of this movement’s politics.

The human rights organizations have also been an important source of activists.  Other young activists have entered into the movement through human rights organizations.  Amnesty International (AI), which once eschewed economic and labor issues, since the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has taken up issues of economic and workers’ rights.

AI activists have also become leaders and activists in the new movement, now taking on a broader range of issues than they did in the past. Talking to activists in different parts of the country, I have frequently come across current or former AI members who now work on issues such as sweatshop labor or international trade.  Trained in AI, these activists bring a commitment to democracy, and to civil and political rights.

The new student movement against sweated labor represents one of the most exciting developments.  The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), founded in 1998, has launched an “Anti-Sweat Campaign” to fight for an end to sweatshops, for workers’ rights and a living wage. USAS organizers have conducted protest demonstrations at hundreds of campuses throughout the country and sit-ins at over half a dozen universities to get universities to stop contracting with companies that use sweatshop labor.

Working principally on garment workers’ issues, USAS has formed a close relationship to UNITE!, the union of textile and clothing workers.  USAS activists in several parts of the country have become involved in fights for higher wages and better working conditions for campus workers, and some have moved off campus to support workers and unions engaged in fights for job security, union contracts or higher wages.

USAS has become the wing of the new movement closest to labor.  The United Steel Workers union (USWA) in particular has supported the USAS, and hired several to work as researchers and organizers.  The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has also hired some USAS members.  Other USAS activists have become involved in Union Summer or have enrolled in the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute.

Students who challenged their universities and the corporations may also challenge the labor officialdom.  One student in Bloomington, Indiana told me, “We’re going to take our commitment to democracy and equality with us as we go to work for the unions.”

At the center of the new movement’s training in tactics has been Ruckus.  The Ruckus Society, founded in 1995, has its roots in the environmental and human rights movements, and exists to provide training in the skills of non-violent civil disobedience in order to further those movements.  Ruckus, arguing that nothing happens spontaneously, focuses on training activists in its disruptive techniques with an emphasis on safety and non-violence.

Ruckus training camps offer courses in activities such as “Hanging Yourself from a Billboard.” The Ruckus Society homepage features a quotation from J.R. Roof of the board of directors, who says, “We wanted to create a program where people could learn skills and take action rather than sit around and argue about issues.”

Despite the anti-intellectualism of that remark, Ruckus training sessions have been accompanied by educational lectures and discussions from groups such as Global Exchange.  Those who have participated in the Ruckus training praise the group not only for its tactical savvy but also for its ability to fuse individuals into tight-knit activist groups committed to high ideals of social justice.

If Ruckus has been the tactical center of the new movement, the Direct Action Network (DAN) may be said to be the mobilizing center.  DAN, a network of local grassroots organizations and street theater groups, has created much of the movement’s spirit and style.

DAN and its member groups such as Art and Revolution in San Francisco have built giant street puppets, choreographed dances, organized drums and music and presented spoken word and art exhibitions all within the context of the movement, and frequently on the streets while engaged in peaceful confrontation with the authorities.  In its spirit and excitement, DAN often brings to mind the role of Students for a Democratic Society in the heady early days of the mid-1960s radicalization.

“Our current social and ecological troubles are rooted in an economic and political system that is going global,” writes DAN on its homepage.  “Imagine replacing the current social order with a just, free and ecological society based on mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.  A NEW WORLD IS POSSIBLE and we are part of a global movement that is rising up to make it happen.”

In February 2000 DAN activists from cities on the East and West Coast, with a few in between, met to form Continental DAN (C-DAN).  The group’s brief draft mission statement reads: “We are creating a movement to overcome corporate globalization and all forms of oppression—a movement united in a common concern for justice, freedom, peace and sustainability of all life, and a commitment to take direct action to realize radical visionary change.”

C-DAN adopted “Principles of Unity” that are a good example of the politics of much of the broader new movement as well:

  1. A rejection of neoliberal politics and institutions which promote socially and environmentally destructive globalization.
  2. A confrontational attitude toward undemocratic organizations in which capital is the only real policy maker.
  3. A call to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience and the construction of local alternatives by local people as answers to the actions of government and corporations.
  4. An organizational philosophy based on decentralization, direct democracy, and local autonomy.
  5. A rejection of all forms of exploitation such as patriarchy, white supremacy and imperialism.
  6. A commitment to working in solidarity locally and internationally to build a popular movement for radical social change and global justice.

    (From two-page document, “DAN CONTINENTAL: Who We Are & How We Work”)

DAN, a movement made up mostly (though not exclusively) of upper- or middle-class white students and youth, has sometimes failed to reach out to or incorporate working-class youth or those of color.  Well aware of this problem, DAN has reached out in the San Francisco Bay Area to other organizations such as Storm, a self-proclaimed “communist” group made up principally of youth of color and young women, and to the Third-Eye Movement, another youth of color organization.

At the moment these groups and others are working to build a more ethnically diverse movement, if not a common organization.  So while issues of race and racism remain among the most intractable in our society, both DAN and the youth of color organization approach these problems with good will and a commitment to build a more multicultural movement.

The young activists in this new movement grew up taking college courses on feminism, multiculturalism, and the global economy.  They read books by Latin and African-American authors outside the old literary canon.  Some have had training in racial sensitivity, and they reject homophobia.  So while the movement tends to be made up of mainly white, middle-class student activists, there are also African-American, Latin, and Asian students involved.

Women tend to play a leading role in this movement, from one of its most prominent spokespersons, Juliette Beck of Global Exchange, to its leading theoretician, Lori Wallach of the Global Trade Watch.

Many of those in this new movement will also be found marching in the demonstrations to free Mumia Abu Jamal, the African-American political prisoner facing execution on death row in Philadelphia.

The new movement has a counter-cultural character that often reminds one of earlier anarchist and pacifist movements.  Many of the new movement activists are vegetarians and vegans because they believe a society living off corporate production of beef and pork will never be able to feed the world’s people.

At the same time, few if any of the new organizations put forward a programmatic alternative to the neoliberal economic order.  While many have a fully developed critique of corporate neoliberal globalization, can discuss the WTO, IMF and World Bank, and give examples of the structural adjustment programs, few of the activists have accepted any sort of alternative “architecture,” that is some other sort of economic and social institutions.

Many lean in the direction of “small is beautiful.” These activists dislike corporate chain stores, and approve of the idea of the sustainable organic family farms.  But most of the movement has not yet grasped the fact that we have thrown down a challenge to the world order—a challenge that requires us to explain how we would build a movement to control capital and government and shape a better world.

We should note that depending on where one is in the country, different socialist organizations have been active in the movement, sometimes playing a constructive role, sometimes being divisive. [See note 2] There seems to be little red-baiting, and the new movement by and large sees socialists such as a legitimate part of the movement.

A further source of intellectual inspiration for the new movement is “50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice.” Founded by activists who had been involved in movements such as the divestment campaign against the apartheid government of South Africa, the 50 Years Network represents a more radical pole within the broader coalition.

The network was created in the early 1990s to argued that fifty years after the post-war Bretton Woods architecture was constructed, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had to be reformed, profoundly.  The group’s 1994 “Platform” called for:

  1. Openness and full public accountability of the Bretton Woods institutions and the systematic integration of affected women and men in the formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of World Bank and IMF projects.
  2. A major reorientation of World Bank- and IMF-financed economic-policy reforms to promote more equitable development based upon the perspectives, analysis and development priorities of women and men affected by those policies.
  3. An end to environmentally destructive lending and support for more self-reliant, resource-conserving development.
  4. Scaling back the financing, operations and hence power of the World Bank and the IMF, and rechanneling of financial resources thereby made available into various development assistance alternatives; and
  5. A reduction in multilateral debt to free up additional capital for sustainable development.

What made the 50 Years Network position more radical and left-wing was its call for the cancellation of the debt owed by the most poorest countries.

Global Exchange (GX) might be called the communications and organizational hinge of the new movement since it has longstanding links to nearly all of the organizations mentioned, and has functioned at times as a kind of clearinghouse of information, ideas, strategies and tactics.

Founded about twelve years ago, Global Exchange is a center for organizing and activism around human rights issues broadly conceived, incorporating both what we usually think of as human rights and economic rights.  Global has links to everybody.  While GX has no national organization or chapters, its coalitions and networks can set thousands in motion.

GX founder Kevin Danaher was a founder of the 50 Years Is Enough Network.  GX’s Juliette Beck worked for the California Trade Campaign, allied with the Citizens Trade Campaign of Lori Wallach.  Medea Benjamin, GX founder and its best-known public spokesperson, has been the driving force behind the Nike and Gap campaigns and works closely with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Enter the Labor Movement

Without a doubt the AFL-CIO represents the largest and most powerful force in this new movement, of course.  With about thirteen million members organized in sixty-eight national and international labor unions and 590 central labor bodies in cities throughout the country, the labor federation represents by far the largest organization in this movement.

Since John Sweeney became president a few years ago, AFL-CIO has undertaken campaigns to organize low-wage workers, many of them workers of color and women, called for a general amnesty of undocumented workers in the United States, and moved away from its old foreign policy linked to the State Department and the CIA and in the direction of support for labor unions and workers in other countries.  All of this made possible the federation’s alliance with the other groups that make up the new movement for social justice.

After Seattle, at its New Orleans meeting in February 2000, the AFL-CIO embraced a campaign for global fairness and called for a new global architecture, one that would protect people, not profits.

But as Kim Moody argues (in “Global Capital and Economic Nationalism,” ATC 87 and 88), the AFL-CIO as an organization, and many of its leaders and even rank-and-file workers often have a divided consciousness.  On the one hand they reach out in solidarity to workers in other countries, but on the other they seek to protect their jobs from foreign competition—and see those other workers as a threat and as competitors.

Seattle brought out the best and most internationalist of these sentiments, though mixed with a more narrow nationalism.  In Seattle, the AFL-CIO marched on one set of streets while more radical demonstrators peacefully blocked others, though sometimes the two movements converged as rank-and-file workers from various unions moved in to help protect environmentalists and human rights activists.  Thus the slogans: Teamsters and Turtles, Steelworkers and Students.

While free trade ideologists argued that economic laws dictated the need for open markets, the new movement’s activists countered that political decisions created these institutions.  The G-7 (the major industrial powers) reorganization of the world economy had largely been accomplished through the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, and consequently those organizations became the target of the new movement.

The IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs (SAPs) had been used by the United States and its G-7 partners as a battering ram to break down the tariff barriers and quotas which protect the markets of developing countries as they pursued “substitution of imports” industrialization programs.  The IMF demanded low tariffs, privatization, open foreign investment, and cutbacks in the national budget particularly in social programs.

The United States goal was to open up developing countries to multinational corporate investment and turn them into manufacture for export platforms.  The international corporate and banking elite formed alliances with local elites to foist this program on the public.  U.S. corporations could then remove their production and assembly plants to Latin America or Southeast Asia, thus escaping U.S. labor and environmental laws and finding cheap labor and friendly host governments.

The Seattle and Washington, D.C. demonstrations brought together the old coalition formed around NAFTA and the MAI, but now with thousands of new young activists who had become involved because of issues such as the fight against sweatshops or because of their involvement in the movement to free Mumia.

Going beyond purely symbolic protest demonstrations, the new movement adopted tactics of non-violent direct action that actually stopped the WTO meeting in Seattle, and partially disrupted activities in Washington, D.C. The Seattle experience in particular gave a new dynamism to all of the organizations and movements involved, lifted the spirits of old activists, and created thousands of new ones.

But Seattle and Washington also raised a number of problems for the movement.  First, the Seattle demonstrations generated a debate about strategy and tactics.  Some demonstrators in Seattle destroyed property, breaking windows of chain stores, restaurants and coffee shops, while other demonstrators attempted to stop them from damaging property, arguing that they would discredit the movement and bring it bad publicity.

Medea Benjamin’s remarks that Global Exchange activists had attempted to stop the window-busting, and that those who destroyed property should expect to be arrested, led to a flurry of e-mail postings and sometimes bitter debate.  Protestors who had trashed the shops defended their actions as blows against the corporations.

For their part many of the non-violent direct action groups felt that the window-busters had attempted to hijack the movement.  After months of preparation by scores of organizations representing thousands of members, a handful of people had attempted to break the collective solidarity and discipline of the movement.

A second discussion arose over the complexion of the movement.  Why was it that the 10,000 activists in Seattle had been so overwhelmingly white?  Several African-American and Latin leaders and activists suggested in the e-mail discussion that the movement had to frame its issues in ways that linked the global to the local, and to the local experience of Black and Latin peoples, and particularly to youth.  After all, the so-called “trade issues” were really issues about the political economy of our country that affected all of us, and affected communities of color more than most.

Finally, the debate over permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status for China may have caused the biggest divisions in the movement, though the divisions existed more at the higher political level than at the level of local activists.

While the AFL-CIO made defeat of PNTR its central issue, Lori Wallach and the Citizens Trade Campaign began to move toward a “third-world” position, tacitly accepting China’s normal trade status and its membership in the WTO, and delinking labor rights from the WTO debate.  While Global Exchange held a formal position close to the AFL-CIO, it decided to focus its efforts on U.S. multinational companies in China, rather than entering into the debate with its usual vigor.  The result was that the movement did not present a coherent effort around what may have been the biggest legislative class battle of the last fifty years.

At this writing, the movement now aims its fire at the Republican Party and Democratic Party conventions, arguing that it will focus the debate over globalization on the corporate-dominated political parties.  Rather than focusing solely on the trade issues, the alliance of organizations involved in the new movement wants to look at how the global issues have had local effects on working-class communities, on the poor, and on communities of color.

Of course the biggest problem here revolves around the Democratic Party Convention, where the AFL-CIO and other labor unions will be inside attempting to get the party to adopt a more pro-labor platform, while other movement groups will be outside arguing that the Democratic Party represents corporate America.  That fundamental division points to the great political problem in our country: the lack of a political party that represents labor and the progressive social movements.

As always happens in the United States when any social movement becomes important, we find ourselves facing the big issues.  How can we build an alternative to the Democratic Party?  Ralph Nader’s candidacy on the Green Party ticket represents a political expression of goals of the labor and social movement, even if Nader doesn’t have institutional labor backing.

What Does the New Movement Want?

Precisely because our movement has forced the world to take us seriously, we are now beginning to be asked, “Well, what do you want?” Put another way, the fundamental intellectual and political question now facing our movement is this: If we do not like this international economic system, what do we propose to replace it?  So far neither labor with its legions nor the new movement with its myriad manifestations has put forward a completely satisfying answer to this question.

Ultimately, the struggle over the control of capital raises the real question: whether corporations, whatever they may have contributed to economic development, should even be allowed to exist at this stage of history.  Do private banks and companies have the right to invest money or decide to open, close or move a factory, when those decisions can destroy the environment, throw thousands of workers out of their jobs, bankrupt a community, or even take control of the government of a foreign nation?

Do we really want to leave to our children and grandchildren a world that will still be controlled by corporations?  Or doesn’t that now seem like an anachronism in this internationalist age, this potentially democratic age?  Should the national welfare really be dependent upon such a private institution as the stock exchange?  Should financial speculators and gamblers in international currencies control the economy?

Historically the idea of the democratic collective ownership and control of the economy by the people has a name: democratic socialism.  American politicians and corporate elites have found even the word socialism so threatening that no American political, labor union or social movement leader has ever been allowed to utter it and survive, politically speaking.

Because the word “socialism” stood for the idea of democratic control of the economy, anyone who even associated with someone who used that word became stigmatized.  So no intelligent discussion of socialism in mainstream American society has been permitted.

Socialism deserves a discussion, because it is a discussion about the issues that face the future of our movement.  Bureaucratic Communism and reformist Social Democracy, the two dominant trends from the 1920s to the 1990s, proved unable to move to real democratic collective control of the economy, and so it is now time for a new vision of socialism.  We need to construct a kind of socialism where workers, consumers, and ordinary citizens make the decisions through both direct and indirect democratic processes at all levels.

Having no model of socialism of that sort anywhere on earth, our movement will be breaking new ground toward envisioning a new society of both economic prosperity and genuine freedom.  We must carry out this discussion amongst our activists and with millions of others who are interested in and observing our movement in a mature way.

We must keep the movement moving forward, even as we think, talk and write about the issues.  We have to be respectful of each other’s ideas.  We must understand that the most important thing is our long-range goal, ending corporate control of the economy and political life, and its replacement by a democratic popular power that can protect the planet, ensure human rights, and raise the standard of living in a new world of freedom and peace.

  1. There are, of course, a wide range of opinions out there on the globalization issue, from Patrick Buchanan’s reactionary A Republic, Not an Empire to Richard Falk’s social democratic Predatory Globalization: a Critique. Those who are interested in a defense of the Clinton-Gore status quo can find it in the essay “Democrats and Globalization” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.  A detailed discussion of the currents within the globalization resistance movement, including the works of Jeremy Brecher, Jerry Mander and others, is beyond the scope of this article.
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  2. The International Socialist Organization (ISO), a large group with a youthful membership has been the most ubiquitous especially in the United Students Against Sweatshops and in the broader global justice movement.  In many areas the ISO has played a constructive role, and has raised socialism as an alternative ideology.  But in some places the ISO’s sometimes dogmatic politics, aggressive recruiting and sometimes abrasive organizational style have both won it new recruits and cost it friends.  The Socialist Party has been active in other areas, but has been both less aggressive and less offensive.  Solidarity has played a role in a few cities, but more often as a labor-based group, rather than a youth group.  In the San Francisco Bay area, Storm, a revolutionary group inspired by the African communism of Amilcar Cabral, has been growing among young women and youth of color.
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Dan LaBotz works for Global Exchange, the San Francisco-based human rights education and organizing center.  He is the author of several books on U.S. and Mexican labor unions and politics, and is working on a book on Indonesian workers after Suharto, to be published by South End Press.  The views he expresses here are his own, and not those of Global Exchange.

ATC 88, September-October 2000