Building Labour Internationalism ‘from below’: Lessons from the International Dockworkers Council’s European Working Group

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 11:00
Oral Presentation
Caitlin FOX-HODESS, UC Berkeley, USA
The European working group of the International Dockworkers Council provides an important model of transnational organisational form for labour that manages to avoid the “elite embrace” of the European Union, remaining firmly tied to shop-floor trade unionism. The organisation’s networked rank-and-file structure, in contrast to the bureaucratic, professionalized structure of mainstream international union organisations like the European Transport Workers Federation, increases the efficacy of transnational unionism by removing layers of bureaucratic mediation that slow down action, fostering a culture of militant solidarity based on friendship and trust. Nevertheless, the findings also serve as a caution against viewing rank-and-file internationalism as a panacea for labour. The IDC’s model as currently constituted implies trade-offs of benefits provided by the ETF's model, in the form of high personal costs for rank-and-file activists who continue to labour on the docks. The IDC’s shoestring budget and lack of paid professional staff have also posed limitations at times for the kinds of activities that are possible, resulting in an organisation that is most effective at addressing the immediate needs of its members in disputes while finding greater difficulty in delivering more long-term projects. Finally, while rank-and-file internationalism solves a number of specific problems plaguing more bureaucratic forms of labour internationalism, it does not solve problems stemming from differing national contexts, namely, a lack of agreement among unions on campaign goals and an uneven ability to engage in various forms of industrial action. In other words, changing the organisational form of labour internationalism – from a professionalized bureaucratic model to a rank-and-file networked model – addresses a number of problems stemming from within the labour movement, while problems emerging from outside the labour movement, in the broader polities in which labour unions find themselves embedded, remain.