Friday, May 25, 2007

The Online Picket Line

Why unions must set their own agenda in online campaigns
Knee-jerk assumptions undermine working class solidarity

I have been helping organize online campaigns in support of workers’ rights for several years now. The latest campaign I’m helping with concerns Zimbabwe. It supports a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions demanding that President Robert Mugabe respect workers rights.

Very few of the campaigns that I have been involved in may be considered controversial – at least they are not usually controversial within the labour movement. When you attack a company like Wal-Mart, everyone on the left has only nice things to say about you.

But campaigns like Zimbabwe and ones we have done in support of trade unionists in Eritrea and Belarus, have generated their fair share of critical comment.

More critical comments have come in about Zimbabwe than any other recent campaign. Despite this criticism, it is still one of the largest and most successful online campaigns I’ve been involved in.

There is only a minority of activists who have an issue with this sort of campaign. What they say, more or less, is: ‘Robert Mugabe, for better or worse, has made enemies of George Bush and Tony Blair. If they and their stooges in the media (CNN and Fox News) say Mugabe is a dictator, therefore Mugabe must be a pretty good guy. Any anyway, didn’t he do some kind of land reform?’

This argument reflects a larger failure of thinking and is a real problem for our movement.

Let’s start with Zimbabwe.

The call for an international online campaign of protest came from the organized working class in Zimbabwe. The only national trade union center in that country is the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

It has all kinds of critical things to say about the Mugabe regime and as I write these words, it has called its members out in a general strike. Those unions in Zimbabwe are being backed by trade union movements all across Africa - in Nigeria, in Ghana, and above all in South Africa.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has taken a very strong stand in support of the ZCTU and against the Mugabe regime. They have done so for the same reasons that they are also struggling against the tyranny in Swaziland and for the same reasons that they played such a heroic role in the struggle against the apartheid regime in their own country. The South African unions feel so strongly about Zimbabwe that they have broken ranks with their partners in the African National Congress, whose leadership is wavering on Zimbabwe rather than taking a stand.

In other words, among African trade unionists in the front lines of the struggle against poverty, racism, neoliberalism and neo-colonialism, there is near-unanimity on the question of Zimbabwe. If this had happened in any other country, activists would not hesitate to lend their support.

A few years back I was involved in a similar campaign in support of free and independent trade unions in Belarus.These unions were being crushed by Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. I learned about the issues there not from Belarussian unionists, certainly not from Fox News, but from progressive Russian trade unionists who were concerned that a neighboring country was plunging back into the dark days of Stalinist dictatorship.

Despite this seemingly clear-cut case, I got the occasional angry email from leftists in the West who had a kneejerk reaction – if the Bush administration didn’t seem to like the dictator in Minsk, ipso facto he must be some kind of progressive.

When Eritrea arrested trade unionists and jailed them in a secret prison in Eritrea a year or two ago, I had a number of angry emails from leftists who were vaguely convinced that the Eritrean regime was progressive and could not possibly be arresting innocent trade unionists.

I think that for many of the people who send these kinds of messages, Bush and Fox News are setting their agenda much more than they would like to admit. Rather than form independent judgments based on reading a wide range of media – and online media offers us lots of news that you don’t see on network television – these comrades are simply taking whatever agenda they see coming out of the White House and reversing it. If Bush says black, they say white. They are allowing the corporations and their political representatives to determine their politics. This is nonsense.

During the Cold War, we knew that Western opposition to Stalinism didn’t make the Soviet Union a workers’ paradise. One had to form independent judgments based on what was in the interests of the working class – and not be guided solely by opposing whatever the ruling elite seemed to be supporting.

In the post-Cold War world, we cannot afford to make that error. When workers appeal for our support, we need to look at the concrete situation in their country, and not make our decision based on what we think George Bush or Tony Blair would do.

An injury to one is an injury to all – and that’s true even when the one doing the injuring is no friend of George Bush. These are the ABCs of working class internationalism and they must be repeated from time to time and passed on to the next generation.

Industrial Worker , journal of the Industrial Workers of the World , May2007

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