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The Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights ‘Futures Report’: Springboard or Tombstone?

by Peter Waterman, 18 June 2017

print version of this article print version - 3 June 2017


This paper is focused on a Futures Report of the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (Sigtur), raising major challenges as to its authorship and contents. It is at the same time a challenge to the Sigtur project as a whole. As to the Futures Report, the challenges have to do with the subject positionality of the authors (mostly White, Northern, Male professors/promoters of Sigtur), their overwhelming dependence on Northern sources, and the relevance of their essays to the challenges facing Sigtur. As far as the network itself is concerned, the challenge is to the foundational tension between its institutionalized national(ist) union base, its networking aspirations, its self-presentation as quintessentially Southern, and its inclusion of Australia, part of the capitalist core, within its Global South. [1]


The Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (Sigtur), created 1991, and now claiming national trade union affiliations from 35 countries in the Global South, has long seemed to me to hardly represent what it either appears or is claimed to be. I have said so, in passing, in various papers over the years but never received any response from its major sponsors.

In an earlier paper (Waterman 2012) Sigtur is mentioned and critiqued but mostly in footnotes (Appendix 1). I have to assume that my academic colleagues, comrades and friends closely connected to Sigtur either didn’t note these, didn’t consider them worthy of response, or were unable to do so.

Now, however, several of the latter have been co-responsible for a report of a Sigtur Futures Commission (Bieler, O’Brien and Pampalis 2016) which I feel requires more detailed attention. This because we are in the middle of the greatest crisis of organised trade unionism, a crisis that affects unions in the Global South as much as those in the Global North and the (ex-) Communist East (van der Linden 2015). And a crisis that inevitably puts in question the very meaning of ‘labour internationalism’ – North, South, East, West, and, of course Global – not to speak about Cyberspatial.

It is to be hoped that this more substantial and targeted piece will at last provoke the response that my previous notes have not. And that we can then commence a dialogue about Sigtur and even see some critical research into this body, from head to toe, both its internal and external relations. This would imply the sponsors of Sigtur being up-front about their subject positions. Further than this, one would like to hope for an open dialogue on the seriously intermittent and non-dialogical Sigtur website: this involving the Sigtur affiliates, union leaders and labour movement activists, and, of course, labour specialists. Such a dialogue might actually address possible futures for Sigtur – something its Futures Commission does not.

A note on terminology

This is not intended to be a theoretical paper. My attitude might be suggested by my note on Sigtur in Appendix 1 [2]. But I should at least specify on ‘sponsors’, on ‘critical research’, and on ‘subject position’.

By sponsor we can make do with the Wikipedia understanding that

Sponsoring something (or someone) is the act of supporting an event, activity, person, or organization financially or through the provision of products or services.

I use critical research in reference to the tradition of Critical Sociology, as said to be understood by Horkheimer, who

wanted to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxian theory, critiquing both the model of science put forward by logical positivism and … the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox Marxism and Communism. He described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’. Critical theory involves a normative dimension, either through criticizing society from some general theory of values, norms, or ‘oughts’, or through criticizing it in terms of its own espoused values.

With subject position/ality, we could begin with this proposition:

[I]t is important to pay greater attention to issues of reflexivity, positionality and power relations in the field in order to undertake ethical and participatory research. … [S]uch concerns are even more important in the context of multiple axes of difference, inequalities, and geopolitics, where the ethics and politics involved in research across boundaries and scales need to be heeded and negotiated in order to achieve more ethical research practices. (Sultana 2007)

This proposition needs supplementing with the observer-to-social movement relationship. In the not irrelevant (as we will see) case of South Africa one researcher says

While the activists I reflect on here – and consider myself a part of – contribute significantly to the maintenance and sustenance of many … movements at various economic, political and social levels, we often escape internal or external scrutiny. This may be due to the fact that we are the same people who are narrating [these] movements to the public. This group tends to write the academic papers, books and news reports that define movements, yet it is rare that they situate themselves within its narratives or work with those movements on a daily basis. (Walsh 2008) [3]

Finally, I think there is another element in consideration of subject positionality, that of making the author available in what s/he is writing about. This is often a matter of an up-front statement in the introduction to or body of the relevant text. But it could also be a topic-relevant footnote. The point, in either case, is to make the writer present to the reader. And therefore, potentially, available to the critically-minded in evaluating the text. As far as I am personally concerned, I consider myself to be in the same broad community as those I am here criticising.

The Sigtur Futures Commission, 2016

This commission, which, after a couple of preliminary international meetings, apparently involving some Sigtur unionists [4], had a final meeting in South Africa, and produced a six chapter report of some 70 pages, as follows:

1. Edward Webster: Alternatives to Neo-liberalism: Labour’s Challenge.
2. Nick Bernards, Robert O’Brien and Falin Zhang: Labour and Tax Justice.
3. Andreas Bieler: From ‘Free Trade’ to ‘Fair Trade’: Proposals for Joint Labour Demands towards an Alternative Trade Regime
4. Hilary Wainwright: Democracy-driven, Public Sector Transformation
5. Jacklyn Cock: Alternative Conceptions of a ‘Just Transition’ from Fossil Fuel Capitalism
6. Rob Lambert: Conclusion. Towards a Movement of the Dispossessed?

What strikes me initially, simply from the titles, is their Global generality, by which I mean their low level of a Southern specificity. The Report could have been equally addressed to a Northern or Global readership – or to the workshop’s funders? [5]

There is, further, hardly any reference to the body about which, or for which, the Report has been written, beyond passing remarks in one or two chapters. A Futures Report which does not address

• the occasionally (elsewhere) admitted tensions within Sigtur,
• its relationship with actual workers at the base,
• its funding/funders,
• its communications/website,
• the profound crisis in Sigtur founding member Cosatu,

is therefore liable to be constrained to policy proposals. This is the case here. And these issues turn out to be of possible interest and relevance to unions anywhere - North or South, East or West. The Report does not address the surely vital relationship between Sigtur and what I have above called its sponsors - its intellectual or academic advisors, funders, coordinators and promoters. The matter is made even more dramatic when one considers the characteristics of the Futures Report’s authors – none of them known as union leaders or activists rather than as academic labour specialists. [6]

What is written about and from where it is written

The quotation from Sharon Walsh above comes from a piece on the relationship between a particular South African urban movement and the academics/ intellectuals/webmasters who were involved with it. In that case the movement was entirely of the Poors (a South African plural) and Black, the ‘narrators’ obviously middle class, all being academics, and with one exception, White. I use here and below ethnic categories familiar in South Africa (the originating country of the Sigtur project) noting that the only identifiable Non-White contributor has nothing specifically Chinese (or even Asian) to contribute and seems qualified, rather, by his Canadian McMasters University background.

Name Nationality Ethnicity Gender University
Eddie Webster South African White Male Witwatersrand, RSA
Nick Bernards Canadian White? Male McMasters/Queens, Canada
Falin Zhang Chinese Asian Male McMasters/Beijing,Canada, China
Robert O’Brien Canadian White Male McMasters, Canada
Andreas Bieler German White Male Nottingham, UK
Hilary Wainright British White Female Bradford, UK
Jacklyn Cock South African White Female Witwatersrand, RSA
Rob Lambert Australian/South African? White Male Western Australia (previously Wits)

Thus the composition of the Futures Commission is overwhelmingly White, Northern, Male and Academic. Indeed the two women present, whilst well-known and internationally respected socialist feminists, and certainly motivated by socialist feminism, do not here directly address the surely Southern (and Sigtur?) issue of women’s work, women workers or women and unions. [7]

The ‘subject position’ of an author cannot be separated from the object of his/her movement writing. This is suggested by Walsh above. An abundant source of writing on subject-positionality is that of the feminists (North or South, White or not). [8] However, the subject position of a writer/speaker/organiser/promoter obviously does not determine what s/he says or how the author relates to the movement/ network/organization they are writing for or about. [9] So I am here required to comment, at least briefly, on the topics themselves. I will not describe them since a short summary of the four central presentations can be found here.

1. Edward Webster: Alternatives to Neo-liberalism: Labour’s Challenge. This is an introduction to the four papers. Eddie notes an ‘Emerging Southern Labour Paradigm’, which seems to consist of disputing increasing ‘informalisation’ through struggling for ‘Decent Work’, his piece arguing that the struggle to organise ‘informal workers’ in the ‘Global South’, is represented by Sigtur. I would point out that 1) his terminology is largely that of the Geneva-based ILO (with which he has or has had various connections), 2) that ‘precarity’ (not in origin an ILO category) has long been the common lot of the wage employed in the ‘Global South’, and that 3) evidence of Sigtur’s international campaigning on what is more widely known as ‘precarious workers’ [10] is here lacking. Eddie does make a gesture toward ‘utopian thinking’ and to a ‘movement of the dispossessed’, but neither of these are spelled out.

2. Nick Bernards, Robert O’Brien and Falin Zhang: Labour and Tax Justice.
This seems to me a significant policy issue that could be engaged in by any union leadership, anywhere, in conjunction with tax justice NGOs, but requiring no necessary self-activity by union members. It seems to be of Northern origin, though taken up by some African unions. Reference to Sigtur and its member unions is quite absent. Out of some 43 references, maybe 14 are Southern – not necessarily themselves relating to unions.

3. Andreas Bieler: From ‘Free Trade’ to ‘Fair Trade’: Proposals for Joint Labour Demands towards an Alternative Trade Regime. Another significant policy issue, not necessarily requiring collective worker action. This argues that action by unions in the Global South could lead unions globally toward a ‘fair trade’ regime, this being one that would allow for national sovereignty as the ‘basic terrain of democratically accountable development policy’. It proposes eight potential joint ‘South-North’ union demands. It does directly address Sigtur desire and capacity to forward such a ‘fair-trade’ strategy. But of some 36 bibliographic references only six or so are from the ‘Global South’. Only one of these directly addresses trade unions. Moreover, ‘fair trade’ by itself does not necessarily question capitalism.

4. Hilary Wainwright: Democracy-driven, Public Sector Transformation.
A forceful argument on a terrain of central importance to unions, workers and communities in both North and South. It also employs the concept of ‘the commons’, increasingly used within the global justice movement. Whilst, however, passing reference is made to struggles around the public sector in the Global South (and about which Hilary herself has written), of some 32 references only one or two are by Southern authors. Most of the references are to the author’s UK.

5. Jacklyn Cock: Alternative Conceptions of a ‘Just Transition’ from Fossil Fuel Capitalism. This is the only contribution that identifies capitalism (rather than neo-liberalism) as the problem and socialism (ecological, participatory, embodying the ‘values of sharing, simplicity, solidarity’) as the solution. It is, moreover, firmly based on a Southern case (South Africa) and on various union and other social movement positions and actions on a union terrain, itself both complex and contested. Jackie also highlights the active, and sometimes leading, role of women here. Sigtur is not mentioned. Of some 45 references, 12 are Southern (ethnicity here disregarded).

6. Rob Lambert: Conclusion. Towards a Movement of the Dispossessed? Rob Lambert, who was the founder of Sigtur and who has until recently been its Coordinator, spells out the meaning of a ‘movement of the dispossessed’, mentioned but undeveloped by Eddie Webster:

[W]e stretch our political imagination as to the nature of such a movement and strategies to build such a force. This demands
utopian thinking in the sense of moving from an analysis of what is to what ought to be, where the movement is advanced as the means to transform neo-liberalism. This battle for ideas begins with a series of interdependent questions – What is the character of a movement of the dispossessed? What alternative to neo-liberal globalisation could such a movement advance? Who will build this active society? And finally, what new forms of power can be deployed in this struggle for a fundamental transformation of neo-liberal economy, politics and society? (Futures Commission 2016:68)

Had this been the inspiration of - the introduction to - the report, then the exercise might have related to such discourses as those of ‘social movement unionism’ (at one time energetically promoted in South Africa and internationally by Rob and Eddie), of precarity and the precariat, of ‘intersectionality’ (a Black feminist contribution). And, possibly, of a utopia posed less as an alternative to neo-liberalism than to capitalism. One has, regrettably, to note that Rob Lambert’s sources for the ‘dispossessed’ are solely Northern. This is not to dismiss such but to recognize that emancipatory ideas and experiences cannot be owned or confined to a problematic ‘Global South’. [11] Nor, of course, to a ‘Global North’. Indeed, such homogenizing/polarising socio-economic-political-geographic categories are increasingly disputed. [12] The challenge is, rather, to identify the specific emancipatory contributions or potentials of particular world regions.

One has to note further that a report on a union network in the ‘Global South’ that invisibilises China, the new workshop of the world, largely disqualifies itself. This invisibility within the report is, one imagines, because of the fundamental(ist) attachment of Sigtur’s Indian affiliate, to a China of its archaic imagination. In this case we see dramatically the price paid by Sigtur for basing itself on national(ist) union institutions, and the consequent limitation of its understandings and activities to a lowest common denominator. [13]

But the virtual invisibilisation of Latin America, its unions and labour specialists, in this report, despite the presence within Sigtur of two major union affiliates there, is inexplicable. Except on some unexplained pragmatic grounds (cost of transport? interpretation?).

I finally made a rough calculation of the references, to the effect that of the 120 or more bibliographical references in the publication, there are five times more Northern authors than Southern ones (here momentarily including Australians)!

The question of motivation: a proposition requiring substantiation or refutation.

What on the Earth (and/or Cyberspace) could have persuaded such a group of respected left labour specialists to have devoted their considerable time and energy to not only this Futures Commission but to the longtime coordination or promotion of Sigtur? Here we are going beyond the particular authors (the two feminists amongst them having no evident Sigtur connection) but to the others who have. A fraction of their promotional efforts can be found in the resource list below. And this list, as even a cursory Google search illustrates, leaves out of account the hundreds of individuals or bodies internationally who have reproduced or endorsed these reports second or third hand.

I can only assume that it has been the umbilical dependence of the authors on the trade union form that developed on the basis of a Northern national industrial capitalism – a capitalism that was nationalist (when not imperialist), patriarchal and ecologically destructive. The unionism that developed here was predominantly male, it was workplace concentrated (mills, factories, ports, mines), it was localized (mining communities, industrialised cities), and oriented primarily toward a state-defined nation (or the creation of such). Today, with, for example, admittedly significant Asian national (China) or local exceptions (Gurgaon, India) we need an approach to the labour movement recognising that

The study of labor relations encompasses both free labor and unfree labor, both paid and unpaid. Workers’ social movements involve both formal organizations and informal activities. … Labour relations involve not only the individual worker, but also his or her family where applicable. Gender relations play an important part both within the family, and in labour relations involving individual family members. (van der Linden 2008:14) [14]

We also need to come to global terms with what Matt Myers (2015) has recognized for Britain (which was, after all, the birthplace of the still hegemonic trade union form):

Neoliberalism cannot be understood solely from the standpoint of narrowly defined political history, political philosophy, political economy, or the top-down cultural analysis of much past scholarship on the subject. Neither can it be understood… from a purely structuralist, and ultimately inevitabilist, analysis of economic, social, and political trends. Instead, we have to turn to … the discipline of social history. But this must be a certain kind of social history, a history of the working-class experience of the specific techniques of discipline and punishment that characterised the neoliberal class project. Only social history can warn us against structuralist complacencies while reasserting the potential for collective subjectivity in history…

Finally, we have to take account of the argument that

[T]he contemporary development of this global factory [in Asia] creates no conditions on the basis of which a ‘traditional industrial working class’ can emerge while making it impossible for people to survive without relating to capitalist labour one way or another. Asian workers’ struggles therefore often do not follow the ‘usual’ model of working class mobilisation. Rather they surface as social movements of the working poor in diverse forms across rural communities, urban centres, workplaces, and homes, defying the trinity formula of the labour movement between the industrial working class, trade unions, and workers political parties. (Chang 2016)

I have to assume that those academic comrades whose horizons are largely limited by the traditional form of labour self-articulation (articulation = both joining and expressing), and challenged (consciously or sub-consciously) by the profound crisis of the traditional trade union form, have been attempting, with Sigtur, to revive this form, and the inter-nationalism (note the stress) customary to it. And then to project their aspirations onto a ‘Global South’ that they presume to be in some kind of binary opposition, or creative tension with a hegemonic ‘Global North’. And, then, in either of these cases, to be the virtuous force to reinvigorate a slothful, if not vicious, North.

By wishing, however, Australia into their ‘Global South’, they have inevitably imported into Sigtur constraints implicit to what has been for over two decades both Sigtur’s physical base (in Perth) and, possibly, its major funder. [15] And, in so far as they have proven incapable of fundamentally critiquing the hegemonic union form, socio-geographic base, ideologies and strategies, these academics have been unable to create a distinct Southern challenge, a contribution to a new kind of global labour solidarity, surpassing that of Brussels (the ITUC) and Geneva (the ILO). For this, I think, they would have to be looking not at trade unions that commonly reproduce decreasingly-functional Northern characteristics but at other social movements original to the Global South and responding to the contradictions of contemporary capitalism (Munck 2017).

One has to further stress that, like the Northern union hegemons, the Futures Report is, with the mentioned exception, opposed to neo-liberalism rather than capitalism. So far, however, the only alternative to neo-liberalism that does not have at least one foot in a post-capitalist utopia, has to be some kind of global Neo-Keynesianism – and one which does not recall Keynesianism’s dark side (industrialism, racism, sexism, pollution, nuclearisation, Big Pharma, the possessive individualism symbolised by the family car, the redefinition of the citizen as a consumer, a strictly instrumental rationality, a growing arms industry and imperial warfare – hot or cold, against Communism or Radical-Nationalism).

Before completing this piece, however, I feel the need to tell the possibly Sigtur-innocent – and even its information-restricted activists and rank-and-filers - something about the network itself.

Sigtur before, or without, its Futures Report

The Sigtur website states that

SIGTUR was launched at a meeting of democratic unions from the Global South in May 1991 in Western Australia. This meeting comprised representatives of the Congress of South African Trade Unions COSATU the Australian Council of Trade Unions ACTU, the newly formed trade union federation Solidarity in Indonesia, the Kilusang Mayo Uno [aka] May the First Movement in the Philippines and a representative from the Malaysian trade unions.

From this small beginning of two [Cosatu and ACTU - PW] labour movements coming together to create something new, the initiative has grown over the past twenty years and now embraces movements in 35 countries and four continents.

Various problems are concealed by this statement.

The first is – as earlier stated - the inclusion of Australia in the ‘Global South’. This wildly fanciful notion is not supported by Wikipedia – never mind by Dependency Theorists or other Tercermundistas (Thirdworldists). Wikipedia at one point suggests Australia belongs to what some of us might call the ‘core-capitalist bloc’ which excludes not only most of the former ‘Third World’ but also the (ex-) Communist ‘Second World’. And then in another item, specifically discussing controversy over the ‘Global South’, Wikipedia can apparently find nobody placing Australia there! A Wikipedia map also places South Korea, a major Sigtur member, in the ‘Global North’. South Korea is, indeed, not only heavily industrialised but its capital is only about one degree less northern than Lisbon. We will have to return to this matter.

By Kingj123 - Wikipedia; This file was derived from:BlankMap-World6.svg, Public Domain

The second problem is what is meant by a ‘democratic’ union. The qualification suggests that there is a distinction, if not a binary opposition, between unions considered democratic and those considered non- or possibly anti-democratic. Given 1) the long-standing crisis and the 2016 split within Sigtur initiator, Cosatu, given, further, 2) the failure of Sigtur to define – far less investigate – the democratic nature of its (would-be) members, then we have to take it that ‘democratic’ means in practice any national union amongst the 35 Sigtur members. This would then be to reproduce the pragmatic/opportunist principles of both the social-liberal and Eurocentric International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the Communist (but also Eurocentric), World Federation of Trade Unions (criticized, in the Chinese case, by Lambert and Webster 2017). The latter also have their stated principles and affiliation criteria but provide either little or no evidence of rejection of applicants for membership, or of expulsions for contravention of any institutional principles.

The third problem is the dramatic divergence in nature between even its founding members. The Australian ACTU surely belongs to the social-liberal Northern bloc, though possibly (I lack means of comparison) being more militant than others. [16] The Filipino KMU identifies itself with the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines. The South African Cosatu, or what is now left of it, has long been self-subordinated to the increasingly neo-liberal and corrupt ruling party, the African National Congress. [17]

What would seem to unite members at the international level, paradoxically, has been less their resistance to than a drift towards membership of the fundamentally-Northern ITUC. The Northern drift holds even for the militant and politically-autonomous Korean affiliate, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), itself affiliated to the ITUC and apparently uncritical of the Eurocentric International Labour Organisation. Recently, even the Maoist-linked KMU in the Philippines has been welcomed into the infinitely elastic moral envelope of the ITUC!

It has to be this divergent membership that explains the cautious rhetoric of Sigtur – a ‘Southern’ union international that rarely criticizes – far less names and shames - the Northern ones! Moreover, the Sigtur website reference to Africa just has to be a puff from the ITUC office there:

ITUC Africa is at the centre of the renewal and revitalisation of the trade union movement in Africa, building unions committed to the activation of civil society. Whilst corporations and their interests see the continent as a place to plunder, the democratic unions view ITUC Africa from the perspective of solidarity arising out of a common vision.

Even the number and nature of Sigtur’s affiliate members is concealed by the earlier statement. Sigtur claims 35 countries, thus at least 35 members. Yet its website only indicates 15 member countries, several of them with no e-dress. And one of the ‘countries’ listed is… Africa! The Sigtur member there is that African regional office of the Westocentric ITUC, rather than the Afro-centric Organisation of African Trade Union Unity. Must this be taken to imply that the ITUC-Africa is more ‘democratic’ than the OATUU? [18]

The official union confederation of Vietnam, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), was present at a Sigtur conference, held in India, 2008 (People’s Democracy 2008). Yet this is a descendent of the Soviet-type transmission-belt union centre, dedicated to carrying out party and state policies, a matter that led to union protest demonstrations in Australia when the VGCL visited there, 2012. So it seems that Sigtur considers it democratic, but that various trade unions in Sigtur’s host country, consider it not so.

Now for Sigtur’s policies and its activities.


Its website claims that

SIGTUR is a space of open debate through its regular Congresses and leaders’ meetings in order to formulate and present a united voice of the working class in the Global South. Such a voice is shaped by the historical experience of workers in the Global South. SIGTUR as a space to share our experiences creates a new identity unique to the Global South, which is a potential source of power and commitment.

Past and present repression against unions … has formed a
particular culture of struggle in the Global South. The space SIGTUR creates also enables a sharing of organisational experience, so the stronger more well established federations can share their methods of organizing and struggle with the newer unions. SIGTUR is not just a space to share a common southern experience, even though this emerging wider social consciousness is vital to drive the struggle. SIGTUR is a space to develop an alternative vision to that of neo-liberal globalisation. It is a space to forge, over time, a new, anti-free market politics. This has grown out of the mass protests across the south over the past two decades. It is a space to challenge global corporations, the banking system and the elites who profit from their exploitation. Finally, it is a space to find new sources of power and new strategies and to organise action, linking the local to the global to mobilise against these forces.

These rhetorical declarations are not simply over-statements but also conceal significant tensions within Sigtur. The ‘open debate’ is quite absent from the Sigtur website in either its earlier or current emanations. The tensions and silences have to be extracted from cautious passing remarks elsewhere by various Sigtur promoters.


I will here consider not the website claims but a paper by Bruno Dobrusin (2014) which represents the most original and critical account so far by a Sigtur activist/promoter. [19] The originality and criticality must be due to Dobrusin’s native Argentina, his connection with the militant Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina (CTA) and his knowledge of militant union networks across Latin America.

Whilst Dobrusin largely shares the ‘optimism of the will’ common to other Sigtur supporters, he also exercises considerable ‘scepticism of the intellect’ concerning its claimed achievements.

For his ‘optimism of the will’, consider his reference to Sigtur founders having been originally inspired by the notion of ‘social movement unionism’ (SMU). As the person who sparked the still ongoing exchange about SMU (Waterman 2004), I recollect this early inspiration. But any SMU discourse had a short life, within or around Sigtur, disappearing without funeral or obituary. It would unlikely have meant anything to the Australian ACTU, having been better represented in Australia by that one short-lived union experience mentioned in an earlier footnote (Burgmann and Burgmann 1998).

Dobrusin also presents Sigtur as a challenge to the ‘reluctance of the international trade union organisations…to further incorporate’ (Dobrusin 2011: 156) the Southern unions and the more militant campaigns of the Sigtur. ‘Incorporate’ is an unfortunate term in this context, given that during the life-span of Sigtur at least four of its affiliates have been incorporated into the ITUC (some also into the WFTU), including, as mentioned, the Maoist-identified KMU – a Sigtur affiliate airbrushed out his account by Dobrusin.

For his ‘scepticism of the intellect’, consider Dobrusin’s critical remarks about its keynote campaign, against the Rio Tinto mining corporation. He says ‘the experience of Sigtur actions coordinated within the network remains elusive’ (Dobrusin 2011:157).

Indeed Dobrusin’s article represents, on the whole, a projection on to Sigtur of hopes based on a Latin American union-led civil society campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTTA). This was certainly an historical achievement. But it was carried out in one linguistically-homogenous sub-continent (bearing in mind the (semi) lingua franca of Portuñol), and in combination with the radical-nationalist governments of the Pink Tide period (mid-90s to early-2000s). Finally, his hopes for a significant future for Sigtur, are premised on a campaign against free trade (echoed in the Futures Report), rather than a more holistic left labour vision – Southern, Northern or universal. Finally we have to ask ourselves whether or not the vitality and internationalism of the Latin American unions is as marked as Dobrusin suggests. [20]


Whilst I have earlier suggested a considerable Sigtur presence on the web, we do not know, of course, to what extent this has been original or reproductive (meaning reproductive of or otherwise dependent on originals). This would require more than a simple glance at the number of Googles.

So one is dependent on the present Sigtur website, which is professional in appearance but which provides very limited information (it is still front-paging the Indian general strike of 2015), on which various tabs, when clicked, go nowhere. From this reborn site there have disappeared not only one or two more substantial pieces by one or two of Sigtur’s academic sponsors but even, if memory serves, a more substantial network history. Given that Sigtur makes a point about being a network rather than an organization, the failure to be significantly engaged on the core terrain for networking, added to the fact that the site is unilingual, implies a weak competitor with, or supplement to, the traditional (= Northern) international union sites. Indeed it has in common with most of these only the absence of a dialogical feature.

However, this limited capacity to communicate electronically is consistent with the failure, so far, of Sigtur, to come to terms with computerized production and services, computerized workers – or with other online labour networks. Whilst it does highlight the autonomous (but ITUC-orientated and UK-based) LabourStart, it provides no link to even the Australia-based solidarity network, Australia-Asia Solidarity Links.

The cautious and amateurish approach of Sigtur and its intellectual sponsors to the brave new world of a globalized and computerized capitalism has to be less compared than contrasted with the work of the Australian (yes!) Verity Burgman (2013). She devotes her Chapter 3 to ‘Reversing Decline by Going Online?’, which, whilst largely dependent on activity and reflection from the Global North (here including Australia), nonetheless mentions activities involving the Global South. More importantly, she combines considerable descriptive writing with a consideration of the relevant literature, and a skeptical/optimistic orientation toward international labour movement work in Cyberia.

The absence of a comparative perspective

With the exception of the Dobrusin piece mentioned above there is, neither on the Sigtur website nor in the writings of others I have called its sponsors, much of a comparative perspective. I would have thought that any holistic approach to, or by, such a network would require placing Sigtur within a general historical and comparative perspective.

Such a perspective would mean relating Sigtur to other contemporary labour solidarity networks, whether themselves related to the hegemonic internationals or autonomous. [21] Here is an arbitrary listing of some such, in solely alphabetical order:

  • Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims
  • Confederación Sindical de las Americas
  • Encuentro Sindical Nuestra América
  • Global Labour Institute
  • International Dockworkers Council
  • International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggles
  • International Migrants Alliance
  • International Workers Association
  • Maquila Solidarity Network
  • NSWP: Global Network of Sex Work Projects
  • Streetnet
  • Union Solidarity International
  • Via Campesina
  • Workers International Network

The question of whether any of these (or a network of such?) might lead to a surpassing of the archaic yet still hegemonic Northern-based union internationals would require further research, conceptualization and argumentation. Several of them might be NGOs, but it is here, on the periphery of the traditional union form that new forms of labour self-articulation can be found. I note in the above list the paucity of Southern-based networks, and also that a number of them have already sunk or been confronted by rocks analogous to those facing Sigtur. I note, on the other hand that a number of them, unlike Sigtur, identify with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, launched by a Palestinian civil society network, including local unions. In failing to act or even speak on this increasingly central issue for the international labour movement, Sigtur falls behind, for example, the surely-Northern-enough Norwegian trade union confederation, the LO.


We still have to see whether the Futures Commission report might provide a springboard to a more meaningful future or a tombstone to a self-contradictory past. We learn, in any case, after all, more from our failures than from our successes, since our successes seem to be self-explanatory.

Creating a new labour international or internationalism, regionally or globally, limited to, reaching beyond or surpassing the traditional union forms, ideologies, strategies and activities, is clearly no easy task.

Nor is the developing of a dialogical relationship between radical-democratic, socialist or Marxist intellectuals and either the old unions or innovatory labour solidarity networks. However, it does seem to me that the most-promising terrain for such is the web-based (and cyberspace-informed) ‘international labour support group’, whether the latter be itself self-supported (preferentially) or even externally funded (with details published). From my meagre references above, it is evident that creating this alternative is no rose garden. But who promised us that a reinvention of the global labour movement would be such?

This understanding does not imply a dismissal of the traditional inter/national union forms or their problematic internationalisms. But it certainly implies a relativisation of them in the movement for global social emancipation. And a recognition that whilst political power is concentrated at the centre, social self-empowerment begins at the base, at the periphery and, oftentimes, the outside. The national/industrial/hierarchical trade unions will follow such initiatives or continue their relative decline. They will unlikely, however, lead such initiatives. This is what is strongly suggested by both the network of national/ist unions that Sigtur represents and by the role of its academic promoters in relation to such.

Resources (extended)

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Bieler, Andreas. 2013a. ‘SIGTUR – A movement of democratic unions of the Global South’. Trade Unions and Global Restructuring Blog.

Bieler, Andreas. 2013b. ‘SIGTUR’s Futures Commission and the search for alternatives in and beyond capitalism!’. Trade Unions and Global Restructuring Blog.

Bieler, Andreas, Robert O’Brien and Karin Pampallis (eds). 2016. Futures Commission: Challenging Corporate Capital: Creating an Alternative to Neo-Liberalism. Johannesburg: Chris Hani Institute.

Bieler, Andreas. 2016. ‘Proposals for Alternatives to Neo-liberalism: SIGTUR’s Futures Commission’. Trade Unions and Global Restructuring Blog.

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Burgmann, Verity. 2016. Globalization and Labour in the Twenty-First Century. London:Routledge.

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Dobrusin, Bruno. 2014. ‘South–South Labor Internationalism: SIGTUR and the Challenges to the Status Quo’. WorkingUSA, 17: 155–167.

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Hlatshwayo, Mondli. 2015. ‘White Power and Privilege in Academic and Intellectual Spaces of South Africa: The Need for Sober Reflection’, Politikon, 42:1, Pp. 141-145.

Lambert, Rob. 1999. ‘The Movement’s New Unity [An introduction to the Conference of the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights, hosted by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Johannesburg, October 25-9, 1999]’, South African Labour Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1999, pp. 86-90.

Lambert, Rob and Eddie Webster. 2001. ‘Southern Unionism and the New Labour Internationalism’, in Peter Waterman and Jane Wills (eds). Place, Space and the New Labour Internationalisms. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 33-58.

Lambert R, Webster E. 2001. 2003. ’Transnational Union Strategies for Civilizing Labour Standards’, in Richard Sandbrook (ed). Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide. Albany: SUNY.

Lambert, Rob and Eddie Webster. 2006. ‘Social Emancipation and the New Labour Internationalism: A Southern Perspective’, in Sousa Santos, Boaventura (ed), Another Production is Possible: Beyond the Capitalist Canon. London: Zed Books. Pp. 279-320.

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Appendix 1

NB. Extracts on Sigtur from Waterman (2012): 1) Footnotes in that original have been here merged into its main text. 2) As of 2017, Sigtur had still not gained that dialogical website, 3) UnionBook no longer exists, 4) The O’Brien contribution to the Sigtur website has disappeared, 5) The ‘gate-keeping’ behaviour of the Indian CITU may explain Sigtur failure, even years later, to recognize the politically autonomous New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) and the movement-oriented All India Union of Forest Working People (2013).

Sigtur has no presence within the World Social Forum (unlike the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the South African Confederation of Trade Unions (Cosatu), it has attended only one WSF). And after almost two decades of existence it has a weak and non-dialogical web presence Although I was given to understand, early 2010, that this was to gain a dialogue feature, it has not, October 2012, come into existence. Moreover, the presence of Sigtur on the new UnionBook blogsite is more or less limited to propaganda. A rare academic contribution to the Sigtur site (reproduced on that of UnionBook), by Robert O’Brien, is actually an endorsement of the network with a few cautionary comments. We are, thus, confronted with a small circle of academics … and a limited network of traditional Left trade union leaders involved in a largely self-referential relationship. The Sigtur website is not, at least yet, the space in which an emancipatory global labour internationalism can be developed. Perhaps it will come to contribute to such in the future but this would require it to enter into direct, open, horizontal dialogue with other such cyberspaces … Nor are we offered, in the presentation of Sigtur, here or elsewhere, any serious discussion of the ‘North/South’ relationship between the three countries that the authors consider ‘the fundamental challenge to a new labour internationalism’ … Yet Australia, home base of Sigtur, is clearly a Northern wolf in Southern sheep’s clothing. Sigtur has, finally, been so far trapped in an unrecognised or unadmitted contradiction - or at least a foundational tension - between trying to build a new networked labour movement internationalism on the basis of leadership relations between trade union organisations that themselves reproduce the state-national base of their Old Labour Internationalism. Sigtur membership consists primarily of national union centers of some unspecified ‘Left ‘, ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ nature. In the case of the Philippines, this is the Kilusang Mayo Uno, long associated with the (Maoist) Communist Party of the Philippines .... In the case of India, it is the two major Communist trade union federations, one of which is associated with the Communist-led Government of West Bengal, itself responsible for land clearance and peasant massacres in the interest of major Indian corporations. At a Sigtur conference in South Africa, 1999, I witnessed a walkout by the two Communist Indian unions in protest against a Hong Kong-based labour NGO’s exhibition on factory fires in China (we have to presume that protest against factory fires in Thailand would have been acceptable to the Indian delegation). Members of Sigtur also appear to act as national gatekeepers, obstructing, if not blocking, Sigtur from relating to other unions or labour movements in what they seem to consider as ‘their’ nation-states. Indeed, I heard one Indian Communist leader at this conference proclaim, in traditional bourgeois-national-statist mode, the principle of non-interference in Indian labour matters!


[1Acknowledgements are due to Eddie Webster, Robert O’Brien and Bruno Dobrusin for the provision of documents and/or information, and to Patrick Bond and Ronnie Munck for commentary on drafts. The usual disclaimer applies for their responsibility for what use I have made of such

[2More substantially, see Waterman (2012, 2014)

[3The Sharon Walsh piece was part of an exchange between herself, Patrick Bond and Ashwin Desai in the same issue of the Review of African Political Economy, identified below as Bond (2008) and Desai (2008).

[4There seem to have been a total of three. I can find limited detail on the number and place of the preliminary meetings, or participation in such, either in the Report itself or on the Sigtur website. The best account of one of these is in Bieler (2013b).

[5These seem to have been the German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the South African Chris Hani Institute, the latter having received core funding from the Cosatu trade union centre, at least until the present crisis of the latter

[6A number of the contributors may well have been union organisers or activists either in the past or at present but we are not informed of this

[7For an internationally comparative study of the complex matter of women and trade unions, see Colgan and Ledwith (2002).

[8A classical feminist text here is that of Mohanty (1984), even if this one is confined to Western feminist visions of Southern women.

[9Interestingly, Rob Lambert (2008) has written, with relevant autobiographical reference, on the relationship between the critical sociologist and the labour movement. And then with specific reference to the South African labour movement in the Apartheid era and to Sigtur itself today. The piece, however, concentrates on the commitment of sociologists to labour movements rather than the tensions/contradictions between committed sociologists and the particular movement or organization they happen to identify with.

[10For these see, most recently, Armano, Bove and Murgia (2017).

[11Consider, for example, this:

The global South is not a geographical concept, even though the great majority of its populations live in countries of the Southern hemisphere. The South is rather a metaphor for the human suffering caused by capitalism and colonialism on the global level, as well as for the resistance to overcoming or minimising such suffering. It is, therefore, an anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-imperialist South. It is a South that also exists in the geographic North (Europe and North America), in the form of excluded, silenced and marginalised populations, such as undocumented immigrants, the unemployed, ethnic or religious minorities, and victims of sexism, homophobia, racism and islamophobia.’ (Sousa Santos 2016).

[12For a not-unrelated challenge to North/South discourse in the UK, see McInroy, and Jackson (2012). This argues that the problem is rather social inequality within the customarily opposed parts. Prioritising the North/South opposition in international relations usually leads to subordinating class and other significant social contradictions to the prioritized categories. It also obscures increasing parallels between processes occurring in the parts supposedly opposed.

[13The China Question is taken up elsewhere by Lambert and Webster (2017). This goes way beyond a searing critique of the All China Federation Trade Unions (ACFTUs), revealing and criticising the collusion of both the major union internationals and the South African COSATU with that body. Further, it reveals and discusses the Pro-China policy of Sigtur-stalwart, the Indian CITU. The two limitations I would point out are 1) the quite unsupported hope that Sigtur itself might adopt the authors’ critical position and 2) the confinement of their authorial standards to those of the International Labour Standards of the ILO, an almost 100-year-old Northern-based inter-state organization, dominated by capital and state, and espousing a social-liberalism that has so far accompanied rather than obstructed the decline of unionism even in such supposedly-model industrial relations jurisdictions as those of Scandinavia. Given the real questions China poses for Sigtur, is is regrettable that this issue was excluded from the Futures Report.

[14‘Sigtur Union’ scored some 16,000 hits on Google, 14.05.17.

[15This is an assumption for which I have no evidence. It has to be an assumption because, unlike the International Trade Union Confederation, but like the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions, Sigtur provides us with no information about its own ‘political economy’. It may well be, of course, that the promotors might have put personal funding as well as working time into the project.

[16Bradley Bowden (2011) shows that the rise and fall of Australian unionism over two centuries of history, follows a pattern common to that in the industrialised capitalist North. Burgmann and Burgmann (1998) presents a short-lived but significant case of one Australian union that had rather more ‘social movement’ characteristics than the national union centre.

[17The breakaway body, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) comes over as distinctly anti-capitalist, where Sigtur is only anti-neo-liberal. It also highlights issues unconsidered by Sigtur or its Futures Commission:

a) We are building a trade union movement, a broader labour movement not a narrow trade union for wages of the employed in big workplaces and only for their safety helmets and gumboots … c) We are building a movement that will give a voice and represent … the workers who have been outsourced and the workers whose jobs have been unilaterally declared non-core by the bosses … f) We are building a movement for the future of a South Africa that strives to meet the needs of its people and which is committed to an alternative to the world we currently live in … i) We are opposed to capitalist exploitation. We commit ourselves to fight against working class exploitation. j) We will fight for a more egalitarian society and will oppose all forms of inequality and discrimination, be they based on class, gender, sexuality or race … we are an unapologetic socialist oriented movement of workers. (South African Federation of Trade Unions 2017)

One has to wonder how, if at all, Sigtur might respond to this profound challenge to Sigtur-founder Cosatu. For, whatever ambiguities there might be in the SAFTU declaration, it is certainly less corrupt, less party/state-dependent, more anti-capitalist and more militant than Cosatu. For that matter we also have to wonder what attitude SAFTU might take toward the Cosatu-founded Sigtur.

[18Lest this be taken as identification with or even preference for the OATUU, I have to refer to its disparagement, as a union front of the African states, by veteran participant/observer, Gerard Kester. See here. This is a serious qualification to its autonomous status that I can, from my own experience, confirm

[19A rare comment on Sigtur by a non-promoter, but someone focused on ‘transnational labour organising’ and with empirical research experience involving the Indian CITU, is somewhat dismissive of both Sigtur and CITU. Of the former he says:

For most of its existence…Sigtur has organised nothing but conferences of international union leaders, and its website offers even less that might lead us to believe otherwise. (McCallum 2013: 26)

Of CITU he says, in relation to organising security workers in (then) Communist-ruled West Bengal, that it acted less as a conventional trade union than as a ‘labour broker, connecting unemployed workers with temporary jobs’. (135)

[20Ronnie Munck’s strictures concerning the unions in Latin America as a whole, and Brazil in particular, might seem to have been outdated by the April 2017 general strike in Brazil. They nonetheless serve as a warning against assumptions of radical virtue as attached to any particular national or regional union body. Moreover, the comment is consistent with the case of Peru, and other Latin American cases:

Once radical unions have gradually become incorporated into ‘normal’ industrial relations. None more so than Brazil’s powerful urban labour movement which led pro-democracy strikes in the 1980’s and formed the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores – Workers Party) through which Brazilian workers acquired a clear independent political voice for the first time and took on a clear social movement orientation, engaging with issues beyond the workplace such as housing, transport, healthcare and the environment. Since that period the workers movement has been in decline, partly due to the impact of neoliberalism but also due to its own weaknesses, divisions and demoralisation. According to Antunes “the ‘new unionism’ began to collapse, growing old prematurely. The policy of ‘agreements’, “financial subsidies” and “partnerships” with foreign, especially European, social democratic unions….strongly contaminated Brazil’s class-based unionism” ([Ricardo] Antunes 2103: 263).

[21A holistic comparative perspective would require something here unconsidered, that with other social movements. A case in point would be the paper of Ronnie Munck (2017) on social movements in Latin America. One does not have to necessarily agree with his analysis to recognize the value of considering trade unions in relation to the social movements occurring around them.