William A. Pelz, Labor Studies Journal

Review of Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later

In many parts of the industrialized world, workers have spent decades, if not longer, focused narrowly on their own unique situations.

Trade unions have encouraged or reflected this attitude concerning themselves with the threats to “their” members, with little concern for the rest of the working class. Solidarity has often been seen as a practice limited, at best, to those within the same nation. “Buy American” has superseded the old campaign to “look for the Union Label.” In short, nationalism has chipped away at worker solidarity and any vision of workers being part of a (united) class.

But as globalization and dramatic changes in the world economy make workers rethink the tactics and assumptions of the late twentieth century, the emphasis on national solidarity over class solidarity may be changing. Those with an awareness of the international dimension of class conflict might strengthen these insights by looking at the past. This book provides a wonderful collection of documents, many in English for the first time, from the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), one of the first organizations to campaign for global labor solidarity. Usually portrayed as little more than a sounding board for Marx’s ideas, this organization lasted just over a decade from its formation in 1864. Despite a short life span, the ideas raised within the organization (not just by big names like Bakunin or Marx) helped provide an alternative worldview to the developing labor movement in Western Europe and the United States. While this expertly edited volume doubtlessly has appeal to historians, those in labor studies may be surprised to find that debates from a century and half ago can echo as if from last week.

Although this book contains many classic works by Karl Marx, such as writings on the Paris Commune, it is works from those authors commonly unknown to history that will most surprise the reader. Consider the 1872 demands of the “Central Section of Working Women of Geneva.” In these documents, the women ask that all future agreements within a trade give women the same wages and rights as men doing the same work. In a pre-Internet world, this organization not only advocated for the equal treatment of women workers but also served as a vital information center that circulated information on wage disputes and work actions with an eye to actively discouraging strike breaking and building cross-border solidarity.

Nor did the IWMA limit itself to only immediate “bread-and-butter” issues. It played an important role in organizing support for the North during the American Civil War and convinced labor support to tilt the balance against British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. Issues like Polish independence and the oppression of the Irish people were also addressed while rejecting the racial stereotypes common in the nineteenth century. Numerous documents show the IWMA’s rejection of war, something most members saw as a tactic used by rulers without regard to the human cost paid by the common people.

Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later is a valuable resource that does more than recount the past. It provides ideas that, although from the past, may and must be pondered for those worried about the future of labor. Although technology has changed, and with it workers’ lifestyles, the basic conflicts faced by the working class are the same as they were a century and half ago. This publication will give contemporary readers a fresh look at the issues facing workers of the past so that they may glean some insight into our future.

Published in:

Labor Studies Journal

Date Published

17 October, 2016


William A. Pelz