15th Annual U.S.-European Transatlantic Social Dialogue

HTC protestors fill a NYC street
October 15, 2017
Johnnie Kallas

The 15th annual U.S.-European Transatlantic Social Dialogue (TSD), held this year in New York City from September 14th-16th, brought together a combination of practitioners and academics committed to understanding present challenges and developing new strategies for the labor movement.  The TSD is a yearly event hosted alternately by the European Trade Union Institute, the Hans Böckler Foundation and the Worker Institute at Cornell.

The conference began with a dinner open to the public featuring a panel of accomplished labor leaders from both sides of the Atlantic.  They discussed both distinct and similar threats posed in both the United States and Europe and how unions and other workers’ groups are responding, even using the threats as an opportunity to educate and organize.  Bhairavi Desai, president of the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance, called on unions to show more courage in tackling today’s challenges head on.

The conference continued with two sessions to set the political context labor faces.  Panelists emphasized that right-wing anti-immigrant forces have successfully pitted workers against one another on the basis of racism and xenophobia.  Democrats (in the U.S.) and social democrats (in Europe) have enabled the rise of right-wing populism as labor movements have failed to provide effective advocacy for an increasingly diverse working-class.  Instead of shying away from these issues, labor needs to fulfill its role in working-class struggle by organizing around such issues to offer inclusive alternatives to the simplistic analysis the right-wing has effectively used to mobilize voters.

Shifting gears to labor’s response to the increasingly antagonistic political climate, two sessions focused on the role unions and workers’ groups play in addressing issues of racism and xenophobia.  Traditional unions face numerous threats to their bargaining power, but can learn from other worker advocacy groups how to build power by organizing around issues such as race, gender and sexuality, in addition to class.  Unions can also learn from nontraditional labor groups on how to organize despite having no supportive institutional mechanism to unionize, which is a reality that many unions now face.  Presentations by rank-and-file members from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) were particularly important to illustrate the role of member trainers in the design and implementation of labor education and internal organizing.

Panelists from the final two sessions discussed labor going on the offensive and local, national and international coalition building needed to successfully organize.  Transnational solidarity has often required unions from different continents to work with each other when it serves the interests of both sides, but these relationships cannot be entirely transactional in nature.  Neoliberal structural change impacts worker organization across industries, and unions need to build transformative relationships that begin to effectively resist global capital.  As Roland Erne from the University of Dublin put it, “history is changed not by philosophers but by social movements, including labor.”

In conclusion, TSD panelists and participants presented and discussed ideas on how to combat right-wing populism.  Unions and their allies have a compelling, historic responsibility, today and in the future, to organize, educate, represent, and participate actively in progressive coalitions including and beyond the shop floor.  Central to the TSD is the dialogue between practitioners and academics.  The Transatlantic Social Dialogue helps foster working relationships between academics and practitioners, ties that are essential as we develop strategic pathways forward.