In the late 1990s, the structure of world capitalism has become clear. Capitalism is now global, but the world economy remains fragmented and highly uneven.footnote The old North-South divide has widened in terms of the incomes of the majority. The South is locked into the role of low-wage pro-vider for corporations based in the North. Corporate dominated systems of production cross this North-South boundary, producing primarily for the markets of the North. The North itself is now divided into a Triad of major economic regions, which in turn cross the North-South divide. Astride this divided world are the transnational companies (tncs) operating in each Triad region and beyond. The multilateral agreements and institutions that are said to regulate this process have been rigged to discipline governments and encourage centrifugal market forces. Together, these structures and forces sponsor a virtual race to the economic and social bottom for the workers of the world.

As the twenty-first century approaches, however, there are signs that that a rebellion against capitalist globalization, its structures and its effects, has begun. In the us in 1996, strike statistics, while still very low, rose for the first time in years, with the number of strikes of 1,000 or more workers going from 195 in 1995 to 237 in 1996.footnote1 In Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Britain there is now a significant upward trend in levels of industrial action. The rebellion is taking shape on both sides of the North-South economic divide and, in varying degrees, within all three of the major Triad regions. It confronts the most basic effects of the process of globalization at the workplace level as conditions become intolerable. It confronts the conservative neoliberal agenda at the national level and, no matter how indirectly, the plans of capital’s rickety multilateral regime at the international level. In some places its explosive force surprises friends and foes alike. At the centre of the rebellion are the working class and its most basic organization, the trade union.

The working class is in the midst of change: its composition is becoming more diverse in most places, as women and immigrants compose a larger proportion of the workforce, and its organizations are in flux—some still declining, some growing, everywhere changing. The rebellion is international in scope, but it is taking place mostly on national terrain. The need to create unity in action across racial, ethnic, and gender lines within the nation and across borders and seas is more apparent than ever though the difficulty of doing so is still daunting. In July this year, the success of the British Airways staff in halting the management attempt to cut the wages of cabin crew and to hive off catering demonstrated the imaginative militancy that can be displayed by workers relatively new to trade unionism; their success also demonstrated the new ability of trade unions to win public support in confrontations with macho management.

The rebellion seems unlikely because so many of its official leaders are reluctant warriors. The Brazilians, South Africans, Argentines, Venezuelans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and South Koreans might want to pick a fight with global capital or its local neoliberal representatives, but what about the ‘social partners’ in Europe, the enterprise unionists in Japan, and the business unionists in North America? The change from paralysis to resistance could be explained by the specifics of each nation, but something lies beneath these specifics that drives labour in so many places toward confrontation.

The turn taken in so many countries in so short a period of time is all the harder to explain in the developed industrial nations because, with notable exceptions, many top trade union leaders embrace a new ‘realism’ that says competitive business considerations must be adhered to, cooperation with management is the means to that end, and partnership with national or regional capital is the road to employment stabilization. Business Week identified a new generation of European labour leaders willing to ‘deliver on needed cuts in pay and benefits.’ Among these were Nicole Notat of France’s Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (cfdt), John Monks of Britain’s tuc, Humbertus Schmoldt of Germany’s ig Chemie (chemical workers’ union), Sergio Cofferati of Italy’s formerly Communist Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (cgil), and Antonio Gutierrez of Spain’s similarly ex-Communist Comisiones Obreras. What they had in common was a commitment to ‘flexibility’ in the workplace and the labour market.footnote2 Many more high-ranking names could be added to this roll of dishonour.

It is not so different in North America. The United Auto Workers’ new President, Steve Yokich, could approve a dozen or so local strikes against General Motors, but still permit even more flexibility in the national contracts negotiated in 1996. The new president of the afl-cio could call for more militancy in organizing, but at the same time ask business leaders to engage in partnership. In Canada, reluctant leaders from the Canadian divisions of the American-dominated international unions resisted the Days of Action behind the scenes, but were forced to go along with it in the end. Even within some of the newer labour movements of the Third World, voices of moderation and ‘partnership’ could be heard. Yet, the strikes continued.

The reason for this lies partly in the very nature of trade unions. They are ambiguous organizations. On the one hand, they are poised to fight capital in defence of labour. On the other hand, at the top level, they attempt to hold the lines of defence through long-term stable bargaining relations, a rudimentary type of social partnership. The step to a more ideological or even institutional ‘partnership’ between the labour bureaucracy and capital’s bureaucracy is not always a big one. But then the winds of economic change and competition come along and the house of cards collapses.