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(en) The Commoner #6 - Peter Waterman1 - All in Common A New/Old Slogan for International Labour and Labour Internationalism

From <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 30 Jan 2003 03:15:48 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

The 18th Century

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
(English folk poem, circa 1764)

The Long 19th Century

 [T]he proletariat, the great class embracing all the 
producers of civilized nation[s], the class which in 
freeing itself will free humanity from servile toil and 
will make of the human animal a free being - the 
proletariat, betraying its instincts, despising its historic 
mission, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of 
work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment. All its 
individual and social woes are born of its passion for 
(Paul Lafargue 1893)

Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for 
a fair day's work,' we must inscribe on our banner the 
revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system.' 
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away 
with capitalism. The army of production must be 
organized, not only for everyday struggle with the 
capitalists, but also to carry on production when 
capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing 
industrially we are forming the structure of the new 
society within the shell of the old.
(Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers 
of the World, 1905)

The Late-20th and Early-21st Century

Regular IFI [International Financial Institutions] 
consultations with Global Unions create an opportunity 
for effective change.
In the past year, Global Unions delegations have 
participated in exchanges on trade union involvement in 
PRSPs [Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers] and on the 
impact of privatisation on labour and found them to be 
useful?Working women and men are interested in many 
of the objectives that the IFIs [International Financial 
Institutions] state as being theirs, ranging from 
increased jobs that offer better security and working 
conditions, to higher incomes, improved social 
protection and quality public services. Unions will only 
support IFI policies if they make such improvements a 
(Global Unions 2002)

The expanded application of the principle of the 
common heritage of humankind shows the potential of 
this concept... Against capitalist expansionism, it 
proposes the idea of sustainable development; against 
private property and national appropriation, the idea of 
shared resource management, rational use and 
transmission to future generations; against nation-state 
sovereignty, the idea of trust, management by the 
international community...; against the hubris of the 
pursuit of power that so often leads to war, the idea of 
peaceful use; against the political economy of the 
modern world system, the idea of equitable 
redistribution of the world's wealth...'
(Sousa Santos 1995: 371-2).

[A]ready fragile prior to Enron, the legitimacy of global 
capitalism as the dominant system of production, 
distribution, and exchange will be eroded even further, 
even in the heartland of the system. During the halcyon 
days of the so-called New Economy in 2000, a Business 
Week survey found that 72 per cent of Americans felt 
that corporations had too much power over their lives. 
That figure is likely to be much higher now. 
(Walden Bello 2002)

Despite all the attempts at privatization, it turns out 
that there are some things that don't want to be owned. 
Music, water, seeds, electricity, ideas-they keep 
bursting out of the confines erected around them. They 
have a natural resistance to enclosure, a tendency to 
escape, to cross-pollinate, to flow through fences, and 
flee out open windows.
(Naomi Klein 2002)

?Why can feminists have a revolution now, while 
Marxists have to wait? 
(Gibson-Graham 1996: 251)

Introduction: back to the future?

The death of international labour's old utopias 
(Communist, Social-Democratic, Radical-Nationalist - 
even Business Unionist?) leaves the international trade 
union movement bereft of much more than a defensive 
agenda which it still believes can and must be achieved 
in partnership with capital and state. In so far as labour 
adopts defensive or even militant oppositional stances, 
these still leave it dependent on the practices and 
discourses of a dynamically-expanding, globalised and 
networked capitalism. This repeatedly penetrates 
labour's defences, shifts the goalposts, even abandons 
football and the football field for computer games and 
cyberspace. Speaking in the name of evidently 
unconsulted 'working women and men', the recently 
re-branded Global Unions (see above) prioritise 
recognition by, and collaboration with, the enemy - the 
International Financial Institutions - over any other 
political aim, any other historical tradition, any other 
ethical principle, any alternative imaginable end. And, 
as far as I can see, over any measurable positive impact.

Labour needs a new ethic, vision and strategy that will 
not only undergird such defensive and limited actions as 
unions must take, but also enable them to act 
autonomously and to go on the political and moral 
offensive against aggressive global capital and the 
collusive inter/state instances and regimes. And then, 
of course, labour needs to increasingly appeal to and 
articulate itself with the new 'global justice and 
solidarity movements' that recognize an enemy when 
they see one and reject collaboration with such.

Slogans and banners matter.

A new labour internationalism needs to go both way 
back for inspiration and way forward in address. The 
democratic and secular trinity of the French Revolution,

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

is still valid but needs updating and specifying 
(Fraternity, obviously, as Solidarity). The Wobblies' 

Abolition of the Wage System

and related workerist and antiwork (Paul Lafargue 
above) slogans, need marrying with relevant demands 
coming from other radical-democratic communities and 
identities. And they need specification of what follows 
'abolition'. The 50-year-old slogan of the International 
Confederation of Free Trade Unions,
Bread, Peace and Freedom

forgot equality and solidarity, and still bears the burden 
of a Cold War interpretation of 'Free Trade Unionism'. 
Whilst the ICFTU and its associates have been 
re-branding themselves as Global Unions they have left 
their archaic and uninspiring traditional slogan 
untouched. A discussion on on a new slogan, involving 
working people and their allies, might help create an 
international labour movement fit for both immediate 
defence and eventual re-assertion in the 21st century. 
Some might like to see a slogan combining

Useful Production, 

Each of these is today part of the meaning of the others. 
But I propose to prioritise, at least for discussion, this 
egalitarian slogan, 

Omnia Sint Communia
(All in Common)

Egalitarianism (called, under Communist regimes, 
'petty-bourgeois egalitarianism') also needs a 
re-specification. It could draw on radical-democratic 
labour and popular tradition (see the first quotes 
above), and should look forward beyond capitalist 
globalisation, beyond capitalism (as implied in some of 
the later quotes above).  I suggest re-interpreting 
equality in terms of the old/new principle of the 
commons. This is an old space of sharing, subsistence 
and rights, a new space for popular encroachment on 1) 
a capitalism gone cancerous and of 2) inter/state 
regimes that are complicit with this and/or ineffective 
(Branford and Rocha 2002).

Appropriately, today, the commons are understood as 
simultaneously local, national, regional, global and 
extra-terrestrial. The sky here is not the limit. The 
tension between the capitalist political-economy (the 
state-capital, hierarchy-competition, power-exploitation 
syndrome) and the commons clearly now includes, 
alongside the oceans and the sea-bed, the 
electro-magnetic spectrum and cyberspace 
(CivSoc/CPSR website; Barbrook 2002). These provide 
an infinite terrain for disputation and, whilst capital 
and state have the economic, technical, institutional, 
legal and administrative means for their domination, 
the political and ethical principles of the hegemons are 
being increasingly exposed as both rigid and threadbare.

Labour - national and international, North and South, 
East and West - is now increasingly confronting the 
privatisation of everything (Martin 1993, 2002, Public 
Services International Research Unit website). The 
unions find themselves, in these often local, momentary 
or partial struggles, in alliance with urban dwellers, 
women's movements, schoolteachers and parents, 
agricultural producers, indigenous peoples, the 
ecological and/or consumer movements, with gays, 
progessive professionals and technicians, with 
democratic cultural and communication activists. The 
struggle to defend and extend the commons, can 
combine these possible minorities into hypothetical 
majorities. It would obviously empower the labour 
movement if such separate, disparate, momentary, 
partial movements could be systematically linked by a 
political and ethical principle which has the function 
and appeal once provided by Communism, Anarchism, 
Social-Democracy, or Radical-Nationalism. These 
national-industrial socialisms/radicalisms can now be 
seen to have been premature, simplifying, reductionist, 
universalistic - and utopian in the negative sense. 
Utopia, however, becomes less futuristic, more familiar, 
if and when we recognize that capitalism is not a unitary 
object but a complex and contradictory one, which does 
not - even under globalisation - occupy all social space 
(Gibson-Graham 1996).

Below I will discuss the relationship between labour and 
the commons firstly at the international/global/general 
level - remembering, of course, that 'global' also means 
holistic, and that any place, space or level must today 
be understood in a dialectical/dialogical relation with 
others. But I want to start with that which the 
international labour movement has so evidently lost, 
largely reducing itself to the role of 'town mayor in 
wartime' (a Dutch pejorative for collaborating officials 
under the Nazi occupation), to defensive battles that 
have to be continually re-fought so as to prevent further 
retreat, or to the repetition of archaic-romantic 
revolutionary-apocalyptical dogma. I want to start with 
Utopia, and for two reasons: 1) because

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be
(graffito cited Sousa Santos 1995:479)

and 2) because

A map of the world that does not include Utopia
is not even worth glancing at
(Oscar Wilde).

Indeed, these two slogans could well accompany Omnia 
Sint Communia on the road to


which is actually a very nice word indeed since it means 
both 'nowhere' and 'good place'. It is, in other words, a 
desirable place that does not (yet) exist. Utopia has 
occupied an ambiguous position in the labour 
movement, ever since Marx and Engels replaced 
'utopian socialism' by 'scientific socialism', whilst 
proposing Communism (which they hardly specified) as 
its necessary, desirable, inevitable alternative. With the 
disappearance of 'labour's utopias' (Beilharz 1992), 
labour internationally has lost most of its capacity to 
think beyond the shrinking horizons imposed on it by 
capitalism's expanding ones. Yet, as globalised cultural 
industries become increasingly central to capitalism, 
and increasingly occupy the 'free time' of consumers, so 
must the struggle to 'emancipate ourselves from mental 
slavery'. Here we could certainly begin with those 
socialists who already recognized this (Frankel 1987) or 
are belatedly doing so (Panitch and Leys 2000). The 
latter (discussed Waterman 2000), summarise their 
utopia thus:

1.Overcoming alienation;
2.Attenuating the division of labour;
3.Transforming consumption;
4.Alternative ways of living [the feminist one];
5.Socialising markets;
6.Planning ecologically;
7.Internationalising equality;
8.Communicating democratically;
9.Realising democracy;
10.Omnia sint communia [All in common]

Before considering the last of these (to which I am 
evidently indebted), we need to recognise the position 
under capitalist globalisation of


for whom it has meant, simultaneously, the worldwide 
generalization and intensification of proletarianisation 
(loss of pre- or non-capitalist means of production) and 
the dramatic and repeated de-/re-structuring of 'labour 
for capital' worldwide. Labour (as wage work, as class 
identity, in the trade-union form, as a  significant 
partner in capitalist industrial relations, as a part of 
capitalist civil society) is in profound crisis. This 
requires - even for defence of the traditional unionized 
working class - a re-invention of the labour movement, 

1.recognition, as the subject of the labour movement, of 
all forms of labour for capital, waged or not;
2.an international campaign for the eight-hour working 
day (also for homekeepers), remembering that the 
eight-hour day was the issue of an early international 
working-class struggle in the later-19th century, 
simultaneously won and lost in following decades. A 
campaign for an eight - or six - hour working day would 
simultaneously reduce unemployment and overwork 
(IWW website: http://www.iww.org/4-Hours/index.shtml)
3.developing an international labour rights movement 
worldwide, inspired not by religious or liberal notion of 
'decent work'
Waterman 2002a) but by the necessity, first, of 'taking 
labour out of competition', secondly enclosing the 
wage-labour system, thirdly of developing a notion of 
useful work that refers to social and ecological impact;
4.the struggle for free time against enforced work (time 
also freed from commoditised entertainment and 
leisure industries), and some contemporary equivalent 
of the old international/ist worker travel, sports and 
cultural associations;
5.working out and struggling for guaranteed basic 
income inter/nationally, i.e. income regardless of 'work 
for capitalism' (see VirGlob-SP in Resources below); 
6.development of the 'solidarity economy' and 
'solidarity economics';
7.development of a 'new social unionism', implying a 
dialectic/dialogue between: 

movements of distinct kinds of labourer; 
labour and other radical-democratic social movements 
(women, peace, culture/communication, ecology, 
indigenous peoples, human rights);
traditional and high-tech or intermediate 
technical/managerial sectors;
struggles against the wage-labour system with struggles 
for the resources and spaces for the support of life.

The last of these returns us to

The commons

the experience of which has been universal amongst the 
poor as they have been confronted by, and resisted the 
imposition of, first, seigniorial/colonial types of 
enclosure, then the full capitalist onslaught - 
clock-time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism 
(Thompson 1974).2 Despite centuries of encroachment 
by capital and state (a nationalistic, elitist, 
bureaucratic surrogate for a 'universal people' that 
could have at those times only a notional existence), 
and despite the seductions of consumer capitalism, 
popular imagination can still be stirred both by the 
memory of the commons, and by contemporary 
expressions of resistance to such encroachment 
(indigenous peoples' movements). The revival of the 
notion of the commons, under globalization, comes from 
at least two, inter-connected, directions:

1.decades of struggle by the environmental and related 
movements (often of middle-class origin) for defence or 
extension of the commons (in terms of space and 
resources, whether local, national, regional, global, 
whether subterranean, extra-terrestrial, cyberspatial);

2.increasing popular struggles (of labour, urban, rural, 
indigenous and other such communities) against the 
increasing aggression, despoliation and depredation of 
neo-liberal capitalist privatization, concentration, 
speculation and corruption. And increasing socialist 
discussion of such. 

Much of the first type of struggle, 'for the common 
heritage of humankind' (CHH), may take legalistic or 
bureaucratic forms. Labour/popular struggles may also 
still be expressed as resistance, opposition and a return 
to a golden (even tarnished) past of state-control. Yet 
discourses of the commons - and a consequent extension 
of all possible radical-democratic alternatives to 
ownership/control by capital/state - could strengthen 
traditional labour demands and enrich those of 
middle-class professionals, technicians and others.

The principle of the commons is subversive of the 
principles underlying 1) the modern nation-state 
(actually the state-defined nation) and 2) corporate 
capitalism. The state-nation depends on the principle of 
sovereignty, which implies state hegemony within 
geographical borders (and inter-state relations beyond 
these). It defines the human-being as a national, either 
as lowest common denominator or as highest common 
factor. Underlying corporate capitalism is the principle 
of private property (privatized consumption, privatized 
services) which, as extended to the human-being sees 
him/her as both individualized and property-owning - 
the political theory of possessive individualism 
(Macpherson 1962). In its extreme contemporary forms, 
it turns even the national citizen into a cosmopolitan 
consumer, and literally brands this consumer with a 
corporate logo (Klein 2000). So extreme - so 
world-embracing and world-consuming - have become 
the old contradictions between production and 
consumption, the worker as producer and the worker as 
consumer, producing regions and consuming regions, 
that the movements around/against labour and 
consumption and even fashion/aesthetics are now 
converging (Ross 1999). One US-based international 
solidarity movement is now producing its own 
anti-sweat (non-capitalist? post-capitalist?) sports 
clothes (No Sweat website).

My plea for the international labour movement to join 
its voice to both the discourse and the struggles 
concerning CHH, is intended to both broaden the 
horizons and the appeal of the former, and to give the 
latter an articulation with class/popular/democratic 
interests and identities that it might otherwise lack.

Broadening international labour's horizons and appeal. 
Where, at present, the international trade union 
movement does fight privatization, this is, customarily, 
in terms of harm-reduction or benefit-increase. Whilst 
reference may be made, on the one hand, to the damage 
done by corporate globalisation/privatization, and, on 
the other hand, to a 'social interest' or 'social aspect', no 
challenge of principle is made to those of capital 
accumulation or state sovereignty. And, whilst I am 
unfamiliar with the full range of positions taken by the 
unions concerning 'the common heritage', it is 
customary for the international unions to tail-end 
projects of progressive technocrats and bureaucrats, and 
propose 'social partnership' solutions to problems that 
its 'partners' have created ('Trade Unions OK?' 1998; 
Unicorn Website).

Giving 'the common heritage' a class and popular 
colour.  In so far as it has origins in the weaker Third 
World, during the Cold War, the CHH has always 
contained a subversive potential. The notion has many 
elements, including: non-appropriation, management by 
all peoples, international sharing of benefits, peaceful 
use, conservation for the future. It refers to an 
expanding range of overlapping areas and terrains of 
dispute: the oceans (surface and floor); the Antarctic; 
cultural artifacts and exceptional urban and natural 
sites; energy; food; science and technology; space, the 
atmosphere, the electro-magnetic spectrum, 
telecommunications, the Internet, genetic resources 
(Chemillier-Gendreau 2002; International Forum on 
Globalization 2002, Souza Santos 1995, Wireless 
Commons Manifesto 2002). Given the statist origin of 
the CHH, we should not be surprised that defining and 
empowering the 'community' - to which this past, 
present and future heritage might belong - is 
problematic. Particularly when the community of states 
(the hegemonically-defined 'international community'), 
is confronted by rich, powerful and - above all dynamic - 
corporations with which such states have been 
historically conjoined. Chemillier-Gendreau says the 
community to which this heritage belongs has to be 
invented, in terms of both its identity and its powers 
(which can include trusteeship alongside ownership). 
Her notion of a future 'people of peoples' echoes the 
Zapatista one of a 'world that contains many worlds', or  
the 'community of communities' of De Angelis (2001). 
At the level of principles, here, there is a pluralistic 
idea of overlapping communities/sovereignties . And, at 
least implicitly, of multiple socio-political levels, of 
places (geographic), spaces (socio-cultural), that exist in 
a dialectical and dialogical relationship with each other. 
Such a notion of community does not assume harmony, 
it simply invites us to enclose, and even foreclose on, 
the major sources of disharmony - capitalist 
accumulation and state hierarchy. But even if this is 
agreed, we still need to confront the problem of

Linking Labour and The Commons Internationally

Whatever the history, the memory or even the desire, 
we have to recognise the distance that today exists 
between labour struggles and those around the 
commons, nationally and internationally. It would be 
easy to blame this on any half-dozen of the socialist's 
hand-me-down Others: the 'labour bureaucracy'; 'trade 
union reformism', the 'labour aristocracy', the 'Northern 
unions', 'trade union imperialism'. However, as US 
cartoon character, Pogo, once so notably said, 'I have 
seen the enemy and he is us'. At a seminar of the 
Association for Workers Liberty at the European Social 
Forum, Florence, November 2002, at which a draft of 
this paper was first presented, one young British 
working-class socialist said something like this:

Yes, well, we do have to remember that there was no 
united mass movement in defence of the commons 
historically, which is why they were lost, whereas 
organizations and parties rooted in the working class 
are still here and fighting. (Waterman 2002b).

This lack of historical memory and utopian imagination 
is compounded amongst ordinary workers. Working 
classes (no less than myself and my readers) have been 
profoundly socialised into not only working for wages 
but also privatized consumption, passive and vicarious 
entertainment, and the notion that freedom consists of 
choice between competing political elites, competing 
TV channels and annually-outdated computer and 
audio-visual equipment. These desires are by no means 
confined to working classes that can presently afford 
such. They dangle in front of those who can only hope to 
obtain them by 'proletarian shopping', riot and theft. 
This is nothing to be afraid of, though it is something we 
should feel challenged by. We have to be able to offer 
models of private and social consumption that are more 
attractive and more achievable as well as more 

Where we do find the linkage between labour and the 
commons being made (implicitly more often than 
explicitly) may be mostly at the margins. This means at 
the margins of the trade union organizations (campaigns 
for defence/extension of social services; where unionists 
are sacked and/or denied wage labour; where the form 
of relationship to capital is most ambiguous); margins 
of the labour movement (amongst libertarian socialists, 
or those working in or on cooperatives, the social 
economy, solidarity economies), margins of the 
state-nation (indigenous peoples, rural labourers, the 
urban poor); margins of the capitalist world system (the 
national economies worst affected by unemployment).

And here a parenthesis is necessary. It relates to 
computerized work, both at a lower and at a higher 
level. Routine computerized work (within travel 
agencies, call centres, MacDonalds) is increasingly the 
lot of workers in industrialized capitalist countries. Call 
centres - the new sweatshops, the new putting-out 
system  - are part of the newest international division of 
labour. These workers are part of the growing national 
and international force of contingent workers, and 
extremely hard to unionise in conventional ways. At the 
other (other?) end of the scale there are highly-skilled 
and creative workers, themselves often working under 
similar legal and employment uncertainties, even if 
they consider themselves professionals. Finally, there is 
that guerilla army of independent programmers and 
'hackers' around the industry, who are commited, in 
multiple and complex ways, to the creation of 
non-commercial goods, known as 'freeware', covered by 
what is called 'copyleft'or given the ambiguously or 
temporarily non-capitalist status of 'sharewear'.  
Socialists and libertarians, working in or on this new 
kind of labour are increasingly talking of the present or 
future self-organisation of such work, workers and 
economy in terms of networked unionism, of guilds3, or 
of a high-tech gift economy. (Barbrook 1996a, b, Hyman 
2002, Coleman 2002). There is here a complex and 
actually infinite field of activity which could be usefully 
discussed in relationship to a new kind of commons.

It would be to repeat a long-standing error to divide up 
such initiatives and ideas into 'reformist/palliative' and 
'revolutionary/emancipatory', particularly if the one is 
identified with virtue, the other with vice. This would 
be to understand these struggles and strategies 
ideologically (consistent with a theory/party/thinker 
claiming to embody truth) rather than in terms of 
self-education, experiment and self-empowerment (in 
which self-activating subjects demonstrate or determine 

The relationship between reformism-within and 
emancipation-from, like that between labour and the 
commons, can and must today be understood in terms 
of critical self-reflection, dialectic and dialogue. Such an 
understanding also means that the recovery or 
re-invention of the commons does not depend on one 
world area, one type of worker, one 'correct' type or 
level of struggle, one type of organization (the trade 
union, the labour or socialist party - or some vanguard 


This paper, like any set of initial reflections, raises as 
many questions as it answers (more answers may be 
suggested by the resources below). But they seem to me 
as good a way as any to start a global dialogue. 

What, for example, does or should omnia sint communia 
actually mean? Which community? What sort of 
ownership, inalienable, usufruct, access, trusteeship? 

How would we meaningfully internationalise equality, 
given that this would require either a fall in living 
standards in the 'rich world', or a radical transformation 
in the understanding and practice of consumption? 

All in common (are the workers of the world to lose 
their bicycles as well as their chains)? 

What are we to call this new Utopia, if not 
Communism? Commonism? Commonerism? It cannot 
be called Communism any more, or not at present. That 
was a utopia of the national-industrial-capitalist era. 
Many people and peoples are alienated (pace Marx and 
Engels) from 'Communism'. And the effect of its 
contemporary use - if not the intention of those who still 
use it - is to isolate them from those many others who 
are contributing to a reinvention of the commons. 

In so far as we are talking of a process as much as a 
condition, a movement more than a state of affairs, why 
not call it by the name that preceded national industrial 
socialism, and call it the New Utopianism? Or the New 
Social Emancipation?

Maybe not the New Utopianism, given the negative or 
at fantastical connotation in the popular mind. 

Maybe the New Social Emancipation, which contains 
historical and even contemporary echoes of movements 
against slavery (including the waged kind), racial 
discrimination and patriarchy? 


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Cybersociology Magazine, No. 5, April. 
Barbrook, Richard. 1999b. 'Frequently Asked 
Questions: Digital Workers and Artisans: Get 
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Free Trade, Free Speech, Free Gifts on the Net.' 
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Globalisation and Cross-Border Solidarity: The Case of 
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Web resources

Alternatives to Corporate Globalisation. Independent 
Media Center, Philadelphia 
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Civil Society Democracy Project (CivSoc)/Computer 
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Creating Living Alternatives to Wage Slavery. 
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Disenchanted Workers Union. 
FutureWork. http://www.fes.uwaterloo.ca/Research/FW/
Internet Democracy Project
No Sweat 100% Union-Made Apparel. 
Our World is not for Sale. 
Public Services International Research Unit. 
Reinventing Social Emancipation 
Social Movements Indaba. 
Tragedy of the Commons. 
The Commoner: A Web Journal for Other Values. 
Unicorn: A Global Unions Anti-Corruption Network/La 
Red Sindical Global Anticorrupción. 
VirGlob-SP. 'A Worldwide Minimum Wage? Can we 
globalize wages? Could they be enforced by the national 
Social Democratic Parties? By the Unions? By the UN? 
By the WLO? By the WTO?'. [List title] 
on http://www.virglob-sp.org/.
Work Questions. 

South African web resources


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