In the Wake of Oslo Attacks, a Path Forward for Labor?

Michelle Chen“For all dead comrades, not a minute’s silence, but a life of struggle.”

—Olav Magnus Linge, Norway’s Socialist Youth

The labor movement has always derived its power from its ability to mobilize people as a collective whole. But that potential to catalyze social action, and to resonate across lines of color and nationality, is precisely what makes the movement a political target around the world. And that’s why the attack on young progressive activists in Norway was both shocking and yet not unpredictable.

When taking aim at the Utøya summer camp of the Labour Party Youth Movement (AUF), the killer knew exactly what he was destroying: the next generation of young people who would challenge right-wing ideologies. Though it was a relatively mainstream political gathering, the camp symbolized the kind of inclusive society that extremists like Anders Behring Breivik view as a key obstacle to their agenda of engulfing Europe in racist barbarism.

The attack could have been directed at a cultural symbol of “foreignness” in Norway—an immigrant neighborhood or a religious institution, perhaps. But what made the camp a more ideal target was that it encouraged transcendence of cultural allegiances and envisioned a society that could move past ethnic and sectarian conflict. That is, labor was attacked because its strength stems from solidarity rather than divisiveness and exclusion–the political currency the far-right trades on.

The bloodshed in Oslo appears to have injected fresh urgency into campaigns for workers’ rights and social equity. The Norwegian trade union coalition, LO, has posted statements of support from other unions around the globe, including some in places where assaults on economic and human rights are more routine, like Palestine, Syria and Colombia.

In a collection of solidarity messages on the International Transport Workers’ Federation website, Victor Moore of Australia’s Rail Tram and Bus Union said the victims “shared a dream of hope for the future and support for the cause of labour.” Reflecting on labor’s history of youth organizing, he added:

we remember also the many sacrifices and acts of courage by youth across the globe in support of democracy and trade union rights. Trade union solidarity knows no borders and is a powerful force for hope and change.

M. Raghavaiah, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen, said the “barbarian acts” resonated with past attacks in Mumbai, which spurred citizens and workers’ organizations “to come together and put up an act of substance” by aiding in the post-crisis recovery.

Although Breivik, who had been linked to the right-wing Progress Party, saw Labour as a whole as too tolerant of immigrants and Muslims, the AUF was known for more radical leanings than the mainstream Labour Party. According to Britain’s Socialist Worker Party paper, the AUF often publicly criticized the government’s policies on issues like Norway’s refugee community and involvement in the Afghanistan war under NATO.

Representatives of the International Socialists are reportedly planning a mass mobilization in the wake of the attacks that will include Oslo’s LO, with hopes that AUF members will also “continue their political activities in honour of the victims. … We want a demonstration in solidarity with the AUF, but also for a multicultural society, tolerance and unity against racism.”

In the wake of such unimaginable horror, a path forward through direct action is difficult to contemplate, particularly when many unions in highly industrialized countries tend to focus on bread-and-butter workplace issues. Yet some hope the Oslo attacks could reinvigorate militant labor activism.

To socialist commentator Dave Stockton, it isn’t the state of Norway per se that needs protection from the right, but rather, “the values of international solidarity,” which encompass Norwegian Muslim communities as well as peoples struggling against oppression in Palestine and across the Middle East. In the labor movement at home, Stockton pointed to “the need to organise our own stewards, our own security, our own defence against the far right who will aim to use the crisis to rally ever more enraged people to their ranks.”

So far it’s not clear what shape this united front would take, but the discussion does give new valence to strategic mass mobilization. And it sheds light on ongoing threats that fueled the political climate from which Breivik emerged.

The Socialist Worker pointed out that among the many groups and outlets that inspired Breivik’s rhetoric (on both sides of the Atlantic), the ultra-right wing English Defence League had a special place. Weyman Bennett of London-based Unite Against Fascism told the paper, “There’s a network of Nazis across Europe who support and sustain racists like Breivik. What happened in Norway shows we have to redouble our efforts against the racist ideology of Islamophobia.”

Writing from London, author and activist Alan Woods said labor’s most effective tactic against the extreme right would be organizing on the street, rather than alignment with the official law enforcement response. Norway’s government, he argues, has pivoted to the right along with other European leaders, and an act of terror should not drive people to duck obediently behind the state.

The Labour leader, having correctly emphasized that this was an attack against the Labour Movement, then went on to say that the matter should be left in the hands of the police. This is a mistake. The state cannot be relied upon to provide effective defence against the fascists. The state intelligence services have ignored the activities of fascist groups, and a section of the state always has fascist sympathies. …

The Labour Youth, the Youth Wing of the trade unions, and the Youth of the Socialist Left party should immediately link up to form self-defence committees, linked to the trade unions and the shop stewards committees….

The organised working class must learn to depend only on itself. Only the Labour Movement can combat the menace of fascist and right wing groups. But to do so effectively, it must respond to every fascist provocation by mobilizing the full might of the organised working class. The Norwegian Labour Movement is very powerful. It must use its power to teach the fascists a lesson. The Norwegian trade unions should call a 24-hour general strike to protest this attack.

We’re used to seeing strikes and demonstrations in the day-to-day business politics of unions, while grassroots organizing is increasingly distanced from bureaucratic leadership structures. Can labor effectively  militate toward ideals of justice, democracy and equality in the face of terror? Now that so many youth have perished in the name of those principles, labor can turn a time of mourning into a moment for reaffirming its purpose.

This blog originally appeared in These Working Times on July 27, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at She can be reached at michellechen @

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.