An international seminar of labour union activists from dozens of countries took place in Britain in early July, at the initiative of GLI –Global Labour Institute. The seminar focused on the need for critical discussion regarding the passivity and weakness of part of the global labour union movement, including the labour union’s obligation to participate in the constructing of an alternative to capitalism. Representative of WAC MAAN, Assaf Adiv, took part and reports below.
It is no common occurrence for someone high up in a huge, established system such as the global labour union movement, to challenge the concepts and habits by which the movement functions. A conference of heads of organizations and their activists, held in early July in England, was exceptional and unique exactly in this respect. The title of the seminar – “The political agenda of the International Trade Union momement” – expresses the great challenge that the organizers, headed by Dave Spooner, director of the Global Labour Institute in Manchester, took upon themselves. One-hundred labor union leaders and activists who attended the seminar discussed the vision of an alternative for the capitalist economic system, which sows inequality, social devastation, unemployment, wars, xenophobia, instability and periodic crises.
The Global Labour Institute that organized this seminar enabled an exchange of views for a group of men and women who normally lead labor unions in their countries and international federations. Most participants come “from the field” and are very well-versed in the reality of their home countries. (Thirty-two countries were represented. Sadly, the Arab world and North Africa were not represented.)
Among the participants, young British unionists were impressive in their commitment and seriousness. Others hailed from various European countries. Leaders and activists from China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Nigeria, Uganda and other Third World countries expressed their nations’ aspiration for a life of dignity and economic security. In addition, there were quite a few experienced activists with prominent roles in national and international unions. However, unlike discussions at the official establishments, this seminar gave a stage and a voice to young elements and to a variety of voices, including some independent unions that have been created in recent years and that have chosen to act outside the established union federations.
If in the past international organizations of unionized labour would automatically side with the official unions without inquiring about the circumstances in which the new ‘outsider’ bodies were created, this seminar gave expression to the new independent syndicates, and showed egalitarian treatment. Such an attitude is a revolutionary change and sows hope. The willingness to enable new bodies a voice equal to that of the larger established unions reflected real – not just formal – willingness to confront the weakness of the left and of the world labour union movement, which have shown passivity, confusion and paralysis in recent years.
For the past three decades labour unions have continued to represent millions of workers worldwide, in spite of the almost uncontested dominance of neo-liberalism, and in spite of the bitter war that western governments—under right wing parties and often also under Social Democratic parties —have been waging against labour unions. In some parts of the union movement there were clear signs of new readiness to fight back and to implement deep and necessary reforms. However the overall picture is still of a union movement that is affiliated, directly or indirectly, with Social Democratic parties that have adopted neo-liberalism and joined in harming the working classes, whether actively or as silent accomplices.
Frogs and Trade unions
One of the speakers on the panel on the role of Global Unions Federations was Dan Galin, who for decades has led the international federation of agriculture and food workers Unions(IUF). 80-year old Galin is now director of the GLI in Geneva. He compared the labor unions in the world to frogs. Legend has it, said Galin, that frogs do not know how to jump out of a pool of water gradually warming up to a boil, and consequently get cooked and die. This is fictitious, he claimed: frogs do know how to jump out in time and save their own lives. Not so labor unions. These tend to adjust to the heat of the water and when their environment becomes lethal, it may be too late to jump out.
This grim picture did not keep the organizers of the seminar (taking place at Northern College, a huge castle in a beautiful rural area north of Sheffield, serving adult education) to assemble a group of people each of whom manages to “change the world” in the field of his/her work. Myrtle Witbooi from South Africa is such a person. Witbooi now heads the International Domestic Workers Federation. She moved the participants in her description of the conditions of millions of workers – mainly female – employed in homes worldwide without documents or rights, and who until not long ago were not even recognized as workers. Myrtle described how she and her comrades began to march together until they received official recognition of their rights and forced the International Labor Organization to adopt Convention 189 for the Rights of Domestic Workers.
Another moving and impressive appearance was that of Dikaios Psikakos of Greece, representing the organization “Solidarity for All”, affiliated to the Siriza Party. Especially these days, as Greece undergoes a general upheaval and an internal debate on its future, in view of the destructive dictates imposed upon it by the European and world monetary establishment, Dikaios’ description of his organization’s social work among the elderly, unemployed, and homeless in Greece was an expression of solidarity and commitment to all walks of life, not just to the workers unionized in its ranks.
Menaha Kandasamy, chairperson of a labor union in Sri Lanka, spoke of her struggle to develop pluralist ideas and democratic debating rules in her own organization. A Chinese activist who preferred not to disclose his name spoke about the role of alternative unions and labour-rights centres in China, which lead a growing movement of strikes and struggles there while the official union turns its back on them.
Several senior persons in international union federations (GUFs) contributed to the discussion from their own experience. Stewart Howard, Deputy Secretary of the International Federation of Transport Workers (ITF) spoke of their success in joint action with various unions of such workers. This cooperation enables them to face momentous multinational corporations. Ron Oswald, secretary of the IUF, depicted how the organization’s campaign succeeded in forcing Coca Cola to recognize the rights of workers in Pakistan, who had been employed by temporary contracts and without any rights.
At the historical and educational part of the seminar, British filmmaker and journalist Greenwald Williams presented a documentary he produced with coal miners who participated in the big British coalminer strike in the 1980s (just this year we noted this strike, which three decades ago ended tragically when Margaret Thatcher crushed their organized force). After the screening, a long discussion took place about the miners and their struggle, about the international solidarity which it aroused, and about the defeat that marked a watershed in the history of the British workers movement.
The invitation to WAC-MAAN in Israel, which I represented, expressed the openness and spirit of change that characterized the conference. The organizers insisted on the that I present a paper. In my talk on the second day of the SeminarI explained our unique experience in building an independent labor union uniting Arab and Jewish workers, one that is committed to the struggle against racism and discrimination, and that stands for peace and Palestinian rights.
After five days of formal and personal meetings, I left the seminar feeling great appreciation for the power that is inherent in the trade union movement. Discussion exposed the strong contradiction that exists between the potential influence that millions of unionized workers actually have, and the weakness and passivity which these unions often show. From the personal acquaintance I gained with seminar participants, I find that these are impressive, capable women and men who are committed to workers and humanity at large.
The seminar did not yield a consolidated plan of action for generating the change that its title called for. It did not pretend to do so at this stage. The seminar aimed to generate thought-provoking discussion, legitimizing new opinions and forces. The discussion did not perhaps change reality in the world, but it definitely promoted innovative and creative thought, contributing to the creation of an infrastructure for cooperation that is likely to yield future fruit.
GLI – Global Labour Institute – encouraging discussion and thinking out of the box
GLI, founded in Geneva in 1997, has since expanded it activity and presently maintains three centers in addition to the Geneva base. These three centers include Praxis Institute in Moscow and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.The forth center at Manchester, England, organizes the annual seminar for trade union activists worldwide.
The GLI aims to promote the efforts of the global workers movement in its struggle with the globalization of the world economy, strengthening the ties among trade unions and civil society organizations in order to cope with the implications of the global economy for society and politics. First and foremost, GLI aspires to promote values of humaneness, democracy and social justice. In all its activity it is guided by the principles of democratic socialism.
The institute’s charter states that global capitalism, acting in line with neo-liberal ideas that have crushed the nations’ commitment to the welfare of their residents and underminedthe achievements of the working class, demands that the world’s workers learn to behave according to the new rules. The trade unions acting within state frameworks must understand that reality has changed unrecognizably. Hence, GLI sees its mission as a catalyst for discussion of an alternative vision of trade unions. The institute has taken upon itself to “tie ends that have so far remained untied,” “uniting those who have not yet succeeded in doing so,” and help “organize those who have not yet organized.”
Translated by Tal Haran