Over 300 activists, trade union leaders and social organisations gathered in Berlin at the end of May to coordinate action plans and to discuss how to face the capitalist crisis that is threatening workers worldwide. The conference was organised by LabourStart, a global internet network for trade union activists. It took place at the federal headquarters of VER.DI, Germany’s largest union for workers in services.
The theme of the conference can be summarised thus: ‘How to promote global workers solidarity?’ LabourStart has been a leading player in this area in recent years. Some examples of the global campaigns led by LabourStart :
A campaign started as a response to the collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2013, that claimed the lives of 1129 textile workers. Following this disaster, LabourStart was a leading party to a global trade union campaign, demanding that those in the fashion industry, who used the factory for their products, take responsibility.
LabourStart led and took part in a number of further effective campaigns that helped persuade regimes to reverse dismissals of trade union activists and strengthen industrial actions in Turkey, Canada, Australia, Fiji, Korea, Morocco and many more countries.
Given the timing, it was no surprise that the conference’s opening session gave a leading role to Kivanch Eliacik of DISK (Turkey), who spoke about the Soma mining disaster in which 300 coal miners were killed last month. He placed the responsibility on the Turkish government because of its privatisation programme. Another speaker who received a standing ovation was Mustafa Burshid from Morocco, who belongs to the union representing workers of the communication centre of Total, the French multinational. He was one of five workers who had lost their jobs after the establishment of the union and who benefitted from a powerful international support campaign by LabourStart .
The second day’s debate was no less stirring. The stage was taken by Myrtel Witbooi of South Africa, representing the recently established International Domestic Workers Network. In her brief speech Witbooi set out the massive challenges that faced her and others in founding a union for domestic workers and their success in securing the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No.189). Another speaker was Naznah Actar, a leader of the Textile Workers’ Union in Bangladesh, who campaigned for the support of victims of the Rana Plaza accident and prevention of further disasters. Representing the International Union of Food Workers (I.U.F.), Burcu Ayan of Turkey discussed the plight of employees of the giant multinational Pepsi Cola, which refuses to recognise and negotiate with trade unions worldwide.
Another high point of the conference was a surprise appearance of twenty drivers and Berlin branch workers of the international shipping company U.P.S., who were part of the effective 2010 campaign against the sacking of 157 union activists in the company’s Turkish branch.
Global solidarity was emphasised when the conference participants conducted a colourful demonstration in support of the employees of Edeka, Germany’s biggest supermarket chain. The theme was the exploitation of Edeka workers who are employed by subcontractors, as well as the exploitation of Brazilian agricultural workers who pick the oranges for orange juice sold by Edeka. The coordination between Brazilian and German unionists benefits from LabourStart ’s ability to communicate quickly across continents.
The conference included dozens of workshops on various subjects, for example: European youth unemployment; labour disputes in China, Iran and the Arab world; workers’ rights and social struggles in the old Soviet bloc countries; and cooperation among unions involved in the multinational production of automobiles.
WAC-Maan was invited to attend the conference and lead a workshop entitled, “New unionism in Israel – cooperation among Arab and Jewish workers.” The workshop was led by union director Assaf Adiv together with Yoav Tamir, the social media editor. WAC-MAAN has been an active partner in the LabourStart network since its conception over 15 years ago. The workshop aroused interest among the many who attended it. Assaf Adiv’s interjection during the concluding plenary session raised the call to trade unions worldwide to adopt a pluralistic approach and embrace the development of new and dynamic forces; to return to the historical values of a movement that led the way in the struggle for social justice and peace; to take a leading role in demanding an end to the occupation of Palestine; to work towards peace in the Middle East; and to support the call for freedom and democracy for the Syrian people, who are struggling against a murderous and dictatorial regime.
A historical tour in the Kroytzberg quarter – the birthplace of the German workers’ movement.
LabourStart conference delegates took part in a guided tour of historical locations related to workers’ unions in Berlin. Our guide, Wyn Windish, a researcher of the history of social organisations in Germany, led us to the first trade union building, built in 1900, which was a cultural and social centre for hundreds of thousands of workers who lived in Berlin’s working class neighbourhoods. We were presented with figure of Paul Singer, a union leader and Social Democrat of the era. Over a hundred years ago a Jewish man was the revered leader of German workers, who rejected anti-Semitic propaganda by the ruling classes. This fact illustrates an important side of the proud tradition of the Movement, which was a catalyst for the promotion of progressive and democratic ideals. In a landscape of modern day institutionalisation, when many trade unions distance themselves from the underprivileged and exploited sectors of society, we were awarded an opportunity to observe the unique spirit of solidarity, reflected by this Movement a century ago and so sorely lacking today.
Pictures by Stuart Elliot