It was a former Prime Minister of this country, Harold Wilson, who said that he who rejects change is the architect of decay.
Change is a constant for people, nations and organizations.
We in the union movement have lived with the challenge of adapting to a globalized world for decades. We live in a time where the orthodoxies and expectations we have lived with in the post-war period are now uncertain.
Where the policy-makers and economic experts that have trusted have been exposed as being at the mercy of events not understood or predicted.
Where the global economy is at the most fragile and uncertain it has been since the 1930s, where countries like Greece have been brought to their knees by external financial events, and made worse by ill-considered austerity policies.
We are living in a time where governments are losing power to financial markets and multinational corporations, while still being expected to provide infrastructure and a social safety net for their citizens.
The problems that face us are increasingly global. The solutions, the alternatives must also be global. Capital and business is global, and so the challenge for trade unions is to make sure labour is global as well.
The Role of IndustriALL Global Union
Last week in Copenhagen, three international union bodies came together to form a new global union force. Representing 50 million workers in 140 countries, this merger joins the forming of the International Trade Union Confederation in 2006 as the most significant re-shaping of global labour in the last 50 years.
In forming IndustriALL, trade unions from around the world recognize the increasing integration of global capital. This new union body brings into the one global organization workers across the economy’s most critical supply chains – in mining, in manufacturing, technology and communications.
The similarity of the challenges faced by workers in a globalized world, and the ability we have to communicate makes the creation of a global union necessary if we are to fulfill our role of protecting the rights of workers and building a more just society.
With the creation of this new united global union for industrial workers, we will launch a new era of global worker activism. In the past, international union bodies have served a diplomatic role at the ILO, a solidarity role in the public realm, and a networking role building capacity across unions from north to south, east to west.
However, this new global union is committed to industrial and organizing outcomes – campaigning across supply chains with international companies in pursuit of international agreements.
While organized labour is facing big challenges across the world – challenges we are all too aware of, we are also waking up to the possibilities that globalism offers. Capital is global – but so is information. The world and its people are more and more connected and networked, and we are excited by the opportunities to be part of shining a light on labour practices by companies happy to report on corporate social responsibility in one country, while denying basic rights in another.
To be successful we will need to use the full potential of all of our affiliates, all of our millions of members. Every day, a member of ours somewhere in the world is facing discrimination, oppression, the threat of unemployment or even the threat of violence – for standing up to fight for a living wage, a decent job, decent rights – and the right to organize.
Right now our Spanish affiliates are on the front line of the austerity debate with the Spanish government ignoring agreements with the unions and slashing about 10,000 coal mining jobs – at the behest of the EU austerity gurus.
The rise of the power of capital
Governments do not often admit that their control of their own economy is far less than it was 40 years ago, that power has been lost or given to international finance and corporations.
While the individual citizen has more consumer choice than ever before, their power to shape their own lives has been diluted. The union movement must be at the forefront of these solutions. Despite the challenges that we face, there is no organization with our reach, our membership or our potential power.
Employers are becoming more militant as they see their profits threatened, as they watch the unraveling of dreams to dominate global markets because of a global crisis.
Not one worker, not one member of any of our unions, anywhere, is responsible for this crisis. But our members, workers everywhere, are being asked to pay for the crisis.
We saw evidence of the new employer militancy just this month at the International Labour Organization – the oldest United Nations agency. Since 1926 the ILO conference has regularly discussed the worst cases of labour abuse across the globe.
But this year, for the first time, the employer representatives blocked discussions of labour abuses.
This year the employer representatives at the ILO conference decided - as part of a strategy to roll back the rights of workers, roll back the right to strike – that they didn’t want to allow the UN agency to put the spotlight onto labour abuses, to spotlight worker rights.
Wherever you look we are witnessing attacks on workers:
- Anti-union practices, spreading across the developed and developing world.
- The rise of precarious forms of employment - informal, contract, and outsourced work. The rise of guest workers without the full protection of the law.
- Dramatically increased unemployment – 200 million, the highest level in history.
- Increasing globalization of capital and power in the hands of a few transnational companies.
- Direct attacks on social models of social dialogue – undermining the power of some of the strongest unions in the world.
I say to you this attack on workers is actually an attack on democracy, an attempt to allow the 1% to make all the decisions ignoring the interests of the 99%.
Need for unions
I also say to you that our unions – strong, democratic, independent, self-reliant - are the best guarantors of the rights of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the world who are being sidelined by these attacks on our basic human rights.
It is easy to forget that many unionists do not enjoy the hard-won rights that unionists enjoy in Europe. They do not have the freedom to operate unfettered, or to take a place at the negotiating table.
Many work under threat of violence, imprisonment, torture or death, to fight for democratic and collective rights. At our conference of 1,200 delegates last week in Copenhagen we found that:
- 18 per cent of the delegates have been arrested or jailed for their union work
- 25 per cent have been threatened or their families have been threatened, with physical violence because of their union work
- And 16 per cent have suffered actual physical violence for their union activity.
Our unions consist of extraordinarily brave men and women who work under incredible pressures for causes they believe in. They are a reminder to all of us that freedoms are hard-won.
Grace Nyirenda is the general secretary of the Malawi Textile, Garment, Leather and Security Service Workers’ Union. She has put her life on the line representing her members when workers were repressed and even killed.
For a while she even had to go into hiding and an online campaign, done by our friends at LabourStart, initiated by one of the predecessor organizations of IndustriALL, the IMF, supported the work of Grace and other Malawian trade unionists who have faced serious intimidation and arbitrary arrests.
Today because of the work of Grace and her sisters and brothers who were at the forefront of organizing mass actions it is possible to argue that there is real change going on in that country.
In Iraq, the current government is trying to retain Saddam Hussein’s laws criminalizing independent union organizing, despite massive popular opposition.
IndustriALL’s Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi is the amazing and feisty leader of the Electricity Utility Workers’ Union and one of the leading voices in the Iraqi trade union movement demanding that, anti-democratic Saddam-era workplace laws, be revoked.
Across the Arab world the free and independent trade unions have been at the forefront of the Arab Spring, and the push to replace repressive autocracies with democratic governments.
There is little doubt that it has been the trade union movement at the spearhead of the demand for the end to Arab dictatorships and the introduction of new democratic civil society norms.
Especially our sisters and brothers in Tunisia and Egypt, the so-far most successful examples of the Arab Spring, where trade unions have played, and continue to play a central role as the guarantors of new democratic norms.
This is an under-reported part of the Arab Spring - particularly by western reporters who were more fascinated with the role of twitter and social media - and ignored the other forces at work.
Unions in Egypt and Tunisia provided the people, the solidarity and the courage to challenge the dictators. They were supported by their brothers and sisters in the union movement across the world.
I would be interested to know which companies refused to sell to Egyptian and Tunisian Governments or which banks refused them capital.
Evidence from the survey
The question for union leaders is always how do we adapt the values that we have inherited to the changing complexities of the world?
One of the arguments used by those who are anti-union is to pretend that while we may have done some good in the past, the union movement is no longer relevant. That somehow unregulated selfish capitalism will solve the social problems if government and unions would just get out of the way.
I cannot accept this.
The Global Financial Crisis has shown that the modern economic order is not infallible, not inevitable, and not in the best interests of workers. The values unions share are not radical. Concepts of solidarity, fairness and economic equality are part of the thinking of ordinary people across the world.
The ideas of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, of dignified treatment at work, a safety net for those hit by life’s unpredictable shafts of fate, and of a balance between life and work, are ones that still have strong appeal.
It is the neo-liberal values of unfettered commerce, privatization and deregulation that are out of step with how people think.
The recent financial crisis, and the unrest on the streets of Europe, has exposed the disconnect between the economic orthodoxies of those who attend the Davos forum, and the millions who are forced to earn a living in the modern economy.
A global poll commissioned by the International Trade Union Confederation under the leadership of Sharan Burrow, and released a few weeks ago of 1,000 residents in each of 13 countries shows just how disconnected our global economic leaders are.
The countries polled were Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the USA.
The results show a mood of pessimism, powerlessness and dissatisfaction with the current political and economic system that policy-makers must listen to.
- Two-thirds rate their national economy as bad. And more than half (58 per cent) say that their family’s income has fallen behind the cost of living.
- There are differences across countries, with big majorities in the UK France, Germany, Greece, and the USA believing that future generations would be worse off, while there was more optimism in developing nations like Brazil and Indonesia.
- But across the board there was a distrust and a disconnect from the policies of austerity being pushed by technocrats and economists.
- 78 per cent believe that banks and large companies should pay more to fix the financial crisis. 63 per cent support a financial transactions tax.
- 70 per cent do not believe current laws in their country supported fair wages.
When it came to the broader vision for the future of their nations, 66 per cent supported the idea of investing in jobs creation to allow economies to grow enough to pay off debt, while only 10 per cent supported austerity measures that cut wages and jobs to pay off debt.
The challenge for our global leaders is this - Over the next ten years there will be 450 million young people entering the workforce for the first time.
There is a sense of hopelessness about their prospects, and I wonder if we have truly counted the social cost of the austerity programs, which are sentencing a generation of young Europeans to unemployment.
As traditionally “left” parties across the world have been pulled towards the centre and the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, the role of the union movement becomes more important than ever.
I believe that to remain strong and relevant unions must not just work to deliver better pay and conditions for their members, but to improve society as a whole.
The mining industry as a global employer
One of the key industrial sectors represented by our new global union is mining.
In the midst of the worst global recession ever to hit the world in 2008, the mining industry experienced a commodity boom. This boom, driven largely by the growth of India and China, created unprecedented demand for coal, mineral resources and precious stones. Against the background of the financial crisis, mining companies continued to outperform the overall market, as consumer sector dependent on demand from developed economies struggled to recover. Most mining companies came through the crises with robust balance sheets.
As the global economy faces the ongoing threat of the euro crisis, the mining industry is poised to continue to provide a haven, although not at the rate of the last financial crisis.
In 2010, despite some concerns from mining CEO’s, the financial results for the worlds top ten miners was spectacular:
- Revenues increased 32% - breaking $400 billion for the first time and total assets approaching $1 trillion dollars.
The CEO’s of mining companies however, have some worries on their horizons – the most concerning for them being nation-states starting to demand more for their citizens from their natural resources being dug out of the ground.
They should be worried - There is a huge gap between what mining companies deliver to their shareholders and what they leave behind for communities, countries and workers.
The mining boom has not delivered for workers. Mining is the most unsafe industry in the world, and it is tough work – which has produced some of the world’s strongest and most activist unions. Unions that have been at the forefront of struggles for decent wages and conditions, social justice and democracy.
However, there are too many places in the world where mining companies still operate like the robber barons from a Charles Dickens novel, with political immunity and no commitment to local communities, the national economy, and with no basic labor rights and protections.
Our new global union is launching our first global campaign in the mining industry, and we will be targeting one of the worlds biggest miners – Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto earns $15 billion per year with the bulk of its operations in Iron Ore, Aluminium, Copper, Diamonds and Energy.
Too much of Rio Tinto’s profits are built on a record of environmental damage, exploitative labour practices and human rights abuses.
Like many other mining companies they devote millions to proclaiming what a good corporate citizen they are, while doing their best to drive down environmental and labour standards in every country they operate in.
In recent months, IMF and ICEM, two founding organizations of IndustriALL, have been supporting the struggle of the United Steelworkers at a Rio Tinto facility in Alma in Quebec, Canada.
The lockout of 780 workers at the aluminium smelter in Alma, Quebec has particularly angered the international trade union movement, as workers there are being punished for rejecting management attempts to halve salaries and outsource the workforce.
Affiliates of IndustriALL across the globe are acting to back the USW campaign to push Rio Tinto "Off the Podium" as the metal used for medals at the upcoming London Olympics comes from Rio Tinto's Kennecott Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, USA, and its Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia.
Rio Tinto has been on the union radar for decades. In South Africa they supported apartheid, in Namibia they turned a blind eye to the management of their local workers – who were operating in conditions akin to slavery.
Rio Tinto’s operations in Africa are a story of displaced communities, broken promises, cosy arrangements with local dictators and the oppression of union involvement.
Despite the profits generated by mining, there are no countries, which have lifted themselves out of poverty by allowing private exploitations of their mineral resources.
How will we work to change the way Rio Tinto operates?
In April this year a meeting took place in Sydney, Australia of all the unions from around the world who have members in Rio Tinto operations. At that meeting the unions agreed to establish a grassroots network to work together on campaigning against Rio Tinto.
The Australian union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) would set-up and co-ordinate the network. The United Steelworkers (USW), and the National Union of Miners (NUM) in South Africa are also playing a significant role in this work.
We expect that the unions in this network will be able to gather information and report globally on what is happening on the ground in the company's operations. The unions involved will play a crucial role in both shining the light, but also then in taking different forms of action depending on the issue.
The goal will be to highlight the fact that Rio Tinto is a “repeat offender” and has a pattern of destructive behavior it repeats across the globe. The ICEM and IMF, now IndustriALL Global Union, have been actively supporting the USW's "Off the Podium" campaign in the last few months.
The actions have included protests and letter writing aimed at both the company and the International Olympic Committee and the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games for the use of Rio Tinto metals in the medals made for London Olympics.
The release of the report on Rio Tinto's action in Africa is the first step by IndustriALL to begin the globally co-ordinated campaign.
I oppose what Rio Tinto is doing because I believe that justice is not negotiable. That the wealth of western shareholders must not rest on the exploitation of poorer communities and people.
The safety and health of a worker in the developing world is as important as the heath and safety of a worker in Europe. Unions were formed in Europe at a time when average wealth was low.
Unions did not wait for profits to rise before pushing for safety, for an eight-hour day, for pensions and for minimum wages.
These social advances were achieved alongside economic growth, but they would not have been achieved without mass campaigns, fights with employers and eventually government regulations.
We do not have to choose between wealth and fairness, or between wealth and environmental protection.
IndustriALL will be in the forefront defending and fighting for the voice of the people to be heard everywhere. To make sure this voice is heard, loud and clear, we will be developing a strong new campaigning capacity, using all available tools.
The world is more interconnected that it has ever been. The unfolding of the crisis in Europe is being watched by citizens of countries across the world. We cannot ignore the link between the worker in Apple’s Chinese factories and the western consumer unwrapping their new ipad.
We must fight for a new economic model that puts people and jobs before profits. That makes correcting the imbalances of wealth between the north and the south a key goal, not a by-product of unfettered growth.
We can only be effective in pursuing this goal by launching a new era of global solidarity.
We must demand that democratic civil society must be respected – that the voices of unions must be listened to.
Our role as a global union must be to rebalance the distribution of power in the global economy, away from multinational corporations and towards nations, communities and people.
Global capital is an immense force, but its power must be tempered by the power of people acting together.