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Unions From 61 Countries Meet
Just as the pivotal UPS strike was getting underway, union activists from 61 countries were assembling in Havana, Cuba, intent on breathing new life into the international labor movement.
The International Workers Conference Against Neoliberalism and Globalism, August 6 to 8, brought together some of the most militant unions from every continent to hammer out a "minimum program" to challenge privatization, union-busting, downsizing, unemployment, and the roll-back of any and all social benefits.
More than 1,300 participants constituted one of the largest international labor gatherings since the end of the Cold War, could become the most significant new organization since the beginning of the Cold War when the labor movement was split as unions followed their governments into opposing camps.
Hundreds of representatives from Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, South Africa, India, England, Jamaica, Chile, Canada, Spain, Germany, Guinea Bissau, Bangladesh, Australia, Syria, Panama, and other countries took the floor during the three-day conference with startlingly similar stories about assaults on workers rights and living conditions. Nearly all told of massive strikes, rallies, and demonstrations.
A speaker from Chile told how devastating social cuts have been equated to modernism in his country, "to be modern you have to buy into neo-liberalism."
In neighboring Argentina, an activist said neo-liberal policies were introduced only after 30,000 of the best union activists were murdered or "disappeared" by the military government.
Massive general strikes in a number of countries were reported on by their delegates. An Ecuadorian said their strikes brought the government to its knees but that fundamental change was impossible because the country was being victimized by an international monetary system that defied solution by a single nation.
Delegates from countries whose government developed out of national liberation movements, including Cuba, South Africa, Angola, Vietnam, and China participated. However, with the exception of the South African delegates, including Sam Shilowa, Secretary-General of COSATU, none played a significant part in the discussions.
Other delegates complained about U.S. interference in their national affairs under the guise of the "drug war," the dumping of inferior goods on third world countries, unequal trade relations and outright military intervention. A Haitian delegate said there was massive opposition to the U.S. occupation of his country whose true purpose was to "impose a neo-liberal agenda."
Noticeably absent were any delegates from Eastern Europe. Only two delegates from the former Soviet Union were present. Neither of these representatives from Russias independent unions spoke.
The weakness of the old Cold War labor federations was also apparent. One representative of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU)the organization to which all East bloc unions and many third-world unions belongedspoke briefly. No official representatives of its western counterpart, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) was present. Criticism of both the WFTU and the ICFTU was expressed privately by a number of delegates for the failure of those organizations to lead an aggressive fight against neoliberalism. Pedro Ross Leal, head of the Cuban Trade Unions, expressed his exasperation with the bureaucratism of the two old federations in a discussion with some of the U.S. delegation. Ross said, "personally I would be happy if the WFTU and the ICFTU would vanish so one big international organization could be created where workers have real power to confront the global economic assault by big business."
Also absent were the "New Voices" running the AFL-CIO. Neither John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, Linda Chavez-Thompson, nor any president of a U.S. national union attended. However, more than 90 participantsmostly local leaders and activistscame from U.S. unions. Although they came without official status from their unions, they were accepted on an equal basis by the other delegates.
The acceptance of the U.S. labor activists at the conference was probably aided by the similarity of their storiesincluding a recital of the two-year-old strike against the Detroit newspapers by one of its leadersto those told by delegates from around the world.
In contrast to U.S. labor officialdoms de facto boycott, Canadian unions played a significant role in the conference: The largest Canadian unions all have "humanities" funds which assist third-world countries. The Canadian communications union has given funds and expertise to the building of a housing project in Havana and the Canadian branch of the U.S. Steel Workers union is helping Cuba build a steel mill.
In the end, there was surprisingly little disagreement on a "minimum program," even though participants came from unions with political orientations ranging from moderate through social democratic, socialist, and communist. The final document of the conference condemns the "inhuman social cost exacted by the neo-liberal model," and calls for a universal right to a job, an income capable of covering basic living needs, respect for the collective bargaining process between labor and management, a social charter protecting fundamental rights of men and women workers, a shorter work week with no cut in pay, and substantial increases in health, education, social security, and housing.
Most of the goals sound familiar, if unrealized. However, given the extremes of economic development of the countries whose unions participated in the conference and their wide range of political viewpoints, the document is exceptional. Even more exceptional is the fact that the gathering took place at all and that a commitment was made by activists and leaders of most of the worlds unions to work together to fight neo-liberalism.
Some of the events endorsed by the conference include an international day in support of immigrants in October and a worldwide day of rallies and demonstrations against neo-liberalism next May.
The large, vocal, and confident delegation from Brazils trade union federations will host the next international conference in two years. While it may be too early to call this the Fifth International, the 1,300 participants who kicked off the new movement have already distinguished themselves from previous international anti-capitalist organizations by being democratic, non-bureaucratic, and in building a movement led by labor unions, not political parties.
Jim Smith is a labor activist and writer in Los Angeles.