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Global Solidarity: A Trade Union International Agenda

Canadian Labor Congress

The concerns and policies of our trade unions at the international level are a continuation of our concerns and policies here at home. Advocates of the corporate agenda are using globalization and global competitiveness to force cutbacks in wages, working and living conditions upon workers and the disadvantaged in our communities at home and around the world. We must be equally clear in setting forth our own trade union agenda. And acting on it.

Amidst the disastrous effects of global economics and global politics, Canadian workers call for global solidarity. We join with working women and men around the world to demand an end to unconstrained capital and the self-serving absolutist doctrine of so-called free-markets and free trade. We call upon governments and intergovernmental institutions to respond to the challenges of creating rule-based international relationships and civil societies that serve the broader human and environmental interest and embrace the core values of freedom, an opportunity to earn a decent living, participation in governance at all levels, justice, equality and sustainable development.

The world’s economic system is guided by the principles of so-called free-market economics. Governments are paralyzed with debt fixations and inflation-fighting strategies while multinational companies are free to utilize so-called technological advances to oppress anywhere they choose. Promising to salvage some social programs tomorrow in return for economic liberalization today, free-marketeers have delivered stagnation and inequality. In 1996, the world economy is growing at less than half the 1973 rate, long-term unemployment has risen dramatically and, in a vast majority of countries, wages have been virtually frozen at the level of the early 1970’s while basic labour standards have been seriously eroded. Instead of creating economic growth, unregulated markets have generated unprecedented instability while the productive resources of nations have been either left idle or grossly mismanaged.

Some Asian countries have experienced increased development but this has been accompanied by strong public, industrial and economic development policies. Any country today that is engaged in sidelining the role of the state in the economy and following the corporate neo-liberal agenda is headed for national economic disaster. The recent crash of the Mexican peso and loss of one million jobs in 1995 alone provides the world with a glaring example of what can happen when a country adopts a policy of blind adherence to free-market ideology. In other countries the state has been savagely stripped of its ability to meet people’s most basic social demands and has been brought to collapse by neo-liberal ideologues in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Far from bringing universal prosperity in a New World Order, the corporate agenda is leading the world to an unparalleled crisis.

The process of economic globalization is widening the gap between rich and poor in virtually every country of the world. A few in our societies have become obscenely affluent while the vast majority of people become increasingly poor, excluded and marginalized - joining what is quickly becoming a national and international underclass. The growing polarization between haves and have-nots is felt in particular by women who continue to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Economic under-management and political non-responsiveness are posing one of the greatest threats to security within and between nations today. This threat is increased by cuts in international aid to the South from the North at a time when poorer countries are staggering under the effects of structural adjustment policies.

The trade competitiveness model advocated by most governments of the world has been a disaster for developing countries as well as for industrialized countries. It "forgets" that the "competition" is either owned or co-owned by the same multinationals who argue for competitiveness here in Canada while raking in big profits used to buy or set up production or service-based workplaces elsewhere in the world. While regional trade has increased, it has accompanied a lessening in the ability of countries to protect their strategic interests. Gross National Product (GNP) statistics gloss over the fact that under this model, the North is walking away with the resources of the South at an alarming rate. 

Meanwhile manufacturing investment in the South continues to be based upon low-wage and environmentally deregulated schemes that do nothing to raise the living standards of people. Regional trade agreements such as NAFTA fail to adequately address the social dimension of increased trade and investment and adopt the view that high wages and social standards and measures to remedy inequalities are barriers to economic growth. This argument is contradicted by the relatively high wage/social standard model in place in Europe since the end of the second world war and by the countless studies by the United Nations and other bodies which proclaim that decent wages and social programs are not an impediment to growth, but rather enhance it. 

In the wake of globalized trade, fundamental human rights and basic workers’ rights are threatened by the mobility of capital. This is particularly true in export processing zones where the nature and seriousness of attacks on workers’ rights have dramatically increased. Most workers in these zones are women or children whose rights are particularly vulnerable in the free trade model. In Latin America, women are subjected to appalling violations of their most basic human and trade union rights, such as forced testing and dismissal for pregnancy. In Thailand 188 women workers were burned to death in a fire behind locked factory doors. In South Asia and South East Asia children sold into bonded labour make carpets for sale in the global marketplace and children that speak out against the practice are silenced. In El Salvador women in the textile industry are savagely exploited by textile firms selling to the North American and European market. These workers are the collateral damage in an unprecedented corporate war against labour costs on a worldwide basis.

Those monitoring human and trade union rights violations around the world unanimously report a steady increase in incidents of state interference in trade union activities as governments become more willing to deny workers’ rights in the face of increasing competition. This trend is occurring in both industrialized countries (such as Canada which has been brought before the United Nations by the CLC on 30 occasions in the past 10 years for violations of public-sector bargaining rights) and developing countries (such as Nigeria where the Generals gutted the trade union leadership of the country to appease the giant resource companies). This competitiveness leads in reality to an increase in racism, xenophobia and intolerance. 

Meanwhile, the rights of capital continue to expand as governments cynically rush to protect intellectual property rights in countries like China where millions of workers are engaged in prison and forced labour while the world remains silent. The 1995 annual Human and Trade Union Rights Survey of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) paints a tragic picture of workers who have been murdered, tortured, jailed and harassed by State authorities because they tried to organize workers to better their conditions in the New World Order. The survey particularly notes the dramatic increase of attacks on workers’ rights in Asia where the drive for rapid industrialization is highest. Almost every international institution engaged in human rights monitoring around the world now reports a direct link between the increased incidence of attacks on trade unions and trade union leaders and the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies by countries.

Depending on the source, there are anywhere between 150 and 200 million child labourers in the world today and no one can claim ignorance about the horrific conditions under which they toil. The heart of the issue lies less with the question of poverty than the economic system which allows and encourages savage exploitation of defenseless children. Structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and the World Bank have consistently led to privatized educational systems, and force thousands of children from education and into unsafe, low-paying jobs or unto the streets. Canadians can no longer ignore the plight of child and bonded labourers worldwide. We can and should identify with young Canadians speaking out on these issues.

Liberalization of financial markets has served to underscore the "moral anarchy" of a free-market system where the rights of bankers have supremacy over those of everyone else. Massive speculation, more than one trillion dollars daily, has turned the world into a gigantic gambling casino. Established supposedly to facilitate trade between nations, financial markets now dwarf all other aspects of the international economy. Between 1977 and 1992 global trade increased by 150% while the value of foreign exchange transactions rose more than 480%. Such distortions serve to further undermine the ability or likelihood of governments to build socially sustainable communities, and the ability of people to influence the governments they elect.

Canadian foreign policy has taken, in the last two years, a dramatic shift away from the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights. These rights are now superseded by corporate rights as hundreds of business people join political leaders on investment excursions to countries which are among the world’s most flagrant human rights abusers. In two short years, by de-linking trade from human and trade union rights issues, the Canadian government has gone from being one of the world’s leading advocates of sanctions against Apartheid in South Africa to failing to take any action as child and forced labour in Asia and elsewhere reaches unprecedented levels.

A decline in support for the public sector, orchestrated by national governments, has had serious implications on international security. For example, many governments’ financial support for United Nations (UN) activities has dramatically decreased at a time when this institution is vitally needed to respond to an unprecedented level of civil conflict and war, which take the highest toll on women and children, in both the North and the South. United Nations social agencies have come under serious cost-cutting measures, to the point where they are incapable of carrying out their mandates at a time when the social upheavals associated with nearly one billion unemployed or underemployed people threatens the security of the planet and as massive dislocations result in dramatically increased numbers of refugees. Meanwhile, the international arms trade is booming and countries like France and China continue to develop and test weapons of mass destruction at enormous public expense and untold environmental cost.

More than 50 years ago, the Charter of the United Nations affirmed faith in the dignity and worth of the human person. Today, we affirm that working people will not sit in despair as politics flounder and decades of economic and social progress are lost. Our dominant feeling is one of renewed commitment as we witness workers in Europe and elsewhere taking to the streets; as governments are voted out of office because of their failure to deliver jobs; and as multinational corporations such as GAP scramble to adopt "codes of conduct" in the hope of avoiding negative consumer reactions to their greed. 

Canadian workers recognize that the world is confronting its most serious economic, social and environmental crisis ever and that there is an urgent need for vision and leadership. Our purpose is to join our sisters and brothers around the world to both expose the inadequacy of free market solutions to these global challenges and offer alternatives. We need to offer better solutions to the world employment crisis which include creative measures to adjust work hours and training regimes. We need to force government out of the corporate boardrooms and return it to people. It is the responsibility of governments to help manage the international economy and to administer a rules-based trading system that offers a basic floor of dignity to humanity and the planet. We must stop the bankers and bond traders from dictating public policy. We need to discourage investment on the basis of low wages. We need to pressure democratically elected governments to actively intervene in the business cycle on behalf of people and to ensure sustainable economic growth. We need to ensure that international technical assistance, trade and international financial policies are directly linked to the struggle for universal workers’ rights and standards. We need to ensure that Canada’s foreign policy and security policies reflect the values of Canadian working people rather than the narrow interests of the corporate elite. We need to ensure that Canada exercises its moral authority in international affairs at both the bilateral and multilateral level.

In promoting our agenda, we see it as our obligation to work with social movements, political parties and other institutions in civil society to offer a viable alternative model of economic and social policy. At both the national and international level, the crisis has spawned new social action groupings that are key to bringing people together around alternatives. We are therefore determined to promote and build coalitions of trade unions and social movements around the world to advance common interests. 

One of the most devastating effects of free-market policies and the international corporate agenda has been to undermine people’s faith in democratically elected governments. We are, therefore, determined to work with others to take back government. It is, after all, governments, not corporations, that should determine the policies of the IMF, World Bank, World Trading Organization and the United Nations. It is the influence of the corporate sector on government that has helped to bring about the political paralysis that prevents economic growth, rising living standards and job creation. We will, therefore, work with trade unions everywhere as they support or create the progressive political forces necessary for an alternative to the status quo.

In recent years, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), and its associated International Trade Secretariats, have taken on increasing importance as vehicles for the mobilization of workers’ interests on a global scale and Canadian workers reaffirm their commitment to strengthening these bodies. There are also several important national labour centres which, for various reasons, have not joined the ICFTU. In building a trade union international agenda, the CLC will continue the policy of building strong ties with labour organizations regardless of their international trade union affiliation. The CLC will also continue its work with specific international and national labour and social action groupings both in Canada and abroad (such as Socialist International), as appropriate to advance the interests of Canadian workers and workers worldwide.

In pursuing its aims of promoting global solidarity as a response to globalization, the CLC will continue to mobilize Canadian workers and society on trade union international issues and global solidarity through communication, consultation and education. It will develop a campaign, in support of efforts in Canada and internationally, against child and bonded labour. Development education will play an increased role through the use of new and updated materials. The CLC will focus its international solidarity program in the following directions:

The CLC will continue to work closely with national labour organizations and other groups in Latin America and the Caribbean to promote the democratic participation of workers in the economic integration process and to help guarantee respect for fundamental human and trade union rights in the region. The CLC will cooperate closely with workers in Colombia to assist them in stopping the killing of trade union leaders and activists which has reached catastrophic proportions. 

The CLC will continue to actively oppose the embargo against Cuba and the imposition of new and unilateral sanctions such as those covered under the Helms-Burton legislation, which extend their coverage to include Canadian practices under the jurisdiction of a sovereign Canada. In Cuba, the CLC will strengthen its cooperation program with the Cuban Workers’ Centre (CTC) and other organizations that indicate a willingness to work with the CLC, aimed at both fostering understanding between Canadian and Cuban workers and assisting Cuban workers to meet the challenges of preserving the gains of the Cuban revolution while building a social market respectful of economic, social and political rights. 

In Mexico, the CLC will work with both members and non-members of the Congreso de Trabajo to assist workers to ensure that trade is accompanied by genuine development opportunities. In all sub-regions where trade agreements (such as NAFTA, MERCOSUR, etc.) are either in force or underway, the CLC will cooperate with labour and social movements to ensure that the social dimension of trade and investment is included. Such cooperation will include work to develop instruments such as a social charter for the Americas that will effectively pressure governments to promote social as well as economic policies in all regional relationships and to develop alternatives following on the success of the Hemispheric Conference: "Challenging Free Trade in the Americas - Building Common Responses." In Haiti, the CLC will continue to monitor closely in cooperation with the Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL) as part of "la Francophonie," the rebuilding of a viable labour movement.

As the effects of rapid industrialization continue to ravage the lives of workers, particularly women and child workers in Asia, the CLC will continue its efforts to promote strong, democratic trade unionism in the region. The development of Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum (APEC) and Canada’s hosting of the 1997 APEC Leaders meeting provide an opportunity to advance the argument for concrete linkages between trade and labour standards in the region. In Indonesia, the CLC will work closely with the independent trade union centre SBSI, to ensure that basic workers’ rights are respected and with trade unions and solidarity groups around the world to promote an end to the Indonesian occupation and to guarantee the people of East Timor the right to self-determination. In Burma, the CLC will continue its solidarity program with exiled Burmese workers, as well as look for ways to cooperate with the democratic forces inside Burma who want to rid the country of the illegitimate military SLORC regime. The CLC will follow up its solidarity actions with labour and other organizations in the South Pacific designed to bring a permanent end to nuclear testing in the region, whether it be by France or any other country. In China, the CLC will explore ways and means of undertaking a direct dialogue with Chinese workers and to assist them in protecting themselves against exploitation, including from western investment, particularly in the rapid industrializing southern part of the country. The CLC will continue to support the work of the Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin (an organization which monitors human and trade union rights violations in China through an extensive network).

In the Middle East, the CLC will continue its solidarity programs with Palestinian workers, continue its longstanding relationship with the Israeli Histadrut and develop new exchanges with labour organizations in the Arab states of the region. 

The CLC will work with the trade union movement of South Africa to assist it in securing its well-earned freedom from the tyranny of Apartheid. In Nigeria, the CLC will work with the international labour movement to assist Nigerian workers determined to rid the country of its military thugs and to restore democracy. In campaigning for a democratic Nigeria, the CLC will focus attention on the activities of multinationals in the resource sectors of the country, particularly companies like Shell which have helped to prop up the murderous Generals in their bid to deny democratic freedoms to the Nigerian people. In other countries of the region, the CLC will offer solidarity assistance to labour movements seeking to strengthen the trend toward pluralistic democracies and participative decision-making and to demand that economic restructuring include the protection and promotion of a sustainable social order. The CLC is alarmed about increasing attacks on democratically elected leaders and members in many African countries such as Zaire. In Francophone Africa, the CLC will provide this assistance in cooperation with the Quebec Federation of Labour.

The adoption of savage capitalism continues to create enormous challenges for working people in Eastern and Central Europe and the CLC will strengthen its solidarity program with trade union movements in the region. In developing contacts within the region, the CLC will follow a policy of contact with both former official and so-called independent trade unions in the region. In the former Yugoslavia, the CLC will work with other labour organizations to ensure the peace achieved in 1995 includes the arrest and punishment of those involved in war crimes, including the raping of women and girl children in refugee camps, and that the peace process include the rebuilding of social institutions, especially democratic labour movements.

In promoting a trade union international agenda that will help to offer an effective program for regulating international capital, promoting collective prosperity and guaranteeing the primacy of human dignity, the CLC will work to promote the following priorities in global affairs:

    a worldwide effort to bring the goal of full employment to the top of public policy at all levels;
    a floor of social dignity for working people everywhere through: the promotion of a social clause in the WTO and in all regional trade pacts; through the advocacy of enforceable codes of conduct for multinational corporations; and through the active boycotting of products and lobbying of corporations engaged in exploitative investment or employment practices, especially those who utilize forced or child labour;

    the elimination of child and bonded labour worldwide and in the very near future;

    gender and racial equality within all aspects of our work at the national and international level;

    control over financial markets by national and international public authorities through the use of transaction taxes on speculative capital or other measures;

    public-sector investment programs in both the industrialized and developing world that will renew infrastructures and foster social and democratic development;

    aid and international development that is both sustainable and appropriate to the challenges faced by poorer countries and which ensures that trade and international financial assistance is linked to development goals rather than free market ideological objectives;

    international solidarity programs that will help workers and their unions everywhere to play a role in the process of change;

    a new role for the United Nations to ensure consistency between the policy goals of major international organizations involved in managing economic interdependence (WTO, OECD, IMF and World Bank);

    reform of the United Nations to ensure that it is an effective force for disarmament and peacekeeping and an advocate of global security;

    a ban on weapons of mass destruction, including land mines, as legitimate instruments of defence and United Nations monitoring and control of the production and trade in arms; and

    support for the rule of law by strengthening the World Court and the International Court of Justice and by establishing an International Criminal Court.

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