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The Movement's New Unity

Rob Lambert

Rob Lambert, `The Movement's New Unity', South African Labour Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1999, pp. 86-90. [An introduction to the Conference of the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights, hosted by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Johannesburg, October 25-9, 1999]

The new Century may also herald a new era for the worker movement - a long phase of development where elusive unity is at last grasped to a far greater degree than ever before. Signs of change are now evident.

A small but significant part of this historic shift is the creative international role COSATU has chosen to play. In October this year, the South African movement will host a regional conference that will bring together independent unions from Asia, Australia, Southern Africa and Latin America under the banner of SIGTUR, a proposed new regional trade union formation. 

A planning meeting in March involving the leaderships from these unions and certain International Trade Secretariats (ITS) advanced the idea that the Indian Ocean Initiative should be broadened and its identity changed to include leading independent unions in Latin America. The March meeting recommended that the initiative should be named SIGTUR – The Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights.


A decade ago, Jay Naidoo, who was then General Secretary of COSATU, argued that ‘southern’ unions should unite to develop a new trade union internationalism. As a consequence, COSATU committed itself to an initiative bringing together independent unions from Asia, Australia and Southern Africa. 

Following the founding conference of the Indian Ocean Initiative in May 1991, Zwelitzima Vavi, COSATU’s Assistant General Secretary played an important role in the progression of this international action as did Cosatu’s International Secretary, Bangumzi Sifingo. (See accompanying profile). 

Vavi was a delegate at the 1991 and 1992 conferences where his creative interventions led to a more effective structuring of the work through the establishment of a Regional Coordinating Committee (RCC). Vavi and Sifingo also strengthened and stabilized the work through seeking a common policy position with the ACTU. This was achieved at a bi-lateral meeting in December 1996. COSATU’ 199..? Congress resolved to host the 5th Conference of this initiative.

Deepening International Solidarity

From the very early phase of its formation, the worker movement experienced capitalism as a force unconstrained by national boundaries. 

Mid 19th Century analysis of the change resonates in the final year of the 20th Century, where free trade driven global change rules all nations in princely fashion.

‘The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere… All old-established industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations…’ Free trade, that ‘single, unconscionable freedom’ aimed at accelerating these transformations. Market value reigned supreme. No other nexus bound person to person except ‘naked self –interest’ and ‘egotistical calculation’.

The embryonic worker movement sought to challenge this socially destructive market logic. The initial contacts between English and French workers confronted a common 19th Century practice where lower paid workers from the Continent were imported into England to break strikes. A leader of the London Trades Council proposed ‘regular and systematic communication between the industrious classes of all countries’ as the solution to this practice.

Despite this promising start, political division fatally undermined worker internationalism for the past 150 years. However, the present phase of globalisation, ideologically so similar to mid 19th Century capitalism described above, has, in an ironic sense, created an unparalleled opportunity for forging a vibrant, powerful internationalism the likes of which has not been witnessed before.

There are significant signs that this is no romantic dream. At every level now, past political and ideological differences are being swept aside by one overriding goal – the assertion of worker rights, the rebuilding of a strong movement, the challenging of a socially destructive logic of pure market relations now cutting a swathe through all nations. 

Whereas previously, new initiatives were perceived as a threat to existing structures, they are now viewed as complementary and enhancing of the movement more generally. Every level of the movement is finding new forms of uniting around a common cause, from the ICFTU headquarters in Brussels, to the leaderships of the ITS, to the long established national formations. Each is moving together to build where unionism is weak and under threat. 

Innovative campaigns to assert worker rights are being evolved. Alternatives to Japanese styled workplace restructuring are being formulated. Notions of ‘south’ and ‘north’ are no longer divisive, but seen as expressive of necessary responses to the shifts and contours of global economic change, where ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ unions work together in exposing and resisting the logic of global companies constantly chasing cheaper labour. 

Workplace/community divides are dissolving as unions and community movements form alliances in common campaigns for democracy and participation, for work justice, for the environment and for the empowerment of citizens now marginalised by the corporate power machine.

This deepening sense of unity is the context of the forthcoming SIGTUR conference in South Africa. 

New Global union Agenda

Unions everywhere have been enticed into new roles by the language of globalisation. Restructure, change, become competitive, adopt world’s best practice, build the nation, save jobs. Free trade equals opportunity for all. Grow the global economy and wealth will abound for all.

The experience of workers through this change process has generally, with few exceptions, been devastating. Jobs are continuously being lost before the chainsaw of downsizing, outsourcing, casualising transformation. Basic union rights are challenged in all but a few countries. Material conditions diminish for the majority, whilst a minority revels in unimaginable wealth. Uncertainty and anxiety stalk daily, corroding spirit and soul of the working majority. As Eric Hobsbawn has observed, globalisation has produced, ‘tense, mistrustful, anxiety-haunted societies’. Everywhere the environment is plundered in the name of development, progress, profit. Politicians side with minority corporate interests veiled by proclamation of commitment to the nation’s general interest. 

Recognition has grown that this is a pathway to oblivion. Constructive, positive alternatives have to be constructed. The October meeting is one step down the road of global solidarity. Participating unions are saying, ‘We know what globalisation is doing to us. Let us not dwell on that. Let us talk about what we can do to rebuild our base. Let us move from defensive actions to an offensive strategy, winning back what we have lost’. At the conference this shift will be captured in the strategic review and action plans in the following arenas:

  • Reviewing remarkable solidarity action against the market logic of globalisation:
The conference will begin with a review of the actions of the Korean Council of Trade Unions (KCTU) against the IMF led drive to do away with life-time employment in Korea. KCTU organised mass strikes against the move. Hyundai workers occupied their workplaces, threatening to blow the buildings apart if the military attempted to remove them. The action of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in its fight against de-unionisation and the all India strikes against globalisation will also set the tone of the entire conference. 

These actions show that market individualism may dominate globally, but, in the longer term, they have not necessarily won the day. The ‘history has ended’ proclamation maybe somewhat premature. A culture of solidarity maybe embattled, but it is nevertheless alive, is vibrant and is capable of blocking the marketization of all social relations in some countries, serving as a beacon for others. This positive spirit of resistance will inform all reviews and action planning.

  • Rebuilding the union base
Everywhere unions have been decimated by capital’s chase across the globe. Restructuring has dislocated unions as companies relocate and workforces are downsized. The conference will provide a forum for an exchange of experience on how unions are responding to this challenge. 

How is the retention of full-time employment being fought for? (Korea is an obvious example. Here the conference is important because KCTU is saying that they cannot continue along this path on their own. Inside Korea they are being challenged – ‘Look unions in other countries are not being as inflexible as you are. They are accepting the need for competitive arrangements’). 

How are casualised workers being tracked and reorganised? 

  • Creating global social movement unionism
The radical nature of global restructuring and the high mobility of capital requires a global unionism, but what precisely does this mean? Moves are now in place to forge sector to sector links across specific countries to trial run global unionism. Linkages through personnel exchanges will transmit national experiences thereby creating a readiness to act in the cause of geographically distant workers for these distant workers will now be represented inside the collaborating union, working to raise the awareness levels.

When Australian leaders visited the Durban docks in South Africa to personally thank workers for their boycott actions, there was a high demand for T-shirts and other symbols. These one-off meetings are valuable. Shared experience creates a real sense of international solidarity. The fact that Australian workers traveled across the Indian Ocean to say thank you had an impact. However, these positive acts do not create a global unionism. For this to happen, structural links with a degree of permanence have to be formed. Certain unions are already in process to review the form of this change. This will be considered at the conference.

Unions that are presently leading global campaigns against multi-nationals have found it essential to turn outwards and form community alliances. The multi-national mining giant that is attacking worker rights in Australia in the name of individual freedom is the same company that is cutting into Malagasy’s ancient forests to sand mine. The interests of green groups and unions coalesce. As the MUA discovered, battles cannot be won without the community standing shoulder to shoulder on the picket lines.

The conference will explore the mechanics of these strategic shifts. The outcome will be the first building blocks of a global social movement unionism not as an abstract theoretical idea, but as a concrete organisational shift worked through in all its detail.

  • Global campaigning
No genuine unionist disagrees with the concept of global solidarity. It is in the practical realisation of solidarity that past weakness has lain exposed. This outcomes based conference will seek to avoid that pitfall by focusing on limited objectives. 

A proposal being advanced at present is to take on board the international campaign the Australian mining union has been waging against the mining giant, Rio Tinto. The CFMEU are keen to strategize the next steps in the campaign. To the extent that this campaign can be progressed so too will the tools of global campaigning be sharpened.

  • Creating a unified image of the movements’ vision of society 
In the early phase of its existence, unions won widespread support because they came to articulate a vision of an alternative, more equitable and just society. Unions expanded when this vision was strong and declined when the vision dissipated. 

Important sections of the union movement are now opposed to globalisation in its present liberal economic form. This opposition needs to be highlighted. The imagination of citizens trapped in its seemingly iron logic has to be ignited. The conference will explore ways of achieving this.

A suggestion coming from KCTU is to identify a key focus for May Day and organise for the movement to synchronize May Day rallies across the region.

What is a union – Work organisation or community in movement?

The above outcome statements are what we will be striving for at the conference. However, there are less tangible outcomes. A good conference is a community and movement building experience.

To be effective, unions have to become more than mere organisations in the workplace, enmeshed in complex state legal systems, active only when the next wage round is fought, or when there is some dispute. Defense of work conditions is central of course, but unions can encompass more than this. To the extent that unions become community representing civilised, humane values in a world where community and all values except efficiency have all but vanished so too will they consolidate and expand.

Good conferences are community-building experiences. Over the past ten years, strong enduring relationships between leaders across many nations have been forged. There are memories of vigorous debate into the early hours, the singing and dancing, but above all, the recognition of what these leaders had endured for the worker cause. The Malaysian electronics worker, who was a key leader in a strike against a large US multi-national, wept when she explained the forms of victimisation. The Indonesian artist who went to the aid of a woman worker harassed by the police. He was so badly beaten and his leg broken in so many places that he remains severely impaired. The stories are told. The movement with a sense of value is built.

The RCC is striving to realise these goals. Our degree of success will determine how swiftly unions can move from pure defense to slowly reclaiming what has been lost.

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