|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
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
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
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
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:
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.
Reviewing remarkable solidarity action against the market logic of globalisation:
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.
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.
Rebuilding the union base
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?
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
Creating global social movement unionism
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.
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.
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.
Creating a unified image of the movements’ vision of society
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
What is a union – Work organisation or community in
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.