The Strength of Our Collective Voice: Views of Labor Leaders from Around the World
The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was a groundbreaking effort to give power to the most exploited, voice to the voiceless, and collective cohesion to the most fractured. It was due to its uncompromising dedication to the working class that the IWA caught the attention of workers around the world. The spirit of internationalism, courage to face their most ruthless enemies, piercing insights into the complex issues of the time, and astonishingly creative proposals to overcome them are among the most enduring legacies of the IWA.
In recent years, we have seen a deepening crisis in capitalism brought about by the financial meltdown of 2008, ongoing environmental catastrophe, growing dislocations and flow of migration due to regional and international wars, and increasing economic inequality. In the midst of these undeniable factors, many have turned toward genuine alternatives to the existing political and economic paradigm. It has become increasingly critical now for trade unions to be at the forefront of the social movements that have been erupting globally, especially during the last few years.
Hence the importance we give to the voices of the trade union leaders in this collection. We need the perspective of those who work tirelessly to protect the rights of the labor against neoliberal onslaught in the form of draconian austerity measures unleashed on the poor and the working class.
The following interview with prominent trade union leaders and workers’ movement activists from various countries is done in the spirit of the internationalism of the IWA. Its aim is to emphasize the commonality among national working-class struggles while at the same time highlighting the differences that need to be understood and negotiated.
This interview would have been impossible without the comradely help of Marcello Musto, Ricardo Antunes, Patrick Bond, Gilbert Achcar, Mimmo Moccia, Omar El Shafei, and Hyun Ok Park. I sincerely thank them for their invaluable support throughout the process.
EFITU, Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, is a national organization independent of government, political parties, corporations, and civil society organizations. EFITU is a product of the 2011 Egyptian uprising that toppled Mubarak and triggered an ongoing revolutionary process. EFITU aims at organizing public and private sector workers, retirees, and the unemployed, to ensure their wellbeing by raising standards in the areas of healthcare, education, insurance, and pensions.
Fatma Ramadan is an Egyptian trade unionist, labor researcher and socialist, who has been deeply involved in organizations – including the Coordination Committee for Trade Union Rights and Freedoms – founded during the decade preceding the 2011 uprising. As a founding member of EFITU, she is coordinator of its Committee for Solidarity with Strikes and Sit-ins, which has been playing a militant role at the national level despite the post-2011 shift to the right on the part of the EFITU leadership. She currently heads the Right to Work Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a prominent human rights organization.
FIOM, the Italian federation of metalworkers, established in 1901, is a member of the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL) at the national level, the European Metalworkers Federations (FEM) at the continental level, and the International Federation of Metalworkers Unions (FISM) at the international level. FIOM has gone through a fascinating and inspiring history of resistance, labor militancy, and structural evolution. FIOM openly opposed the war in 1914 and fought to keep Italy neutral. After leading a successful campaign in 1919 to reduce working hours to 8 hours per day and 48 hours per week, it triumphantly confronted the employers’ counterattack in 1920 by leading sit-ins of 400,000 metalworkers and 100,000 workers from other sectors. The defeat of the employers’ organization led to wage increases, 6 days of paid holidays, improved overtime and nighttime working condition, etc. During WW2, union members took part in anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist armed resistance. In 1946, the FIOM was turned into the federation of blue and white collar metalworkers. Having experienced defeat and serious membership decline in the 1950s due to the difficult political climate, FIOM regained its strength beginning with the revolutionary events of 1968. Its victories included reduction in working hours to 40 hours per week without wage cuts and recognition of the right to hold meetings in the factory during working hours. The worldwide emergence of neoliberalism took its toll on FIOM in 1980 when Fiat (the largest Italian manufacturer) announced the dismissal of 14,469 workers and defeated a subsequent 35-day strike. Italy saw a fundamental industrial restructuring in the late 1980s which led to a rapid growth of small and medium-size enterprises with low occupational safety standards, the disappearance of industrial zones around big cities, and ultimately a sharp decline in union membership. Since 1993, FIOM has continued to bargain at both the national and the company level.
Maurizio Landini started working as an apprentice welder in a cooperative at the age of 15. He eventually became Secretary General of FIOM. He was elected to the National Secretariat of the metalworkers' union CGIL in 2005, and participated in negotiations for renewal of the metalworkers' contract in 2009.
KPTU, the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers’ Unions, is an industrial federation of unions organizing in the public, social service, and transport sectors. The KPTU is affiliated to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), a democratic national center in South Korea, and the global union federation of Public Services International (PSI). Currently, KPTU has over 146,000 members including utilities and public institution workers (e.g. in rail, subway, public transportation, social insurance, energy and safety), airline and airport workers, cargo truck, bus, taxi and other transport workers, care workers, cleaning and other property service workers, etc. During the last several years, KPTU and other affiliated unions have been confronting the Korean government’s efforts to undermine collective bargaining agreements guaranteeing union activities, decent working conditions, and the right to strike in the public sector (through its broad and vague definition of essential services). This is accompanied by government attempts to privatize utilities and public transport. In the mid-2000s, KPTU and its affiliates succeeded in staving off the direct sale of public institutions to private capital by organizing several powerful strikes. They are currently fighting for collective bargaining agreements for education support workers and other precarious public sector workers (who now make up roughly 20% of the public sector workforce).
Wol-San Liem has been Director of International Affairs for the KPTU since September 2012. Between 2006 and 2012, she worked for the Research Institute for Alternative Workers' Movements (RIAWM) and the Migrants' Trade Union (MTU) in South Korea. She received her PhD in History from New York University in 2010.
MST, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, was founded in 1984 after a period of isolated struggles at the end of 1970s by rural workers who were driven off their lands by mechanization, extensive use of pesticides, and increasing control by large multinational agribusiness companies. MST claims the right to occupy what it deems to be unproductive rural land in accordance with Article 184 of the Brazilian constitution which requires the government to “expropriate for the purpose of agrarian reform, rural property that is not performing its social function.”
Progressively expanding its scope and influence in Brazilian society, the MST started with land reform through occupation of lands by rural workers, later turning its attention to the urban population through fighting for production of healthy, GMO-free, pesticide-free food for all, and eventually making itself one of the most militant social movements in Brazil by calling for fundamental policy changes and "Agrarian Reform for Social Justice and Popular Sovereignty." Given the inherently transnational nature of large corporations in agriculture, the MST sees its mission extending beyond the national borders of Brazil as it seeks to build international solidarity through the Via Campesina peasant movement.
As one of the most significant social movements in Latin America, the MST now has over 1.5 million members in 23 out of 26 states in Brazil and has organized more than 2,500 land occupations, with about 370,000 families settled on 7.5 million hectares of occupied land. MST has also been outstandingly active in providing education to tens of thousands of landless workers and children.
The interview was conducted in March 2014 with two militant leaders of the MST: Kelli Mafort, a member of the national leadership, and Gilmar Mauro, a member of the National Coordinating Council.
NUMSA, The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, is the largest metal workers’ trade union in South Africa, with more than 338,000 members. It was formed in 1987 by the merger of four different unions, some of which had formed in 1960s and 70s. In its militant struggle to improve working conditions, it has achieved substantial gains, including centralized bargaining to protect workers from low wages, exploitation, and poor benefits. Thanks to its uncompromising commitment to the working class and smart political choices, its membership has grown to about 50% of the workforce in the metal industry. In addition, NUMSA has sought to unite metal workers across race, ethnic, and gender lines. This is particularly important for South African society as it tries to resurrect itself from the social consequences of the apartheid era.
Trade union politics in South Africa is in the midst of important new developments. NUMSA, as the largest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), has begun to withdraw its support for the African National Congress (ANC), and has called for COSATU to break from its tripartite coalition with the ANC and the South African Communist Party – a coalition that has been the main basis for the ANC’s hold on national power. NUMSA has called for a new socialist political direction for South Africa.
NUMSA faces numerous challenges in the future with regard to flexible and short-term contract labor, underpaid labor especially in the motor, retail, metal and engineering sectors, and loss of its quality staff members due to their drift toward the private sector or the government for higher wages.
Irvin Jim, General Secretary of NUMSA, was an anti-apartheid activist in the late 1980s and joined the workforce in a rubber factory in 1990s. He soon became a union activist and later a shop steward (union representative). He became the youngest NUMSA activist in the central committee and, in 2008, was elected General Secretary of NUMSA.
WFTU, the World Federation of Trade Unions, was founded in 1945 in Paris, at the first World Trade Union Congres, representing 67 million workers from 55 countries and 20 international organizations. The basic objectives of this congress were quite similar to those of the UN Charter, which calls for a peaceful world free of social injustice. However, rather than speaking in the name of “we the peoples of the United Nations,” WFTU speaks on behalf of “we the working people of the world.” One of the main clauses in the WFTU constitution is “to combat war and the causes of war and work for a stable and enduring peace.” WFTU saw “the speedy and complete eradication of fascism” as one of its primary tasks. To this end, it supported anti-fascist national liberation movements around the world. It also supported the labor movements and organizations in newly independent countries.
The composition of WFTU has seen significant change during the past six decades, reflecting the great changes in world politics. However, it has always maintained the core idea of emancipation of the working people by fighting against all forms of exploitation and oppression, through education, organization, and mobilization of the working class in national and international networks of solidarity. As an international labor organization, WFTU maintains its independence from governments, political parties, or private employers.
Mahadeva, Deputy General Secretary of WFTU, was born in 1941 in India, in the Kanyakumari district, joined the Air Force and studied technology at the Air Force Flying College in Jodhpour. There, he joined the union and later was transferred to Bangalore where he got deeply involved in trade union movement. He helped a number of unions in private and public sector industries all over the south of India. He later moved to the national level and became Deputy General Secretary of All Indian Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and then to the WFTU where he is now the Deputy General Secretary in charge of the Asia-Pacific Region.
1. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) which was founded in London on September 28, 1864. Despite a rather short lifespan (1864-76) and modest membership, the IWA caught the attention of workers around the world because it represented the common struggles of the proletariat. As a trade union activist, what do you see as the most enduring legacies of the IWA?
Fatma Ramadan: The IWA was the product of a rapid rise in European workers’ movements. The 1860s witnessed rapid strides of trade unionism in Britain and France and the emergence of the first mass workers’ political organization in Germany, the General German Workers’ Association. A new spirit of international solidarity began to emerge within labor movements. The IWA emerged as a political and organizational expression of this spirit of proletarian internationalism. During its life, the IWA took positions on a number of issues such as working hours, working conditions, and the horrors of child labor.
As a trade union activist, it seems to me that the most enduring legacy of the IWA lies in the convergence of workers’ struggles for reform with an internationalist revolutionary perspective. This merger of the struggle for reforms with a vision of international revolution urgently needs to be revived today in our age of crisis-ridden senile capitalism. The internationalism of the IWA is all the more relevant in the age of capitalist globalization.
Wol-San Liem: The preamble to the General Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) states that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” and that “emancipation of labor is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists.” I believe that the most important and enduring legacies of IWA are their strong belief that workers must become a self-determined political force across national boundaries, and trying to put this principle into practice by creating a committed mass base. In addition, the IWA established many fundamental principles that remain with us in the labor movement – shortening of the workday, abolition of child labor, etc.
There are several challenges to the realization of IWA aspirations. First, the discussion of political principles and a vision of an alternative society are becoming increasingly rare in most labor movements. This is definitely true in South Korea, although there is still a larger group of unionists who maintain a commitment to such debates than in a place like the United States.
Secondly, concepts such as ‘class emancipation’ or ‘internationalism’ are often abstract ideals that lack concrete application and practical guidelines. When the IWA existed, the concept of a workers’ internationalism was both an ideal and a practical issue. To maintain and make use of this legacy, we need to develop a practical internationalism that includes concrete goals and means for workers’ organizing collective action on a global scale.
Maurizio Landini: Since 1864, we have had 150 years full of important events that changed the life of humankind. Historic tragedies, wars and dictatorships, popular revolutions, fights for freedom, civil and political rights, workers and women’s emancipation, fundamental human rights such as health, school, working conditions, etc. They were difficult and complex years, but crucial on the path to democracy and working-class participation in the political life in many countries. I think the most important IWA contribution has been to recognize that the fight against injustice and inequality must be waged at a global level. Fraternity, solidarity, and equality are values without borders. So, I think the original idea of IWA was bringing all those national organizations, parties, and unions together to found an international association. Nowadays, national states can no longer confront the power of multinational corporations. Big money has all the economic and political power in its hands. So, the only solution is: think globally, work globally, and fight globally. This is the core lesson of IWA: Workers of the World Unite!
2. We live in the age of austerity; neoliberal policies have waged a war against the working class, the poor, and the most vulnerable, to channel the public wealth into fewer and fewer hands. What do you see as the role of trade unions in reversing this move toward increasing austerity, and cutting down on social security and public spending?
Fatma Ramadan: A widening of the narrow conception of trade unions as reformist entities whose struggle is limited to improvement of wages and working condition is necessary if trade unions are to wage an effective struggle against intensified austerity. By increasing precarity through factory closures, mass layoffs, job cuts in the public sector, and limiting the social safety net and public spending, employers and states have been hugely weakening the capacity of trade unions to organize. In Egypt, for instance, the Unified Labor Law of 2003 aimed at facilitating temporary work, layoffs, and privatization. Workers’ resistance to the law was carried out mostly through informal organizational ventures, as trade unions had been incorporated since the 1950s as an arm of the authoritarian state rather than an organ of workers’ struggle. This informal resistance was part of the rising struggle that eventually led to the revolutionary situation that erupted in Egypt (and much of the Arab World) in 2011.
Trade unions have a double motivation to fight such policies, which are detrimental to both workers’ standards of living and the capacity of trade unions to organize. Effective resistance to austerity, however, requires a wider conception of trade unionism in yet another sense. For both resistance against these policies and also the capacity of trade unions to organize, unions need not only to develop a wider vision for society as a whole (contesting general state policies), but also to link themselves to non-workplace social movements. This is necessary in order to create the mass mobilization needed to reverse the trend and effectively challenge the status quo.
Wol-San Liem: As an officer in an industrial union federation that represents public sector workers, I believe the role of public sector unions in fighting austerity and budget cuts to the public sector is vital. In Korea, we talk about our role in strengthening the public character of vital services like public transport, energy, water, healthcare, education, etc. In the international labor movement, we talk about defending “quality public services.” The concepts are pretty much the same – that is, access to public services and social welfare are democratic rights belonging to all people – and it is our job, as public service providers, to defend these rights against cuts and privatization. This requires that we make it clear that the attack on the public sector, usually accompanied by attacks on public sector unions, is an attack on democracy – both the democratic rights to quality public services and the democratic rights of workers to freedom of association, and collective bargaining and action.
In Korea, we are currently engaged in a heated battle against privatization of the railway, gas and electricity, healthcare, and a range of other public services. We carry on this fight in close partnership with other social forces who are rightly concerned about dwindling access and rising prices. Our strategies involve everything from working with opposition party legislators to putting forth anti-privatization bills, to protest and strike action. These fights have to go on. Of course, however, we will never achieve full public accountability under the current capitalist system. So a long-term vision and strategy is needed.
H.Mahadevan: In the name of 'humanizing' globalization, the employers, financial institutions such as IMF, the World Bank and WTO offer and impose a path of capitalist reconstruction and continue to preach TINA (There Is No Alternative). The world of labor, with the sole perspective of altering the system which has made inequalities between continents, between countries, and within countries to grow to dangerous proportions, should therefore reject these policies and act in favor of a true alternative, for a better world free of exploitation, frustrations and humiliations and proving TAA (There Are Alternatives) including SITA (Socialism Is The Alternative).
Trade unionism should prepare itself to become an efficient counterbalance in the face of the aggressive and costly policies of neoliberalism, which eliminate the historic achievements of the workers, destroying systems of social protection, healthcare, education, retirement, pensions, and the environment. If one of the purposes of the labor movement is to close the gap between rich and poor or to create greater social equality, inevitably the question is whether these could ever be achieved under capitalism or whether the working class should plan methods for challenging capitalist institutions including the fundamentally exploitative character of the wage relation. We, trade unions, therefore, need to define and act on an Agenda that has `the potential to change people’s lives.
Maurizio Landini: Since the emergence of the neoliberal ideology forty years ago, unions around the world have been the target of capitalist attack on workers' living standards and wages. Capital needs to defeat the unions in order to weaken their collective bargaining capacity and to pit workers against one another. This can be seen in the fact that the unionization rate is very low, compared to its peak in 1970s. Big companies have a powerful weapon: in search of better conditions for maximizing profit, they can move their plants elsewhere in the world. Blackmail is commonly practiced and, in order not to lose their jobs, the workers often agree to sacrifice their working conditions to increasingly lower standards. The question is how to break this vicious cycle. I think there is only one way to deal with it: by going back to our roots. This does not mean we should return to the past. Past is past and things will never be the same. Rather, we have to return to our past values. The labor movement had dreamed of breaking down all borders to unite the workers of the world. That has not happened because international labor organizations are still too weak to deal with the new global powers. So my answer is: unite, unite, unite!
3. In the midst of growing unemployment, with 27 million newly unemployed since the 2008 economic crisis, bringing the global number of unemployed to 200 million, how are the trade unions planning to connect to this sector of the population who see themselves outside of the workers’ movement?
MST: The consequences of neoliberalism can be seen in the fragmentation of various categories of workers, the declining number of previously significant industries and emergence of new sectors, the reduction of formal employment, and increased numbers of workers in the service sector, all at the expense of the working conditions and living conditions of an ever increasing portion of the working class. Precarious work coupled with structural unemployment in a jobless society, has been a hallmark of our time.
This situation has significantly impacted the social and the political mechanisms. Apart from the obvious effects of unemployment, trade unions are most affected by the quantitative reduction of the industrial working class and its fragmentation within industry itself. Now, unions represent a small portion of the working class, since most workers are not formally under contracts. With unemployment, informality, bureaucratic blackmailing, and internal organizational problems, the number of trade union members has significantly declined.
The feeling of inferiority imposed by bourgeois ideology on the unemployed is based on the idea that unemployment is related to persons’ inability to work, or to their not being qualified for the available jobs. Thus, workers feel both fear and guilt for being unemployed, thinking that they cannot get jobs because they are "incompetent," too old, too young, inexperienced, illiterate, semi-literate, unskilled, etc. We must then rescue the workers’ self-esteem and direct their indignation at the ruling classes. We must recognize that the world of labor has undergone drastic changes over the last century, challenging us to identify new social subjects who struggle to resist capitalism today.
In the case of MST, the rural unemployed, among others, have always been part of its social base. However, the reconfiguration of the world of labor has caused the urban unemployed to fight for agrarian reform. This introduces an interesting change in the political trajectory of MST regarding the idea of the centrality of work in social relations and the realization that agriculture, like any other work activity, can be learned and done by any human being.
Moreover, the urban unemployed workers called for another commitment by MST, namely, to push the fight beyond the struggle for land. People are joining MST not necessarily because of its demand for land reform, but for its strength and militancy. MST fights for urban reform which hinges on agrarian reform (the MST’s central goal).
Maurizio Landini: The 2008 global financial crisis did not happen by accident. It was the result of many years of financial deregulation, small government, and unfettered globalization. It followed the Washington Consensus ideology: unbounded enrichment of those at the top would produce wellbeing for all others. On the contrary, it has produced the 1% whose income and wealth have increased substantially. The remaining 99% become poorer year after year. What should be done? Obviously, the problem is a political one. We need a fundamental political change. It is not true that 27 million new unemployed – 200 million total unemployed – are the result of natural evolution of the market. They are the direct result of certain political choices. You change the policy and unemployment will fall.
Unions can get in touch and mobilize the unemployed through a global movement. We have already become multi-ethnic national unions, even in countries such as Italy which previously did not have much immigration. Now we need an international union, uniting workers employed in different companies across the world, whose focus also includes the unemployed and their needs. In recent years, we had important social movements, but now we need a more stable on-the-ground organization. ITUC and Global Union at the world level and ETUC at the European level have already engaged in this project, but they need more power. And this has to be delegated by national unions. The latter should give up part of their sovereignty. This is not an easy historical process at all: it requires political will and feelings of solidarity that globalization has tarnished.
Irvin Jim: Given the immense wealth in the world, which is unjustly concentrated in very few hands under capitalism, we have enough to provide for the entire world population. To overthrow this unjust system, there is a need to roll back the neoliberal agenda. This struggle must be waged internationally by the trade unions. Many people have argued that we can give capitalism a human face through structural reform. However, capitalism has no solution for the problems that confront humanity. During economic boom, capitalism makes a profit just as it does during economic crises and downturns by destroying the workers. What it does not compromise is its sole objective, which is maximization of profit. We know that if we allow capitalism, it extends its greedy hands wherever possible.
Regarding the unemployed, we must say, the working class is not just people who work; the unemployed are also part of the working class! Why do you think somebody who is not working cannot be mobilized and organized? The frustration that the unemployed have to endure every day in the search for jobs is a continuation of the exploitation of the working class. Some people stop looking for jobs not because they do not want to work but because they are forced out of the job market. One of the things that NUMSA has been championing is to focus on both shop-floor struggles and community struggles, since it is important to have a dynamic link between the unemployed at the community level and those who work on campaigns and social movements.
Mahadevan: The WFTU, in its Presidential Council meeting on 14-15 February 2014, held in Rome, resolved that the trade unions in all countries will organize strikes, demonstrations, and rallies confronting the crucial problem of unemployment, and demanding rights for the unemployed. Unemployment is an issue that can unite workers all over the world. The mobilizations will demand stable jobs for all, and elimination of the causes that generate unemployment. They will also seek ways to fight for the survival of the unemployed.
Over the past several years, because of the economic and social crisis, the phenomenon of non-unionization has worsened. The negative media campaigns, the repression and murder of trade union leaders, and the questioning of the right to unionize, to strike, and to demonstrate have produced a particularly harmful atmosphere. We should respond effectively and in a united manner to the anti-union offensive. All these issues demand answers from the trade union movement and are valid for any country, continent, and society.
Trade unionism should build a solid alliance with the peasant movement in order to put an end to the plundering and for the recovery of their lands and means of production, necessary for the defense of their culture, responding to their domestic needs and contributing to real reforms. A common struggle of workers and peasants is required in order to achieve democratic agrarian reforms that would place the land in the hands of those who till it. Trade unions, both internationally and nationally, should be the organizational framework for the younger generations, immigrant workers, the unemployed, and those excluded from collective bargaining, in particular the millions of workers in the informal sector.
4. In the context of soaring power of multinational corporations with their significant ability to absorb temporary financial downturns and to relocate cross-nationally in response to labor militancy in one country, how can the labor unions, which typically operate on a national basis, respond effectively?
Fatma Ramadan: Here the internationalist legacy of the IWA is most relevant and invaluable. Trade unions need to consciously develop ties of solidarity across national borders. An important step in this direction for unions is to prioritize the defense of migrant workers, who increasingly constitute a significant portion of the super-exploited and oppressed in much of the world. This, once again, requires a kind of radical democratic trade unionism challenging the racism of the capitalist system. If there is solidarity between workers of different ethnicities and national backgrounds within and across countries, then workers can effectively resist capital’s attempts to curb labor militancy by relocating. There are many examples of partially successful struggles along these lines in recent years. This question is crucially important in the current Arab revolutionary process, as migrant workers constitute a massive oppressed majority of the workforce in the heart of regional capitalism and of reactionary politics in the Gulf region.
Wol-San Liem: In my answer to the first question, I referred to the need for a “practical internationalism.” For me, practical internationalism means organizing campaigns and collective actions of workers who are connected to one another not by national borders, but by the production and supply chains of multinational corporations. Such campaigns would organize workers into a transnational struggle, if not a multi-national union, and hopefully also into an internationalist consciousness. Some efforts that point in this direction are already underway, but we need a much greater commitment from national union leaderships to not only short-term solidarity actions, but also long-term organizing projects which require research, and human and financial resources.
Unfortunately, the majority of union leaderships are not inclined to make such a commitment. They argue that such a strategy will not help increase membership and bargaining power in the near future. Thus, careful consideration has to go into choosing targets and partner-unions in other countries to work with.
Irvin Jim: The first thing to note is that that there is an ongoing struggle between the working class and the capitalist class with their intricate system of multinationals and transnational corporations which are basically on a crusade to maximize their profit by all means necessary. Because of the absence of responsible governments, militant trade unions, and working-class political parties, these corporations are able to control transnational capital mobility. The flow of capital is determined by where profit can be maximized with the least resistance. Therefore, when we say we must promote union collaboration, we do not want to just act as a counterweight against capital; we need to be able to challenge the multinationals and their agenda with militancy and uncompromising persistence. We know that they can terminate any meaningful and progressive competition, and can determine or undermine legitimately elected governments. It is not possible to challenge this global nature of capitalism without creating a global network of solidarity between trade unions in addition to raising the level of consciousness of workers. We must organize workers to appreciate that it is not enough to just have a union in one country if that union is not linked to other unions all over the world. There lies the crucial role of international solidarity.
5. The idea of transnational organization of workers to create a global network of solidarity was first materialized in the IWA. 150 years later, globalization has been one of the most effective tools used by the capitalist class to crush workers’ movements. How feasible and effective have been attempts to build relationships of solidarity between various trade unions across the globe?
Wol-San Liem: The most concerted efforts to build international relationships among unions are the international trade union organizations, which have been operating in many cases for over a hundred years. My union is part of Public Services International (PSI) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). These organizations belong to the non-Communist family of Global Union Federations (GUFs). There is also a family of parallel organizations made up primarily of unions associated with Communist parties.
I believe the GUFs play a very important role in the international labor movement, by providing a structure and resources that unions can use to connect to one another, share information about common issues, and be represented on the international stage. The GUFs also initiate some important projects, for instance in the areas of trade union rights, occupational health and safety, etc. But the GUFs are often bogged down by an emphasis on meetings rather than long-term struggles, and have limited mobilizing capacity.
In the area of bilateral relationships, it is not hard to find examples of meaningful solidarity. Australian and US unions have recently cooperated to organize US truck drivers employed by the Australian transnational transport corporation Toll. International solidarity actions, which put pressure on Philippine Airlines, helped the Philippines Airlines workers win their two-year-long struggle for reinstatement last year. My union federation’s rail affiliate received a great deal of solidarity from rail unions in other countries during its 23-day strike against privatization last year, and is beginning to build longer-term relationships with some of these unions. But, these sorts of efforts are infrequent and usually peripheral to unions’ main goals and daily work. A reorientation towards building international relationships is needed.
MST: The political perspective of agribusiness has directly impacted the social movements for democratization of access to land and the implementation of land reform worldwide. These impacts affect the peasants, landless rural workers, occupiers, indigenous communities, local fishermen, those affected by dams, small farmers, mining communities, and rural waged employees, as well as the proletariat of agribusiness in general.
Capital has adopted disastrous approaches to the environment, labor, and peasant lives. This condition has an international dimension and hence must be confronted in that context. The international link between peasants has been given by Via Campesina, with operations on all continents and a presence in over seventy countries. Via Campesina Brazil brings together social movements such as MST, MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams), MMC (Movement of Rural Women), and MPA (Movement of Small Farmers).
Via Campesina advocates an agricultural and water program that prioritizes food sovereignty to stimulate production of healthy food, diversification of agriculture, and agrarian reform (with broad democratization of land ownership). It also struggles against the privatization of land, forests, water, and all natural resources.
Spearheaded by Via Campesina, actions of International Women's Day have been one of the most inspiring examples of struggle and confrontation with capital. These political actions fundamentally denounce the existing model of capital, the state, and the government. The focus of the struggles has been transnational corporations such as Monsanto, Aracruz, Vale, ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Stora Enzo, Raizen, Cutrale, Syngenta etc.
6. What is the labor movement’s vision for addressing the devastating effects of global climate change, which is predicted to cause massive displacement and food shortages in large parts of the world in the coming decades?
Maurizio Landini: Climate change, along with globalization problems, is the other pillar of the strategic shift for the social and political left. Environmental stress, raw materials over-exploitation, energy issues and carbon emissions, rising temperature, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, increase in extreme weather events: those are all aspects of a problem which can no longer be deferred. It is essential for us to manage the conflict between the defense of today’s conditions and the conquest of a sustainable future.
Facing the problem of how to stop environmental exploitation, we have to ask ourselves: won’t emphasis on the production of vehicles for individual rather than public transportation ultimately lead to high fuel consumption? Should we make more mega-SUVs, or more trains and railways? Moreover, shouldn’t we push for locally produced goods rather than producing where there is the highest return on investment? And, above all, do we have to continue to fuel a demand for individual consumptions, often excessive and unnecessary, at the cost of lower quality?
It is clear that the real solution lies not just in the sum of many individual investment and consumption choices, but in striving for fairer and more balanced economic growth planning. There should also be more social control over economic organization. We need a fairer distribution of income between shareholders and stakeholders: rebalancing this is essential to achieve not only greater social justice but also a more sustainable, healthy, and balanced economic system.
Irvin Jim: For us in the South, it is a considerable challenge because even though we recognize that global warming, caused by fossil fuels, is a problem, we cannot abruptly change our entire economy into a green economy, when in fact we need jobs in South Africa. Green or brown, a job is a job in terms of the wages. Regarding the issue of fossil fuel, we must take the approach of having energy mix to ensure that we have a diversity of production and access. But there is a glaring challenge of access to the technology which is currently made and controlled by the North. So, I think we should always ask, “to what extent” should we swing towards the “green process”? Also, we should consider which nation-states and multinational corporations benefit from the new green technology. So, there are issues of democratization, of power relations between the North and South which, in my view, concern the working class in both North and South. Of course, the current unsustainable situation demands that we make a transition; we now know that we are facing an imminent threat caused fundamentally by the essence of capitalism which is greed. Green jobs and the transition to a green economy should be part of our political discussions.
Fatma Ramadan: Climate change is a huge threat to the survival of the human race. It is a dramatic indication of what is at stake in our current economic, political, cultural and civilizational crisis. Left-leaning social movements and activists have played a great role in raising consciousness about the organic link between capitalist accumulation and climate deterioration. This consciousness is yet to be embodied in mass resistance to climate change.
The labor movement should be at the forefront of such a mass movement. Again, this requires broadening the conception of traditional trade unionism. The nascent trade unions in Egypt have yet to formulate any vision on this question, despite the fact that Egypt is one of the countries particularly threatened by massive devastation if current trends of climate change continue unchallenged. Militant trade unions in the country should raise consciousness about the question. In this, they crucially need to interact with more established and experienced trade unions abroad.
Succeeding in mobilizing around climate change and its effect has a potential for building anti-capitalist global networks of resisting, and hence can revive militant trade unionism in a spirit akin to that of the IWA. It should be a priority for the radical left.
7. Many believe that capitalism is rapidly reaching its limits. The militant global struggle for higher standards of living and wages, and the undeniable effects of global climate change have crippled the ability of capitalism to externalize costs to increase surplus value. How do you see the future of capitalism and what will be the role of trade unions in a potentially revolutionary period?
MST: It is necessary to examine the limits of capital in the context of its structural crisis which unleashes a voracious need for expansion and domination of new regions. In Brazil, the multinational corporations have marched ahead overwhelmingly, destroying any obstacle including institutional, legal, and political resistance from the people who live in those areas, such as the indigenous peoples, peasants, and traditional fishermen. This significantly impacts the MST’s struggle for land and consequently requires the movement to rethink its agrarian program. This process of reflection and debate was synthesized in the People's Agrarian Reform Program which was the focus of the MST’s Sixth Congress, held in February 2014.
To move toward the defeat of capitalism, we need to link specific social demands with a broader revolutionary political project. Hence, it is essential to have the organizational tools to help the working class ensure its leadership.
It is important to reflect on the limitations of the classic organizational forms. During the state welfare era in the core countries, the working class was organized through two main instruments – trade unions and political parties – which fought for rights that were granted by the state in the form of public policy, labor legislation, and social security.
Little by little, the achievements of the class, which were the result of numerous struggles, were assimilated or taken away by the capitalist system. Currently, these achievements are being systematically removed. The popular movements in various parts of the world are evidence of this. The organizational instruments strengthened during the welfare state era are no longer appropriate to face this change in the objectives of the struggle. In the words of Istvan Meszaros, they are defensive instruments unable to organize the resumption of offensive struggle. This imposes the need for the class to forge political and organizational tools needed to pursue their revolutionary project, whether through building new instruments or redefining existing ones.
Fatma Ramadan: Capitalism today is a genuinely morbid system. It is threatening the very survival of the human race. Our world is one of crisis, exploitation, and oppression. It is also a world of resistance, struggle and revolution. The experience of the Arab revolutionary process over the last three years, however, shows that revolutionary triumph is far from inevitable.
In revolutionary times such as ours, trade unions are crucial. They can only realize their potential if they develop a vision for a radical alternative to the current social order. The defeats suffered by popular movements over the last decades and the current extreme weakness of the left put strong limitations on the possibilities of radicalization. Gramsci’s words are as relevant as ever: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We live in exciting yet difficult times in which the responsibility of the global left, despite its current weakness, is huge. If the left wants to take such responsibility, it needs to forge organic links to militant trade unionism, putting forward a genuinely democratic and emancipatory vision for a world free of exploitation and oppression. In this, the lessons of the great struggles of the last decade, with their potential and limitations, will prove crucial.
8. What is the biggest challenge for the labor movement in the next decade?
Fatma Ramadan: I would say that the biggest challenge for labor movement is to focus on a much wider social movement of the oppressed. This does not mean, as we are commonly told, abandoning a class perspective. To the contrary, a deepening of class politics is required. This entails that the organized labor movement has to adapt to what Bolivian militant trade unionists during their heroic battles of the last decade have called “the new world of work,” a world in which workers are increasingly fragmented and casualized. The legacy of recent struggles, especially in Latin America, shows that such fragmentation is not an insurmountable obstacle to organization and militant struggle. A dynamic social movement, unionism from below, blending the social and the political, the workplace and the neighborhood, in a spirit of radical, participatory, pluralistic democracy is a must if people are to believe that another world is possible.
Maurizio Landini: Truthfully, I don't know if capitalism is rapidly reaching its limits. Certainly it is becoming more difficult to outsource costs and to increase surplus value. The inherent instability of finance capitalism and the huge shadow financial system pose quite unusual challenges. The underlying problem is that the government, essentially working on a national basis, is no longer able to control and guide the behavior of giant corporations. These are pervasive and greedy creatures. Is this a potentially revolutionary period? I honestly don't know. Modern history, however, shows that when situations became untenable and social anger bursts, it often triggers dangerous – anti-democratic and authoritarian – adventures. Therefore, I think the next ten years' biggest challenge for the unions is to solve the problem of inequality.
Whole generations in the western world are at risk of being worse off than their parents. What should be done? I think the unions must focus specifically on their members and must not allow the elite political parties to affect their priorities. I do not believe in self-sufficiency of unions but I firmly believe in their autonomy and independence. The union represents workers – employed and unemployed – and it has to remain closely linked to them. The union has to focus on working-class problems, without shyness or hesitation. It has to become more radical, in opposition to the radical nature of dominant neoliberal ideology. I embrace this task, and I will work for a union which has the strength and determination to build the future, through full restoration of its bargaining authority and its representativeness. The future is on our shoulders and is our responsibility.
Wol-San Liem: From a practical perspective, the labor movement needs to recognize that we have increasingly lost our political and social power vis-à-vis capital and right-wing political forces over the last several decades.
First, union membership is dropping across the globe. Low density means weakened bargaining power, and less political and social influence. If we do not figure out how to organize unorganized workers – many of them precarious, migrant and/or women – we will not have a labor movement to speak of in the next ten or twenty years. Organizing new demographics of workers who are employed in strategically important sectors of the global economy is one of our most urgent tasks.
Second, we have not developed effective strategies for challenging transnational corporations, which can easily shift production sites to or find suppliers in other countries, while we remain organized on a primarily single-country, single-company/workplace basis. The development of strategies for communicating, bargaining, and acting collectively on cross-sectoral, industrial, regional, and global levels is essential to changing the power imbalance.
Finally, we need to (re)start thinking about, discussing, debating, and developing workers – the working class – as a political force. I personally do not think this necessarily means the creation of workers’ political parties (although it probably will in some contexts). For me, the development of workers’ political power means that unions and/or workers’ organizations are making conscious efforts towards leading social and political change, beginning to contemplate what an alternative society and political economy would look like, and, in the long-run, building a movement to achieve that vision. In the end, unless we can move in this direction our efforts to build power through organizing or strengthening international solidarity can only be partially successful.
Mahadevan: The challenge for class-based and democratic trade unionism is to build bridges among the different class-based unions that fight against the capitalist system and to overcome historic divisions and misunderstandings among unions that have a common vision, with the aim of giving the most coordinated responses possible. It is necessary to create a stable coordination among the trade unions that have a radical critique of the capitalist order and the current neoliberal model.
Trade unions should work towards financial independence and autonomy from administrations and public institutions. Trade unions must be financed fundamentally by their members, so that they can put forward their own demands and not be controlled by the blackmail of public institutions.
The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), in the Asia-Pacific Trade Union Conference held in Port Dickson (Malaysia) during October 2013, decided to campaign for a Common Charter of Demands including: full employment for all, aiming towards eradication of poverty, with need-based salary and wages and with full security including statutory pension for all; to stop sub-contracting, outsourcing, and off-loading; to stop environmental degradation in the name of development and to protect natural resources for the benefit of humanity; to protect sovereign rights of nations as against imperialistic hegemony and market-driven policies under WTO, World Bank, and IMF dictates; to ensure women’s empowerment through progressive policies and to extend maternity benefits to all working women; to provide equal wage for equal work without gender bias; to ensure working rights and social security for all migrant workers, as per the UN charter; to abolish ‘bonded labor’ and guarantee alternate employment; and to ensure protection of migrant workers by governments.
Irvin Jim: I think neoliberalism has given rise to a form of capitalism that has become globally dominant. In our fight against this hegemonic form of global capitalism, we must pressure different nation-states with the notion that manufacturing matters. We must fight for job creation. What is the point of telling young people to go to school and learn when, after graduation, they cannot work in their specialization and have to work in precarious jobs? We must build a society that produces, that defends the existing manufacturing capabilities, and that marches toward industrialization not for the purpose of capital accumulation and greed, as is the case in capitalism, but to achieve equal distribution and meet human needs, as is the core socialist aspiration.
MST: The current situation is very different from what revolutionaries faced at the beginning and middle of the last century. The neoliberal phase of capitalism poses great challenges for revolutionaries today, mainly related to complex changes in the technical conditions of production, international schemes of domination, changes in information flows and circulation systems, social differentiation within the proletariat itself, massive numbers of ghettos in the suburbs, etc. Therefore, among many other challenges, we emphasize the understanding and stimulation of new types of action and new mechanisms of mass participation that are being incubated either in the simple struggle for survival, or in the course of building political movements.
Creating the new form of power, namely People’s Power, means creating new social and political relations. They cannot be extracted from the current state of affairs; rather they must emerge from an on-the-ground process. If Marx is right to say that we are as we do, what we do today must be a revolutionary action. If we want freedom, our actions have to be libertarian.
A significant part of the left worldwide presupposes that the state, under the control of a party, will be the main agent, the “engineer,” of change toward social justice. As a result, the prevailing view is that these changes will be made in a top-down fashion. According to this logic, the role of labor movements and the mass of voters is to put the “engineers " in the right place for using the instruments of the state, making the people mere passive receivers of social benefits or the source of electoral support rather than the active source of power.
When popular participation is reduced to mere electoral support, what the leftist administrations can achieve is often negligible and it sometimes results in setbacks when the left loses elections to the right-wing parties. Although we do not oppose taking part in elections in principle, the view that one can obtain structural change through the election of an individual, without a solid popular support, is a mistake.
We cannot stress enough that every organizational structure is, or should be, an instrument in the service of change whose protagonists cannot be replaced in this process, that is, the organization has to be in the service of the strategic project.
Our central challenge will be to relocate the socialist struggle as a human need and not just as a utopia or as a mystical cultural value. The radical essence of our struggle will reflect the depth of our human need, but the society we want to build must reflect the unlimited scope of our dreams.