Global Labour Summit – Dan Gallin (1997)

Specialarbejderforbund i Danmark SID. Copenhagen, May 31 – June 1, 1997

Address by Dan Gallin, Chair, Global Labour Institute
Brothers and Sisters,
Comrades and Friends,
I have been asked to introduce a debate on what could be a trade union and political strategy for the labour movement for the future – certainly not for the century but, let us say, for the next five or ten years.
In my understanding of the term, a discussion on strategy is not a discussion of our goals, but about the way of getting there, in other words, about the means rather than the end.
But it helps if we have clear objectives, and we should restate forcefully that our goals are the historical goals of the labour movement: to bring about a democratic, free and egalitarian world society where the overriding social goals are to secure well-being for all.
These are the historical goals of socialism, and when we reaffirm these goals we have to be absolutely clear that we mean a society based on justice, freedom and equality, not a society where a bureaucratic ruling class holds a monopoly of power, has collectively appropriated the means of production and enforces its rule by maintaining a police state. That system, which collapsed so ignominiously in what used to be the Soviet bloc some seven or eight years ago, is the opposite of the socialism we mean.
The reason I mention this is because it has relevance in the political context in which we form alliances with other actors in civil society and co-operate with each other.
We need to always keep in mind the economic role of repression. The global labour market is not a market at all: it is not governed by economic laws but by political laws. At the bottom end of the scale, near-slave labour conditions prevail and they are held in place by terror and violence: there the role of the state has certainly not declined.
No people ever chose to be poor. If people are poor , it is because they have been forced into poverty and kept there by repression. The poorer countries which are the significant actors in the global economy, which attract the bulk of transnational corporate investment and which are ruled by elites which have formed close partnerships with transnational capital are either severely repressed societies (China, Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia) or societies that have been victims of severe repression in their recent past (Russia, Eastern and Central Europe, Brazil, Central America) and where the sequels of this repression still determine the conditions of the labour market.
This is why the struggle for democracy and human rights has to be such a clear priority for the labour movement and its allies.
Democracy is not an academic issue or a matter of cultural preference. For the labour movement the fight for human and democratic rights, without any double standards whatsoever, is not only a moral obligation but a fundamental class issue, because only when these rights are guaranteed can workers organize to defend themselves and to advance their social and political agenda.
Because in the global economy countries have been underbidding each other, in particular on labour standards, the internal dynamic that has developed in the global labour market is that of a relentless downward spiral of deteriorating wages and conditions. Our job is to put a floor under that downward spiral by organizing, then raise it through bargaining.
But when we are dealing with dictatorships, such as those which control a very substantial portion of the global labour market, organizing is not only an industrial but a political issue, which in many cases requires alliances with internal opposition groups and human rights organizations.
In this context, the struggle for human and democratic rights is the clearest expression of the common international labour interest, that is, the converging interest of these who work in conditions of virtual slavery and struggle to break out of it, and those who are threatened with sinking into slavery and who struggle not to sink deeper.
To successfully organize, we also have to develop a clearer political focus in other ways.
There is a fallacy which used to be quite widespread some years ago that there could be such a thing as a non-political or a-political trade union movement, and that this was even desirable. In fact, as the document “A New Global Age” correctly states, trade unions are in themselves also political organizations: everything we do is political and nothing we can achieve is secure and of lasting value unless we succeed in changing society so that the well-being of ordinary people becomes its principal priority.
Trade union organizations, also and perhaps particularly at international level, are pluralist organizations. But for all the variety of our views and traditions, we have one single common interest to defend, which is the one the historical labour movement has always defended: the common class interest of workers. This interest has not changed, although the working class has changed and is still changing. In all its forms and in all its diversity, however, it comprises, more than ever, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population and its interest therefore coincides with that of civil society in general.
Our traditional political relays can no longer be taken for granted. This is a time when the broad-based parties of the Left are moving to the Center while the Center is moving to the Right. None of the mainstream parties of the Left any longer declare any intention to work for a fundamental social change.
Because of the economic constraints imposed on national governments by globalization, because of their inability to control transnational corporations and finance capital, most parties of the Left who are – or hope to be – in government are backing away from a commitment to labour interests and labour demands.
I think it is safe to say that, regardless of their politics, hardly any trade union organization in the world today derives much satisfaction from its association with the party it traditionally regarded as an ally – in this respect, Denmark may be an exception. Yet, trade union action needs a political dimension, both at national and at international level and this political action can only take as its point of departure the interests of our members. That is where we must make a stand because our members have no other place to go.
This means that we must forcefully reassert both the legitimacy and the necessity of the politics which are naturally ours. We are not an “interest group” among others but a movement which represents the general interest of society against the economic and political power structures of a capitalist system that is leading the world, yet again, into a new crisis. That system has no future except its own implosion but it has the capacity of inflicting enormous social damage while it runs its course. As against that system we must reaffirm our sense of historical mission. We have been in the past, we are today and we will be in the future the liberation movement of humanity.
The world-wide broad coalition of social solidarity that needs to give this politics a practical expression and momentum still needs to be built. Our task is to rebuild confidence in our politics: undo the confusion and the ideological damage done by Stalinism, denounce the cynical exploitation of that disaster by the neo-conservatives, puncture the balloon that “there is no alternative” to the present system and organize, not only workers at the point of production but workers in society, in their different social roles as citizens and consumers.
The trade union movement, which is unique in that it is the only universal and democratic force in world society, based on millions of people democratically organized to defend their interests, has the responsibility of organizing civil society at global level around a political agenda, in a broad industrial and political alliance with single-issue and public interest groups whose objectives converge or coincide with our own: movements for democratic and human rights, women’s movements, consumers’ movements, movements for the protection of the environment, informal sector organizations and others, not forgetting our own, the flanking organizations of the labour movement itself, such as the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations or SOLIDAR.
The theme song of the conservatives has been: “there is no alternative”. Of course there is an alternative. Globalization, as such, is inevitable because it is neither possible nor desirable to put a stop to the development of new technologies. What is not inevitable, is the neo-liberal model of globalization.
Taking the trade union struggle and the political struggle of the labour movement to the global level where it belongs, it is possible to counterpose a democratic socialist (in the broad, general sense of the term) model of globalization to the neo-liberal model. Briefly put, it would involve building a new international system of regulating TNC operations on a world-wide basis.
Our problem is that we are not in an academic contest with neo-liberal conservatives on who has the superior values or the better ideas about organizing society. We have always had the superior values and the better ideas. Our problem is that we are in a contest of power where the value of ideas is ultimately judged by the capacity to enforce them. We are in a war, and this is a war where the interests of the powerful are defended, whenever they are seriously threatened, with the utmost brutality and by any means required.
For this reason, a discussion of the strategy of the labour movement has to focus on the problem of power. I would like to leave aside for now the discussion of a blueprint for a new alternative world order and address instead the question of what we ourselves must do, as a movement, to put ourselves in a position to prevail in a global power contest with new rules: not those which applied within the framework of the nation-state where the labour movement traditionally exercised its influence.
We are all agreed that we must organize, but it is as well to remember what we must organize for: we must organize for struggle. Workers do not need to organize to submit, and they do not need organizations to submit. Workers organize for one purpose only: to resist, and to struggle.
Credibility in this context means developing a capacity to seriously inconveniencing employers and governments if they do not listen to what we are trying to tell them. In other words: we must not be afraid of conflict, we must be prepared for conflict and we must give ourselves the means of prevailing in conflict, particularly at international level.
This requires complex and profound changes in our movement: in its structures and in how its different levels relate to each other, in its working methods and in its approach.
We know that our structures are incredibly wasteful: we do not need twenty-odd unions in Denmark or Switzerland, we do not need two national centers in Belgium and in Spain, and much less five in France, we do not need eighty unions or so in Britain and in the United States, and we do not need a situation in Australia where unions spend millions of dollars litigating against each other with a government poised to abolish virtually all union rights, to take only a few examples and not necessarily the worst. And we do not need fifteen ITSs.
Rafael Santos pointed out the problem yesterday: how can we hope to prevail against transnational capital if we cannot overcome our present state of fragmentation?
It is not for nothing that employers and conservative governments are trying to break down the trade union movement into the smallest possible unit – the enterprise – in many cases by law. We must do the opposite, wherever we can.
We are also the victims of habit and for all the internationalism we all claim to subscribe to we find it difficult to conceive, for example, to merge unions across national borders. A leader of a Belgian union I know was not taken seriously when he proposed the merger of his union with a Dutch union; but he is merely in advance of his time. We cannot accept it as a given that national borders which become increasingly meaningless should forever dictate the limits of union organization.
But mergers in themselves will not solve the problem. What we need in addition is a significant delegation of resources from the national to the international level and, at the same time, the democratization of international trade union policy and action.
Most international trade union organizations today are in fact loose networks of linkages and bridges between national organizations that are accustomed to thinking and acting in national terms.
Even the ITSs who are forced to act and react globally because most of them deal with TNCs on a daily basis are made up of national organizations who for the most part do not think strategically in global terms.
An increasing number of these unions recognize that in future far more trade union issues will be resolved at international level than national unions will be able to solve by themselves. The logical consequence is that the international trade union organizations of the future will need to be far stronger at the center than the ITSs are today, and that implies that national affiliates will have to transfer more resources and authority to the center.
In practice, the opposite reaction has been far more frequent: under the impact of the crisis, national unions tend to withdraw into their national shell. This is a natural reaction but a wrong reaction, in the same way as putting on the brakes when driving on sheet ice is a natural reaction but a wrong reaction. The leadership of all national organizations must force themselves, despite all pressures to the contrary, to think and react logically, not instinctively – just as we are taught in driving school. The SiD is, of course, an outstanding example to the contrary, but it is unfortunately an exception.
For the first time in history, communications and transport technologies – the same technologies which are the driving force behind globalization – have created the material conditions for building a truly international trade union movement worthy of that name. Yet, previous speakers, in particular David Cockcroft yesterday, described how dramatically underfunded and overstretched even the most effective international trade union organizations, the ITSs, are today.
Almost all ITSs have today reached the limits of their capacity and, again, mergers alone will not solve the problem. Unless a way is found to significantly increase their resources, they will be unable to take advantage of the present opportunities and we will be unable to build the labour movement we need, with a capacity for militant, sustained, in depth action at international level.
In order to serve its purpose, delegation of authority and centralization in turn requires the democratization of the movement, to avoid creating dysfunctional bureaucratic mammoth structures that would be just as helpless before the conservative onslaught as the smaller organizations were before.
This means securing the active involvement of the membership in the formulation of international trade union policy and in international trade union action, and in order to secure such an involvement a massive information and education job is needed.
In most industrialized countries the rank-and-file, and even the middle-level leadership, hardly knows that international trade union organizations even exist, much less what they do, what they do not do, and why. This knowledge, and an awareness of the issues, is confined to a thin layer of top leaders and their expert staff and as long as it remains confined to that level it will be impossible to mobilize existing resources to build an international trade union movement in the true sense of the term.
There is a paradox about international trade union education inasmuch as, in past decades, such education was intensively developed in Africa, Asia and Latin America because government funds were available to support it, whereas, and herein lies the paradox, it is in fact in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America, and in Japan, that workers most needed to be educated about the potentialities of the international trade union movement and their role within it.
This education, however, was left to the leadership of national trade union organizations who themselves in many cases do not understand the issues: as we all know, budgets for education and for international activities are often the first to be cut when unions are trying to save money.
This is how it comes about that works councils or union delegates in certain companies, as they come across the work of the ITSs, for example through TNC co-ordination, are shocked by the discovery that an international trade union movement exists, with its own policies, requirements and expected discipline, all of which was decided by their own union in concert with others, and that they are actually expected to observe these policies, requirements and discipline. No one told them.
Unions are still much too weak in many European Works Councils, including in countries where unions are strong and should have done better. A systematic effort to unionize and to internationalize the European Works Councils might be an important element in the democratization of international trade union action, at least in Europe.
Our objective has to be to put in place a new system of global industrial relations. The principal long-term significance of the European Works councils, for example, is that they represent the beginnings of a new system of industrial relations which are supranational or transnational, and which foreshadow what labour/management relations could become in an age of globalization.
As such, they should serve as a pattern for similar institutions in other parts of the world. It should be our objective to turn European Works Councils, wherever possible, into world councils or to federate them with other existing regional councils into world councils. What is achievable in the foreseeable future is global coalition bargaining resulting in framework agreements on issues like the respect of basic trade union rights – such agreements already exist, as Ron Oswald reminded us yesterday.
One way of building a global labour movement is globalizing demands and struggles, and that is impossible to do without the active involvement of the membership, just as any substantial delegation of authority and resources to the international level is impossible without the understanding and the support of the membership.
There are certain simple and clear trade union demands that lend themselves to globalization: for example, the recognition of trade union rights and, for example the establishment of trade union-administered occupational safety and health committees everywhere; or equal wages and conditions for men and women, could be such demands.
The proposal to set up a Global Labour Information Network, as an additional information and communication resource, could be an invaluable help both for organizing at international level and for democratizing international trade union policy and action.
But let us turn to another important aspect of organizing: assistance to trade union development. This is a very serious matter. If it is true that we are in a war and that therefore the need to get our act together and to concentrate such resources as we have on successfully prosecuting this war, then the extensive trade union development activities carried out by donor unions in what used to be the second and third worlds need to be thoroughly reviewed, in the sense that humanitarian and charitable considerations, bilateral grandstanding, as well as all forms of sentimentalism – including political sentimentalism – can no longer be accepted as factors that determine the choice and implementation of trade union assistance projects.
Everything we do, also in this field, must be subordinated to the strategic goal of building and strengthening the international movement. Let me explain what I mean:
(1) Our priority should be to save ourselves so we can still be around to save the world: in other words, the labour movement must concentrate on labour projects. Only labour will help labour. Natural catastrophes and general development assistance are outside our mandate. There are NGOs and government agencies for that purpose. We are not the Red Cross, nor humanitarian NGOs, and we should not interpret our mandate as having to indiscriminately alleviate human tragedy. Our task is to improve the lot of humanity by changing power relations in society. We must therefore seek out the strategic points of leverage to change these power relations. Our priority in labour development assistance must be to build trade union strength.
We should give priority to projects which can strengthen effective international links and union co-operation for the purpose of common action. Many such projects can be built around TNC operations. All unions, regardless how “self-reliant” they may be in terms of their capacity to run their own organizations, now need to be part of international networks of mutual reliance such as those constituted by ITSs and therefore projects should be evaluated in terms of how they can put unions into some form of mutually reliant international network – for mutual support, mutual protection, future campaigning and pro-active work.
(3) A crucial element in labour development assistance must be to transmit and strengthen a culture of solidarity. Solidarity, in contrast with charity, is not a top-down and one-way relationship, but reciprocal and involves responsibilities and obligations on both sides, as well as rights. Trade union development assistance has too often been influenced by the politics of guilt. Donor guilt and the awareness and manipulation of this guilt by the recipient organization has been an unfortunate feature of many projects. It has no place in trade union relationships because it destroys solidarity and does not build organization but undermines it.
(4) The focus for labour development assistance should be the points of leverage which matter in terms of power realities, and should not be determined by fashion or by sentimentalism. This requires a careful analysis of developments in the global economy and in world society, as a means of determining strategic priorities. To their misfortune, certain countries have become fashionable destinations of assistance and their labour movements have become victims of a “donor surge”, including countries that could have no conceivable impact on the global economy and on global power relations. Predictably, and to make matters worse, their labour movements are weaker and more divided now than they were before the “donor surge”. Other countries, much larger and more strategically placed in the global economy, have been ignored.
(5) The scale of contribution must remain appropriate to the existing or realistic financial capability of the receiving organizations, in other words to its capacity of absorbing external funding without damage. Well-intentioned but excessive financial aid has, in many cases, done more to destroy unions than hostile employers’ action or state repression. Financial support should not ever be in excess of the annual dues income of an organization and normally should be substantially below this amount: as an approximate rule, we can say about 40 percent of the annual dues income.
In short: concentrate on building unions rather than provide humanitarian relief; use projects to strengthen international links and build international labour organizations; build solidarity as a reciprocal relationship of mutual support; chose strategic priorities in terms of what makes a difference in global power relationships; and do not kill unions with overdoses of money they cannot absorb.
Brothers and Sisters, Comrades:
In conclusion, I would like to cordially congratulate and thank the SiD for this conference.
The bourgeoisie has its World Economic Forum in Davos, we have our Global Labour Summit in Copenhagen. Let us hope that the example you have given and the standards you have set will be followed by others.
It is the task of all of us who are here to take the torch you have lit and to pass it on wherever we are.
Justice and Freedom!
I thank you.