Activity report (2008)

The Political Context
The year 2008 has been a turning point because of the crisis of the global capitalist system, the deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Its seriousness cannot be overstated.This crisis, like the crisis of the 1930s before it, has many dimensions, in fact several interrelated crises are coming to a head: that of the financial system, spreading to the entire economy; critical stresses on the environment; the food crisis; the energy crisis; a social crisis caused by growing inequalities and poverty; and, inevitably, a cultural, ideological and political crisis.

Some countries are more or differently affected by it than others, but none can escape its impact. Its future course and its ultimate consequences are unpredictable. Nothing is preordained or inevitable: its outcome will depend on how global society is going to respond to it and that is, so far, the unknown factor.

In this short review, we cannot go into the different aspects of the crisis. Instead, we want to focus on its immediate consequences for the world’s working class and for the labour movement.

  • As the ILO noted, what began as a crisis in finance markets has rapidly become a global jobs crisis: “global unemployment in 2009 could increase over 2007 by a range of 18 million to 30 million workers, and more than 50 million if the situation continues to deteriorate”, as is likely. The ILO’s Global Employment Trends report also forecasts that:
  • The number of working poor – people who are unable to earn enough to lift themselves and their families above the US$2 per person, per day, poverty line, may rise up to 1.4 billion, or 45 per cent of all the world’s employed.
    In 2009, the proportion of people in vulnerable employment – either contributing family workers or own-account workers who are less likely to benefit from safety nets that guard against loss of incomes during economic hardship – could rise considerably in the worst case scenario to reach a level of 53 per cent of the employed population.

The consequences of these developments for the trade union movement are not hard to guess: they will add enormous pressures on the global labour market and lead to the further erosion of trade union membership – all other factors remaining equal.

Unsurprisingly, the ILO warns in another report, the Global Wage Report 2008/9, that slow or negative economic growth, combined with rising food and energy prices, will erode the real wages of many workers, particularly the low-wage and poorer households.

Based on latest IMF growth figures, the ILO forecasts that the global growth in real wages will at best reach 1.1 per cent in 2009, compared to 1.7 per cent in 2008, but wages are expected to decline in a large number of countries, including major economies. Overall, wage growth in industrialized countries is expected to fall, from 0.8 per cent in 2008 to -0.5 per cent in 2009. This follows a decade where wages have already lagged behind economic growth: in almost three-quarters of countries worldwide the labour share in GDP has declined between 1995 to 2007.

The social response to this onslaught on workers’ lives has so far been remarkably muted. The massive job losses, the growing inequality (which, as the ILO warns, “represents a danger to the social fabric as well as economic efficiency when it becomes excessive”), the dismantling of social protection, even the deep anger in public opinion over the plundering of productive assets by top managements, have only marginally led to large-scale strikes or demonstrations (Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania). So far.

But the ruling elite is worried. We have seen the amazing spectacle of the collapse of the neo-liberal fundamentalism which dominated public discourse since the 1980s (the “Washington Consensus”), of the governments of the leading economies injecting billions of public money (which we were told all this time were not available for public services and social protection) into bankrupt banks and industries as well as into public spending.

However: the collapse of neo-liberalism should not be confused with the collapse of the capitalist system. Walden Bello, a senior analyst of Focus on the Global South and one of the most perceptive socialist economists, suggest several possible outcomes of the crisis:

“Will government ownership, intervention, and control be exercised simply to stabilize capitalism, after which control will be given back to the corporate elites? Are we going to see a second round of Keynesian capitalism, where the state and corporate elites along with labor work out a partnership based on industrial policy, growth, and high wages – though with a green dimension this time around? Or will we witness the beginnings of fundamental shifts in the ownership and control of the economy in a more popular direction? There are limits to reform in the system of global capitalism, but at no other time in the last half century have those limits seemed more fluid.”

He suggests that a possible survival strategy of the system will be a set of policies he calls “Global Social Democracy”: to bring about a reformed social order and a reinvigorated ideological consensus for global capitalism. (for the key points of these policies, see his full article: “The Coming Capitalist Consensus”, on the GLI website, under “Capitalism”).

In essence, most of these policies are those that were the policies of social-democracy before it embraced and interiorized neo-liberalism in its long ideological descent from Bad Godesberg to “New Labour”, to the “Third Way”, etc. As Kevin Rudd, Labour Prime Minister of Australia, recently wrote: “Not for the first time in history, the international challenge for social-democrats is to save capitalism from itself” – at the same time signing on, at some length, to doing just that (“The second challenge to social-democrats is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” – the baby being the “market” and the bathwater neo-liberalism). [“The Global Financial Crisis”, by Kevin Rudd, in: The Monthly (Melbourne), February 2009 (]

The international challenge to social-democrats should of course be to bury capitalism rather than saving it from itself. The irony and the tragedy is that at the very moment where it historical goals (“fundamental shifts in the ownership and control of the economy in a more popular direction”) are once again within reach, international social-democracy has morphed into an ideologically neutered social-technocracy, bereft of imagination and courage.

A sub-plot of this tragedy is the inability of this social-technocracy since the 1990s to offer anything but the “free market” to the societies emerging from the wreckage of bureaucratic collectivism in the Soviet block, thus leading to the rise of bandit capitalism and, after the fall of the fascist dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain, to the most corrupt, reactionary and anti-labour regimes in post-war European history.

Another defining event of 2008 has been the election of a liberal African-American as president of the United States, for all the “multipolarity” in the world still the leading world power and major economy. He has been propelled to the presidency by a powerful people’s movement with a left-liberal subtext but no clearly stated objectives, with a clear mandate for “change” but with a large margin for maneuver when it comes to interpreting this mandate. He is likely to emerge as the leader of the “Global Social Democracy” project. As Bello writes: “Obama has a talent for rhetorically bridging different political discourses. He is also a “blank slate” when it comes to economics. Like FDR, he is not bound to the formulas of the ancien regime. He is a pragmatist whose key criterion is success at social management. As such, he is uniquely positioned to lead this ambitious reformist enterprise.”

But is this really what we want? “The historical function of Global Social Democracy is to iron out the contradictions of contemporary global capitalism and to relegitimize it after the crisis and chaos left by neoliberalism.… Like the old post-war Keynesian regime, Global Social Democracy is about social management. In contrast, the progressive perspective is about social liberation.”

“Global Social Democracy” may look like the best option for a demoralized and directionless movement that has been beaten into submission by decades of accommodation and repression, but it is only a short-term option. As long as present global power relations remain in place, transnational capital will buy into “Global Social Democracy” only as long as it needs to regroup politically, and when it leads us into its next crisis it will be better prepared to repress any challenges to its hegemony. It will have learned from experience. There will be no neo-liberal fairy tales, but a ruthless use of the State with all its military might. To prevent this scenario, we must seize the moment and strike at the heart of its power.

The challenge before the labour movement is to recover the self-confidence, imagination and the courage which once made it a powerful force for social change, to raise its level of ambition, to engage in the fight for patterns of social organization “that unabashedly aim for equality and participatory democratic control of both the national economy and the global economy as prerequisites for collective and individual liberation.” And for justice, and for freedom.

The labour movement we have today is not one prepared to rise to this challenge. To do that, a process of union renewal, to which many aspire but which has not yet found its expression, must develop and run its course.
The impulse for trade union renewal will not come from its leadership, least of all at international level. It will not come from the authoritarian gurus of top-down organizing strategies (coupled with an extreme version of social partnership ideology) nor will it come from those who have no ideology other than the UN Millennium Goals and the ILO’s Decent Work agenda and who are politically already part of the UN system. Nor will it come from those who have virtually merged with the EU social-technocracy and who have become subservient to it to the point of being unable to actively challenge even the most brazen attacks on union rights by European institutions pledged to defend the “rights of capital” to the exclusion of all others. .

When it comes, it will be from a groundswell of militancy and, to make a lasting difference, this will have to link not only the global “South” (despite harboring most of the world’s population, still an organizational and political side-show) but Europe and North America as well. Political developments (the passage of pro-labour legislation in the US, a Left turn in Europe) may help but basically everything rests on the capacity of such democratic and militant forces that exist to form lasting alliances on the basis of a progressive program.

Where are these democratic and militant forces? Increasingly powerful and coordinated social movements keep meeting and developing programs of action. They concretely and specifically state policies most of which should also be part of a program for the international labour movement. Their diversity and their inability (as yet) to translate their mass into a focused and unified movement should not lead us to underestimate their real power and potential. (The contrast in 2009 of the dispirited Davos event and the vibrant and optimistic World Social Forum in Belém could not have been more telling). In that context, a labour movement that has recovered its political independence, that has opted out of social-technocratic projects and that remembers the original purpose of the exercise could be a leading force for the change that we need.

March 14-15 (DG): Rotschuo Retreat
May 27 –June 13 (KP): participation as DGB delegate in ILC, Geneva
June 4 (DG, KP): International Co-ordinating Committee on Organizing Workers in the Informal Economy, ILO, Geneva
June 4 (KP): Interim Management Committee, IUF Domestic Workers’ Project, Geneva.
June 17-18 (DG): Laboratoire Relations Sociales Danone, Paris

February 14 (KP): Meeting with Walter Riester (former German Labour Minister) and Bianca Kühl (DGB) in ratification of C. 177, Berlin
February 27-29 (KP): Meeting with GPA, ÖGB, Frauensolidarität on precarious and informal work, ratification of C.177, Vienna
March 3-5 (KP): invitation by IFWEA to give a presentation on the global informal economy for British trade unionists, Eastbourne
April 3-4 (KP): Conference on Poverty and Human Rights, Justitia & Pax: presentation on ILO standards for informal workers, Berlin
April 7-8 (DG): HomeNet South Asia and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung India: Regional Workshop on Homebased Workers in Asia: Building a Regional Presence, Bombay, April 7-8, 2008
April 15 (KP): University of Jena: presentation on organizing informal workers, Jena
April 24 (DG, KP): Meeting with Zoltan Doka, director of international programs, Swiss Workers’ Aid, Zurich (discussion on co-operation in Eastern Europe)
June 6 (DG): Advisory Committee, Organization and Representation Program, Carouge, Geneva
June 6 (DG): Management Committee, Carouge, Geneva
June 7 – 8 (DG, KP): Steering Committee, Cartigny, Geneva
June 19-20 (KP): participation in DGB conference on precarious employment in Europe, Berlin
June 24 (DG): Dinner with Ela Bhatt
September 8-9 (KP): Workshop on precarious employment in Europe (EU-ZAUBER) project: presentation on informal economy in Europe, Berlin
September 9 (KP): meeting in German Ministry of Labour with DGB representatives to discuss obstacles to ratification of C. 177, Berlin
September 28-30 (KP): international meeting of domestic workers’ organizations (setting up steering committee), Geneva
October 21-23 (KP): participation in Ethical Trading Initiative conference, London
November 1-6 (KP): WIEGO staff meeting, Boston
November 13-15 (KP): EU-ZAUBER congress: presentation on informal economy, Osnabrück
November 19-20 (KP): WIEGO/FES workshop on organizing informal workers in Eastern Europe, Warsaw
Swiss Working Group on Precarious Employment (“Denknetz”) (KP):
January 17, April 10, August 26, December 16 (Bern)
Bremen Local Pilot Project on Organizing Domestic Workers (KP):
May 5, June 30, September 19. November 26 (Bremen)

Socialist Party Switzerland
March 7 (DG): Memorial Meeting Robert Grimm, Bern
May 17 (DG): Oltener Kreis/Cercle d’Olten, General Assembly, Bern
Foreign Policy Committee (DG): September 15, December 1 (Bern)

Collège du Travail (DG): Board meeting: October 15; Editorial committee: November 12 and 26 (Geneva)

Pages de Gauche (DG): Editorial Board: August 29, October 24, December 12 (Lausanne)

25th Anniversary Meeting and book launch, April 30, Geneva (DG, KP)
Board meeting (DG): May 28 (Bern), November 5 (Zürich)

DG: Die Gegenmacht der internationalen Gewerkschaftsbewegung im Zeitalter der Globalisierung, in: Dieses kostbare Gut der Solidarität – 25 Jahre Solifonds, Stefan Howald (Hrsg.), edition 8, Zürich, 208 p., 2008
DG: Le contre-pouvoir du syndicalisme international à l’ère de la mondialisation, dans: La solidarité, une valeur sûre – Les 25 ans du Solifonds,
présenté par Stefan Howald, edition 8, Zurich, 204 p., 2008
DG: International Framework Agreements – A Reassessment, in: Cross-Border Social Dialogue and Agreements: An emerging global industrial relations network?, Konstantinos Papadakis (ed.), ILO and International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva, 2008

Activities, Developments
DG continued as a member of the WIEGO Steering and Management Committees as well as of the Advisory Committee of the WIEGO Organization and Representation Program (ORP) and KP continues as WIEGO regional consultant for Europe, while the GLI remains an institutional associate member of WIEGO. KP is also assisting with developing an international network of domestic workers’ organizations, in co-operation with the IUF and the WIEGO ORP.

Work on securing additional ratifications for the Home Work Convention (C.177) has continued, principally in co-operation with HomeNet South Asia (mainly targetting Nepal) and with the DGB and Justitia et Pax in Germany.
As of July, the GLI had a new web site in all five languages (English, French, German, Spanish and the Scandinavian languages). The web site has been reorganized with the help of Eric Lee and is now more user friendly. A considerable amount of material has been added in all languages, although the English pages remain by far the most developed. Work on the web site is continuing on a regular basis.

The Collège du Travail is preparing an anthology of representative writings by DG (in French). The book is to appear in 2009.

Work on a brochure on the history of the labour movement (in French) for the Socialist Party of the Canton of Vaud, based on a series of four lectures in 2007, had to be interrupted in 2008 because of other unavoidable commitments. It will be a priority in 2009.

DG resigned as an editorial board member of International Union Rights (ICTUR) on August 25. The editors had invited Osiris Oviedo, from the International Department of the Cuban Workers’ Confederation (CTC), also Deputy General Secretary of the WFTU and Permanent Representative of the WFTU in Geneva, to contribute to a special issue of IUR on trade union rights and human rights. DG objected on the grounds that the States where the main affiliates of the WFTU were located, in particular the Cuban regime, were among the principal violators of trade union and human rights and that it was not appropriate to give it a platform in IUR. A majority of the editorial board decided to maintain the invitation and consequently DG resigned.

Karin Pape has continued working part time as an administrative assistant and as a researcher and writer on informal economy issues (see above).
As in the past, Oscar and Nora Payuyo have been responsible for cleaning and maintenance.

Ms. Mariane Grobet-Wellner has kept the GLI accounts in the period under review.

The financial report for 2008 is attached as an annex.

Download accounts:
Income & expenditure; Balance sheet