Activity report (2011)

Preamble: The political situation
The outstanding events of 2011 were the rise of unexpected and powerful social movements against the prevailing social order: the Arab revolutions and the Occupy Wall Street movement.The Arab revolutions, popular uprisings against entrenched, corrupt and oppressive dictatorships, started in Tunisia in December 2010, spread to Egypt in January, to Libya in February, to Bahrain in March, to Syria in April and to Yemen in June.

So far, only the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have succeeded in overthrowing their dictators: Tunisia has succeeded in establishing a stable democracy, in Egypt there is a stand-off between the democratic movements and the military, which retains considerable political power, Libya and Yemen are as yet unstable, in Bahrain the democratic movement has not yet prevailed and Syria is bogged down in a civil war with an uncertain outcome.

The effect on the labour movement have so far been limited. In Tunisia, the leading national center, the UGTT, in a breathtaking turnabout, ignored its long-standing support of the Ben Ali dictatorship and joined the democratic movement. Other national centers have appeared (CGTT, UTT) but do not appear to have gained any traction.

In Egypt, two trade union organizations appeared in the course of the democratic uprising. In January, the Federation of Independent Egyptian Trade Unions (FITU) was formed, the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC) was formed in October, with the support of 149 trade unions. At present, the FITU and EDLC together represent more than 300 trade unions, both older unions that have defected from the ETUF and new unions that have formed since the revolution. However, the formerly state-controiled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), although greatly weakened, remains in place.

Our comrade Kamal Abbas, co-ordinator of the Center of Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), a veteran organizer of labour opposition to the Mubarak regime and a leading supporter of the EDLC, is facing a six-months’ jail sentence for having “insulted” an ETUF official at the 2011 International Labour Conference (in fact, he publicly challenged the right of the ETUF official to represent Egyptian workers). The GLI participates in the international campaign to get the Egyptian authorities to drop these charges.

In an inspiring display of international solidarity and awareness, demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the centre of the democratic uprising, expressed their support in February for union workers in Wisconsin, fighting state Republicans to keep their collective bargaing rights, and, in October, for the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States.

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which began on September 17 in New York City, grew into a national and international movement, branching out with hundreds of groups organizing Occupy protests in their own communities. With its slogan “We are the 99%” it succeeded in shifting US politics to the Left, pushing the far-right “Tea Party” off the headlines.
Neither the trade unions nor the traditional Left played a leading role in the OWS movement which was initially organized by mostly young activists without previous political or organizational experience. However, a number of unions eventually joined, first in New York (the Transport Workers’ Union, SEIU locals, Workers United, United Federation of Teachers), then in California (ILWU). AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka declared his support on September 30 and on October 5, and SEIU president Mary Kay Henry was arrested with OWS activists in the October 5 action. In some instances tensions developed between unions and OWS activists over tactics, but also important mutually supportive actions.

With many other civil society organizations joining, OWS became a mass movement in the United States and spread internationally. On October 15, global demonstrations were held in more than 950 cities in 82 countries. Some protests were only a few hundred in number, whereas others numbered in the hundreds of thousands, with the largest in Madrid numbering half a million (over a million in Spain).

In an unusual but welcome statement, ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, on November 17, pledged the support of the ITUC: “We support and defend the right to demand change. It is working people who will bring the world out of the economic crisis, not the bankers. We should not believe that the financial system can remain an invisible power all on its own. We will re-build the economy for the 99%. Unions around the world support and join in these efforts and are inspired by the daily examples of the 99% standing together. We are the 99%”.

It is not clear what action, if any, the ITUC is prepared to take to give its support a practical content.

In Europe, the protest movement targeted the “austerity” policies which both right-wing and social-democratic governments have imposed on the peoples of their countries in response to the financial crisis of the Euro-zone. Not only the protesters but, according to several opinion polls, a majority of the European population, has caught on that the debt crisis is the result of political decisions and that “austerity” is a code word for a wholesale assault on the working class (or, in current jargon, the “middle class”): the dismantling of social protection, wage cuts, pension cuts, undermining labour rights including the right to strike, privatizing and liberalizing public assets, etc. – the whole neo-liberal package.

In 2011 the labour response has been weak. In Greece, the country hardest hit, the trade unions have fought in isolation. The ETUC, in a situation that calls for a European general strike, has been unable to produce more than advice to governments on how to save capitalism from itself and raising demands which everyone knows will be ignored. The ETUC congress (Athens, May 2011) did adopt a proposal of the Spanish confederations (CC.OO. and UGT) to examine the feasibility of co-ordinated strikes or a general strike, but with most affiliates clearly unprepared to take such action. Even the modest proposal of the Swiss Trade Union Federation, to launch a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) entitled: “For a Europe without wage dumping – Priority for basic social rights over economic freedoms” could not be adopted over the objections of some confederations (France, Italy, UK), who said that such an action was not “part of their traditions”.

In the Swiss political tradition, of course, such initiatives are frequently used by the unions and the Left to overturn anti-worker legislation, to raise awareness and to mobilize the union rank-and-file. Under the Lisbon Treaty, an ECI can be launched with a million signatures, and would have the same effect at European level. It would give the EU a mandate for legislation ensuring the precedence of basic social rights over so-called “economic freedoms” throughout the EU, and it would be a first step for co-ordinated union resistance at European level.

The general political situation in 2011 is a paradox: never since the 1930s has capitalism been as discredited as it is today. Its crisis as an economic system and as a model of society is generally acknowledged, even by conservative commentators, reflected in opinion polls and in the financial press. Yet, even now, this crisis finds the labour movement and most of the Left disarmed, unable to mount a serious challenge or to propose a credible alternative.
This is a consequence of the ideological war which has been waged, over the last twenty years or more, by corporate capitalism against labour and the Left in the old industrial heartlands of Europe and North America, together with deindustrialization and the weakening of trade unions. Most of the labour movement, feeling secure in the post-war social compromise, failed to understand what was about to happen. Some still don’t, and are looking for national solutions. Much of the socialist movement has succumbed and capitulated, depriving the labour movement of its historical compass. The working class outside of the old industrial heartlands has not yet taken up the slack: in Latin America, where the trade union movement has largely recovered, in China, where a new labour movement is emerging, and in other countries were the labour movement is active and militant.

Corporate capitalism, discredited as it may be, and as afraid as it may be, but shameless and provocative as always, is in control of the mechanisms of repression and of the media to relay its poisonous message. In the coming struggles, the labour movement will rediscover its politics and its international calling. The GLI will make its modest contribution to this process.

The GLI in 2011
An important development in 2011 has been the work undertaken jointly by the GLI UK and the GLI Geneva to prepare for the International Summer School planned for July 2012 at Northern College, UK. This is meant to be a political summer school for trade unionists and the objective is to create a space for a discussion of the politics of the international labour movement, on how to resist the neo-liberal onslaught and how to fight back. The summer school is supported by Unite the Union and other British unions and is sponsored by three international trade union federations (BWI, ITF and IUF), also with participation from the IMF. Approximately eighty participants from twenty countries are expected.

At the 2011 International Labour Conference the GLI, together with WIEGO and the IUF, actively assisted the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN), in terms of co-ordination and logistics, and helped secure the Domestic Workers’ Convention (C.189). We are now campaigning with the IDWN for its ratification.

The GLI continues to be active in WIEGO: Karin was “on loan” from WIEGO to the IUF as IDWN co-ordinator up to August 2011 and subsequently returned to her position as WIEGO representative in Europe; Dan serves on the Advisory Committee of the WIEGO Organization and Representation Program. The GLI continues to campaign for the ratification of the ILO Home Work Convention (C.177).

Together with Center Praxis (Moscow), Dan has prepared a Russian edition of Wilebaldo Solano’s book “The POUM in the Spanish Revolution”, for which he has written an introduction, and, with Svetlana Boincean, IUF representative in Moldova, a Romanian edition of his brief history of the labour movement. Both publications are expected to become available in 2012.

In 2011, the GLI intervened in 47 urgent actions in defense of trade union rights, mostly on the request of LabourStart but also of the IUF and of the Asian Human Rights Commission.

DG = Dan Gallin; KP = Karin Pape
January 14 (DG) Swiss Workers’ Aid, General Membership Meeting, Zürich
February 18 (DG) Erstes Forum Gewerkschaftsforschung Schweiz – Zur Rolle von Forschung und Lehre für die gewerkschaftliche Arbeit der Schweiz (Forum on Trade Union Studies in Switzerland – Role of Research and Teaching for trade union activity in Switzerland), Fribourg
May 12-13 (DG): “Beyond Precarious Labor: Rethinking Socialist Strategies”, a conference sponsored by the Center for Place, Culture and Politics of the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Socialist Register (co-sponsored by the Committee on Globalization and Social Change), New York
June 1 –17 (DG and KP):100th International Labour Conference (the 2011 ILC was exceptional insofar as it involved the GLI (in particular KP), in coordination with WIEGO and the IUF, in intensive activities in support of the domestic workers, and in particular of the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN), in their successful struggle to secure an ILO convention for domestic workers.
June 10 (DG): Meeting with Kamal Abbas and Rahma Refaat (Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, Egypt) , Geneva
August 2 – 3 (DG): Joint Board session of the 3 GLIs, Geneva

March 3-5 (DG): Workshop: Organizing Informal Workers: Building and Strengthening Membership-Based Organizations,. Bangkok
March 26-27 (DG): International Conference “Legal Regulation of the Work of Self-Employed Home Workers”, Sofia
April 2 (KP–speaker; DG): “New Rights for Domestic Workers”, conference co-sponsored by UNIA, Denknetz (union think-tank) and Swiss Workers’ Aid, Bern.
August 17 (DG, KP), Organization and Representation Program, Conference Call
October 9 (KP): Organization and Representation Program Advisory Committee
October 10-11 (KP): WIEGO Board Meeting
October 12-15 (KP): WIEGO Staff Retreat
Accra, Ghana

Collège du Travail
January 21 (DG); June 8 (DG); October 19 (DG), Committee, Geneva

May 5 (DG), Bern; November 3 (DG) Zürich

Pages de Gauche
January 28 (DG) Editorial Committee; April 20 (DG), Editorial Committee; June 17 (DG), General Assembly; September 30 (DG) Editorial Committee, Lausanne

Olten Committee
January 29 (DG), November 19 (DG)

A shorter version of The Labour Movement by DG appeared in the anthology Global Activism Reader, edited by Luc Reydams, The Continuum International Publishing Group, New York and London, 406 p., 2011 (ISBN 978-1-4411-7955-5)

Karin Pape has resumed her role as WIEGO adviser for Europe in August after leaving her position as co-ordinator of the International Domestic Workers’ Network, which has been taken over by Elizabeth Tang. In her WIEGO role, she remains actively involved with the domestic workers’ and home workers’ movements. She continues working part time in the GLI as an administrative assistant.

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. Mr. Roland Laube (BERO Treuhand AG) was appointed as auditor by the GLI Board at its August meeting.