The following is a report by two delegates to the Second Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Vancouver, Canada, on June 21-25, 2010. It is reprinted from the International Liaison Committee newsletter, #21, October 28, 2010Â in preparation of the Open World Conference that will be held in Algeria on November 27-29.
We were present — as delegates from the Unified Workers Central of Brazil (CUT) and the National Union of Independent Trade Unions of Togo (the UNSIT) — at the Second Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the first since its foundation in November 2006 in Vienna, Austria.
Let us remind you that this body was formed on November 1, 2006, as the product of a merger between the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), of Christian origin. The ITUC represents 166 million members in 309 organisations from 156 countries. During its founding congress, the ITUC adopted statutes in line with the framework of "democratic governance of globalisation".
With nearly 1,400 participants (including nearly 1,000 delegates), the Second Congress opened with a special guest. To our great astonishment, George Papandreou, the prime minister of Greece, addressed the congress by video from Brussels.
Introduced by the chairperson of the congress as "an old friend of labour", Papandreou explained that he was compelled to apply the policy that he was applying because "the right had led Greece to bankruptcy". Papandreou’s policies caused the sharp reaction of Greek workers, expressed in several demonstrations and general strikes, as these policies attacked basic social rights and gains.
Amidst the applause coming from one part of the audience (while another part waited, dumbfounded and in vain, for a reaction from the Greek union leaders of the GSEE), Papandreou reasserted his "respect for the trade unions" and stated that he would work to reduce these rights "as little as possible."
In the general discussions that followed (one or two speakers for each union confederation, with five minutes each), Michael Sommer of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), who will assume the presidency of the ITUC for the coming four years, said that "Papandreou is not only the Prime Minister of Greece, but is also president of the Socialist International" and that "the SI parties in power are applying plans against the rights of workers and against employment, without challenging high finance and speculation." That is why the ITUC is going to have to play, he said, "the political role that the IS — only a shadow of its former self — is no longer playing."
Apart from the thanks addressed to Guy Ryder, who is leaving his position as Secretary General (he will be replaced by Sharron Burrow from Australia, who will then be passing on the presidency to Sommer), most of the speeches defended "the democratic governance of globalisation", the agenda of "decent work" and "green jobs" and especially the need for trade unions to put pressure on the IMF, the WTO and the G20, in favour of taxing financial transactions (of the Tobin Tax type), whilst others demanded taxes to supply the funds for assistance to the victims of the crisis (the unemployed, the countries of the South, etc.)>
Few dared to do what a Tunisian delegate did — and this is to speak of "global capitalism". Instead everyone hammered home the message that the enemy is "market fundamentalism" (a total abstraction). Stress was placed on the G20 being a "hope".
Sommer, who we already quoted, even held forth that the ITUC should be "the voice of those who are not directly represented by the G20" (but the results of the meeting in Toronto several days later would be a disappointment for the ITUC – see below).
In his speech, Brother Gbikpi-Benissan addressed the congress and asserted:
"We in Africa, as on other continents where the populations are being decimated by poverty, have been in crisis over long decades now. From the beginning of the 1990s, we have warned that the face of Africa, smashed to pieces by the consequences of the SAPs (Structural Adjustment Plans) and the so-called ethnic wars, will soon become the face of the world, if nothing is done to stop the ravages of neo-liberal globalisation. That is where we are today and ‘budgetary adjustment’ is not very far from ‘structural adjustment’.
"Among the six strategic priorities identified in the report and the main resolution of the Congress, the last two (a new model for development; the governance of globalisation) appear — correctly — to be the most difficult to achieve because they mean a frontal collision with the very structures of capitalism.
"We are obviously pleased to hear speeches on the Welfare State, on the ‘consistency of policies’, speeches denouncing deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation, ‘market fundamentalism’, employment insecurity, informal economy, etc. But the African trade union leader that I am cannot help but have serious doubts. And to tell the truth, I am not the only one. Can it be otherwise when we see Finance Capital, for example, having been saved by public money, return to its congenital perversions? …
"For us, if the trade unions want to continue defending the real interests of labour, isn’t it primordial tofight, step by step, to preserve the independence of our organisations? In this regard, we are more than somewhat preoccupied with the attempts at co-opting them, along with the ILO also, into what is called the ‘new governance’?
"The ILO agreements must be ratified and respected. We continue to demand the pure and simple cancelling of the debt for our countries, not its reduction. We continue to demand the increasing of public aid to development. And, worldwide, in order to stop the appalling destruction of jobs — which we all denounce — why not fight all together for the pure and simple banning of lay-offs? It is indispensable that we come back to the fundamentals of trade unionism."
On the second day of the Congress, the guests of honour were no less than the General Director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (also introduced as an "old friend of labour") and Pascal Lamy of the WTO, who is one of the directors of the Davos World Economic Forum (which gathers the multinationals who control the world economy and the governments).
The room was half-empty for Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s speech, thus indicating the negative reaction of many of the delegates — particularly those from Africa, Asia and Latin America — to the presence, at a congress that is supposedly for trade unions, of the head of a multilateral institution of global capitalism whose recipes, applied in diverse countries, have been a disaster in terms of privatisation, attacks against social rights and labour law, all in the name of paying back the illegitimate foreign debt.
Also invited to the congress was the President of Argentina, Cristina de Kirchner who, until then, had never before mentioned the words "trade union" or "working class". She stated that the IMF had destroyed her country and that another policy was needed, one which would strengthen the domestic market and see to salaries.
A delegate from the Federation of Argentine Workers (CTA) commented on this speech for us and said that it "wasn’t quite like that" and that the Kirchner government had "taken measures against the workers and their rights".
While the ITUC Congress was being held in Vancouver, we noted that in Toronto, way on the other side of Canada, 10,000 demonstrators were mobilised against the world leaders of the G8 and the G20. At the same time, Canadian civil servant unions were organising significant movements against the cutting back of rights. Nonetheless, unperturbed, the leadership of the ITUC went on preaching about the need to "democratise" the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, etc.
As to perspectives, several different leaders of the ITUC asserted to the congress that measures — which they called "historic" — would be adopted by the G20 in Toronto, at the request of U.S. President Barack Obama, against the speculators and the banks who were responsible for the global financial crisis. What Obama had actually announced was that he would pursue, on all fronts, the permanent trade wars in favour of the multinationals, who are mainly all U.S.-based multinationals.
In fact, Obama declared in Toronto that, "Every economy is unique" that "every country will chart its own unique course" but "make no mistake — we are moving in the same direction"… meaning that all countries, even at differing paces, must apply the austerity measures and structural adjustment of the IMF in order to preserve the interests of the U.S. financial groups.
The calls made from the podium by the leaders of the ITUC in Vancouver for "regulation of the global financial market", for the "democratic governance of globalisation", of "assistance to victims of the crisis", or for taking into account "those who are not directly represented by the G20", etc., were not heard at the G20 summit. All the talk at this G20 summit was about the reduction of the public deficit.
As workers and trade unionists, we know full well what they mean when they talk about "reducing the public deficit." They mean the destruction of employment in the public sector, attacks on social rights, employment insecurity,worsening of mass unemployment, increased degradation in the standard of living for workers and the peoples as whole, the generalisation of poverty, etc.
This is what the governments, the multinationals, the IMF, the EU, etc., are demanding in order to save the capitalist system, as the crisis goes on in the developed countries and economic growth, according to the G20, is to continue to be sluggish in the future. …
Yes, there is a need for returning to the fundamentals of trade unionism. The trade unions were born to defend the interests and the rights of the working class, today threatened by austerity measures said to be "compulsory".
We must resist and fight back against all attempts to be co- opted by the institutions charged with the application of those measures. These are policies that lead to the weakening and then to the disappearance of trade unions by destroying the very bases of their existence: the workers, their salaries, their rights and their social gains.
Trade union officers Julio Turra (CUT-Brazil) and Tetevi Gbikpi-Benissan (UNSIT-Togo), who write in their personal capacity. Both are supporters of the International Liaison Committee of Workers and Peoples.