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Time to transform unions into a global alliance

Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2 Feb 2002 (IPS/Lewis Machipisa) - Labour unions, attending the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil say it is time they transformed themselves into a new global organisation able to fight injustice and represent the poor.

“We are in Porto Alegre because we realise that we cannot solve our problems alone, within our national frontiers, despite our hard won political freedom,” says Willie Madisha of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country’s largest.

“We have to recognise that as individual countries, we are being picked off one by one by the elite and their representative institutions. It is Argentina for ‘disciplining’ this year; before it was Turkey, before that it was Indonesia,” notes Madisha, referring to the economic crisis in those countries.

This process of critical self-assessment has already started in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which groups the major unions in the world.

According to Guy Ryder, ICFTU’s secretary general, the trade union movement is among the few actors capable of addressing the moral vacuum left by the powerful forces of the market.

While quality employment declines in the relentless quest for profit, the gulf of inequality is widening between rich and poor, between women and men and between the developing and industrialised countries, he says.

It is against this harsh reality that more than 50,000 trade unionists have gathered at the WSF to voice their concerns about unbalanced globalization, at the one-week conference, which ends on 5 February. The same forceful message will be conveyed to those assembled at the World Economic Forum in New York this week.

The ICFTU, in co-operation with other trade union organisations, sent a joint statement to the World Social Forum and the World Economic Forum. It calls for a more positive globalization that is based on solidarity and stresses central importance of the right of workers to form and control their own unions and defend their own interests. “The trade union movement is present in force in New York and Porto Alegre to argue for taking a different path, a path that brings the workers of this world into account,” says Ryder.

The collapse of the financial structures of Argentina and the Enron Corporation are just the latest examples of the global economy and global institutions that the labour unions say, have lost their way.

“We believe that the current preoccupation with diplomacy and lobbying must compliment mass-based campaigns and not be a substitute for it,” says Madisha.

“As a movement of global civil society, the WSF gives us the space to explore alternatives to the hegemony of neo-liberal globalization. Our concern is to find a common ground around which to mobilise and campaign. We want to give concrete content to the broad idea of globalization of human and worker rights,” he says.

To achieve this, Madisha concedes that they must stand together with other social forces, other than labour and building alliances; to more effectively challenge the socially destructive policies of the Washington consensus.

“Left to themselves, the elite will sooner or later plunge us all into social and ecological disaster as they pursue their own narrow, short-term interests,” worries Madisha.

It is against this background that labour unions are calling for global social justice, especially in terms of the North versus South divide. “As opposed to the current dominant globalization paradigm of the WTO, World Bank and IMF, COSATU calls for the globalization of human and worker rights as the cornerstone of development and fair trade,” says Madisha.

Ever since the South African government embarked on its Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) in 1996, which Madisha dismisses as an orthodox neo-liberal policy, unemployment has risen. Many people have gone from working in a factory to selling bananas on the streets.

But what is even worse, far from achieving financial stability, the Rand, South Africa’s currency, has halved in value against the dollar since 1994. South Africa’s biggest capitalists are also stampeding out of the country as fast as they can. “It has become clear to us that our government is being held hostage by the forces which are driving globalization in its current,” says Madisha.

This, says Jeff Faux, president of the Global Policy Network based in Washington, calls for a grand bargain between workers in the developing world and in the developed world.

“Both of those workers are getting hurt by neo-liberalism. In North America, for example, the free trade agreement has resulted in reduced wages for workers in Mexico, US and Canada,” says Faux. “So we need a grand bargain in order to form world solidarity among workers. The heart of that bargain is that we need labour standards around the world which include the right to collective bargaining.”

“Democracy is the key. There are rich people in poor countries and poor people in rich countries and workers in rich countries have to think of themselves as workers. .. No matter where you live, the kind of globalization that we are now pursuing has resulted in reduced real wages and increased poverty and a shrinking share of labour-to-labour of the income that comes from their own work.”

“In Argentina, where there is a crisis, for instance, the problem is that over the last 10 years, capital has increased its share but labour has seen its share shrink so there is not enough purchasing power in the country,” he says. – SUNS5053

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