For a bit of a lefty political geek, having the opportunity to meet some of the biggest trade unionists in the world is something to be snapped up without hesitation. Especially at the moment, with trade unionists coming under attack across Europe.
Over 200 were arrested by the middle of 2012; in Russia unions are soon to be classed ‘foreign agents’ under new repressive laws, labour activists have been murdered in Kazakhstan and scores of union leaders are imprisoned in Turkey and elsewhere. Meanwhile countries not explicitly repressing unions are deregulating their labour markets to make it easier for large corporations to lay off workers on a whim and rip up union contracts.
The era of austerity - a universal lowering of working standards across the continent – is making it harder for unions to defend workers. And not just in Europe – newly independent trade unions in ‘Arab Spring’ countries are still under intense scrutiny by their armies and police.
Not fun times, then. And it’s young people facing the brunt of these attacks, and who are unable to respond collectively; just 12% of 20-24 year olds in the UK were union members in 2010.
It was with unbelievable interest then that I went, notebook in hand, to the Global Labour Institute International Summer School early in July – a five day global gathering of trade union activists and leaders from 27 countries.
Revolutionaries from Egypt, dissident union leaders in Russia and big-wheels in the some of the eight or so Global Union Federations (‘GUFs’ - international bodies representing sectors such as manufacturing, construction etc.) made up some of the 80-odd delegates, packed into Northern College near Barnsley.
The setting couldn’t have been more perfect, despite the Yorkshire weather. Northern College used to belong to generations of aristocrats until the late ‘70s, when it became an educational centre for disadvantaged people and a hotbed of trade union political education. Today it offers highly subsidised residential education to 6000 working-class people from across Yorkshire a year.
But I wasn’t there to just to enjoy the beautiful Wentworth Castle scenery. As part of a team of five rapporteurs (note-takers), we covered all conference’s sessions and discussion groups to create what will become a fully-fledged report on the “The Political Agenda of the International Trade Union Movement” to be published next month. It will go out to the delegates as well as being distributed to organisations, researchers and academics around in the world. So it was slightly daunting, to say the least, to be given the task of helping compile it.
Since all the delegates stayed on the campus, the atmosphere was one of true camaraderie by the end, helped in no small part by the cheap bar which opened every evening (hearing the head of one of the US’ only labour research departments singing ‘Stand By Me’ at full volume, and watching African dancing alongside Irish folk music are memories not to be forgotten).
It wasn’t all play. The work was intense – over 2000 words per hour session. But being trained by a professional rapporteur was a fantastic learning experience.
Speaking to the delegates themselves however was the most interesting element of the week. I laughed meeting a member of the radical Syriza party in Greece, now living and working in Greenwich, who said stoically he was going back to riotous Athens to avoid the Olympics. And I discovered the comrade sitting by me in the canteen was the leader of the Ukrainian construction workers’ union, who had coordinated Europe-wide action demanding the European football championship stadiums establish solid labour safety regulations. Several of his members had died constructing such stadiums. It was hard to find anything interesting to say about myself after hearing that.
Delegates from the global South offered fresh insights into unionising the very poorest and precarious workers. Shalini Trivedi from the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, spoke of the hostile reception her organisation has received from some old-school male-dominated unions, since SEWA doesn’t fit into the traditional union mould – it runs co-operatives and a credit union for its 1.3 million members and unionises those once thought to be ‘unorganisable’. Its rapid growth meant for a while it had to suspend taking on new members.
The Summer School was vital in not only bringing these people together, but for empowering many of the younger delegates – representing London rail unions, energy workers in Norway and others – many of whom, like me, had no experience of the global trade unionism, with its conventions and acronyms.
So I left with a much deeper knowledge of international labour organisations, and inspired by the fact that even in these hugely depressing times of austerity and repression world-wide, there are people fighting at all levels. Global labour activists in an era of global capital.
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