No particular friend of the South African Left and trade unions, this piece by Johnson is likely to be ignored, dismissed or condemned by the former. For better or worse, however, one has to recognise that the piece is largely to the point and the questions entirely reasonable.
The WFTU, which now makes great play of its modernity, its democratic nature and openness, will have to be open about its funding - and who exactly its members are, and what membership they claim - if it is to have any credibility as more than a leftover of its Stalinist past.
One correction. Or is it a question?
The state-approved Chinese unions may or may not have been the major presence at the South African event mentioned, but they actually members of the WFTU? I believe not. But since the WFTU does not list its members, when they joined, when they dropped out (I was at the last WFTU Council meeting which the then Maoist Chinese unions attended, I think it was Budapest, 1966), it is difficult to know.
As for the message from the North Koreans...umm...does this not show their total subordination to a labour-repressive Stalinist dynasty rather than any concern about North Korean workers?
Major questions remain for those SACP-led unions who are now in bed with WFTU.
Apart from those above, what will happen with their formerly warm relationship with the (South) Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which is 1) a real trade union and the radical one in South Korea and 2) a member of the ITUC? This, along with the Brazilian CUT, also a member of the ITUC, was with the Cosatu, one of the triumvirate of radical new national union centres of the 1980s-90s.
If the Cosatu is now to follow the lead of some of its major members into the WFTU, this would amount to abandoning any attempt to establish anything beyond the failed or failing Communist v. Social Reformist (or Social Liberal) international union blocs of the 20th century.
Joining the WFTU is the politics of gesture, of faith, of valuing traditional war cries over open discussion, public dialogue, and of giving value to quite imaginary and unspecified ends (a collapsed and discredited State Socialism) over the means of reinventing and achieving such. The latter requires an intimate, open and frank relationship with the 'global solidarity and justice movement' (Occupy, Real Democracy, etc), which affiliation with a Stalinist WFTU is likely to block or at least render extremely difficult.
Now read on...
Irvin Jim, North Korea and the WFTU
Those who enjoy the lighter side of Third World politics had a particularly pleasurable occasion to pick over this last week: the holding of a five day Presidential Council of the World Federation of Trade Unions in Johannesburg, hosted by four South African unions - Numsa, Nehawu, Ceppawu and Popcru.
A considerable amount of decoding was necessary in order to enjoy the full flavour of the event. WFTU itself, was a Soviet-financed front throughout the Cold War (even the Yugoslav and Chinese left WFTU as a protest against Soviet domination) and thus found itself in a state of collapse after 1990.
Now a mere shadow of its former self, it is less than half the size of the International Trade Union Council (ITUC) to which most of the world's real trade unions belong, including a number of Cosatu affiliates. What this means, of course, is that WFTU finds itself in the somewhat embarrassing position of calling for the overthrow of capitalism without ever quite wanting to mention that Communism has already collapsed throughout the old Soviet bloc and, effectively, in China and Vietnam too.
The second point, of course, was that Numsa and the others were hosting the event very much as a Communist high-feast with the aim of trying to get Cosatu as a whole to join WFTU and desert ITUC. It was also quite clearly part of the campaign for the leadership of Cosatu being waged by the Numsa leader, Irvin Jim.
Hardly coincidentally, the current Cosatu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, did not feature among the dignitaries or speakers. Instead the WFTU delegation was welcomed by the Cosatu President, Sidumo Dlamini (SACP) while, of course, the SACP leader, Blade Nzimande pitched up to announce that "The WFTU provides the only hope for the rebulding of the labour movement globally." During the meeting a special ceremony was held to honour old South African struggle heroes, all of whom, by chance, turned out to have been SACP members.
The WFTU General Secretary, George Mavrikos, spoke movingly about how constrained WFTU was by lack of cash. (Nobody actually pointed out that Mr Mavrikos himself has another salary, for he is an MP in the Greek Parliament for the still Stalinist Communist Party, the KKE.)
This was quite a smoke-and-mirrors speech, for on the one hand Mavrikos unveiled the holding of many initiatives, action plans, conferences and congresses all over the planet, enough to bespeak a fairly handsome budget. On the other hand he said that "the sector with most difficulties is finances", insisted that WFTU got no money from employers or governments, and said everything came down to just seven affiliates "and friends". "
Without the assistance of our friends", he said mysteriously - for the friends remained anonymous, "the situation would be worse". He then detailed five affiliates in Asia and Latin America who contributed between E300 and E500 each, that is to say, not enough to buy a single plane ticket. So, quite clearly, two "friends" are picking up most of the tab. In the circumstances it seemed rather mean not to name them for, quite clearly, without them there would be no WFTU.
A major clue - it was almost a case of spot the deliberate mistake - came in the fact that Numsa suddenly circulated the speech of a previously unannounced speaker, the head of the North Korean trade unions, the GFTUK. His speech began as follows:
"First of all, I would like to extend my deep gratitude to all the participants of the WFTU Presidential Council meeting who have expressed their sincere condolences on the demise of Comrade Kim Jong Il, the great leader of the Korean people and a close friend of the world progressives.
I also express my deep thanks to the WFTU Secretariat and many other trade union leaders for sending messages of condolences to Comrade Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of the Korean people, on the demise of the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il.
And thank you Comrade Mohammad Shaaban Azzouz, the President of WFTU, Comrade H. Mahadevan, Dy General Secretary of WFTU (APRO) and other trade union leaders of many countries also for sending their condolence letters to GFTUK.
The great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il who succeeded the Juche revolutionary cause of Comrade Kim Il Sung, the eternal President of the DPR Korea, valued and loved the people very much while believing the people as in heaven and always shared weal and woe with them and made unremitting efforts working hearts and soul to build a thriving country and realize peaceful national reunification.
He passed away from repeated mental and physical fatigue on a running train of forced march to field guidance.
He was a genuine anti-imperialist fighter and guardian of justice who, holding aloft the banner of anti-imperialism conducted energetic external activities for global peace and stability, the right and interests of the working class of the world and human right opposing aggression, war, exploitation, oppression and military alliance and blocs.
The noble exploits made by Comrade Kim Jong Il will shine forever and his great cause will be continued and developed under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of our Party, state and army."
At which point it is germane to mention Tariq Ali's recent reminiscences (London Review of Books, 26 January 2012) of his invitations to "anti-imperalist" conferences in North Korea in the 1970s where he discovered that the delegates all around him had been bribed with cash to jettison their speeches in favour of passionate declarations of their admiration for Kim Il Sung. Tariq, to his credit, refused a similar bribe himself but the story is indicative of the fact that the North Korean regime is willing to pay good money for such meaningless nonsense.
If one then looks at Mr Mavrikos's address one notices that as he surveys the international situation there is no mention at all of the super-exploitation of Chinese workers (for China is the biggest single presence in WFTU), nor indeed of the plight of North Korean workers, probably the worst treated in the world. (The North Korean unions are called GFTUK but the common joke is that that stands for "Get fucked".) Equally, there is no mention of the super-exploitation of Russian workers. The clue comes when he mentions the Middle East:
"In Syria the foreign imperialist aggression continues. Arab regimes that have kings and reactionary regimes are used to promote the plans of the imperialists. In Libya the conflict continues. While in the Persian Gulf the imperialists, the European Union have imposed an embargo on Iran with the pretext of its nuclear program."
Which is extremely revealing. In Syria civilian protestors are being mowed down by tanks and automatic weapons. Who on earth sees that as "imperialist aggression"? Only Russia and China. Similarly, it's clear that WFTU is clearly unhappy that Gaddafi has been overthrown, and is siding with Iran.
Russian analysts say that Putin's Russia is quite capable of subsidising WFTU if it helps its foreign policy. But the betting has to be that the two key friends that Mavrikos refers to are North Korea and China. No doubt they give their money via some front organisation or other, enabling him to say it doesn't come from governments.
So this is the little drama - funny but also nasty - that unfolded in South Africa last week. One cannot but note the absence of Jeremy Cronin, Ben Turok and in general the white old guard of the SACP. Does this mean they don't entirely go along with this poisonous nonsense? It would be nice to think so. Surely we deserve to be told?
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.
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