National Sections of the L5I:

Transform the trade unions

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Globalisation produced a crisis in the trade union movement. As privatisation and technological change opened up new industries and services, as capitalists shifted production around the world in search of ever cheaper labour, the traditional bastions of trade unionism fell one by one. New unorganised workplaces grew. Labour, social democratic and communist parties, adopted the Washington – consensus and when in government applied it as vigorously as the right.

The first to react to this new environment were the rank and file, whose jobs and families were at risk. When the Liverpool dockers were sacked in September 1995 for refusing to break a strike by trainee youth, they flew round the world putting up picket lines to boycott scab cargo: the first literally “flying” pickets! They formed an alliance with the new environmentalist movement, Reclaim the Streets, to occupy docks and physically defend their strike from police attack.

But they were stabbed in the back by an entrenched bureaucratic leadership, determined to defend the union’s assets against the courts and abide by the anti-union laws.

Meanwhile, in the States, a similar alliance with radical youth was aimed at recruiting workers in the new industries and among the migrant communities – Jobs with Justice, the Bell telecoms strike – and attacking the increasing use of sweatshops in the Global South by the likes of Gap and Nike. The 1996 UPS strike, conducted after the Teamsters for a Democratic Union had ousted the corrupt old guard, was also a landmark in turning the unions towards organising part-timers and casual labour.

The US United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers allied itself with the independent Mexican union, the FAT (Authentic Labour Front), to organise workers in both countries. Andy Stern of the SEIU union has taken this a stage further with the project of a global union.

The anti-WTO mobilisations in Seattle 1999 proved a turning-point. While, the AFL-CIO leaders marched trade unionists away from the convention centre, contingents of trade unionists – steelworkers, electrical workers and Longshoremen – broke away and joined the “direct action”. Quebec April 2001 saw this unity on a even larger scale where workers helped to tear down the “fence of shame”.

9/11 momentarily slowed this convergence down but did not stop it. The invasion of Iraq drew angry protests from union locals, who organised US Labor Against the War. When the Californian Longshoreworkers threatened to strike against the war effort, the draconian Taft-Hartley Act was invoked.

Bush has personally intervened to outlaw more strikes than any previous president in history. As a result, by the end of his term in office, Bush was confronted by a 500,000 strong demo in New York, while the union locals felt strong enough to mount a “Million Worker March on Washington”.

In the Global South, too, globalisation threatened workers with working for 20 cents an hour, 18 hours a day, with one day off a month, a truly “primitive” accumulation of capital Soon they were fighting back against these conditions.

The Korean KCTU, the Mexican Authentic Labour Front, the Indonesian FNPBI, led by Dita Sari, and countless other unions from all continents have militantly converged on the meetings of the WTO, and sought out international alliances.

New unions have grown in importance; the rank and file retain more control over their officials and the material basis for the bureaucracy is far weaker than it is in the West. Nevertheless, the incorporation of South Africa’s COSATU and the Brazilian CUT into popular front governments has bureaucratised and neutered both federations faced with their serious neoliberal attacks. There is nothing unique about the conditions of the Global South which makes the new unions immune to bureaucracy and class collaboration.

In Europe, there have been positive developments too. France and Italy have both seen the growth of radical syndicalist or autonomous unions.

Militants expelled from the moderate CFDT federation built SUD-PTT (communications) and the CRC (health) in the 1980s. The CFDT had refused to recognise the unofficial co-ordinations, councils of action developed in the course of strikes. The 1995 strikes that saw off the “plan Juppé” attack on pensions reform in France saw the spreading of co-ordinations, and with them the multiplication of SUD. The G10 federation of SUD unions

The Italian CUB and CoBas similarly owe their origins to bureaucratic clampdowns. The 1992 betrayal over a pay formula that gave Italian workers protection against inflation – the scala mobile. CoBas capitalised on widespread anger at the union leaders and built rank and file unions across the economy.

The G10 and CoBas unions share similar outlooks: small, less privileged layer of officials, democratic accountability, support for workers in struggle. SUD stands for solidaires, unitaires, démocratiques. While G10’s leadership, seeks united action with the other unions, CoBas retains an anarcho-syndicalist phobia of the main union bureaucracies with often fatal results.

For example, CoBas led the struggle against the attack on Article 18 (which protected workers in medium to large firms from arbitrary sacking) forcing the big unions to unite in a general strike. However, it had no answer when the Cgil then called off the mobilisations Apolitical unions, with no tactics to relate to militant workers in the major federtions, like FIOM’s young car workers, offer no solution to the crisis of trade unionism.

In France, privatisations are attacking the G10’s strongholds: Electricité de France and now France Telecom. The 35 hour week is under threat. Pension reforms – the issue that brought down Juppé – have been secured.

In 2003, the chance of a general strike slipped through the FSE and G10’s fingers because they feared to appeal – over the heads of the bureaucrats – to other workers to seek solidarity action. The next 12 to 18 months will prove whether the G10 can offer a qualitatively better strategy for militant French workers.

In Germany, Britain and the northern European countries, developments were slower, but there too left leaders have been elected, and tensions with the workers’ traditional parties in government have reached breaking point.

While the once mighty British unions remain shackled by Thatcher’s (and Blair’s) anti-union laws, the giant German unions too have recently been led to into serious defeats: over pensions, the 35 hour week in the East, unemployment and sickness benefits. Often, these defeats have come after the rank and file have reacted swiftly and militantly.

The IG Metall and verdi leaderships have swung from embracing the 2003 ESF call for strikes and demonstrations against the neoliberal offensive (over half a million took to the streets on 3 April 2004, almost alone on this ETUC day of “action”) to capitulation. IG Metall agreed to a US-style give-back in September 2004 at industry leaders VW, extending the working week from 35 to 40 hours – with no gain in pay!

All of these defeats were totally unnecessary. If the bosses and their governments – conservative or “socialist” – succeed, the defeat in Europe will far outweigh the limited and as yet fragile successes in the US and the Global South.

To turn things round we have to take up the following tasks urgently:

• Unite in struggle to defend and extend the social gains of post-war Europe: health and education services, pensions, unemployment benefits, union rights

• Forge cross-border links at every level of the unions so that workers cannot be played off against each other

• Build rank and file movements in every union, across the unions, and over the borders, that can hold their leaders to account, launch action when they sell out, and replace them with new ones once they’re exposed

• Force the union leaders into an all out fight with the social democratic and communist governments attacking workers’ gains and if they cannot, then break with them and form new parties that will fight for socialism .

These tasks cannot be achieved by sectarian abstention from struggling inside the major unions, nor by simply electing new “left” leaders, nor by sticking strictly to the union rule book. Our unions have been usurped by a bureaucratic caste who have made their peace with capitalism. They would rather preside over catastrophic defeats than risk a fight.

The 160 million union members worldwide – and the countless millions denied organisation – need anticapitalist unions and revolutionary socialist parties. That is the content of the slogan, “Turn the anticapitalist movement toward the workers, make the labour movement anticapitalist!”