Monday, September 05, 2011

From Toronto To Mahallah, An Injury To One Is An Injury To All.

The cause of labour is the thing we're supposed to celebrate on Labour Day but there is damned little to celebrate and much to give us pause to reflect on the sorry state of the international workers' movement, and on the low calibre of the trade union leadership.

Canadian workers need look no further than labour's prospects within their own country to find an increasingly bleak scene. If such measurements as gross domestic product are anything to go by, Canada is one of the richest countries of the world. Why, then, is it now a rare thing to find a steady union job in the private sector that pays wages sufficient to raise a family, own a home and send the kids to university?

Labour conditions in Canada are intimately related to the struggles of workers around the world. The economy within which we all work is global in reach (where do you think your iPhone comes from?), the duties of solidarity extend without regard to national boundaries, and the old cause - workers' liberty, a fair day's pay for an honest day's work, freedom of speech and association, safe working conditions - was and remains a universal cause.

Among the many obstacles in the way of both effective union representation and global workers' solidarity, perhaps the most difficult to surmount is the the persistence of boss unions and "yellow dog" contracts. This is especially so in China, where the party-dominated All-China Federation of Trade Unions remains the only legal forum for workers' unity. The daunting question in China's case is whether the world's free trade unions should collaborate with the ACFTU and the many principled officers among its affiliates, or refuse to recognize the ACFTU's claims to legitimacy altogether.

Han Dongfang, director of the China Labour Bulletin, sets out the confounding dilemma: Chinese workers are increasingly turning to riots and wildcat strikes, but the discontent is effectively forcing the ACFTU and its affiliates to prove their worth for fear that Chinese workers will begin to bolt from the government-run edifice en masse. As the Fortune 500 companies increasingly invest in Chinese production, workers are reaping some benefits, but they're also suffering savage working conditions that the ACFTU has not only tolerated, but has actively encouraged.

This is why Chinese workers are taking matters into their own hands: "They are demanding better pay and working conditions and an end to the social injustice and discrimination they see around them every day. But with no real trade union that can articulate those demands, workers are left with little option but to take to the streets." Han is inclined to encourage free trade unions outside China to engage with the ACFTU as it becomes more responsive to the workers it claims to represent: "Constructive engagement with the ACFTU at this point in history could produce real benefits – not just for the union itself but for China's workers' movement."

Not so fast, cautions Tim Pringle of London's School of Oriental and African Studies: "The challenge for international union collaboration is that high-level collaboration – delegations, banquets, speeches – only endorses the status quo. The focus of collaboration needs to be at the grassroots level, which has been pioneered by the International Labour Organization and needs to be taken up by the global union federations."

In Iran, there's little to debate along these lines. The pitiless regime and its scab union apparatus will tolerate no dissent, and certainly no independent trade unions. Wages and working conditions under the Khomeinist tyranny continue to plummet, and if you try to organize a real union, you'll be counting yourself lucky if all that happens is you find yourself subjected to arbitrary imprisonment and torture.

Canada's labour movement has become an increasingly public-sector affair, a means by which contractual relations between the public's institutions and civil servants are mediated and arbitrated. To the dismay of Canadian trade unionists who properly expect higher standards of the movement, the commitments Canadian labour centrals make to international solidarity rarely move beyond the occasional and embarrassing eruptions of fashionable Israel-bashing and union-sponsored holiday-making in Cuba.

This is a terrible shame. Imagine the use Canadian trade unions could be making of themselves in the context of the revolutionary developments underway in the "Arab spring." Were it not for the persistent bravery of Egypt's textile workers' unions, it could well be that Hosni Mubarek would still be top dog in Egypt. Whatever the meagre fruits the Egyptian uprising has been shown to yield so far, a dismantling of the country's corrupt boss-union complex is a huge leap forward, and its demise is well underway. Credit for this victory goes to the fiercely independent union leadership in Mahallah, whose strikes set the stage for the January 25 uprising. Just around the corner: the 22,000 workers at Mahallah's Egypt Weaving and Textile Company are hitting the bricks for an "open-ended strike" later this week.

In Bahrain, the regime continues its savage repression of democrats and reformers, with particularly cruel attention paid to sacking, jailing and persecuting trade union activists. The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions reports that the regime's witch hunts have caused more than 2,000 union activists and rank-and-filers to be summarily dismissed from their jobs.“The Bahrain government is continuing its campaign of punitive action against workers who have simply exercised their rights under international law, causing real suffering to them and their families," reports the International Trade Union Confederation's general secretary, Sharan Burrow.

One would think that Egyptians and Bahrainis who would look to their Canadian brothers and sisters for support might be pleased to find that a former Canadian Arab Federation bigshot is comfortably ensconced as a vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Alas, Ali Mallah has failed to have given so much as an inkling of a damn about our Arab brothers and sisters, being instead too busy giving active courage and comfort to the Islamist enemies of Arab trade unionists and in betraying the Israeli labour federation Hisdatrut with his demands for a boycott of all the products of Israeli workers' labours.

Closer to home, the Toronto Workers' Action Centre is doing necessary and important work and deserves greater union support. Wage theft is a crime. Criminals deserve to go to jail. Workers deserve their wages, and we all deserve unions that make us strong.


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