Archive for November, 2011

Trade unions in the democratic process

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Yesterday, I was invited to speak on a panel in Gottingen, Germany – a conference organized by the trade union movement’s foundation, the Boeckler Stiftung, on the subject of ‘trade unions in the democratic process’, with a specific focus on the Arab spring.  Here is what I said:

We are meeting at a time of enormous change, change measured in hours and days – not years.

I want to focus my remarks on the role of trade unions in the fight for democracy in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

I have just returned from the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference which was held last weekend in Istanbul.

It was attended by trade union activists from 30 countries — including all the countries of the Arab Spring, members of illegal trade unions in Iran, Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and others from throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.

(Not a single trade unionist from Germany chose to attend this conference.)

My experiences there will inform this discussion.

The past

The regimes that have fallen – especially Mubarak in Egypt – fell in large part because of social and economic issues.

The working class played a key role in all this. Waves of strikes — sometimes lasting for years — preceded the final uprisings which brought down the regime.

This was largely off the radar of mainstream media, but many in the trade union movement understood.

Unions in the Arab world fit the traditional model of unions in totalitarian societies. They were transmission belts for the regimes. They did not defend their workers against the employers or the state.

This was a model essentially created by Lenin and Trotsky and remains a model today in countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba.

This is still the model in Iran where the so-called “Workers’ House” is controlled by the regime. It is the model in Syria. And to a certain degree, it is the model in Palestine.

These unions are not real unions in the sense that we understand the term in Europe.

And there are of course Arab countries with no unions at all, not even state-controlled ones, such as Saudi Arabia.

All the various state-controlled unions in this region belonged to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), which has been headquartered in Damascus. Its leader was a crony of Qaddafi.

ICATU is an Arab nationalist, racist and authoritarian organization. It would not admit the Palestinian unions because in its view, they had collaborated with Zionism.

Today ICATU is a rotting corpse, waiting to be buried.

But I am sad to say that unions in Europe and elsewhere often treated ICATU as a genuine trade union federation when it was nothing of the sort.

The present

We have many more questions than answers.

• Can unions which were compromised by their collaboration with the regime (e.g., in Tunisia) continue to play a constructive role? Can they reform?

• Can unions be created where they have not existed at all? This is the case in Libya.

• And how do unions move from being an underground force, as they are in Iran, to something bigger and more concrete.

• Can a new and united labour movement be created in these countries? There is some evidence that it cannot be done. Unions in Iraq and Egypt have recently split.

It is very important to think regionally and to begin to create a body to replace ICATU.

The first steps have already been taken. And the LabourStart meeting in Istanbul made a big contribution to this effort.

While this is happening, the old unions are still playing a disgusting role. There was a recent visit by several trade union leaders from some unions in Iraq and elsewhere to Damascus, to show solidarity with the murderous Assad regime.

The international labour movement – in particular the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) – is racing to make up for lost time.

The future

One way of measuring the progress of the trade union movement in the Middle East and North Africa is to see it move beyond Arab nationalism and embrace all the peoples of the region.

This means in particular welcoming the Berbers of North Africa, the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, and the Jews of Israel.

The last of these is the most difficult, and few imagine that the Israeli General Federation of Labour – the Histadrut – will be invited to join a new regional federation of independent and democratic trade unions.

But it should be invited.

There is also the question of what role unions can play beyond workplace issues.

Unions should be in the forefront of the right for democracy and human rights in this region.

They should be taking on the religious fundamentalists and fighting for a secular state.

They should be in the vanguard of the fight for sexual freedom – not just for gender equality, but for gay rights as well.

If we can imagine unions in Egypt standing up for gay rights, we can imagine them embracing the Histadrut.

Both right now seem rather far-fetched.

But this is why unions exist: they are here to defend working people, to make the world a more just, a more equal and a more peaceful place.

So the real tests for unions in this region, and for democracy in general, can be measured by the treatment of women, and gay people, and Jews.

And I am optimistic.

I had the chance to visit Egypt a year before the Mubarak regime fell, and to meet with the dissident trade unionists who were then at constant risk of arrest and imprisonment.

Today they are free and they are building new, independent, democratic trade unions.

A year ago, few expected this to happen, and to happen so quickly.

Today, I think it is realistic to expect the revolution to continue, to expand and to deepen.

Another world is possible.

Pro-BDS campaigners try – and fail – to bust up global solidarity conference

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The second annual LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference held in Istanbul last weekend was supposed to be a celebration of all that unites us in the international labour movement. Participants came from nearly 30 countries from a wide range of unions. Some were delegates representing their union on an official basis (such as a couple from the RMT here in Britain). Four came to represent the global union federations. Others were self-selected, activists in various labour and human rights organisations.

And the conference began with a concrete act of solidarity as well, on a Turkish picket line. Two bus-loads of international delegates came to support locked out workers at GEA, a German-owned metal company. To those who were there, it was an unforgettable event.

But others came to the conference with a different agenda in mind.

A handful of Turkish far-left activists, led by an English ex-pat (reportedly an SWP member) came to protest the participation of “representatives of the racist Zionist Histadrut” at the conference. By this they meant two of the Israelis who attended, and also myself (the founding editor of LabourStart).

They began by circulating a resolution supporting boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state. They persisted with this, even though they were told that the Global Solidarity Conference is not a decision-making body. Oh, and a minor point: there were no Histadrut representatives at the conference. They had been invited but did not show up.

But then the BDS campaigners decided to ramp things up. A workshop was scheduled on the subject of “Echoes of the Arab Spring”. The speakers included an American trade unionist on the subject of Occupy Wall Street, an Iraqi Kurdish activist on the 62-day long uprising earlier this year, and a young Israeli from the Working Students and Youth on the massive social protest movement in his country that drew hundreds of thousands into the streets.

The anti-Israel campaigners attempted to break up that session, but were persuaded to leave the room. (Which they did by slamming the door loudly.) All the Arab and Kurdish delegates stayed. And a very interesting discussion was held — including a vigorous dispute between two Iraqi Kurdish union leaders.

We emerged from that workshop to find the conference venue covered with hand-drawn posters saying that the Israelis were not welcome there.

All of this played against a background of rumors and mistrust, particularly among some of the North African delegates.

Behind the scenes, however, private meetings were held and in an atmosphere of complete transparency and openness, we discussed it all. Everyone put their cards on the table. And after that first morning, the anti-Israel campaigners were isolated, receiving no support from the Arab delegates. In fact, at the closing session, following a rant against Israel by a Turkish leftist, a North African trade unionist rose to speak against the efforts to disrupt and divide.

All of this turned out to be a bit of a side show, as the real work of the conference brought together very diverse groups to discuss the critical issues facing trade unionists everywhere.

Conference plenaries were addressed by general secretaries of two Turkish unions, a Tunisian union leader, and – by video – Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

There were workshops on precarious work, the role of women in the trade union movement, social media, labour video, global campaigning, migrant labour and much more.

There were country and regional specific workshops on the struggles in Bahrain, the Arab Spring, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.

There were two excellent workshops on Palestine featuring both official representatives of the mainstream Palestinian unions as well as smaller, alternative groups. One focussed on the historic strike by Palestinian quarry workers which had been the subject of a recent LabourStart campaign.

The Arab delegates stayed on for another day to meet with LabourStart and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center to discuss future campaigns and joint work in a very productive and open discussion.

Everyone except the anti-Israel campaigners seemed to understand that something amazing was happening at the conference. As veteran Canadian trade unionist Derek Blackadder put it, the conference could be summed up as “100 unions, 30 countries, one class.” The singing of the Internationale, led by a hastily-assembled multinational choir, was especially stirring.

In the end, the attempt to disrupt the conference failed. But it highlighted what the pro-BDS campaigners were all about. They were not remotely interested in building global labour solidarity. All they wanted to do was to show their hatred of Israelis, all Israelis, even those who were on the left, who supported the rights of Palestinians.

In behaving as they did, they showed everyone — including many who might have been sympathetic to their cause — their true colours.

Anti-Israel activists try to disrupt global labour conference in Istanbul

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Last week’s LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference in Istanbul was meant to be an extraordinary event. Activists from the newly-independent unions of the “Arab Spring” countries were due to meet with colleagues from established unions from both developed and developing countries. As Canadian union activist Derek Blackadder put it, “100 unions, 30 countries, one class”.

And there were high points, such as the visit by conference delegates to a picket line outside a factory owned by the German company GEA. The Turkish workers, locked out for weeks, were clearly moved by the presence of so many people from so many different countries.

But there was also an attempt by anti-Israel activists to break up the conference and undermine the solidarity being built.

It was decided to hold the conference in Istanbul despite the risks of this sort of thing happening. All the major Turkish unions were supportive and formed a broad-based organizing committee. The oil workers union Petrol-Is donated their facilities, in part to thank LabourStart for the online campaigns it has waged over the years in support of the union’s struggles.

The conference agenda was packed with workshops and plenaries on subjects like precarious work, the role of women in the trade union movement, organizing migrant workers, and global campaigning.

The first indication that things might go terribly wrong came when several North African delegates walked out during the opening plenary when I mentioned Israel (among many other countries) in my keynote address.

My remarks were followed by a video address from Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, who spoke directly about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, reaffirming the ITUC’s commitment to a two-state solution.

The conference broke up into workshops the first of which was entitled “what is LabourStart?” The first intervention from the floor came from a Palestinian trade unionist who wanted to discuss a 2006 article of mine supporting Israel’s right to self-defense when attacked by Iran through its proxy, Hizbollah. Others rose to repeat similar “charges” – that LabourStart was somehow a “Zionist” project, and was tainted by this.

At the end of the session, at my suggestion, an emergency meeting was held between myself and the North African delegates in an attempt to clear the air. I told them it was essential that we be open and transparent, and that I would honestly answer any questions. It was an initially tense but ultimately productive meeting as one by one I dealt with idiotic rumors that had been spreading for years — such as that LabourStart suppresses Palestinian labour news. (Something easily disproved by simply looking at the LabourStart website.)

Meanwhile, the local anti-Israel activists, led by an English ex-pat (and member of the pro-Hamas Socialist Workers Party), were gearing up for a full assault on the conference. They began circulating a “resolution” opposing the presence of representatives of the “racist Zionist” Histadrut at the conference.

Their campaign was an odd one for at least two reasons. First of all, there were no representatives of the Histadrut at the conference. There were five Israeli citizens (one a Palestinian Arab woman) but none of them came to represent the Histadrut. Second, LabourStart conferences are not decision-making bodies, so no resolutions are ever debated or adopted.

Around this time, rumors began flying that someone had uncovered photos of myself, in military uniform, participating in the occupation of the West Bank.

While this was going on, the conference continued peacefully with very productive sessions. One featured Palestinian trade unionists from two rival organizations at which neither one mentioned the campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions – BDS – targetting the Jewish state. Another very interesting workshop featured two Israelis (one Arab, one Jewish) from the Workers Advice Center, a left-wing alternative union.

On the sidelines, in the corridors and during the coffee breaks, the Israelis were mingling with people they would never have been allowed to talk to before — including delegates who came from the illegal independent unions in Iran.

One of the most interesting workshops was entitled “Echoes of the Arab Spring” and featured speakers from the USA, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss uprisings that have taken place outside the Arab world, but which were inspired by Tunisia and Egypt.

The little room was packed with delegates from more than a dozen countries, including several from Arab countries. But as soon as the session began, a handful of Turkish pro-BDS campaigners demanded to know if the Israeli speaker was a member of the Histadrut. I moderated the session, and intervened to prevent the disruption — I told them that I had been a member of Histadrut when I lived in Israel, and that Histadrut members were certainly welcome here. The disruptors shouted abuse, and eventually stormed out, slamming the door behind them. Not a single Arab left the room and a very fruitful discussion was held.

While we discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement, the social protests in Israel and the 62-day long uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Israel-haters were busily posting hand-written signs all over the building saying that the “racist Zionist Histadrut” was not welcome — and specifically naming not only the Israeli activists, but myself. There was a tense moment as one of the handful of Jewish participants tried to take down one of the signs, but violence was averted.

During the final plenary session, once again there was an attempted disruption as a pro-Hamas activist rushed the stage claiming to be representing the conference organizing committee. Following a long rant about Zionism, one of the North African delegates demanded the floor — and spoke out against the anti-Israel disruptors.

On the day after the conference closed, the Arab delegates from Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain and North Africa stayed behind for a very fruitful session with LabourStart and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center.

In the end, the conference was a success. People who would never get a chance to meet face to face in normal trade union work were exchanging views and experiences.

A real contribution was being made to the creation of a new global solidarity network for trade unionists.

The anti-Israel activists couldn’t have cared less. Their only goal was to get out their message of hatred — that Israelis were not welcome there. Their hatred of Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, meant that nothing else mattered to them.

But in the end, they failed in their effort to destroy this historic attempt to bring together trade unionists from many countries. Their attempt to do so showed up the BDS campaigners as people with no interest in social justice or global solidarity, but simply as Jew-haters.

Creating a global, networked unionism for the 21st century

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

The following is the text of my opening address to the Second Annual LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference in Istanbul, Turkey – 18 November 2011.

Good evening everyone and welcome to the second annual LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference.

My name is Eric Lee and I am the founding editor of LabourStart.

I’d like to begin by thanking first of all our comrades in Turkey for the amazing job they have done organizing this conference.

A special thanks to Gokhan and the people at TAREM, to the other members of the organizing committee, to Petrol-Is for allowing us to use this wonderful building, to Molly McGrath, and to Eyup Ozer who has worked tirelessly on this conference for weeks.

I’d also like to thank the international trade union movement for its support – to Sharan Burrow of the ITUC who though she could not attend has sent us a very important message by video.

And a special welcome to the representatives of four global union federations who have come to join us this weekend – the ICEM, IMF, ITF and IUF.

The Solidarity Center has played a vital role in organizing this event, in bringing over to Istanbul representatives of the new, independent trade unions in the Arab world, and I want to express our gratitude for the great effort they have made.

A very warm welcome to the LabourStart correspondents who have come here from Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Canada, the UK, Russia, Switzerland, Finland, Israel, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere. This conference grew out of what were a series of small meetings of correspondents that began in London a decade ago, and continued with meetings in Washington DC in 2009 and Hamilton, Ontario last year.

But this is the biggest and most important conference we have ever held and that’s because of you — all of you, from Turkey and more than 30 other countries who have come together for an unusual event — to say the least.

It’s unusual because this is not an official trade union event. It’s not a congress of a global union federation. You don’t have to be an affiliate of any organization to attend this event. And you’re not all delegates, representing your unions — many of you are here as individuals.

As a result, we have an incredibly diverse audience. You won’t see this at a formal union event, or at the ILO, or anywhere. It’s something very new and very special and we’re looking at it as a kind of experiment.

Because what we’re engaged in here is something that has only become possible in the last decade or so — global, networked trade unionism. Networks based on communications networks, based on the Internet.

So it’s all very new, and we’re all learning how this works.

But while I say that global, networked trade unionism is new, trade union internationalism is not.

In 2014 we’ll celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the First International, also known as the International Workingmen’s Association, by Karl Marx and his comrades in London in 1864.

The inspiration for that organization came from the writings of Marx and his partner Friedrich Engels and in particular their 1847 pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto.

In that Manifesto they wrote one sentence which I’d like to read to you — a sentence which I’d like you to think about and to keep in mind the whole weekend. And maybe even beyond this weekend.

They wrote:

“In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they [meaning Communists] point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.”

That is what we are aiming to do here today – “to point out and bring to the front” that which unites us as workers.

What does that mean in practice?

Well, some little things to start with.

For example, I have asked that our name tags at this conference don’t have the name of our country. If you want to know what country someone is from, ask them.

Maybe you’ll wind up talking to someone from a country you know very little about.

Maybe it’s a country that you never thought of as having a trade union movement.

So our name tags won’t say what countries we’re from — and not only because that’s likely to stimulate discussion.

We’re not here to represent countries. We are here as workers, as trade union members.

I’ve come here from London. But that doesn’t mean that I represent the United Kingdom. It doesn’t mean that I support all — or even any — of the things that the British government does. I’m here as a trade unionist, a proud member of the National Union of Journalists.

Please keep that in mind when you meet people.

I want to speak a bit about the conference agenda.

We agreed with the comrades from Turkey on the conference theme many months ago.

It’s “From social networks to social revolutions”.

And we’re trying to keep that in mind in everything we do this weekend.

So some of the sessions will focus on countries which have been in the news a lot in the last year.

Countries where dictatorships that lasted for decades have been overthrown.

I’m enormously pleased to have trade unionists from Egypt and Tunisia here and I look forward to hearing about their revolutions — and the role of new technology.

So we’re going to have more than two dozen workshops on a wide range of themes.

Some will focus on new technologies such as social networks and video.

Others on struggles in particular countries such as Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel and Palestine.

Other workshops will take on issues that concern all of us such as precarious work, migrant labour, and the role of women in the trade union movement.

At the end of each day — tomorrow and Sunday — participants in the workshops will make very short reports to all of us.

And of course when the conference is all over, we’ll publish as much as we can on LabourStart.

Now I assume that nearly all of you know what LabourStart is.

But for those of you who are new to this I should point out that LabourStart is the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

Every single day, every day of the year, the LabourStart website is updated in nearly 30 languages with news from trade unions around the world. And that news is put onto the site by our network of volunteer correspondents on every continent.

In addition to news, LabourStart runs online campaigns in support of workers’ rights at the request of unions around the globe.

For example, last week we learned of the arrest of the top two trade union leaders in Fiji. We were asked by the International Trade Union Confederation to launch an online campaign calling for their release.

Our campaign resulted in about 4,000 messages flooding in to the embassies of the Fijian government around the world. So many messages came in so quickly that we crashed the email servers of their embassies in New Zealand and France.

Within 24 hours, we learned that the two had been released from jail and the campaign was closed.

The fight for democracy in Fiji continues — but we have won a great victory.

If you’re new to LabourStart, there are two key ways you can get involved.

First of all, please make sure to sign up to support each of our campaigns. It takes less than a minute to do so, and you’ll be added to our mailing list as a result. We’ll keep you informed and you’ll be making a genuine contribution to the struggle.

Second, consider becoming a LabourStart correspondent. What does that mean? It means we give you access to our database with a user name and password. When you spot a news story about workers and unions on the web, especially if it’s about your union or your country, you fill in an online form and your news story appears on the site.

Feel free to talk to me or any other LabourStart correspondent this weekend. We’d love to have you on board.

I want to close by talking about our hopes and goals for this conference.

We are meeting at an extraordinary time.

The capitalist world is passing through one of the most severe economic crises in history. The possibility of a 1930s style Depression cannot be ruled out.

In such a situation, a strong, independent trade union movement is needed more than ever.

And at the same time as economic collapse threatens, an entire region of the world – the Middle East and North Africa – is seeing the rise of democracy. This is a process that continues as we meet here today in Turkey. I am delighted that we have representatives of countries which have made, or are making, the transition from dictatorship to democracy – from Iraq, and Tunisia and Egypt.

I hope that the next time we meet, we will have representatives of independent trade unions from Libya, finally free of the shackles of the Qaddafi dictatorship.

And I think it’s not too optimistic to say that we can hope that our 2013 conference, we will have representatives of a new, independent and democratic trade union movement in Syria — a country which is today still ruled by the murderous Assad regime.

This striking combination of events — worldwide economic crisis, a democratic revolution in North Africa and the Middle East — compells us as trade unionists to work as we have never worked before.

So many of the old rules no longer apply.

Borders are disappearing — not only the borders that are erased by the global communications networks, but also the borders in our own minds.

There are now tens of thousands of trade union activists who routinely show their support for our brothers and sisters who are on strike or locked out or jailed anywhere in the world.

And that solidarity must be mutual. This is not about charity – it’s about the old trade union slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

That means that if workers in Turkey are locked out, or on strike, or jailed — workers everywhere will mobilize in their support, and at the very least they will send thousands of messages of protest and solidarity.

And as we saw last week in Fiji, that works.

Online solidarity campaigns are the reason why our comrades in Fiji are not in jail today.

But it also means that workers in Turkey must increasingly show their support for workers’ struggles in other countries.

And I’m not only speaking to the Turkish trade unionists here — I’m speaking to all of you.

The old distinctions between unions that were at the receiving end of solidarity actions, and those which gave support, are disappearing.

We are, all of us, in need of the support of our fellow trade unionists around the world.

And we are, all of us, obligated — morally obligated — to show our solidarity with our brothers and our sisters when it is required of us.

This conference will be a success if we strengthen those bonds of solidarity.

And we do that not so much by speaking, as by listening.

Many of you came here prepared to talk about your union, your struggle, your country.

And I’m telling you that you should be focussed on listening and learning about other unions, other struggles, and other countries.

Don’t only go to the conference sessions about your country. Go to the ones you know nothing about.

Get out of your comfort zones.

This doesn’t only mean going to workshops that you wouldn’t normally go to.

It means — talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to.

We’ve built in as many coffee breaks and meals and informal periods as we could into this conference.

If during those breaks we see people from different countries standing around together, talking to people they already know, we’ve failed.

Success means that you have spoken with someone from a country that you knew very little about. And you’ve learned from the experience, from the conversation.

Mingling is not an option here — it’s what this conference is all about.

We’re here to meet one another, to speak, to listen, to learn, to build new relationships and friendships that will continue after the conference is long over.

We’re here to create something new and different – global networked trade unionism for the 21st century.

We’re here to realize the 150 year old dream of the International — a global movement based not on nationality, or religion, or ethnicity — but based on social class.

We’re here to make real the slogan with which Marx and Engels ended the Communist Manifesto — a slogan that is more meaningful today than it ever was before:

Workers of the world, unite!

Not your typical trade union conference

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

This article was published on the Progress website, here.

A year ago, probably the only genuinely independent trade unions in the Arab world were the ones created in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. It took the US, Britain and their allies using massive amounts of armed force to bring down a regime that did not tolerate any form of independent thought – and that included trade unions. And for about eight years, the trade union movement in Iraq was the only genuinely independent one in the entire Arab world.

And then last winter, one Arab dictator after another began to fall, and in the wake of those more peaceful regime changes independent trade unions have begun to emerge — first and most importantly in Egypt.

It is against this background that LabourStart, the UK-based news and campaigning website, is holding its annual Global Solidarity Conference in Istanbul this weekend. The conference is being held with the enthusiastic support of the Turkish trade union movement.
That movement, like the one in Iraq, can be a source of inspiration to those who are trying to build new democracies in Arab and Muslim countries that have lived for decades under oppressive regimes.

Activists are converging on Istanbul from more than 30 countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Israel.

Yes, Israel too. Representatives of two workers’ organisations — the giant Histadrut labour federation (its youth section, actually) and a smaller, militant union known as WAC Ma’an — are attending and will make presentations in workshops.

This is not your typical international trade union conference.

The conference theme is “From social networks to social revolution” and some of the sessions will focus on things like using social networks, open source software, online campaigning and labour video. Others will focus on specific countries.

Many workshops will deal with issues that unite trade unionists across widely different societies. For example, it turns out that unions in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and the USA are all grappling with the issue of labour law reform — so that’s a workshop they’ll all participate in.
The conference will open with a video welcome by Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Presentations will also be made by representatives of four global union federations — these are the bodies that represent tens of millions of workers organised by sector. Even though LabourStart is more of a loose network than a formal institution, it’s clearly at the very heart of the international trade union movement.

The conference will be followed by the annual meeting of LabourStart correspondents, but also by a closed meeting for representatives of the new, emerging independent trade unions in the Middle East and North Africa.

What I hope will come out of this are two things.

First, that the representatives of the new unions in the region continue the work of building a new regional trade union body to replace the rotten, corrupt ICATU – the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions. ICATU, which is headquartered in Damascus, is now a stinking corpse and needs to be replaced by a genuine federation of real — not state-controlled — unions.

Second, that the diversity of participants should itself be an educational tool. I hope that people will begin to re-think their views about different countries and peoples. That they begin to realise that what unites us is more important than what divides us.

When planning the conference with Turkish unionists, I made it a condition that every trade unionist in every country is welcome to attend. That means — I told them — Armenians, Cypriots, Kurds, Palestinians and Israelis. If we can get a dialogue going between the different unions represented here, even if informally, during the breaks, over coffee — that may be our greatest achievement.

Opera Mail: Fixing the bit that sucks

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In a previous life, I was a programmer.  I still like to write a few lines of code from time to time – especially when I can solve a problem.

This week I decided to use Opera Mail as my primary email client, no longer relying on Gmail (except when travelling).  I love it – it’s simple, it works, and it happily imported all my Gmail inboxes – tens of thousands of messages.

But one bit of Opera Mail sucks – it cannot really important contacts.  There’s a website that claims you can do this through them, but it didn’t work for me – it crashed every time.

Now I have something like 5,000 contacts in Gmail and I wanted all of them to appear in my new Opera address book.

The solution was to write a tiny (32 line) program in Perl, which I uploaded to one of my webservers.  I then uploaded the comma delimited (CSV) file which Gmail can give you.  This generated correctly formatted lines in the Opera Mail file which ends with “.adr”.  I just copied and pasted these in,  making sure that Opera was not working at the time.  And it worked.

So, very proud of myself.

If anyone out there stumbles on this while Googling how to import one’s contacts into Opera Mail, I’ll be happy to share the code.

From social networks to social revolution

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Conference poster.

In mid-November trade unionists from more than 30 countries will be gathering in Istanbul for the second annual Global Solidarity Conference organised by LabourStart. The theme of this year’s conference is “From social networks to social revolution” and the timing is exquisite.

To be honest, we never intended to hold a conference in Istanbul in 2011. It was something that we thought we might do someday in the future. The 2011 LabourStart conference was due to be held in Australia. But we had organisational problems at that end, and urgently needed to come up with a venue, and comrades in Istanbul said ‘sure, why not here?’

And all that happened only days before a workers’ general strike brought down the Mubarak regime and the Middle East and North Africa suddenly became very interesting places for the trade union movement.

A highlight of this year’s conference is the presence of representatives of independent trade unions from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Iran and Iraq. In some cases, divided trade union movements are represented by more than one organisation (this is true in Israel and Palestine where no fewer than four organisations are attending).

As you can imagine, one has to be exceedingly diplomatic to pull this sort of thing off.

But we are also living through interesting times, and people who would not normally agree to be in the same room as others are suddenly showing a little bit of flexibility.

The conference programme is at the moment fairly fluid, but will probably open with a visit to a picket line – and this is, apparently, never much of a problem in Turkey. Turkey’s militant trade unions are often engaged in interesting struggles which is one of the reasons why it’s so great to be working with them on this conference. Unions where independent, militant trade unionism is a new idea will have much to learn from their Turkish colleagues.

This will be followed by a walking tour of the Taksim square area – Taksim square being not just the centre of town where all the hotels are, but also the square where following a massacre in the 1970s, May Day protests were banned for decades. Unions were only allowed to resume May Day protests last year.

In the evening, the conference formally opens at the headquarters of the oil and gas workers union, Petrol-Is, which has had a long relationship with LabourStart built upon a number of online campaigns waged in support of their members.

The opening session will feature a video address by Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, who will tell participants about the strong links forged between the ITUC and LabourStart over recent years. Under Burrow’s leadership, the ITUC has shown a much greater openness to this sort of thing, which is to be welcomed.

Speakers from Turkish unions and global union federations will also address the plenary.

The real work of the conference begins the following morning with a series of 24 workshops on a wide range of themes. About half of them are country-focussed — so there will be workshops dealing with Palestine, Bahrain and Iran, for example. There will also be country and regional focusses for workshops on East Asia, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa. And other workshops will focus on specific issues such as young workers, women in the unions. the fight against precarious employment, labour video, the use of social networks, and how to do an online campaign.

The conference ends with the annual meeting of LabourStart correspondents – the volunteers who post all the news stories to LabourStart throughout the year.

The day after the conference ends, the delegates from the Middle East and North Africa will stay on a bit as they get to meet separately at an invitation-only event where they can frankly discuss the lessons learned from the Arab Spring — and where we go next.

The involvement of a dedicated group of young Turkish trade unionists and socialists has been critical to the success of organising the event so far. As has been the support of the global union federations and the ITUC. Fingers crossed, this promises to be an amazing weekend.

I’m very excited about the whole thing (you can tell, right?) and look forward to reporting here on how it all turned out in another couple of weeks.

LabourStart conference in Istanbul

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

For decades, the Arab world knew nothing of independent trade unions. The unions that did exist were state-controlled, reflecting the ideologies (in particular, Arab nationalism) of the ruling parties.

Eight years ago, the first of the new independent unions was born in Iraq following the fall of Saddam. In Iran, long before the contested presidential election, unofficial unions were already posing a serious to the regime.

And then suddenly last year Mubarak fell, and with him the ‘unions’ that had done so little to protect workers as the country moved in a neo-liberal direction.

Today, all over the Middle East and North Africa, independent workers groups are organising. Next weekend many of them are meeting for the first time in Istanbul at the “Global Solidarity Conference” organised by LabourStart, the UK-based trade union news website.

One must not underestimate the problems those unions face, not least of which are internal divisions. In organising the conference, I’ve become acutely aware that from Iran to Morocco, there are widely divergent approaches to trade unionism and strong differences of opinion. The presence of two rival groups from Palestine, and two rival unions from Israel, underlines the problem.

And yet they are all coming to Istanbul, united in spite of all that divides them, preparing for the workshops and plenaries and the all-important informal meetings. In my view, we may be witnessing the birth of something new – a democratic labour movement in a region that has never know one before.