LabourStart’s Global Solidarity Conference: An eyewitness report

LabourStart held its first Global Solidarity Conference last week at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The conference opened on Friday, 9 July with a session we called “LabourStart 101”. It was supposed to be an introduction to the LabourStart project for those who may not have been familiar and we expected at most 20 – 30 people to attend. So when more than double that number showed up, creating a standing-room only crowd in a small meeting room, we had a sense of what was going to happen at the rest of the conference.

This was going to be bigger and more interesting than anything else we’d ever done.

It was not our first conference – we’d had events in London in 2002 and 2008, as well as conference in Washington in 2009. But those were small, invitation-only events. This was our first public event.

Trade unionists from some two dozen countries had registered though last minute problems prevented some from attending. The delegates from Algeria and Egypt were denied entry to Canada on the grounds that as they were not supportive of the regimes in their countries, which meant that they might not wish to return, and therefore constituted a “risk”. A representative of the Bangladeshi garment workers cancelled at the list minute as tens of thousands of workers in that country went on strike. Logistical problems prevented the attendance of delegates from South Africa, Hong Kong and Brazil.

Still, delegates came from all over – from Trinidad, Mexico, Taiwan, New Zealand, India, Norway, Finland, the USA, Canada, Iraq, Iran, Switzerland, Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Russia, and Albania. Maybe other countries too. We think that overall, some 200 people participated in the conference. Most were Canadians.

That first evening we had a reception at the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton. Hamilton is an old industrial town and the trade union movement has chosen to preserve its heritage in a beautiful Victorian-era hall which hosted us. A highlight of the evening was when a delegate from Taiwan delivered gifts from a working-class history museum in his country to the museum in Hamilton, and invited the director to visit Taiwan. It was a very moving affair and a gesture of genuine international solidarity.

The following morning the conference formally opened at McMaster University.

Greetings were delivered by representatives of the School of Labour Studies (which hosted the event), the local labour council in Hamilton, and two of the unions of McMaster workers (CUPE and CAW). Conference organizer and LabourStart senior correspondent Derek Blackadder went over organizational details.

The keynote was delivered by Judy Rebick, the noted writer and feminist activist, who spoke about social media and social change activism. Her talk was followed by one by LabourStart founding editor Eric Lee on the subject of LabourStart and the fight for a new labour internationalism.

At 10:00, the conference participants – now some 150 strong – marched outside with local workers protesting against an austerity regime on campus. Those workers addressed the delegates, some of whom came with flags and banners from their own unions.

Most of the rest of the day was taken up with workshops, of which there were nearly 30 throughout the conference. Those workshops were sometimes on technical subjects (e.g., podcasting, using social media) but mostly dealt with issues facing trade unionists around the globe (e.g., organizing young workers, precarious employment, and so on) or on specific countries and regions (China, Iraq, Iran, Mexico). Many participants shared live feedback from the workshops using Twitter, including posting photos.

Saturday’s lunch was addressed by the president of Mexico’s FAT, the authentic labour front, who discussed international solidarity and specifically mentioned how helpful LabourStart had been for his union.

Saturday evening delegates enjoyed a delightful buffet meal at the campus pub, donated by Canadian Auto Workers Local 555. This was followed by the screening of the winning video from this year’s Labour Video of the Year competition and then by a screening of the documentary “Who needs sleep?” by the legendary director and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler, who is now 88 years old, attended the screening (and the entire conference) and took questions in an extraordinary exchange.

There were more workshops on Sunday morning, followed by a closing plenary session addressed by Adam Lee of the United Steelworkers. Lee focussed on the recently-concluded year-long dispute with mining giant Vale Inco.

LabourStart’s Eric Lee concluded the conference by thanking the organizing committee from McMaster University and in particular Derek Blackadder, as well as all the volunteers, the workshop and plenary speakers, and all those who attended. This was followed by a rousing singing of “Solidarity Forever”.

As most conference delegates headed home, several dozen active LabourStart correspondents met to discuss various aspects of the project including news, campaigns, the new social networking site UnionBook, and the next conference, which we hope to hold in Australia in 2011.