Creating a global, networked unionism for the 21st century

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!