From social networks to social revolution

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.