Labour’s Year in Review 2002

It’s that time of year again — time to receive my annual message from Peter, asking me to do a “global year in review”. This time, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what I wrote last year.

My review of 2001 focused mainly on September 11th and its impact on the unions, and I ended with these two sentences:
“The world that existed before September 11th is no more, and unions — like everyone else — have to adapt to a new world, one which is more frightening and full of uncertainty. In such a time, unions will be needed as never before to protect the interests of working people and to preserve the possibility of a better world.”
2002 has been very much a continuation of 2001, with the war on terror dominating the news — and this year, tragically, touching the lives of many Australian families as well.
It has also been a continuation of 2001 in another sense as well — a global economy that failed to recover, and unions facing new challenges as governments tighten their belts and giant corporations declare bankruptcy.
Some of the year’s highlights:
In the world’s largest country, China, it was a year of unprecedented labour unrest. LabourStart reported on a wave of strikes which engulfed oil refineries, toy factories and electronics manufacturers. We also reported on continuing Chinese state repression of all efforts to launch independent trade unions — including the arrest of four labour leaders which itself prompted a wave of worker protests. In the midst of this, the International Labour Organization admitted the Chinese state-controlled labour federation as if it were a trade union — an action widely condemned within the international trade union movement. In December, at a meeting of LabourStart correspondents in London, a decision was taken to launch a Chinese language version of the international labour movement’s portal website in 2003.
Dramatic labour struggles took place across Asia, with the usual mass arrests in South Korea, street protests in Indonesia, and so on. This year, for the first time ever, LabourStart was able to report on a strike in Vietnam — and we’re sure this won’t be the last time that happens. In Thailand, a huge international campaign brought victory to striking Samsonite luggage workers — a campaign waged largely on the Internet. And unions and human rights groups continued to put pressure on the Burmese dictatorship, and forced some key companies which invest there to pull out.
In the UK, where I live, the year saw unions increasingly at odds with the New Labour government headed by Tony Blair. The confrontation reached its climax in the firefighters dispute, the first national strike in the fire service in 25 years. And it’s not over, with more firefighters’ strikes planned for the new year.
The news in Germany has been marked all year by threats of massive strikes — threats which have become very real as the year moved to a close. This week, 110,000 public sector workers struck, shutting down a large part of the country’s economy.
Italy and France were rocked by major national strikes, and Portugal commemorated International Human Rights Day in December with a general strike by unions protesting against changes in the labour laws that seemed to roll back the gains of the 1974 revolution in that country.
Eastern and Central Europe continued to be the scenes of dramatic trade union struggles, including miners’ strikes, mass street protests, hunger strikes, and so on.
Latin America was at the heart of a lot of labour news this year. The crisis in Argentina brought the unions into the streets with general strikes and widespread protests. In that country, at least, we ended the year on an optimistic note with a story entitled “Worker control breathes life into ailing factories”.
Brazil captured the attention of the labour world — indeed of the world as a whole — with its election in October of a former metalworker and trade union leader, Lula, as its new president.
Venezuela continued to divide the international labour movement, with some supporting the established unions in that country in their general strike, while others threw their support behind the embattled President, Chavez.
And Colombia continued to hold the world record for the number of trade unionists killed reaching 151 just in time for Human Rights Day on 10 December.
In North America, the biggest drama of the year was almost certainly the West Coast dock workers lockout. The Bush administration was threatening to use troops to keep the ports open as part of its “war on terrorism”. Fortunately for all, a compromise was eventually reached.
In Africa, unions continued to battle for the very right to exist. Zimbabwe captured a lot of attention as the Mugabe government ruthlessly cracked down on a trade union movement that has emerged as the main opposition to his dictatorial rule.
I won’t say much about Australia — no doubt other writers will have more to say on the subject — except to point out that the victory of the Sydney Hilton workers was due in no small part to the global campaign which was waged in part on the Internet. Their victory coincided with victorious cyber-campaigns on behalf of striking women in Norway and Thailand, further proof — if any were needed — that the net has transformed the labour movement.