Labour’s year in review – 2004

From the perspective of the international labour movement, probably the single most important event in 2004 was the re-election of that rotten, anti-union government — and I’m not referring to the Australian election either.

For American unions, it began as a year of hope. Unions jumped into the election campaigns earlier than ever before, choosing to throw their weight behind the candidacies of Richard Gephardt (who represented the traditional, pro-labour wing of the Democratic Party ) and Howard Dean, whose outspoken opposition to the Iraq war radicalized and energized many among the Democrats. Both candidates were swiftly out of the race, defeated early in the primary season, and this was already a bad omen for the unions. Nevertheless, they rallied around the Kerry-Edwards campaign, convinced that victory was within their grasp and that the most right-wing government in US history was coming to an end.
November was a bitter disappointment for them. Not only was Bush elected, but he was elected with a majority of the popular vote, and with gains for the Republicans in the Senate. As a result of this historic defeat, American unions are engaged in some serious soul-searching for the first time in memory, and 2005 promises to be an interesting year indeed.
I won’t dwell on Labor’s defeat in Australia — I leave that to other contributors to Workers Online.
The most important country in the world for the labour movement these days has got to be China. For many years now China has been the world’s largest country, but that was a meaningless statistic. Hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants were not part of the global economy. But all that has changed; China is rapidly becoming the world’s largest economy. It already has the world’s largest working class. It will soon have the world’s largest number of Internet users.
That modernization is taking place against the background of the super-exploitation of all those ex-peasants. Though many have prospered in the last two decades from China’s turn away from traditional Stalinist economics, poverty and inequality have gotten much worse. One result has been widespread labour unrest in the country that was particularly notable in 2004. Though no nation-wide independent trade union like Poland’s Solidarity has emerged — yet — there are rumblings throughout the country. These are documented day in and day out in the pages of the China Labour Bulletin, which is available on the web.
China does have a trade union movement — on paper. The All China Federation of Trade Unions claims to be the world’s largest union, but it does little for its members. Nevertheless, due to a quirk in Chinese law, the ACFTU now seems destined to play a role that no one expected it to play. The world’s largest employer, Wal-Mart, which has become a symbol of virulent hostility toward unions (not allowing a single one of its one million employees to enjoy union representation), is starting to do business in China. When informed that under Chinese law, it would have to recognize the unions (even if these are the docile, management-friendly unions of the ACFTU), it initially balked, and then relented. It seems that the first Wal-Mart workers in the world to enjoy union representation may yet turn out to be in China — a country which is not normally seen as being particularly union-friendly.
The importance of any challenge to Wal-Mart cannot be overstated. In the US, following the November election defeat, union leaders debating the next steps for the American trade unions have often considered targeting Wal-Mart and dedicating tens of millions of dollars to what would be one of the largest and most difficult organizing drives in history.
It is not only formerly-Stalinist countries like China, now undergoing market reforms, that offer new opportunities for independent and democratic trade unionism. The war in Iraq, whatever one thought of it, did bring down a viciously anti-democratic and anti-union government in Baghdad. Within days of the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003, underground trade unionists came out in the open and began organizing what became the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). This year, those unions have held their first congresses and consolidated into twelve national bodies. One of their groups elected a woman as president for the first time in Iraqi history.
Those unions today operate under tremendous pressure. On the one hand, the occupying forces have little sympathy for the emerging trade union movement. In December 2003, US forces raided the headquarters of the IFTU in Baghdad, shutting it down for many months. Meanwhile, the so-called resistance now routinely targets trade unionists for assassination. But Iraqi trade unionists are hopeful that following elections in 2005, a labour code will be adopted that will give unions the freedom to organize for the first time in more than a generation.
Of course the most dangerous country in the world today to be a trade unionist remains Colombia. This is something which does not change from year to year. In June 2004, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) issued its annual report on violations of trade union rights around the world. Colombia topped the list with 90 trade unionists having been murdered in 2003. In a chilling development, the ICFTU noted that more and more of those killed are women, as women become increasingly active in the unions.
That report singled out Asia as place for concern. The ICFTU counted some 300,000 workers in the region who lost their jobs due to union activity, mainly for going on strike. Several countries were singled out for criticism. South Korea, for example, saw 1,900 arrests of trade unionists. Burma continued to be a ruthlessly repressive society with a complete ban on unions and any form of political dissent.
The difficulties faced by trade unionists in Asia were underscored in November 2004 when news came out of a massacre of striking sugar workers in the Philippines. That massacre prompted worldwide condemnation, including an online campaign coordinated by LabourStart.
It was a year that saw some hopes dashed, and lives ruined as employers and governments in many countries continued to deny workers their basic human right to join a union. Nevertheless, there was hope — particularly in the places where in the recent past, unions were severely repressed, such as Iraq and China.
This article can also be found on Workers Online, here.