Labour’s year in review – 2005

A version of this article is also online here.
Usually at this time of year, I am asked by Workers Online to review the world geographically, continent by continent, country by country, and point out the highlights of the past year. But this year, I think a different approach might be interesting.

This year, LabourStart was asked by trade unions to launch 24 global online campaigns. Seven of those campaigns are currently active. I thought by looking at a handful of them, we’d remember some of the highlights of the year, and get a better sense of what is really going on in the international trade union movement.
In August, we launched what was our most successful campaign ever — in support of striking workers at Gate Gourmet at London’s Heathrow Airport. Gate Gourmet is a giant multinational corporation which decided to save some money by sacking unionized workers and replacing them with low-cost new employees, imported from abroad. Hundreds of workers were sacked by megaphone, triggering a massive walkout throughout the airport and the shutdown of London at the peak of the summer tourist season. Our campaign pulled in more than 8,000 messages to the employer (1,000 in the first four hours) and was part of a broad effort linking the union in Britain and sister unions abroad through two global union federations (the ITF and IUF). In the end, a compromise was reached, leaving no one happy. But the memory of this very high-profile dispute will not soon be forgotten.
Our second largest campaign was launched in May at the request of the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF). It concerned three trade union leaders in Eritrea who were arrested by police and detained in a secret security prison. Even though most trade unionists will admit to knowing little about Eritrea, the growth of a new internationalist sentiment in the trade union movement (made possible by the net) means that this kind of outrage is quickly answered by widespread protest — in this case, over 5,200 messages were sent. In addition to an email campaign, and knowing that Eritrean government officials are not easy to reach through the net, faxes were sent to a large number of Eritrean embassies as well. At the time of this writing, it is not known if the three trade unionists have been freed or not.
The third biggest campaign we did in 2005 was done in support of telecommunications workers in British Columbia, Canada, battling against an anti-union company (Telus) in a story that will be familiar to telecoms workers everywhere. That campaign lasted for a few weeks and produced over 4,000 messages of protest to the company.
Those of you who have seen the film “The Take” will be familiar with the case of the Zanon workers in Argentina. Those workers took control of their factory once the owners had abandoned it and once they got it up on its feet again, the former owners tried to take it away from them. LabourStart’s campaign was part of a broad international effort which attracted some 20,000 signatures on one website, and generated almost 3,300 protest email messages from LabourStart readers as well. In the end, the workers have secured some breathing space.
Our fifth largest campaign in 2005 is an ongoing one. On 22 September, Diosdado Fortuna was shot and killed by unknown gunmen on his way home from a picket line at the largest Nestle factory in the Philippines. The factory has been the scene of a bitter dispute between workers and Nestle over the issue of retirement benefits, with a strike going on for nearly four years. Trade unionists have so far sent in over 2,800 messages (and still counting) demanding that the government of the Philippines investigate the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice.
As I look over this list of the five largest campaigns we were involved in during 2005, I see that we’ve covered the globe — Europe, Africa, Latin America, North America and Asia. The campaigns have tackled issues like arrests and killings of trade unionists, attempts to break a union by mass sackings, and heroic resistance by workers with their backs to the wall.
These may not be the big headline news stories that we would normally reflect upon at the end of the year, but they are the real news. The reality around the world is one of people fighting every day for workers’ rights, sometimes against overwhelming odds, against governments that don’t hesitate to jail or kill trade unionists. Sometimes those workers win, sometimes they lose, often there are compromises.
But one thing is absolutely clear: as use of the Internet becomes more widespread and global, and as unions increasingly take advantages of the possibilities, such as online campaigning, a new kind of solidarity and a new kind of trade union internationalism is being born. The mobilization of thousands of trade unionists in response to some of these events, often in a matter of hours, was impossible a decade ago, or even five years ago. That is a real revolution.