Not your typical trade union conference

This article was published on the Progress website, here.

A year ago, probably the only genuinely independent trade unions in the Arab world were the ones created in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. It took the US, Britain and their allies using massive amounts of armed force to bring down a regime that did not tolerate any form of independent thought – and that included trade unions. And for about eight years, the trade union movement in Iraq was the only genuinely independent one in the entire Arab world.

And then last winter, one Arab dictator after another began to fall, and in the wake of those more peaceful regime changes independent trade unions have begun to emerge — first and most importantly in Egypt.

It is against this background that LabourStart, the UK-based news and campaigning website, is holding its annual Global Solidarity Conference in Istanbul this weekend. The conference is being held with the enthusiastic support of the Turkish trade union movement.
That movement, like the one in Iraq, can be a source of inspiration to those who are trying to build new democracies in Arab and Muslim countries that have lived for decades under oppressive regimes.

Activists are converging on Istanbul from more than 30 countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Israel.

Yes, Israel too. Representatives of two workers’ organisations — the giant Histadrut labour federation (its youth section, actually) and a smaller, militant union known as WAC Ma’an — are attending and will make presentations in workshops.

This is not your typical international trade union conference.

The conference theme is “From social networks to social revolution” and some of the sessions will focus on things like using social networks, open source software, online campaigning and labour video. Others will focus on specific countries.

Many workshops will deal with issues that unite trade unionists across widely different societies. For example, it turns out that unions in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and the USA are all grappling with the issue of labour law reform — so that’s a workshop they’ll all participate in.
The conference will open with a video welcome by Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Presentations will also be made by representatives of four global union federations — these are the bodies that represent tens of millions of workers organised by sector. Even though LabourStart is more of a loose network than a formal institution, it’s clearly at the very heart of the international trade union movement.

The conference will be followed by the annual meeting of LabourStart correspondents, but also by a closed meeting for representatives of the new, emerging independent trade unions in the Middle East and North Africa.

What I hope will come out of this are two things.

First, that the representatives of the new unions in the region continue the work of building a new regional trade union body to replace the rotten, corrupt ICATU – the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions. ICATU, which is headquartered in Damascus, is now a stinking corpse and needs to be replaced by a genuine federation of real — not state-controlled — unions.

Second, that the diversity of participants should itself be an educational tool. I hope that people will begin to re-think their views about different countries and peoples. That they begin to realise that what unites us is more important than what divides us.

When planning the conference with Turkish unionists, I made it a condition that every trade unionist in every country is welcome to attend. That means — I told them — Armenians, Cypriots, Kurds, Palestinians and Israelis. If we can get a dialogue going between the different unions represented here, even if informally, during the breaks, over coffee — that may be our greatest achievement.