Trade unions in the democratic process

Yesterday, I was invited to speak on a panel in Gottingen, Germany – a conference organized by the trade union movement’s foundation, the Boeckler Stiftung, on the subject of ‘trade unions in the democratic process’, with a specific focus on the Arab spring.  Here is what I said:

We are meeting at a time of enormous change, change measured in hours and days – not years.

I want to focus my remarks on the role of trade unions in the fight for democracy in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

I have just returned from the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference which was held last weekend in Istanbul.

It was attended by trade union activists from 30 countries — including all the countries of the Arab Spring, members of illegal trade unions in Iran, Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and others from throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.

(Not a single trade unionist from Germany chose to attend this conference.)

My experiences there will inform this discussion.

The past

The regimes that have fallen – especially Mubarak in Egypt – fell in large part because of social and economic issues.

The working class played a key role in all this. Waves of strikes — sometimes lasting for years — preceded the final uprisings which brought down the regime.

This was largely off the radar of mainstream media, but many in the trade union movement understood.

Unions in the Arab world fit the traditional model of unions in totalitarian societies. They were transmission belts for the regimes. They did not defend their workers against the employers or the state.

This was a model essentially created by Lenin and Trotsky and remains a model today in countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba.

This is still the model in Iran where the so-called “Workers’ House” is controlled by the regime. It is the model in Syria. And to a certain degree, it is the model in Palestine.

These unions are not real unions in the sense that we understand the term in Europe.

And there are of course Arab countries with no unions at all, not even state-controlled ones, such as Saudi Arabia.

All the various state-controlled unions in this region belonged to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), which has been headquartered in Damascus. Its leader was a crony of Qaddafi.

ICATU is an Arab nationalist, racist and authoritarian organization. It would not admit the Palestinian unions because in its view, they had collaborated with Zionism.

Today ICATU is a rotting corpse, waiting to be buried.

But I am sad to say that unions in Europe and elsewhere often treated ICATU as a genuine trade union federation when it was nothing of the sort.

The present

We have many more questions than answers.

• Can unions which were compromised by their collaboration with the regime (e.g., in Tunisia) continue to play a constructive role? Can they reform?

• Can unions be created where they have not existed at all? This is the case in Libya.

• And how do unions move from being an underground force, as they are in Iran, to something bigger and more concrete.

• Can a new and united labour movement be created in these countries? There is some evidence that it cannot be done. Unions in Iraq and Egypt have recently split.

It is very important to think regionally and to begin to create a body to replace ICATU.

The first steps have already been taken. And the LabourStart meeting in Istanbul made a big contribution to this effort.

While this is happening, the old unions are still playing a disgusting role. There was a recent visit by several trade union leaders from some unions in Iraq and elsewhere to Damascus, to show solidarity with the murderous Assad regime.

The international labour movement – in particular the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) – is racing to make up for lost time.

The future

One way of measuring the progress of the trade union movement in the Middle East and North Africa is to see it move beyond Arab nationalism and embrace all the peoples of the region.

This means in particular welcoming the Berbers of North Africa, the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, and the Jews of Israel.

The last of these is the most difficult, and few imagine that the Israeli General Federation of Labour – the Histadrut – will be invited to join a new regional federation of independent and democratic trade unions.

But it should be invited.

There is also the question of what role unions can play beyond workplace issues.

Unions should be in the forefront of the right for democracy and human rights in this region.

They should be taking on the religious fundamentalists and fighting for a secular state.

They should be in the vanguard of the fight for sexual freedom – not just for gender equality, but for gay rights as well.

If we can imagine unions in Egypt standing up for gay rights, we can imagine them embracing the Histadrut.

Both right now seem rather far-fetched.

But this is why unions exist: they are here to defend working people, to make the world a more just, a more equal and a more peaceful place.

So the real tests for unions in this region, and for democracy in general, can be measured by the treatment of women, and gay people, and Jews.

And I am optimistic.

I had the chance to visit Egypt a year before the Mubarak regime fell, and to meet with the dissident trade unionists who were then at constant risk of arrest and imprisonment.

Today they are free and they are building new, independent, democratic trade unions.

A year ago, few expected this to happen, and to happen so quickly.

Today, I think it is realistic to expect the revolution to continue, to expand and to deepen.

Another world is possible.