Workers Uniting’s first Congress: “Fighting Back Globally!”
Workers Uniting – the international trade union structure formed by the North American Steelworkers (USW) and UNITE in 2008, held its first Congress in London for a day and a half on 11-12 November under the theme ‘Fighting Back Globally!’ A hundred delegates from both unions (plus guests from Mexico, Colombia and Bangladesh, and General Secretaries of Global Union Federations ICEM and the IMF) discussed and agreed a radical work programme for the next three years covering politics, organising, member to member solidarity, equalities and global solidarity.
Taking place against the background of the massive global assault on workers’ rights and social provisions, it was a hugely inspiring event for those who attended. But it is important that others understand what exactly this new international trade union structure is, and what its importance is for the wider labour movement.
In the age of globalisation, where global companies and finance capital are busy shaping the structure of the global economy in their own interests, workers need more effective organisations to act in our interests globally: a global labour response to global capital – until now sorely lacking.
Of course we already have European and Global Union Federations: recognising the need to be more effective global players is not exactly a new idea. But the existing structures do not yet have the power and influence that we need. Workers Uniting was not created as an alternative to the existing structures. The First Congress resolved unanimously to affiliate to, and continue to play our full role, in the relevant Global Federations – especially the new one to be formed when the IMF and ICEM merge next June. However, within this framework Workers Uniting will add substantial value, more than just the sum of its constituent unions.
Collectively the USW and UNITE have a vast experience of political and industrial action, and we share a common political and industrial perspective. We are also both major players and opinion leaders in our respective national labour movements. Unburdened by the obstacle of language, starting to build transnational cooperation and learn from each other has been relatively easy. We have already engaged in deep cooperation around elections and campaigning in the US and the UK, and we are now pledged to worked together to jointly develop a serious and credible political alternative to the current orthodoxy of neo-liberal austerity politics.
In the industrial arena cooperation is already developing well in common sectors, such as health, metals, and education, and also in companies such as Honeywell, Alcoa and Georgia Pacific. In the paper sector, where industrial cooperation is most advanced, members and officers of both organisations have even taken part in each others’ collective bargaining negotiations and equality conferences. Our organising units are looking at possible joint targets.
Workers Uniting’s long term aim is to move towards a real integration of the two unions in order to build a truly transnational structure. But there is also a stronger logic behind the political configuration of Workers Uniting, namely, that our unions in North America, the UK and Ireland all operate in a very similar political and cultural environment – dominated by deregulated labour markets, a minimal role for the state in economic management, and very aggressive anti-unionism from their ruling elites.
Although other countries increasingly find themselves in this situation, the Governments of the UK and USA have driven this agenda forwards globally, from the Reagan-Thatcher era to Bush-Blair. So the union movements in the countries from which this anti-worker offensive emanates need to intensify our cooperation to formulate the right political and industrial response to the attack.
With our understandings and experiences rooted in the reality of the countries whose ruling classes are driving the global agenda, it is critically important that we find our voice and help build and strengthen a trade union fight back globally. Our voice should also inform the strategies of the Global Federations in their search for the right response. The stakes are too high to allow the strong influence of the German and Nordic unions, operating as they do in less hostile political environments, to be the sole and dominant voices defining the way forwards.
Whether or not we can ultimately realise the dream of creating a truly transnational union remains to be seen, but the Workers Uniting Congress marked a big step forward in our search to make labour more powerful and effective at the global level. There was a real meeting of the minds during the congress, with delegates and officials of both unions leaving firmly committed to work much closer together in the battle for global justice, freedom and equality. That can only be a good thing for global labour and will undoubtedly help make unions stronger.