Every year the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) publishes a sadly huge report setting out violations of trade union rights around the world. So this week is as good a time as any to remember why trade unionists are so concerned about attacks on their fellow worker representatives in other countries.
This year the repression of strike action through mass dismissals, arrests and detention was widely reported, including in Georgia, Kenya and South Africa. In Botswana 2,800 workers were dismissed after a public sector strike. In India, striking brick kiln workers were warned that the owners would “kill them and rape their women” if they did not return to work. In Georgia, a governor and dozens of police broke up a legal strike of steel workers, arrested the union’s leaders and forced the workers back to work. Strike action also came under attack in other ways. In South Korea, there was a continued use of law suits claiming huge amounts of damages against unions, while in Australia employers and governments successfully invoked laws forcing striking workers back to work.
Trade unions and their leaders were regularly persecuted, particularly the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and the independent trade unions of Mexico. In Fiji the military junta launched an aggressive campaign to dismantle the trade union movement, and Felix Anthony, leader of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) was arrested, threatened, insulted and beaten. Other incidents were reported in the Philippines, Belarus and the Russian Federation. Many members of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) faced arrested and imprisonment, and in November the government announced its dissolution.
I think we care for three main reasons:
- solidarity is inherent in trade unionism: if we were just out for ourselves, we would never have become active trade unionists in the first place (note that it is possible to join a trade union for purely selfish motives – but it’s pretty unlikely people who don’t care about fellow workers will become activists). Basically, we care about trade unionists being abused in other countries because we see ourselves in them;
- an attack on trade unionists anywhere is an attack on trade unionists everywhere – the weaker trade unions are in other countries (because of how their rights are abrogated), the weaker we become: either because they are not able to stand shoulder to shoulder with us against a common foe, or because their weakness allows their members to be exploited, which drags our terms and conditions down too; and
- because we can show what our own country would be like if trade unions hadn’t been able to establish such relatively good terms and conditions, hadn’t helped create our welfare state safety net, and so on – because as much as we complain about the shortcomings and steps backwards in countries like the UK, the gains trade unions have made for working people in Britain over the last century and a half are still tremendous, and produce a quality of life that workers in the world’s poorest countries dream about.
Let me know in the comments if you think I’m missing something big (I will be, of course – it’s the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch all over again!)