The fight for a fairer Australia is unlikely to be won unless we move forward too with a fight for fairness in the global economy says ICFTU General Secretary Guy Ryder in this speech to ACTU Congress.
Sisters and brothers, it’s truly an honour to be with you today and to bring to Congress the fraternal greetings of the ICFTU. We bring together some 158 million trade unionists, organised by our affiliates around the world.
Greetings to you, but also a message: a message of appreciation and a message of recognition of the ACTU’s strong, lasting, determined commitment to internationalism and to solidarity for so many years. Even when things are tough at home, we’ve always been able to count on the ACTU to help people who have it even tougher in their countries. Thank you for that.
Your global support, your engagement with the ICFTU, has truly kept Australian working people on the frontline – on the frontline of the battles that we actually do need to fight and do need to win for working people. Battles for a fair Australia in a fair world, in a global economy which offers a fair go for working families everywhere, a chance for countries to develop fairly. Because these are the bases of justice, the values of which Greg has just spoken, and justice itself is the only real way to security, it’s the only real way to make sure that we win that fight against terrorism.
Colleagues, the ACTU has stayed on the frontline at the International Labour Organisation. You stayed on the frontline when the Australian government decided to pack up and step back from the frontlines in that organisation, a move that we understood in the International Trade Union Movement as an expression of discomfort and dissent from the principles of social justice and the international labour standards that the ILO proclaims and promotes. And ACTU has stayed at the frontline in the Asian Pacific region, giving leadership in our regional organisation APRO, and it’s in this region that so many of the toughest struggles have to be won. The ACTU affiliates, all of you down there, have been in the fore in each of your global union federations. You can’t go to a global union federation without hearing the voice of the Australian affiliates right to the front, and that’s a fantastic contribution to our global union partnership.
I should say also that the ACTU has been at the lead in the fight for equality. I was here earlier this year when you hosted the 8th ICFTU World’s Women’s Conference, a great event – a really great event – and it highlighted not just how important unions are for equality, it also highlighted how much work still has to be done to win that fight. I think your sisters from around the world were shocked, frankly, by the information they received here and the demonstrations that they were called to join in for paid maternity protection here in Australia. That an advanced, industrial democracy does not provide this basic building block of a decent society was a shock. It was a scandal and one that we stand with you in the struggle to put right.
But what you give is what you get. I recall very well – it was referred to already today – when the MUA was up on the line three years ago and when the ICFTU and the international transport workers and all the rest put out the message around the international community of trade unions, the solidarity was there for you. We were there for the MUA – and the MUA is still here today. Maybe the construction workers tomorrow – whoever is next in line, you can rely on your international trade union fraternity to give the solidarity that they’ve always been able to expect from Australian trade unions.
So for all of these reasons, it’s really encouraging – I guess not so surprising – to find international issues so high on your agenda here today. And you won’t be surprised to hear me as a servant of the international trade movement tell you that I think that’s absolutely right and appropriate. Why? Well, I think that the reasons go well beyond the deep-rooted commitment to international solidarity that’s at the heart of our movement. It is about values. Make no mistake: the imperative of solidarity is very much at the heart of our work – it always will be there. The reflex in trade unions to go to the help of the weak, those suffering calamity, exploitation or repression. It’s not actually a reflex that’s shared by many others in the world of work, but it’s always there with us.
But what I want to say is that this reflex of solidarity needs to be supplemented in our international work today. Had I not been with you here today, I would have been in Venezuela. I would have been at a rally of unions representing 18,000 petroleum workers dismissed for strike action. Their communities are being militarised, they face eviction from company-owned homes, their children are not being allowed to go back to school at the beginning of the year and they and their families are being denied basic health care. That’s one example, tomorrow there will be another one. There are too many examples of repression of trade union rights. I don’t need to tell you about them. There are many stories from people sat down behind this platform than I can tell you, and they can tell you much better.
But what I want to emphasise today is that whether we like it or not, the onward march of the global economy is bringing about a convergence of national and international trade union agendas. The fight for a fairer Australia is unlikely to be won unless we move forward too with a fight for fairness in the global economy, and the same holds in reverse. The permanent challenge to recruit, to organise, has moved to the top of union priorities around the world, and it brings with it a determination to innovate, to bring young people, women, casual and informal workers into the movement. To be responsive to them, to meet their needs. But this is not all, because the environment for organisation – be it the behaviour and the strategies of employers or the macro-level policy setting or the regulatory framework, all of these are being increasingly influenced by supernational, international elements, and we have to impact in the international movement on these international factors which are determining, as I say, increasingly the national level industrial relations environment.
We need – in the ICFTU, I believe to be an organising resource for our affiliates. We need to focus better to ensure that what we do – everything that we do, directly or indirectly, makes a difference to the task that you undertake of organising and representing your members. And like many of our affiliates around the world, the ICFTU has since its last Congress been undertaking a serious review of our working methods, our structures and our priorities. As I see it, much of the challenge to us is to bring international trade union action closer to national action. Let me be frank: too often I feel international activity is still regarded as something apart from the mainstream of trade unionism – wrapped up in a certain mystery, the prerogative of a small group of experts, and for too many it represents a cost on national centres and not a potential resource for them. That we have to change, and that we are setting about changing in the ICFTU. It is about bringing internationalism down to the work places along with the values that have been spoken about. If we can do that, we’ll move forward very strongly with our international movement. I think we have to do it in two ways: one is, we have to be better at communicating international work. We are doing a hell of a lot in the international scene which isn’t well enough known about. We have a communications deficit, and in the ICFTU we’re working on putting that deficit right. We take it so seriously we put an Australian in charge of doing the job.
But the second is actually to step up our capacity and the quality of our work. We need to be better at delivering good quality and relevant services to you and all the rest of your colleagues around the world. I see three ways in which we can set about doing that. The first has to do with tackling multinational employers, and this is at the core of our partnership with the global union federations with whom we are working more closely than ever in our history. You know, multinationals around the world are falling over themselves to present themselves now as good corporate citizens, responsible corporate citizens.
They may be doing this, of course, for a whole variety of motives and we don’t have to believe the ones that they state about this, but what I do think we have to do is to capitalise on the exposure of business and corporations, particularly in the wake of the Enron scam, the wave of corporate greed and crime and the fat cat deals, they feel exposed. They feel a need to present themselves with an aura of responsibility. They need, I think, they feel the need to get into the business of value presentation. Now, we don’t swallow this. We don’t have to swallow everything at face value. But what we have to be smart enough to do is to shake out the wheat from the chaff and take the opportunities that this new corporate agenda offers, and we’re doing this in a number of ways.
One way we’re doing it is by negotiating global framework agreements, global agreements between global union federations and multinational employers. They aren’t, in fact, global collective agreements at this stage, but they do represent an important first step in the internationalisation of industrial relations. It’s important pioneering work. There are more than 20 global framework agreements out there at the moment. The vast majority of them have been negotiated in the last two years – pioneering work that we have to build upon.
I want to mention also particularly the work being done by our Workers’ Capital Group; Ken Georgetti from Canada is taking the lead in our work here. This is our work to actually pick up the instrument that is there – the billions, the trillions of dollars of workers’ money invested in pension funds. This is a tremendous resource for working people to influence the behaviour of corporations. We’re beginning to mark out the way that we can lever this weapon internationally and influence corporate behaviour with the weight not just of our arguments, but with the weight of our money too.
The second area of our work to which I attach particular importance – it’s a big area – is our work to shape globalisation – to bring about a globalisation which actually does offer the possibility of meeting worker needs, not corporate greed. I should say right up front that the ICFTU has not sought and we’ve not been able to avoid some of the polemics – the polemics of the pro and the anti globalisation confrontation of recent years, and I know it’s been a confrontation that’s been present with particular force in Australia. Now, we’ve had some tough discussions in the ICFTU of where we should be taking our stance on globalisation, and we’ve had some even tougher discussions with those outside the trade union movement who seem to have a particular appetite for this area of polemic. I believe that this pro/anti confrontation and the way it’s been going forward for about a decade now has not always been helpful for trade union interests. That’s for a number of reasons. One is that it has almost required people and organisations to declare allegiance, allegiance in favour of or against globalisation. Connected to that, it has polarised positions around extremes in favour of a status quo of a free market, the liberalisation agenda, or a sort of ‘stop the world, we want to get off’ rejectionism.
The ICFTU doesn’t belong in either of those categories. In fact, our job, our challenge is, I think, a little bit more complicated than that, because it’s our conviction that we have to shape globalisation along a different path. Our conviction is that today’s model of globalisation is not sustainable, it’s not favourable to workers’ interests, and it is generating greater inequality and insecurity.
In the year 2000, the United Nations set a series of millennium development goals and the ICFTU welcomed those goals as positive and achievable. They included the halving of world poverty by 2015. Today, those goals are further away than when they were adopted. That is probably the clearest reason why we need to change globalisation. This isn’t a selfish union agenda, as some people like to portray it, it’s the fact that globalisation is letting the global population down.
So we need to set about a different, a tougher task of reshaping and re-engineering the institutions, the processes and the rules of the global market which today are so blatantly stacked against working people and their trade unions. Our next step in this task will be in Cancun, Mexico, next month where the World Trade Organisation meets for its two-yearly ministerial meeting, and where they hope to take forward what is still being marketed as the Doha development round. Now, not only has the WTO and the Doha round yet to demonstrate anything positive that it’s done for development, it’s continued to refuse to deal in any meaningful way with the social aspects of trade, or at all with the critical question of international labour standards. That is why, as things stand today, an even relatively small technical breech of trade rules as set by the WTO can bring down on the head of the culprit millions of dollars in trade sanctions. By contrast, the most massive, the most egregious, the cruelest violation of workers’ rights pass by the WTO in silence and at most produce a moral slap on the wrist by the international community.
We have created – we have today, not by accident but by the design of governments, a system of globalisation which simply has international labour standards in the category of unenforceable rights which are left to the areas of moral persuasion. That’s the major task before us in respect to the World Trade Organisation: changing that situation. But what else is up for grabs? Well, public services for one. We’ll be going into Cancun to make sure that the GATS, the negotiating round on services, does not lead to a situation in which health, education and other vital public services are simply put out on the marketplace as another tradeable commodity and stops governments from meeting the needs of its people, and makes not need but the capacity to pay the key to access to vital services.
Our third line of action – and I think the ICFTU has a particular job of renewal to do here – has to do with our historical mission. It’s as old as the ICFTU itself. It’s about promoting and sustaining trade unionism in countries where worker organisations are either repressed, nascent or otherwise in need of our support. None of us in any country can be indifferent to the need for strong, inclusive and independent trade unions in other countries – not only because they make for better societies, but because creating a level playing field in the global economy where rights are universally respected is only part of the job. Level the playing field, yes, but then you have to occupy the playing field with strong and effective trade unions able to represent working people.
We’ll be sending a major mission to Indonesia in the coming days precisely with a view to assessing needs in that country and seeing how we can help in the job of building trade unionism there. And another country where we’re committed to building trade unionism is Iraq. I have to say a word about what the ICFTU has said about Iraq and done about Iraq in recent months. I want to say in the first place that the ICFTU consistently upheld the role of the United Nations and of International Law throughout the crisis in Iraq. We firmly opposed the resort to military action – military action without legitimacy that can be brought only by a United Nations mandate.
Those very same considerations remain with us in the aftermath of the war as reconstruction goes ahead amidst continuing violence, misery and chaos. Iraqi people are living the most direct and painful consequences of the war, just as they were the victims of Saddam’s regime. But there’s a wider price and a wider danger, and we’re all paying it. Because the war, and the way the war was launched, represents a rejection of multilateralism in the international system, and a rejection of the notion that problems and conflicts should be resolved on the basis of negotiation, consensus and agreement. It seems that the strong-arm tactics, the imposition of the will of the strong – which working people have suffered from in far too many countries for far too long – is now being brought on to the international stage as a way to do business. That’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous – it’s very dangerous.
Although it’s been done in the name of security, it is in fact a major source of insecurity. Because the anger that people feel when they’re on the wrong end of unfair treatment – that applies to Australian workers, that applies to Iraqis, it applies to all of us in any setting – that anger of people denied a fair go will not always be expressed peacefully. There may not always be democratic channels for it to be expressed, and that’s what’s dangerous.
Then, of course, the danger is that growing insecurity that’s generated that way becomes a pretext for more of the strong-arm stuff, more authoritarianism, a rallying cry for reactionaries at the polls, and we all know how well that can play. So our job is in fact to get out of this vicious circle. I’ve no illusions about the difficulties ahead, but trade unions can offer a lot nationally and internationally in the effort to break out of this vicious circle. I want to tell you that the ICFTU joins with you in your work to advance a fair Australia. We need you too to be with us as we move forward in our work for global justice. We’re going to win this together or we’re going to lose it together.
Our next Congress takes place in Japan in December next year at the invitation of our friends in RENGO. We’re meeting under the theme of globalising solidarity. That’s the job ahead. We’ll see you there. Thank you very much.