|Issue No 42
|17 December 1999
Eric Lee's Year in Review
The editor of Labourstart looks back over his favourite stories of 1999.
As editor of LabourStart (http://www.labourstart.org), I've been in a unique position to observe developments in the international labour movement in the past twelve months. It's not easy selecting the top 10 labour news stories for last year, but here goes:
1. Global: The international campaign by trade unionists and others against the WTO surely has to head anyone's list of top labour news stories. The real story in Seattle last month was not a few hundred militants battling Darth-Vaderesque police (though that was certainly photogenic) but the presence of tens of thousands of trade unionists in the largest street demonstrations the US has seen for a generation,backed up by a huge international mobilization.
2. China: The largest working class in the world has no free, independent trade union movement - but that is changing. 1999 saw numerous demonstrations, strikes and - unfortunately - arrests. There was even an attempt to launch a new, illegal, labour party. Thanks in part to the Internet, there were swift global responses by unions and human rights groups to the government's repressive measures and by all indications the independent Chinese labour movement grows stronger day by day.
3. South Korea: All through the year the unions were engaged in a struggle on two fronts - fighting against an economic crisis that has left their country devastated and also against a repressive regime that jails trade unionists by the truckload. There were some major gains - in the year's beginning, legalization of the teachers union, and just a few days ago, recognition of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. But even as I write these words, the Kim Dae Jung government continues to break up peaceful demonstrations and jail trade union leaders instead of engaging them in dialogue.
4. South Africa: Despite a government overflowing with friends of the labour movement (and many ex-leading officials of the trade unions), increasingly the union agenda and the government's agenda have been coming into conflict. The year was marked by a number of major strikes in the telecom, postal, public sector and coal industries.
5. Western Europe: Though the continent is now nearly completely "pink", with social democratic governments everywhere, unions are becoming increasingly estranged from those governments as they pursue free market policies. Tony Blair announced this year that "the class war is over" but someone forget to tell the unions (and the employers) and the UK saw quite a bit of minor strike action, almost entirely in the public sector (such as strikes on the London Underground). A series of mass strikes in Germany led by the giant IG Metall union threatened the Schroeder government which is pursuing its own variant of the Third Way. In both countries, the ruling parties suffered devastating defeats in local elections as working class voters withdrew support.
6. Kosovo/Chechnya: The war between NATO and Serbia deeply divided the international trade union movement with the Russian unions and many left-wing unions in the west coming down hard against NATO while US unions and others supported the effort. Passions were deeply aroused on both sides, though this did not happen later in the year when Russia launched a savage aerial and artillery bombardment of Grozny.
7. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: The year was marked by a series of bitter strikes. Miners and teachers in Romania, railway workers in Hungary, and nurses in Poland (who went on a sustained mass hunger strike) were in the forefront of long and difficult struggles which sometimes erupted into violence. In the former Soviet Union, there were some dramatic scenes including a shootout at a St. Petersburg factory occupied by workers as well as strikes at the Chernobyl nuclear power station and at the Kaliningrad docks.
8. North America: In the US, the unions continue to grow, experiencing their first large net gain in many years. Seventy five thousand joined one union in a single organizing effort and the largest textile plant in the country was also organized. Unions flexed their political muscle by supporting Clinton during the impeachment battle, but are divided over who to support in next year's presidential contest. Canada experienced several "illegal" nurses strikes and these led to large mobilizations in support of the ever-popular nurses.
9. Latin America: I counted general strikes in at least four countries (Ecuador, Uruguay, Colombia and the Dominican Republic), mass protests in Venezuela and Brazil, and killings and death threats in Guatemala and elsewhere. There's no lack of drama in the Latin American labour scene, but also no clear progress in securing trade union rights and better conditions for working people.
10. Did I forget someone? Oh yes - Australia and New Zealand. Much of the news in 1999 was surprisingly good. The electoral victories in Victoria and in New Zealand were a good way to end the century. The mobilization of Australian unions in support of the people of East Timor were a wonderful example of international solidarity as it used to be done. On the other hand, Rio Tinto workers have suffered a series of defeats and even under Labour governments, as in New South Wales, teachers and other public sector workers have sometimes had to take strike action to win their rights.
As one looks over the labour news for 1999, we see victories and defeats, great successes organizing and the continued experience of repression for many trade unions. One of the bigger disappointments for unions seems to be the failure of many social democratic governments to carry out the kinds of policies unions would like to see, such as full employment and a shorter work week. In the former Communist countries, unions - now finally free and independent - find life under capitalism nearly as difficult as it was under Stalinism, and in some ways more difficult.
But the beacon of hope is the consolidation and growth of a resurgent international labour movement, one capable of global campaigning on the issues that matter, such as child labour, fair trade and trade union rights. That new international movement is now possible in part because of the new communications technologies -- including the Internet.
Interview: Costa Bravo
Labor Council�s chief trouble maker chronicles the battles of the past year and ponders those still to come.
Unions: More Wins Than Losses
Workers Online ranks the Top Ten industrial relations stories from a year of frenetic activity.
International: Eric Lee's Year in Review
The editor of Labourstart looks back over his favourite stories of 1999.
Politics: So Many Questions
It was a year in politics that threw up more questions than answers. We look at some of the sticky ones.
Republic: Referendum With Class
Labor heretic Michael Thomspson analyses the failure of the Republican proposition.
Environment: Seattle Kills Greens V Jobs Bogey
The sight of US unionists, environmentalists and human rights activists being attacked by police in Seattle shows how far the progressive movement has come.
Deface a Face: Give Him a Hairdo
What better present could Michael Costa offer Workers Online readers than the chance to give him a Deface a Face style make over?
Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
See the latest issue of Labour Review, our resource for officials, activists and students.
Review: Cultural Wasteland
Workers Online resident door-bitches Zanga and Paul pass judgement on the year that finished the millennium.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005