||Year End 2003|
Interview: Robbo’s Rules
Unions: Fightback 2003
Bad Boss: Madame Lash Whips Tony
Politics: United Front
Economics: Looking Back - Looking Forward
International: Net Benefits
History: The New Guard
Poetry: What is the PM singing this Christmas?
Review: Culture That Was
The Locker Room
Backs to the Wall
Looking The Otherway At Christmas
Californian Grocery Workers Hold Line
More than 70,000 California supermarket workers, members of the UFCW, are now in the tenth week of a strike which has struck a chord nationwide .
The strike has become emblematic of US workers national anxiety over health benefits and decent jobs - public support for the grocery workers strike is very high and the AFL-CIO is leading the solidarity drive for union members across America are raising funds to put money into the UFCW's strike pay fund.
The grocery workers strike is seen as the front line in a battle to prevent union jobs sinking down into poverty-level pay. The supermarkets say they are forced to lower their labour costs to compete with Wal-Mart, a nonunion, low-wage employer aggressively moving into the grocery business.
Grocery stores in Southern California are bracing for the arrival, in February, of the first of 40 Wal-Mart grocery stores. Wal-Mart's prices are about 14 percent lower than other groceries' because the company is aggressive about squeezing costs, including labour costs. Its workers earn a third less than unionised grocery workers, and pay for much of their health insurance. Wal-Mart uses hardball tactics to ward off unions
This strike is about defeating the Wal-Martization of the US economy.
US presidential elections
The California dispute is feeding into the US political cycle with unions pressuring Democrats to promote worker-friendly policies.
Two Democrat candidates stand out as the union favourites - Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean.
Twenty-one unions (including the Teamsters) are backing Gephardt. But two of Americas largest unions -- the SEIU and AFSCME - are supporting Dr. Dean.
Who will be the eventual Democrat candidate may be decided in the next six weeks and union supporters are playing the decisive role with union members backing both candidates going head-to-head for the New Hampshire and Iowa voters in January. The rest of the Democrat field of eight are now almost all being written off.
Dean has been the outsider for most of the campaign - not just because he's the Governor of a small state like Vermont ( population only a little more than Tasmania) but because his positions on Iraq and health care make him a dangerous "leftie" in US terms.
However Dean has innovatively used the Web to garner support, and grow and grow. Support for his health care policies has not been hurt by the national attention given to the California grocery workers union strike - and he has recently won the backing of Al Gore.
If the polls are right Dean has a chance of getting the nod from the Democrats - and beating Bush. It will be a big boost for trade union organising in the US - and change the balance of politics.
Oh by the way, just north of the border similar changes are happening in Canada where the traditionally union-aligned New Democratic Party took a marked shift to the Left earlier this year after a rough and tumble all-in party debate.
And another Oh by the way - Howard Dean has one interesting similarity with our Mark Latham. US media commentators are continually worrying about his sometimes colourful use of the language. Not as colourful as Mark's - but if Bush goes from Washington maybe Mark the Lip can make it into Canberra.
Trouble in Iraq
The struggle to create a free and democratic trade union movement in Iraq is one of the most hopeful developments on the global scene this year.
The US however is not going to give this expression of working class struggle an easy ride. In the past week American forces, using armoured cars and soldiers, attacked the temporary headquarters of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and arrested 8
of its leaders who were handcuffed and taken away.
The Americans are eagerly privatising and selling off Iraqi assets to their global corporate mates. The trade unions are going to have to play an important role in defending Iraq's budding democracy and the building of decent workplaces.
Iraq - before the Baathists - had a strong and proud trade union movement with mass support. Already there are positive signs that this important movement can find its feet again with a key Congress of Workers Councils and Trade Unions meeting at the end of November to debate the outlines of a new Iraq.
However free and democratic unions in other nations must be prepared to stand with these workers in solidarity.
The angry shouts from union movements in South Africa, Italy, the USA and the UK - about the behaviour of the Occupation forces - suggest that the trade unions of Iraq will get the international solidarity that they need to survive and grow.
In one of the few remaining 'communist' countries in the world workers still have problems winning the right to organise and have their voices heard through free trade unions.
However this has not stopped several spectacular autonomous, spontaneous and self-organised struggles erupting and involving tens of thousands of workers. The major struggles revolve around the privatisation of state assets with corrupt Red barons turning themselves into overnight millionaires while they strip the rights of working people.
Most recently in November 10,000 workers from the Xiangyang Automobile Bearing Company Limited blocked the main roads and railway lines in Xiangfan, a city of 7 million people, asking that the government to uphold the rights of workers' during the privatisation of their state-owned enterprise.
More importantly workers are showing they are not prepared to be cowed with continuing demonstrations in Liaoyang throughout the year over the arrest of labour leaders.
The Liaoyang workers leaders organised a campaign against what workers claim was the illegal bankruptcy of their former workplace, the Liaoyang Ferroalloy Factory.
The health of two of the Liaoyang union activists Xiao Yunliang and Yao Fuxin have deteriorated rapidly since they were jailed - and international organisations such as the ICFTU have called for their release. In May this year Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years imprisonment and Xiao Yunliang to four years' imprisonment on charges of "subversion".
These pressures seem to be creating a dynamic within the official trade union the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) - which at its Congress in September - changed its rules to allow for more democratic grass-roots elections and for fairer representation for migrant workers from rural areas.
Whether this is a real change or just spin and window-dressing is yet to be seen.
Certainly there was much anger in the world-wide labour community when the ACFTU this year regained its position on the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Governing Body. It was voted off following its support for the violent crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement.
However the ACFTU is showing a little bit of fight against the notorious Wal-Mart chain who are spreading their tentacles into China....and just as in the USA they are resisting unionisation of their workforce.
The ACFTU is threatening to legal action against Wal-Mart unless company agrees to establish unions in its Chinese stores. Wal-Mart, for its part, maintains that Community Party officials in Beijing assured them they weren't required to accept unions.
This is despite the fact that Article 10 of China's Trade Union Law clearly states that a union "shall be set up" in any enterprise with twenty-five or more workers.
Maybe Beijings desire for foreign investment and jobs trumps any concern for workers' rights???
However if the ACFTU gets its way in China ( even if we're only talking about yellow unions) it may be an interesting precedent for an in-coming Howard Dean presidency to insist that American workers get the same right to a union as Chinese workers ????
If there is one common theme for industrial disputes across Europe - and elsewhere it has been the ageing of the working population - and the propensity for governments and private companies to look at ways of getting out of there responsibility to pay pensions.
From Germany, to France, to Italy, to the Netherlands, the UK and Israel all sorts of governments, of all political shades, have been looking at different ideas to cut back their responsibility to their ageing workforces.
And they have been met with huge union organised demonstrations which in Rome and Paris have been counted in the millions.
For more than two months now the public sector workers in Israel have mounted go-slows and stoppages over the Sharon government plans to take a scalpel to the pension system - with still the threat of a general strike hanging over the country over this issue.
Made in Korea
This year, as last year, and the year before, the militant trade unionism of Korea fascinates.
Working people in that country are particularly angry with their President - who made his name as a civil rights lawyer standing up for unions but now seems to have turned against them - most recently overseeing the arrest of 8 top construction union officials.
On top of that the Roh government has launched an ugly campaign against the hundreds of thousands of undocumented, so-called illegal, guest workers that the Korean economy relies on.
The union movement in that country, rather than turning their backs on migrants by charging them with undermining working conditions, has wholeheartedly thrown themselves into a struggle to organise the illegals, organising protests and hunger strikes and fighting the deportations.
Call centres in the UK
As tens of thousands of call centre jobs seeped out of Britain into India the union movement has put up a struggle; its campaign forced the issue high enough up onto the public agenda that the Blair government has been forced to launch an independent inquiry into why tens of thousands of call centre jobs continue to go abroad.
Call centres and their workers have been big news in recent months as a string of major companies have announced they are moving customer support operations to Asia.
The UK trade union Amicus estimates that as many as 50,000 jobs have 'moved overseas', this year with predictions that hundreds of thousands of other call centre jobs will disappear in the same manner over the next four years.
Amicus, like other trade unions, is becoming increasingly alarmed at the trend. Accusing companies shifting jobs overseas of the motivation of greed, the union wants an investigation into the implications of 'offshoring'.
The inquiry will report by March next year - and the TUC has promised to put a lot of resources into getting the best possible result out of this inquiry.
Immigrant Workers Freedom ride
Finally I will go back to the USA again to look at the extraordinary Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride organised by the union movement last September.
Comparing it to the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s the US union movement has not been afraid to organise the so-called illegal immigrants who struggle to get by in low-waged jobs.
Rather than blame migrants for undermining working conditions the AFL-CIO, and unions like HERE and the SEIU, have mounted a well-organised well-funded campaign - the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride - demanding fair treatment of these workers.
This Freedom Ride was unashamedly modeled after the 1961 Freedom Rides of the U.S. civil rights movement in which student activists from across the country rode buses into the Deep South to challenge segregation on interstate transportation and in bus and train terminals.
Through organising the Freedom Ride unions formed strong new partnerships with community, civil rights, religious, student and immigrant rights groups across the country to fight for workers' rights on the job and economic and social justice for all.
The Freedom Riders--who include documented and undocumented immigrants and union and community allies--stopped in dozens of communities across the country to spotlight the need for immigration reform.
With the 2004 elections approaching, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride has will put immigration issues squarely on the national political agenda while encouraging greater participation by immigrants, whatever their immigration status, in the civic life of the nation.
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