Global solidarity on display in Berlin as trade unionists meet at LabourStart conference

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LabourStart’s annual Global Solidarity Conference took place in Berlin this year, and it was by far the largest one we’ve ever held. 360 trade unionists from many different countries came to Germany to take part in workshops, debates, film showings and conversation.  The conference theme was “Global Crisis – Global Solidarity”.

The conference came shortly after the congress of the International Trade Union Confederation, also in Berlin, and many ITUC delegates came along to LabourStart afterwards. While both conferences are important opportunities for labour movement activists, LabourStart conferences aim to achieve something quite distinct. No motions were voted upon, nor elections held, and any trade unionist could come along be they a General Secretary, a shop steward or a rank-and-file member. Rather than being a formal decision-making body, Global Solidarity Conferences are an opportunity for workers from all over the world to meet up, share their experiences and discuss ideas.

And what better place for it than Berlin? At the heart of Europe, the city is immensely rich in labour movement history. In the 19th century, Berlin was the cradle of a new trade union movement, workers’ cultural associations and socialist politics, earning a reputation as the ‘capital city of social democracy’. Today, the city is full of streets and squares named after famous trade unionists, socialists and workers’ leaders.

With so many people coming to the conference, we needed a building large enough to accommodate them. Luckily, the German service workers’ union, Ver.di, was on hand to lend us their magnificent (and enormous!) headquarters. Right next to the historic workers’ quarter of Kreuzberg, conference participants were able to begin the weekend with two walking tours, led by Win Windisch and Gunter Regneri, taking in the sights from Berlin’s political past.

Back at Ver.di HQ, conference opened with a introduction to LabourStart. Derek Blackadder of the Canadian Union of Public Employees told participants about the online campaigns that LabourStart runs in support of workers’ struggles, as well as the comprehensive news service we provide on trade union issues. He explained how all of this was possible thanks to a global network of hundreds of correspondents and volunteers, translating, reporting and publicising in their own free time.

Shortly afterwards, a plenary session was held to discuss the topic of the global crisis, and how best to build union power on a global level.

The first speaker was Dave Oliver, head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who had also opened the previous LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference in Sydney.

Conference was then addressed by Kıvanç Eliaçık of the Turkish union federation DISK, who spoke of the repression faced by workers in Turkey, and lead a minute’s silence to remember the miners killed in the horrendous Soma disaster.

The plenary also heard Mag Wompel of LaborNet and Michael Bride of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union in the USA, who discussed the difficulties of organising workers along the supply chains of multinational enterprises, and how such a feat can be achieved. We were also delighted to have a speech by Mostafa Berrchid, a sacked call centre worker from Casablanca whose struggle for justice LabourStart has been proud to support. After the plenary had finished, conference was treated to wine, beer and nibbles, and serenaded by a trade union choir. Hats off to any musical collective with a range that stretches from Hanns Eisler, through the Internationale all the way to John Lennon!

Plenary sessions continued on the Saturday morning, opened by ver.di chairman Frank Bsirske. A panel followed with six speakers, five of them women. They included Myrtle Witbooi, founding leader of the newly-formed International Domestic Workers Federation), Burcu Ayan from the IUF, Petra Brannmark from IndustriALL, Nazma Akter from Bangladesh, and Claudia Rahman from IG Metall (Germany).

Over the course of the weekend, discussions were held on all sorts of different topics of importance to the workers’ movement. Some of these addressed technical questions, such as how best to harness the potential of social media, radio and the mainstream press. Others delved into political questions that face our movement, such as how to support trade unionists struggling underneath autocratic and authoritarian regimes. Sparks flew in debates on the situation of the labour movement in the post-Soviet countries, as well as what approach to take to the regime-controlled ‘official’ state unions in China.

Away from the heat of controversy, participants were able to sit back and take advantage of the warm weather on Saturday evening at Jockels Beer Garden. This was a great opportunity to chat with comrades and colleagues from across the globe, as well as to sample Germany’s famous range of beers. A klezmer band also put on a raucous show to raise money for victimised anti-fascists in Germany and Greece.

Throughout the conference, copies of LabourStart’s new book, Solidarity, were on sale. The book is a collection of essays by Dan Gallin, former leader of the International Union of Foodworkers, and a critical thinker on the tasks of the labour movement. Dan gave a talk on his long and extraordinarily varied career in labour politics, a career that began with heterodox Trotskyism in the United States, lead on to involvement with the highest level of trade union politics, and which included clashes with CIA infiltrators and Soviet Bloc bureaucrats alike. He shared his thoughts on how to rebuild a labour movement with a campaigning spirit and a political brain, and afterwards he signed copies of his books for a long queue of people.

The conference wasn’t limited to just talk, either. We also took advantage of our numbers to stage a protest against Edeka, a company which has been exploiting Brazilian workers producing orange juice for sale in Germany, as well as its workers in Germany (who are organized by ver.di). After sessions had finished, we marched with our many different union banners through the streets of Berlin, and held a rally outside an Edeka store. Speeches were given calling on the company to give a fair deal to its workers in Brazil.

The conference ended with a session on LabourStart and the global labour movement, and the speakers included Espen Loken from the energy workers union in Norway, Martina Hartung from ver.di, Kirill Buketov from the IUF, Sunghee Oh from the Korean Government Employees Union and Eric Lee, LabourStart’s founding editor. It ended with a rousing singing of the “Internationale” in dozens of languages.

At the end of the conference, LabourStart correspondents met to discuss our work over the last year, and talk through ideas to build and improve LabourStart. With so much of our work taking place online, this was a useful chance to piece together a strategy together, in the flesh. We came up with some great ideas about how to co-ordinate correspondents on a local level, how to improve the website and campaigns pages to get the best out of them, and how to build on this year’s success for future conferences.

Conference this year was a brilliant one. Not only was it a great turnout, but the quality of the discussions was excellent and lots of us will have taken away some valuable experiences. LabourStart would like to thank everyone for coming, and extend particular thanks to those who put in a lot of time and effort into organising it. None of what we achieved would have been possible without the work of many people, nearly all of them doing so on a purely voluntary basis. Thanks to all who came along, and if you didn’t make it this time, see you next year in Vancouver.

— Tom Harris and Eric Lee

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Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Wins ITUC’s World’s Worst Boss Poll

Jeff Bezos CEO of  Amazon was announced as winner of the world’s worst boss at the 3rd International Trade Union Confederation World Congress in Berlin. The ITUC representing 180 million workers, is meeting in Berlin with over 1500 delegates from 161 countries.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary ITUC said while there are many CEO’s which have bad track records, nine stood out in 2014 as deserving of inclusion in the first poll of World’s Worst Bosses by the global union.

“Corporate power is out of control, it is cowering governments with threats of capital flight. The greed of the 1% is of more interest to our governments than the 99 %.

“We decided we would start exposing some of the elements of the worst boss phenomena – undermining democracy, undermining workers’ rights, supporting slavery and kafala.

“Amazon operating in Germany treats its workers as if they are robots. The company makes no secret that within just a few years they will replace workers with robots. A rich American corporation operating globally with disdain for dignity, for rights for working people. Jeff Bezos represents the  inhumanity  of employers who are promoting the American corporate model.  The message to big business is back off, you are not going to mistreat workers,” said Sharan Burrow.

Over twenty thousand votes were cast for nine bosses, chosen for their abuses of workers’ rights, along with other activities which undermine the interests of working people. From tax avoidance, to corporate bullying or attempts to influence public opinion the rogues gallery of worst bosses has

Amazon has been at the forefront of tax avoidance scams and difficult working conditions.

  • Warehouse workers walk as much as 15 miles / 24 km a day;
  • Ambulances regularly wait outside facilities to collect workers;
  • In Germany Ver.di warehouse workers have been fighting for better wages and conditions.

 

“Workers at Amazon distribution centres are required to wear digital arm mounted terminals that monitor their every move. There are no agreed protocols about breaks and speed, and a culture of bullying and harassment is rife. Staff arereprimanded just for speaking to one another or even pausing to catch their breath,” said Sharan Burrow.

 

Dishonorable mentions were awarded to Mr X from a major airline and Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO News Corp.

The CEO of Qatar Airlines blamed unions for the global unemployment in an interview with Arabian Business (May 2013) he said “If you did not have unions you wouldn’t have this jobless problem in the western world.”

 

The World’s Worst Boss poll included:

  • C. Douglas McMillon, CEO Wal-Mart Stores
  • Jamie Dimon, CEO JP Morgan Chase
  • Loyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs Group
  • Charles Koch, CEO Koch Industries
  • Lee Kun-Hee, Chairman Samsun Group
  • Ivan Glasenberg, CEO Glencore Xstrata

 

 

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Gemma Swart

Campaigns and Communications

International Trade Union Confederation

Murder in the coal mines

by Kıvanç Eliaçık

Director of International Relations Department
Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey – DISK

On 13th of May 2014 Turkey faced with the biggest coal mine explosion in the country’s history. It is reported that there are more than thousand mine workers trapped inside the privately owned mine and death toll rises every single second. More than 230 mine workers died, is the last information we have received. There is a 15 years old boy, Kemal Yıldız among the deceased and more than 80 injured mine workers and rescue team members are at the hospital. 

Unfortunately, there are no healthy official announcements about the death toll and the cause of the accident from the authorities. The families of the mine workers are waiting anxiously in front of the collapsed pit or in front of the hospital, hoping to hear that their loved ones are rescued.

 

The district of Soma is known for its coal mines, it won’t be wrong to say that Soma is the heart of coal mines. After privatization of the mines for many years, so many occupational accidents have been erupted. Coal mines are just an example to the rest of the occupational accidents that have been going on for a long time in other industrial sectors in Turkey. To give some numbers, the occupational accidents have increased by 40 per cent from 2002 to 2011 in Turkey. This number is too high to be disregarded. The main reasons for the increase of occupation accidents are the widely used system of subcontracting, lack of occupational health and safety measures and inadequate inspection of work places by the authorities.

 

In order to draw attention of the government on this issue, a Member of the Parliament from the main opposition party, CHP, Özgür Özel, presented a motion to research to the Parliament about the occupational accidents and security measures in the district of Soma recently. This motion was denied with the votes of the ruling party.

 

Soma Holding is the owner of the coal mine in the district of Soma in Manisa province. Reportedly, there has been an inspection recently in the mine where the accident has occurred. The inspectors, then, concluded that all the practices and the technology that was used in the mine were in line with the relevant legislations. However, still today, the company could not even announce the number of workers who were inside the mine at the time of the accident. This raises the question of the approved technology and its appropriateness, not even talking about the inspection itself.

 

Soma Holding is a ‘redevance’ company which means that the privately owned mine is run by “rental in return of coal” system. The cost per ton of coal was 130 -140 US dollars before Soma Holding acquired the mine but the company decreased the cost per ton of coal to 23.8 US dollars after the acquisition. It is clearly seen that the company transferred the profit it earned from the mines to the construction sector.  The company is also the owner of the famous skyscraper in Istanbul, named as Spine Tower. Most of the workers are either unregistered or they work for minimum wage.

 

The government officials, local authorities and mainstream media try to conceal the death tolls and even announce misleading and unrealistic numbers. Repeated information on the company’s undisputed record of security measures and occupational safety is being shared with public, reminding that coal mine accidents are unavoidable. It is unjust and unacceptable when the Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes a press conference after 24 hours of the accident and said that: “these accidents are usual.”

 

Just a week ago Ministry of Labor and Social Security organized an International Occupational Health and Safety Symposium. The Minister bragged about the improvements of occupational health and security measures in Turkey, and accused the trade unions for not contributing to the issue. It is important to remember that on May Day this year, he authorities have blocked all the streets and impeded the trade unionists to raise the issue of occupational health and safety publicly on May Day events.

 

Today trade unions are organizing actions in work places and city centers. ITUC and ETUC members DISK and KESK Confederations, together with TMMOB, The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects and TTB, Turkish Medical Association announced a countrywide general strike for tomorrow. The unionists, activists, students and workers are gathering in Taksim and in front of the company’s headquarters in protests tomorrow, to remind the duties and responsibilities of government officials on occupational health and safety and to end subcontracting that leads to violating workers’ rights.

 

According to trade unions in Turkey, there is a system of subcontracting, there is a system of maximizing profit rather than humanity and also there is system of seeing workers’ health and occupational safety as cost items. The company is not the sole responsible of the murders but the authorities who have not conducted the necessary and appropriate inspections are also associates in crime.

 

We have hope, we wait for good news… But we also mourn… Merle Travis is singing his song ‘16 tons’ for Soma miners; St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go /  I owe my soul to the company store