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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