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Global Labour Frames Future in Vancouver

Nine-hundred delegates from all over the world to vote on green social justice agenda.

By Tom Sandborn 21 Jun 2010 |

Tom Sandborn is a Tyee contributing editor focusing on labour and health issues.

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Guy Ryder, secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation.

The international labour movement has arrived in Vancouver this week, and is preparing to take its prescription for healing the world economy to the summer's upcoming G8 and G20 summits. Global labour's point man, Guy Ryder, told The Tyee he represents a movement that has been hurt by business globalization and anti-union ideologies, but is resilient and building strength in areas far from the industrial heartlands of the most developed nations.

Secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation Ryder, a Cambridge graduate, was trim, relaxed, eloquent and dapper in a well cut grey suit when he spoke with The Tyee this spring, in town for preliminary meetings in advance of the ITUC's second world congress that runs June 21-25 in Vancouver.

The ITUC is the world's largest umbrella group of independent unions, representing 175 million workers in 155 countries. If all of Ryder's members were gathered together in one nation, it would be the sixth largest country by population in the world, just larger than Pakistan and just smaller than Brazil.

Ryder said his organization is facing historic challenges during the current economic crisis, and he talked with excitement about some of the approaches the ITUC is pursuing to rebuild the house of labour after decades of neo-conservative onslaught.

'From crisis to social justice'

Ryder calls for more aggressive organizing of unorganized workers everywhere, especially in the Third World, where much of the work done by unionized workers in the developed world has moved, and for a global tax on financial transactions to fund an economic recovery that includes workers and jobs.

The "jobless recovery" reported in the business pages, he said, is not a recovery at all unless it allows workers to get back to work and to earn a fair return for their labour.

Ryder said this week's congress in Vancouver, working under the slogan "Now the People: From the Crisis to Global Social Justice" would focus on workers' rights, migrant workers, climate change and HIV-AIDS.

"The last three decades have been very unfavorable for working people," he said. "Starting with the Reagan/Thatcher years, the labour share of global wealth has now been driven down to the level we had in 1930. The International Labour Organization says the current crisis has destroyed 34 million extra jobs in the past two years. The aggregate trend is negative and the international labour movement has got to find ways to deal with job losses and follow and organize jobs when they are shifted to the third world."

Those trends are evident in Canada. In 2008, 31.2 per cent of Canadian workers belonged to unions, down from 33.7 per cent in 1997, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Rates of unionization varied from 24 per cent in Alberta to 39.4 per cent in Quebec. B.C.'s rate was 31 per cent.

The economic downturn of the past two years has only worsened the picture for labour, driving the Canadian national figure for unionization down to 29.9 per cent for 2009.

Of the 4,605,193 union members in Canada in 2009, over three million belong to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the host group for the upcoming ITUC meeting in Vancouver.

CLC president Ken Georgetti told The Tyee, "Having the world congress in Vancouver gives the labour movement in Canada the chance to see the struggles of workers around the world first hand. It's also a chance to learn that most of us have the same struggles, and we share the same aspirations -- a decent job, decent and safe work, the ability to retire in dignity after a lifetime of work with a decent pension."

'Just transition, green jobs' agenda

The ITUC Congress will hear from a spectrum of international speakers including Juan Somavia, director general of the International Labour Organization, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization, and Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

The ITUC gathers together most of the organized workers on the planet with the exception of the over 200 million workers in state controlled Chinese unions. Ryder said the Chinese organizations are not yet eligible to join his group because the level of state and party control over organized labour means the unions in China do not qualify as independent. The World Federation of Trade Unions claims to represent up to 70 million workers in unions that were once aligned with local communist parties and the Soviet Union. Ryder says these claims are "not credible."

More than 900 delegates from the 300-plus labour centrals that make up the ITUC are gathering in Vancouver. Fresh from this international meeting, some of these same labour leaders will move on to participate in meetings of the G8 and G20 slated for Ontario immediately after the ITUC events.

To these gatherings of the leaders of the world's most powerful economies the labour leaders will be bringing a set of proposals for what Ryder calls a "just transition, green jobs" agenda that will repair the world economy without making climate change and other environmental damage worse.

"We'll be bringing the message that there needs to be more interests represented at the table than just finance," the CLC's Georgetti told The Tyee. "It's more than just money. Trade and the expansion of trade has to benefit more than just business -- it must benefit workers too. We found out a long time ago that trade agreements don't benefit workers and it's time to change that."

"Employment issues need to be taken into account," Ryder said, "but at the same time, we need to follow a green, low carbon agenda. We've seen a major turn of the corner in the union movement on this topic. Ten years ago international labour couldn't endorse the Kyoto Accord, but we've seen a real sea change now. Only a few weeks ago I was invited to speak to the Greenpeace International AGM. That would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. Then, we and environmentalists were on opposite sides of the barricades."

New generation of leadership

Ryder, born in the U.K. and just over 50 years old, represents a new generation of leadership much more responsive to environmentalism than would have been possible even a decade ago. Similarly embracing campaigns many earlier unionists might have opposed, the organization he has led since its founding congress in 2006 is trying to ensure gender parity and a focus on the rights of women and young workers at its Vancouver gathering. Every national delegation will be required to reflect a 50-50 gender balance or it will have to answer to the credentials committee, which, Ryder said, may well cut back the voting strength of delegations that arrive with more men than women members.

Ryder said that if the June congress had been held two years ago, trade agreements and their impacts on workers would have been at the top of the agenda. Now, however, in the wake of the current global financial crisis and mounting concerns about climate change, other topics have shouldered their way to the top of labour's agenda. As noted, the ITUC is committed to helping to build an environmentally friendly economy that fairly treats all workers, especially the women and migrant workers who continue to bear the brunt of economic disruptions.

Ryder said his organization will be lobbying for the creation of a "financial transaction tax" that would collect a small amount each time a stock, bond or derivative is traded, with the revenue collected earmarked for job creation, progress on the United Nations mandated Millennium Development goals and a worker friendly, jobs oriented economic recovery plan.

"More financial regulation is needed," Ryder said. "Some transactions should be ended altogether, like the 'naked credit default swaps' that are such a big part of the Greek crisis now."

"Naked" credit default swaps are a particularly bizarre phenomenon of modern finance, a purely speculative insurance policy purchased by someone who does not hold any of the bonds or other financial instruments that underlie the CDS. "It's like having fire insurance on your neighbor's house," said Ryder.

Regulating derivatives

Marc Lee, senior economist at the B.C. offices of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is supportive of the call for increased transparency and regulation of financial instruments like the naked CDS.

"Derivative trading should be tightly regulated," he told The Tyee. "Derivatives were originally developed as a hedge, a way to insure against future loss, but speculators have flipped them on their heads. Anything that shrinks the size of financial speculation is a good thing. Lots of it occurs in totally unregulated areas now."

Lee was more ambivalent about Ryder's suggested financial transaction tax.

"While it is a good idea, and one we've discussed at the CCPA for years now, you have to be careful about the competing claims that are made for such a tax. On the one hand, proponents say such a tax will reduce speculation, while on the other they tout it as a source of revenue for achieving useful social targets like the Millennium Development Goals. If the tax is successful enough in reducing speculation, it will likely reduce the revenue base that is being promised for progressive policy goals."

The International Trade Union Confederation held its founding congress in Vienna in 2006, merging the two major global labour groups then in existence, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation of Labour. The merger was made possible by the end of the Cold War, during which the WCL represented unions aligned with the U.S.S.R. and the IFTU represented labour centrals aligned with the U.S. and other non-Soviet powers.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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