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Working In These Times

Friday, Jun 22, 2012, 12:23 pm

Miners and Manufacturing Workers Unite to Form IndustriALL Global Union Federation

BY Eric Lee

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“This is a day that I will never forget,” said Jyrki Raina, the newly elected General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union—but it wasn't entirely clear what he meant.

On the one hand, at a congress in Copenhagen, trade unions representing some 50 million workers in 140 countries had just created a single global union federation for workers in mining and manufacturing.

IndustriALL is the merger of three existing global union federations—the largest of which, the venerable International Metalworkers Federation, includes several well known U.S. unions such as the United Auto Workers, the Machinists and the United Steelworkers. Leaders of all those unions were in attendance as were delegates from every continent and corner of the world.

History was being made. But history is messy, and what was supposed to be a celebration of trade union unity was turning into a shambles.

Despite all the inspiring videos, the rousing speeches about the importance of what was being done there in the Bella Center on the outskirts of the Danish capital, a lot of delegates were furious. The Bella Center is supposed to be an example of “new Nordic cool” but the emotions in the hall were anything but.

Just before Raina made his comment, an entire section of the hall had emptied out. All of the Latin American delegates left the congress in anger during the voting on the new 60-member Executive. They felt they were being under-represented, and that representation was being allocated not on how many members (or potential members) their unions had, but on dues.

The rich Europeans, especially the Nordic and German unions, were over-represented, they thought, at the expense of the global South.

And they were not alone. South African delegates joined them in condemning what they saw as an attempt by the traditional Northern European powerhouses of the international labor movement to continue dominating the new federation.

In the end, a compromise was reached. The Latin Americans re-entered the hall, chanting “Unidad!” as they did so. It was a genuinely dramatic moment, neither orchestrated nor planned.

The Latin Americans were not the only ones who might have felt under-represented.  IndustriALL’s action program committed them to “Equal Rights and Women’s Participation” but nearly 80% of the delegates were male, as were most of the elected officers and members of the Executive. The new federation has not yet followed in the footsteps of other global unions, which have mandated a minimum of 40% women’s participations in their congresses.

IndustriALL’s first act was to unanimously pass a 10-point action program that was nothing if not ambitious. The unions committed themselves to building stronger unions by organizing more workers. While organizing has long been at the center of union culture in North America, this has not been the case everywhere. The Action Plan commits the new global union to “make organizing, recruitment and growth the leading theme in everything IndustriALL does.”

Though this indicates that IndustriALL is learning to speak the somewhat more confrontational language of North American unions, it still shows its Northern European roots at times. One of the video greetings shown to the delegates came from a vice president of Nike, not the obvious choice for a new union federation committed to building union power.

The new federation’s first campaign was announced at the congress by Raina: support for striking Spanish coal miners who have occupied their mines 500 meters underground and have been met by violence and repression.

The Spanish miners are not the only ones under attack.  An emergency resolution was passed in support of the embattled trade union movement in Fiji, whose leaders are periodically arrested. And the congress saw a video message from Mexican trade union leader Napoleon Gomez, in enforced exile in Canada, who was banned from attending because his government had placed his name on an Interpol list. (Gomez has been exonerated of all charges—but the government continues to make it impossible for him to safely return to Mexico, or travel to Copenhagen.)

Like many events of this type, with over 1,000 delegates in the hall, there wasn’t all that much opportunity for an exchange of views. Speaker after speaker rose to address the hall, interpretation was provided in a staggering 14 different languages, and yet one felt that perhaps some smaller meetings with a somewhat less traditional structure might have been more productive.

That may happen at some point in the future, though the next congress of IndustriALL is not scheduled until 2016. Meanwhile, the Executive—with its Latin American contingent, but without very many women—will be making the decisions.


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Eric Lee is the founding editor of Labour Start, the global labor news site.

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