Report on the International Conference of Trade Unionists held in Oren, Turkey

Ashim Roy

The working class all over the world is facing a major offensive of global capital. Capitalists are resorting to reduction in wages, closure of plants, redundancies, lay-offs, subcontracting, contract labour system and casualisation. The governments are providing legal sanction to the erosion of the historical gains of the working class in terms of social benefits, working conditions and labour rights. The trade unions are opposing and struggling against these attacks of capital. At the plant level resistance has become a daily experience of the workers. And from this humus of living experience in many countries mass struggle is breaking out and unfolding into waves of countrywide social struggle. But, all these struggles are not able to force a strategic retreat of global capital. It is able to manoeuver against such opposition and the momentum of the offensive is not waning. One major reason for this weakness is the collapse of the vision of the project for socialism.

In this backdrop, more than 300 trade unionists met at Oren, Turkey for three days in mid-May 1999. The beautiful and pleasant holiday resort of the Public Service Workers' Union of Turkey on the shore of the Ionian Sea allowed the participants to overcome the language and cultural barriers to exchange notes on the political situation of their countries and share their unions' weaknesses and strengths. The Turkish comrades' warmth and political passion along with their tea and mountain music provided the cultural ambiance to discuss and debate the orientation and strategy for enabling the emergence of a revolutionary trade union moment.

Make democracy the instrument of struggle

For unions to become an instrument for workers' struggle democracy is essential. The workers have to own the unions, determine their objective and bargaining strategy, decide the allocation of resources and make the union officials accountable to them. The struggle for democracy within the unions has to be led by communists. They can do so only by making themselves accountable to the workers and leading the workers through initiative, reasoning and commitment.

The strength of the union movement is in the organization at the workplace. The focus of the communist revolutionaries in the trade union movement is to return to organizing and mobilizing the workers. These are the elements for building combative strength.

The majority of the comrades in the Conference were from Europe. Their main concern and agenda was building a class-based opposition within the trade union movement. The focal point of such opposition is the capitulation of the union leadership in the face of the ferocious general offensive of European Capitalism, attacking and snatching the historic gains of the working class. More so, this capitulation is taking place at a time when the objective conditions are forcing radicalization of trade unions.

The European bourgeoisie in forcing the convergence criteria of Maastricht and is relying on the principles of liberal ideology and the support of the trade union bureaucracy to ensure passivity in the trade unions. This creates a fertile ground for opportunism, which again reinforces passivity. For unleashing the dynamism of working class struggle this passivity has to be broken. This is a key task and it became the focus of the Conference, which resolved 'to make the principles of combative and class-based trade unionism take the upper hand again within the trade union movement.' To make this possible, a distinct ideological trend has to emerge that openly and politically struggles against right-wing social democracy. The left forces, including the revolutionary trend, has to agree to restrain their internal contentions within a democratic framework and unite to build up an independent political space within the trade union movement. Moreover, this ideological trend, even if it wins significant positions in the unions, has to base itself on the grassroots trade union members. The bourgeois crisis will move the workers toward the path of militancy.

Both the revival of class-based trade unionism and the recovery of such a model was the unifying theme of the meeting. The discussion and analysis of the strikes and struggles of workers from France, Germany, Spain, Korea, Turkey and India sharpened and enriched the concept of class-based trade unionism as distinct from the social-democratic and anarchist conception. More important was the learning of work methods and tactical principles for engaging, developing and consolidating such a class-based trade unionism.

The solidarity meeting was significant for the open espousal of, and 'emphasis on the need for politicizing the working class movement and the importance for the workers of strengthening their political parties.' This is distinct from the general trend of international trade union meetings that depoliticise most of the issues and evade the question of party building. Most of the participants were trade union leaders rooted and engaged in trade union work who were also Marxist. They addressed the problem of building socialist consciousness from trade union consciousness, developing a socialist trend from the trade union movement and linking it with the strategy of socialist revolution. This was different from intellectual activists reading a socialist trend into the trade union movement or imputing socialist consciousness into the trade union movement. For the participants, the terrain was the trade union movement and the objective socialist revolution. The debate focused on analyzing the process of evolution of proletarian consciousness from trade union consciousness and defining the role that a revolutionary party plays in this process.

Workers build their Party

The strength of the solidarity meeting at Oren lay in the recognition of the concept of the workers building their party. That revolutionary theory finds a material basis in the working class is a truism among Marxists. But, relating it to the concept of workers building their party allows for a creative tension of a contradiction to emerge in the theory of party building. This emergence of a dialectical relationship is fresh, if not new. The meeting made a conscious shift in the emphasis to the aspect of workers building their party. If the trade unions have to be built by workers and the call is for workers to own it, the next logical step is for workers to build the party. Revolutionary trade unionists have to take the initiative in leading the mass of workers to the task of building the party. The vanguard does not cease to exist. Only the relationship changes. The vanguard is made by the workers and is accountable to the workers. This approach opens up a whole new experience of thinking and practice that is imbued with the most radicalized concept of democracy. It is libertarian. Democracy becomes an instrument, policy and value for the working class to build the trade union, the party and the socialist society. The excitement of facing the challenge of integrating humanism, revolutionary Marxism and trade unionism was there among most of us who debated the issue with political passion deep into the night over Turkish tea.

The need of a political party to define the general line of advance and generate a political discourse, to which the trade unions can measure itself, had to be posed. Only then the trade union work can get crystallized as political experience and evolve into a political trend. The depth of revisionism, in all its variants, and the setback to the revolutionary movement has made it imperative to generalize the experience of various communist movements and provide a framework for the renewal of socialist theory and practice. The meeting did not back out from this problem. In fact, there was a constant subterranean process of relating the trade union issue to the left and communist movement of each country. The attempt was to redefine the communist movement with the perspective to democratize, empower and politicize the trade unions to make it a centre of organization, resistance and struggle.

Struggle against Chauvinism

On one issue the meeting was firm and clear. It opposed national chauvinism and viewed it as an ideology that retarded the formation of proletarian consciousness. In the backdrop of the NATO bombing of Kosovo, the meeting reflected a true international spirit and courage to oppose the US and EU-led imperialist attack on Yugoslavia. Most of the European comrades were in the forefront of anti-NATO opposition to the extent of blockading defence supplies and organizing desertions from NATO forces. The stand of no war was not from the position of pacifism. It was a part of the struggle in Europe against national chauvinism. This is an ideology that chains the working class to all kind of prejudices. Moreover, the tangible benefits and social privileges associated with such prejudices detract the workers from the task of class struggle. So the struggle against chauvinism is integral to building class-based trade unionism. The meeting declared its solidarity with Mumia Abu Jamal, the black journalist facing threat of death penalty because of anti-black prejudice. It also openly declared support for the rights of the Kurdish people in the face of the semi-fascist Turkish state.

The conference reiterated that the labour movement must develop an international stance against the attack of capital on a world scale. In the context of imperialist globalization a firm anti-imperialist position is a political must for developing the revolutionary trade union movement. Though the meeting discussed imperialism and inter-imperialist conflict it was limited by the horizon of Europe, maybe because the trade unionists from developing countries could not participate in an adequate number to articulate their concerns with strength.

The global restructuring is being done in the framework of the global commodity chain - a network of the labour and production processes whose end result is the finished commodity. Capitalism today entails the detailed desegregation of stages of production and consumption across national boundaries, under the organizational structure of densely networked firms or enterprises. It is over this network and not necessarily in each firm or enterprise, in each global commodity chain, that the metropolitan capital is seeking control.

The IMF, WB and WTO have put together a global system that allows flexibility to reorganize the global business along the global commodity chain. Labour flexibility is an important component that is a concern of the trade unions. In the first place this flexibility is possible because the dominant characteristic of labour is segmentation. Low global mobility of labour has restricted and so segmented labour within the political boundaries of countries. Within nations, various social institutions, both traditional and modern have a segmenting influence over the labour market. International capital needs labour flexibility to build a multi-tiered production chain with progressive low wages using the segmented labour market. This flexibility is required for the deployment of human resources in working practice and in wages.

The historic evolution of capitalism has resulted in the structural division between the TNCs and international finance capital on one side and the national economies of the third world with producers and labour embedded in these economies. The struggle of the working people is taking place along two axes, one anti-capitalist, opposing the capitalist offensive against labour, and the other anti-imperialist, against imperialism subjugating and oppressing the developing economies and people. The international stance of the labour movement has to be against the offensive on the third world people, for cancellation of imperialist debt, equitable terms of trade and relative autonomy for the economic development of the developing countries.

Unite class-based trade unionism and anti-Imperialist struggle

The TNCs adopt aggressive policies and practices against the trade unions in third world countries. Union activists are terminated from jobs and removed from democratic trade unions under the threat of capital withdrawal. Most of the production is subcontracted out to eliminate unionism and lower the labour cost. The local companies, to remain economically viable as well as competitive indulge in the super-exploitation of labour. The state supports this practice by allowing the suppression of unions, repression and murder of trade unionists.

The real issue of solidarity is between the trade unions of the developed countries and the trade unions of Eastern Europe and the developing countries. The European trade union movement has to use its leverage and greater organizational and bargaining strength to support unionization of workers along the global commodity chain and collective bargaining on demands on a regional basis. The International Trade Federations (ITFs) should legitimately become forums for such international coordination. As these ITFs are dominated by American, European and Japanese trade unions the struggle for building effective solidarity actions and mobilizing the grassroots workers for such a support is a major task for the left-wing trade unionists.

It is the responsibility of communists to struggle within the international trade union movement to bring the anti-imperialist struggle to the centre of the labour movement. In today's context, the class-based trade unionism and anti-imperialism are two components for developing the revolutionary perspective in the trade union movement. As the issue of imperialism was not adequately dealt with in the conference, a weakness remains to be rectified. If the history of the conference is an indicator, it will surely become a concern. The first meeting in 1995 in Frankfurt, Germany opened the real possibility of international co-ordination of revolutionary trade unionists. The second meeting in Paris, in 1996, adopted the slogan of 'All together against capital' and class-based trade unionism. The third meeting in 1997, in Madrid, defined the agenda of labour struggle against the European capitalists' project of the Maastricht Treaty. The meeting in Oren stood against national chauvinism and imperialist war.

The next Conference can be with the theme of 'uniting class-based trade unionism and anti-imperialist struggle'. It can develop the solidarity with concrete struggle. By then, the trade union struggles in South Korea, Indonesia, India and other Asian countries will have emerged with the vigour and clarity of class-based unionism and become the integrator of the anti-imperialist struggle of the people of Asia. It shall have the experience to contribute to the international trade union movement.

Click here to return to the September 1999 index.