By failing to stand with working people, Labour is taking an electorally risky stance

Simon Fletcher

By Simon Fletcher

Keir Starmer’s backtracking on nationalisation looks like an excess of caution, when he should be boldly reaping the benefits of Tory disarray.

Last week was a watershed for Keir Starmer’s Labour, laying bare the limitations of Labour’s project as it stands. The party aimed to start the week with a set-piece speech on economic growth. Instead, it succeeded in turning it into rows with itself – over dropping public ownership of the big utilities, its stance on the wages crisis and its handling of strikes.

The sacking of the shadow transport minister, Sam Tarry, symbolised many of these difficulties. The leader’s office says it had no choice, after an unauthorised media round, breaking collective responsibility. But it was also reported that he was sacked for saying that it was “not acceptable to offer below inflation pay rises” because it would be a real-terms wages cut for workers.

It’s a raw nerve: cost of living pressures are ripping through British society, with the biggest collapse in living standards for decades. UK real pay levels look set to slump by 6% in the next two years, the worst fall in the G7. Millions are being forced to accept worse pay and working conditions. Measures such as fire and rehire and legalising agency work for strike-breaking hang over them. Consequently, trade unions are being placed in the centre of the argument.

In the midst of this, the Labour leadership’s problem is that it gives every impression of being more obsessed with differentiating itself from the previous leader than it is with the millions of people getting hit through their pay and energy bills.

Starmer gave clear commitments when he stood for leader in favour of public ownership. Binning those policies last Monday caused anger across the party and further strained Labour’s relationship with the unions. But it’s also about the process – dripped out in response to media questions. The Labour leader tried to clarify that he had not in fact changed Labour’s position on public ownership for the railways, though his clarification itself left many confused. An excess of caution leaves big issues unresolved, lying around like unexploded ordnance, only to go off at the wrong time. As a portent of how Labour would govern, it suggests an administration prone to be buffeted about by events.

Public ownership of the energy companies would place Labour on the side of those who are struggling badly

The stated reason for Starmer’s broken commitment to public ownership – the pandemic has changed things – is wrong. Covid has actually strengthened the case for changes in ownership. The rail franchising system collapsed during lockdown and millions of pounds went straight into profits for the private rail companies.

Likewise, the public is living in dread over energy bills. Public ownership of the energy companies would place Labour on the side of those who are struggling badly. On the day Labour ditched the policy, the Trades Union Congress published a detailed report on how to make it happen.

We are asked to believe that Labour’s position on the utilities is pragmatic, not ideological. But if the outcome in almost every case is the maintenance of the failing status quo, the ideology is inescapable.

In truth, the Labour leader’s office does not seem to have a theory to fully explain the present situation in Britain, one that then aims to use all the policy levers to tackle the consequences of it. As one experienced Labour campaigner described it to me, “their mindset is benevolent managerialism”. Labour’s detachment is why it struggles to tell a persuasive story about what is happening to people and, therefore, “why Labour?”.

Ferocious infighting in the Tory party is tearing great holes in its credibility. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are definitely beatable, though it is far from a foregone conclusion. Labour cannot afford to waste the moment. By failing to stand with working people trying to defend their living standards, Labour is in danger of walling itself off from them. It is electorally dangerous.

With the Tories in meltdown, Labour can afford to shed some of its timidity and launch a stronger case that connects to the cost of living crisis – and it should.

First published on The Observer website on July 30th and republished with permission of the author.

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Turkey’s left wing HDP Party prepares for election

I attended what could be the last Congress of the left HDP Party (The Peoples’ Democratic Party) before the Turkish election next year with Labour MP Lloyd Russell Moyle.

Founded in 2012 the HDP held its 5th Congress in a large indoor sports hall on July 3rd in Ankara – attended by an estimated 10,000 people (many of them young people) with over 100 international guests and representatives from the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group. HDP is an associate member of Party of European Socialists (PES) and a consultative member of the Socialist International.

The HDP’s political focus is based on radical democracy, feminism, LGBT rights, youth rights and egalitarianism and since the 2015 elections in Turkey the right wing and ultra-nationalist AK party led by current president Tayyip Erdogan has launched on going attacks on the party attempting to close it down and seize its assets before the next election.

Over 5000 HDP activists and supporters including politicians, trade unionists, lawyers, journalists and HDP staff have been arrested or jailed.

Under Erdogan Turkey is facing big economic problems with inflation running at 78% and a majority of young Turkish people (12% of all voters who pollsters predict will be decisive in a very tight election race) say they want change to improve job opportunities, education, and free speech. Other key issues for them include justice, immigration and transparent economic policies.

The congress hall was decorated with banners that read “Democracy alliance will win”, “Free press cannot be silenced”, “Peace and resolution, not war and isolation”, “Not a monistic regime but a democratic republic”, “Democratic resolution of the Kurdish question” and “Not hunger and poverty – but equal distribution”.

The keynote speeches were given by HDP Co-Chairs Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar.

Pervin Buldan was clear that she anticipated HDP will be a power brokers in an expected coalition. “Upcoming elections will not be about selecting the president or prime minister. It will be about building a new democratic and egalitarian order in Turkey. The HDP is the main driving force behind these elections and the process going forward” she told delegates.

“We say there is another way. That way is the third way that HDP resolutely defends. And this is the democratic alliance that we will move forward with all the democratic forces and which we call Turkey’s democracy alliance. The will of the Kurdish people is in favour of co-existence, and through the democratic alliances it forms with the peoples it lives side by side.”

Mithat Sancar told delegates: “It frightens and worries them, the fact that we are the strongest alternative to their authoritarian regime. That’s why they attack us with all their strength. They think they’re going to destroy us. But they will never succeed. We warn the AKP government; do not play games on the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, (imprisoned in isolation on an island for over 20 years) do not use such a sensitive issue for your power goals. Our stance on the presidential election is clear. We are open to negotiations and the idea of a joint candidate, in case of transparent negotiations in front of the public.”

For more information on the trade union campaign to free Abdullah Ocalan follow @ocalanfree and for information on the the HDP follow @HDP_Europe on twitter

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Protest At Your Own Peril

Book Review: Matt Foot & Morag Livingstone – Charged: how the police try to suppress protest

By Adrian Weir

The odious current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is widely despised and derided for her attempts to order the pushing back to sea of refugees and for presiding over the increase of the powers of the state over public protest with the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act 2022 followed in short order by the Public Order Bill.

What Foot and Livingstone are able to demonstrate is that it was the apparently more genial Conservative Home Secretary in the early 1980s, Willie Whitelaw, who in fact set in train the shift in policing of public protest to a paramilitary style, learnt not in Belfast or Derry but from colonial policing in Hong Kong.

This new style was secretly published with very limited distribution as the Public Order Manual of Tactical Operations and Related Matters.

At this time – the advent of the neo-liberal era – the first of the Thatcher anti-union laws were introduced more or less straight away after the 1979 General Election in 1980, which were added to very considerably by a further Employment Act in 1982 by the notorious Norman Tebbit.

It was the creation of a plethora of civil wrongs that no union intent on winning a dispute could reasonably comply with, particularly limiting picketing to “at or near place of work,” coupled with the secret adoption of the new colonial style of policing that led to the NGA union (now part of Unite) being comprehensively beaten, in the courts and on the streets, in its dispute with Eddie Shah at the Stockport Messenger in 1983.

From that point forward the twin track approach of what could be called lawfare and warfare has put the unions in Britain mainly on the defensive with further demoralising defeats in the 1980s for the miners and, the print workers (again) at Wapping.

This was no accident, it clearly came about by design, as discussed in great detail in this book.

As used against the print workers and miners lawfare and warfare is a strategy to demobilise and debilitate organised labour which may have been expected to be in the vanguard of resistance to neo-liberalism.

In the 1980s this new style policing was not only deployed in cases where labour represented a direct threat to capital – it was shockingly also used against a hippy convoy in 1985.

The hippies were intent on holding a free festival at Stonehenge; the police, acting at the behest of the Wiltshire county set and the farming lobby, were determined to prevent an assembly at the monument which they did with extreme violence.

Lifestyle as well as industrial politics was now considered fair game as rave culture was to discover in subsequent years.

As the 80s gave way to the 90s the police were using, refining and redefining the tactics set out in their secret protocol, for example, the Poll Tax disturbances in Trafalgar Square in 1990, the anti BNP demonstration in Welling in 1993 and, the anti Criminal Justice Bill protests in Hyde Park of 1994.

And so it goes on. New Labour in office in London and Edinburgh provided little comfort for protestors at the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 and the protestors at the G20 summit in 2009.

The school students’ protests against tuition fees in 2010 and more recently the Black Lives Matter activists and women remembering Sarah Everard have all been subject to violent police tactics not even known about never mind endorsed by Parliament

Foot and Livingstone show without a shadow of doubt that the suppression of protest over the past 40 years is essentially a strategic choice made by the elite in the neo-liberal era.

The body responsible for implementing that strategic choice was Association of Chief Police Officers –
now known as National Police Chiefs’ Council – working hand in glove with Home Secretaries of whichever political stripe.

Should Labour ever win a future General Election what could we expect? With the right of the Party now in control, our experience of the Blair and Brown premierships may be our guide.

In the 1990s, Blair promised and delivered very modest reform of labour and trade union rights; crucially most of the anti-union laws of the Thatcher and Major period were left intact, including the restrictions on effective picketing.

Welcome though Labour’s Green Paper A New Deal for Working People is these proposals will not deal with this essential issue.

Nor did Blair seek to undo any of the draconian public order offences introduced under Thatcher and Major, in fact his Government increased them.

Veteran of those years, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper MP, in the debate surrounding Patel’s recent raft of legislation has of course highlighted misogyny in the police but continues to argue “I strongly believe in the British model of policing by consent, we should be proud of it.”

Foot and Livingstone more than clearly show that the idea of “policing by consent” has been a dead letter for the past 40 years.

The reality, particularly for workers in dispute and for many others as well, is one of the police secretly evolving into a paramilitary gendarmerie.

First published in the Morning Star 6th June 2022

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International unionism in a globalized economy
 by Ken Neumann


Given by Ken Neumann, former Canadian National Director of the United Steelworkers (USW)

It is truly an honour to be here, receiving the Sefton Williams award and presenting this lecture.

I want to thank the University of Toronto, the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, and Woodsworth College, for having me here today.

I’m always happy to be at this great university, where over 7,000 members of the United Steelworkers work.

Larry Sefton and Lynn Williams were two great Steelworkers. It is hard to express how much this means to me, to receive an award named for these two influential labour leaders. Not only were they great for the labour movement, but they had so much influence on me, personally, and on my own leadership with the United Steelworkers.

Today, I want to talk to you about one of the main accomplishments of my career. That is the work of our union in building international worker solidarity, and how essential that is in the face of globalization and the ever-more powerful multinational corporations.

I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. My family were strong CCF supporters during the Tommy Douglas years. My commitment to social democracy and my loyalty to the NDP are directly tied to my roots.

Still, you may wonder, how did a farm boy from Saskatchewan become so focused on building international trade unionism, working with labour leaders around the world to build workers’ power?

It goes back to the influence of Lynn Williams.

Lynn was the first Canadian to lead our Union as International President. This was during the worst period of decline in the North American steel industry, in the 1980s.

The industry and workers in Canada and the U.S. were being devastated by globalization and the development of the corporate, so-called Free Trade agenda.

Under the leadership of Lynn Williams, our union’s response was to say: we need to build workers’ power across borders.

At the time, some unions in Canada split from the U.S. side of their organizations. But, Lynn always believed that we were stronger from working together, across borders. And he was right.

And so, in memory of Lynn Williams, I wanted to talk to you about some of the key moments in my career as the National Director for the United Steelworkers. I want to convey just how important it is to build international connections between workers and union leaders around the globe.

The globalization of capital over the last half-century and the trade agreements that have enabled that globalization, have not led to a rise in working-class prosperity around the world.

Neither have these corporate-designed trade deals led to an end to military aggression, something that was predicted by many neoliberal economists in the 1990s.
In fact, the rise of extreme right-wing movements and politics is one of the reactions to increasing inequality and concentration of economic power around the world, including in our own country.

I truly believe that the only way we can counter these phenomena is through international trade unionism and true, worker-centred economic populism.

My Union, has, from its very inception, been an international union.

I know that sometimes folks on the left in Canada mock the term “international” when it is applied to unions like the Steelworkers. They say – “well, what that really means is that you’re “American.”

The USW may have set up its international headquarters in the U.S. at its founding in 1942.

But as many of you know, our Union emerged from simultaneous uprisings and organizing of steelworkers in Canada and in the U.S., in the 1930s and 1940s.
By the end of the Second World War, the Steelworkers Union was growing like wild fire in Canada, as well as the U.S.

In Hamilton, Sault St. Marie, Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Schefferville, Quebec, steelworkers and miners across Canada wanted a democratic, international Union. And they didn’t care where its headquarters was – they cared that the Union could help them earn a decent living.

Because what was true then, and remains true today, is that working-class struggle is not, and should not, be bound by international borders.

Workers around the world have more in common with each other than they do with the bosses, no matter where they might live.

Being part of a bi-national union continues to give the Steelworkers a great starting point to expand beyond our borders, to develop connections across oceans and around the world.

Even in recent years, our work with our union in the United States was instrumental in pressuring the Trump administration to remove the steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada. Without that cross-border action, I truly believe those harmful tariffs would have stayed around, a lot longer.

Many of you will remember how, in the 1990s and the 2000s, it often felt impossible to push back against the growing power of multinational corporations. They could just shift production out of the country, facilitated by more and more trade agreements.

This affected our union, and our members, at the bargaining table.

The threat of lost jobs and plant closures was dangled in front of us constantly.

You would hear anti-union rhetoric all over the place: if wages are too high, they’ll just move the factory to wherever, so why bother.”

This was never acceptable to us, so we fought back.

It was daunting and it sometimes felt like the forces of history were against us. But we plowed forward, and made an intentional decision to build worker alliances around the world.

By the time I was elected as Canadian National Director in 2004, the Steelworkers Humanity Fund had already been working around the world for 20 years.

Lynn Williams had already been the first Canadian president of our international union.
NAFTA had been around for 10 years.

The dominant discourse was that trade agreements and giant corporations expanding internationally were good for workers. It was the way of the future and would bring wide-spread prosperity.

As trade unionists, we always saw the other side of that coin.

Hundreds of thousands of our members and other workers losing their jobs.

Communities decimated in both Canada and the United States.

The disappearance of good manufacturing jobs was not offset by good jobs in other sectors here at home. And shifting production to other countries didn’t help workers abroad.
Those who worked with the Steelworkers Humanity Fund could tell you, first-hand of the horror stories in Mexico and in other parts of Latin America.

When I look back on my career, it’s remarkable that so many of the big Canadian steel and mining companies, where our members fought for, and won, good jobs, no longer exist.

My working life started at a steel company in Saskatchewan – IPSCO – that made a name for itself by supplying pipe and tube for the oil patch.

In 2007 IPSCO was purchased by a European-based company, SSAB.

The following year, SSAB sold its Canadian assets to Evraz. Incidentally, given events in the Ukraine, you might know that Evraz is owned by Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich.

The point is that IPSCO is no longer a Canadian-owned steel company.

Likewise, in Quebec, Sidbec-Dosco’s operations, once owned by the Quebec government, were sold to Lakshmi Mittal and are now part of the Arcelor-Mittal empire, which also includes the former Dofasco in Hamilton.

Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie was taken over by ESSAR, and Indian controlled company, then was bought by a group of bond holders after Algoma’s third insolvency in 20 years.

Steven Harper’s government approved the take-over of Stelco by U.S. Steel, on the blatantly false claim that there would be a ‘net benefit’ to Canada.

By 2007 the Canadian steel industry was entirely in the hands of global corporations owned outside of Canada.

As a side note, these foreign take-overs fueled our union’s long-running campaign to change Canadian trade law, to give unions the right, on behalf of workers, to file anti-dumping cases to protect Canadian workers against unfair and illegal trade practices.

I am pleased to report that after years of persistent lobbying and advocacy by our union and in particular our rank-and-file members, we may have finally convinced the current government of the value of that approach.

Much like the steel sector, we’ve also seen many Canadian mining and resource companies taken over by global corporations. The 2006 sale of Inco to CVRD, later to become Vale, upended relationships and set into motion new conflicts that have not yet been fully resolved.

Steelworkers Local 6500 endured a year long strike in Sudbury in 2009-2010 as Vale’s Brazilian management attempted to break the union. In Labrador, our USW Local 9508, with a large number of Indigenous workers, had to fight through an even-longer strike – 18 months.

The take-over of Alcan Aluminum by Rio Tinto in 2007 had similar consequences, which I will talk about in a moment.

Canadian mining companies that were not being swallowed up by their larger competitors, were themselves expanding globally. Teck (with its roots as Cominco and the giant now closed Sullivan mine in Kimberly, B.C.) invested huge amounts in the start-up of copper mines in South America and in Alaska.

What was the response of our union in the face of those ownership changes and the globalization of mining and steel?

It was not to retreat to a narrow type of nationalism.

Instead, we reached out to union allies around the world to build union power globally.

As Teck-Cominco was exploring and investing in South America, we sent rank-and-file local union leaders from mines in Trail and Kamloops to Chile to share strategy and resources with miners working for the same corporate giants.

We invited them back to our homes to share with them how we fought such companies when necessary, and how we worked with them when we could.

In Peru, we built a solid, decades-long relationship with the Peruvian miners’ federation, working on health and safety issues in particular.

With the Vale take-over of Inco, we worked to create a global network of human rights groups, civil society, and trade unions, called the People Affected by Vale. Together, we fought back and have built some counter balance against the enormous power and influence of that company.

This network produced an anti-sustainability report that punctured holes in Vale’s official sustainability narrative, and raised questions of abuses of human rights and labour rights at Vale’s annual shareholders’ meetings.

In March 2007 in Sudbury, leaders from 8 Brazilian unions representing CVRD workers, and union leaders from New Caledonia and Mozambique, joined with our Canadian local unions to sign a solidarity accord.

During the 2009-2010 strike in Sudbury, we activated that network and sent striking workers to Vale operations around the world, including Indonesia, South Korea and Brazil to pressure the company. Global solidarity was on full display at a massive rally and march in Sudbury in April 2010.

The global pressure the union brought to bear on Vale fueled the remarkable endurance and resolve of USW members during the months and months of their strike, allowing them to essentially fight the company to a stand-still.

The settlements that ended the 2009-2010 strike were not universally welcomed as great victories for the union, however, the struggle showed the company that workers were determined to stand up for themselves and their union, and that the company would have to accept the fact that the union is here to stay.

The Vale strike also allowed the union in Canada to test out strategies that would be effective in the fight with Rio Tinto in Alma, Quebec, which is one of the defining moments of my career as USW National Director.

In 2012, Rio Tinto, which as you likely know, is a massive Anglo-Australian multinational, decided to play hard-ball with USW members at the Aluminum Smelter in Alma, Quebec, which it owned as part of its purchase of Alcan.

Rio Tinto, the second-largest resource company in the world, locked out 780 workers at the most important workplace in the small town of Alma.

Rio Tinto has already earned a reputation as one of the world’s most anti-union resource companies, with a history of long strikes and lockouts in several countries.

In Alma, they were seeking to replace each retiring worker with a subcontract worker who be paid 50% less than the average union wage.

We realized the only way we could possibly win the lockout was to mobilize globally against Rio Tinto. Fortunately, a couple years earlier, we had formed a strong alliance with Unite the Union, one of the largest unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Together, the Steelworkers and Unite had formed a global union, called Workers Uniting, to act as one trans-Atlantic voice in our global union federations.

We were able to confront Rio Tinto in Africa, Europe and Australia. We mobilised our global union federations, led by IndustriALL, which has over 50 million members in 140 countries.

Over 100 mining unions, affiliated to IndustriALL, targeted Rio Tinto at the World Mining Conference and vowed to build a long-term global solidarity campaign.

Through Workers Uniting, we organized regular solidarity protests in London, the corporate headquarters of Rio Tinto. Several months into the lockout in Alma, the union held a massive rally in the community which drew 9,000 trade unionists from around the world.

Five months into the lockout, we also discovered that the International Olympic Committee had contracted with Rio Tinto for the production of medals at the 2012 Olympics in London. And so, we launched a campaign called “Off the Podium,” and held repeated actions against Rio Tinto, in London. We called on the IOC, non-stop, to get Rio Tinto’s dirty metals off the podium for the 2012 Olympics.

Finally, literally three weeks before the Olympics were to start, and six months into the lockout – this giant multinational, Rio Tinto, caved.

We won the contracting-out battle. We successfully fought back against Rio Tinto because of years of work building international connections and solidarity.

In the end, 50 trade unions around the World took action in support of our “Off the Podium” campaign. While the pure balance of power at the individual workplace was not equal, even with a collective agreement in place, the union was able to counter Rio Tinto’s power by building these alliances.

Our union’s fight against Rio Tinto is an excellent example of the power of international solidarity to influence bargaining outcomes. But of course international trade unionism and solidarity can also change the course of the labour movement itself.

Another of the proudest moments of my career is our union’s alliance with Los Mineros, the Mexican miners’ union, and its leader, Napoleon Gomez. As many of you know, for many decades the Mexican labour movement has been dominated by corrupt unions who were closely connected to the ruling party, the PRI.

In 2006, a disaster at Pasta de Conchos Mine in Mexico killed 65 miners. The miners’ union leader, Napoleon Gomez, declared the disaster industrial homicide. The mine was owned by Grupo Mexico, and within a short time, Napoleon was facing trumped up criminal charges and likely imprisonment, if not worse. He fled Mexico, and my union sheltered him in Vancouver.

In Mexico, the miners’ union was subjected to endless harassment by the authorities, including the imprisonment of one of the union’s senior officials, Juan Linares, for close to 2 years.

Meanwhile, our Union supported Napoleon Gomez in exile for 12 years. We pressured the Canadian government NOT to deport him and provide him with Canadian residency and citizenship. We brought Napoleon’s case to the global union movement, and we supported Los Mineros members in Mexico.

In 2018, with the election of AMLO, all of the false charges against Napoleon were dropped and he was welcomed back to Mexico. He has since been elected as a Senator, and Los Mineros is one of the most successful and militant unions in Mexico.

It is fair to say that, without international union solidarity, the Los Mineros Union in Mexico would not exist. Indeed, the entire course of the Mexican labour movement would be different.

Beyond Napoleon Gomez, the USW continues to work with Mexican trade unions and on building labour union capacity in Mexico.

Through the demands made by Mexican trade unionists, there are important clauses in the new USMCA to support legitimate trade unions in Mexico.

No doubt, the support we gave to Napoleon and all of the work we have done with Mexican trade unions is one of the reasons we have seen a shift in trade agreements over the past few years.

The improved labour provisions in the USMCA revisions are a reflection of the growing power of workers. This change did not just happen. It came through concerted efforts and alliances between unions in North America.

And the last example I want to provide concerns the work of the Global union movement in Bangladesh.

We focus our international trade unionism not just on mining, but on other sectors of the economy where workers have been hit hard by the effects of unfair trade agreements.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 workers. These workers were mostly women, working in some of the lowest-paid and poorest conditions in the world.

In 2014, NDP MP Matthew Kellway invited me along on a delegation he was organizing to commemorate the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse.

I jumped at the chance. But I must say I wasn’t prepared for what I saw and experienced in Bangladesh. It was one of the moments that shake you to your core and change you forever.

In just a few days – on April 24th, we will mark the 9th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. The loss of so many workers and the injuries to many more, created an international outcry and led to the establishment of the ground-breaking Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety.

As a result of this legally binding agreement between global garment brands and the global labour movement, a system of credible, independent factory inspections was created. The agreement mandates improvements to correct safety gaps, as well as worker training and a credible complaints regime.

The result has been remarkable. Factories in Bangladesh are much, much safer from a structural and fire safety point of view.

However, the global garment industry is still the poster child for everything that is wrong with corporate-led globalization.

It is an industry designed to push profits to the top of supply chains, squeeze costs to the absolute lowest possible level, and maintain poverty and misery among garment workers, with women often in the lowest-paid jobs, and facing the worst conditions.

Following my visit to Bangladesh in 2014, Steelworkers again visited in 2016, 2018, and 2019, and partnered with other Canadian unions in a joint project with Kalpona Akter and the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. We will travel again this year to learn first-hand the impact of the pandemic among workers in the garment sector, and about the ongoing violation of labour rights.

Garment workers in Bangladesh work in factories supplying Canadian retailers and clothing brands, including Mark’s (owned by Canadian Tire), YM Inc., Joe Fresh (Loblaw), and HBC. These workers are earning only $7 per day. That’s not per hour. That is per day. It isn’t enough to live on, even in Bangladesh.

That is why our union, in part through our Steelworkers Humanity Fund, has gone further than providing resources to train workers on their rights in Bangladesh. We have taken on a solidarity campaign in Canada to pressure Canadian brands to pay living wages throughout their supply chains.

Some people wonder why we have done that. After all, the garment sector is not a Steelworker type of industry.

The answers are not complicated.

First, is the obvious injustices, and the fact that change is possible.

If they so choose, Canadian retailers and brands can use their resources and power to quickly take steps that will make an immediate change in the lives of thousands of garment workers, in particular women in the lowest-paid sectors of the world economy.
Second, it is also a teaching moment.

It is an easy entry into a discussion on corporate globalization.

It is not hard for anyone to understand what is happening. The power dynamics are clear. If international solidarity and local action can win improvements that reverse the global corporate race to the bottom in the garment sector, we can use that as a basis for other fights in other sectors.

Women garment workers in Bangladesh are leading this struggle, but as we’ve learned, we’ll go a lot further by building international solidarity and bringing this fight to the global North.

Finally, as our former International President Leo Gerard has often said, “We can’t pretend that we can live on an island of prosperity in a sea of misery.”

If we don’t find ways to address global income inequality, and if we don’t succeed in building power that will reverse the race to the bottom, sooner or later our own living standards will fall and our own collective agreements will be undercut.

So, where does all of this leave us?

I’m ending my career as USW national director at a time when we see a rise in nationalism and even fascism. But, this is not the “end of globalization” that we hear about. Corporate power is still highly concentrated. Multinational companies have control over entire supply chains, from resource extraction all the way to the final products.

We hear about re-shoring of manufacturing and producing more at home.
And yes, that is one way to make sure that we have reliable supply chains and good, community-supporting jobs.

But becoming more insular is not the way to build workers’ power. We need more alliances between workers around the world.

Some examples that we are working on right now are corporate due diligence laws. Several countries, such as France, have already adopted such legislation

These are initiatives that will allow workers to fight back against corporations headquartered outside of their countries of operation.

Just two weeks ago here in Canada, the NDP tabled a bill on corporate due diligence, to make companies headquartered in Canada responsible for the labour and environmental conditions along their supply chains.

If passed, this will give workers, internationally, power to bring complaints against abuses along the supply chain, with the ultimate ability to access the Canadian court system.

This is the type of international initiative that is driven by trade unions in Canada, working with our allies abroad. It is a direct result of the collective work of our union, our Steelworkers Humanity Fund and mining and garment workers in the Global South.
Workers everywhere also need a new trade regime.

As Steelworkers, we are not against the idea of trade. But, we need to change the way we trade.

We have seen Canada and other countries give lip-service to this issues, by negotiating so-called progressive trade agreements. And we have seen our neighbours to the south rip up existing trade agreements, ostensibly in the name of helping workers.
But we have yet to see a real shift away from corporate trade agreements that only bolster the power or corporations in the global North.

We need trade reforms that put workers front and center, allowing unions to identify and act when unfair trade is harming communities and jobs. We need to develop trade frameworks that don’t simply allow movement to the lowest cost jurisdictions at the expense of labour and the environment.

Unions need to work together across borders to make sure we have good-paying jobs, the right to free collective bargaining, and gender equality, all while we move towards a decarbonized economy.

Yes, we need to focus on cleaner manufacturing here at home, but we also need to work with unions around the world to ensure that the good jobs aren’t only available to a select few in the global North.

In doing this, we build workers’ power. We counter the dominance of multinational corporations. Continuing to build this international unionism is the only way to fight back against the rising fascism that is emerging in no small part due to the failed promises of corporate-led globalization.

So, even though I am retiring, I know that this fight will go on, not only by our union, but by unions around the world, in every sector of the economy.

Thank you


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MESSAGE FROM SHARON GRAHAM: For Peace & Solidarity In Ukraine – Trade Union Appeal

Dear Colleagues,

As the military aggression against an independent country unfolds at an alarming pace there is overwhelming support being expressed throughout Unite to support the people of Ukraine.

It is not only the struggle for democracy that concerns us but also the struggle for people’s right to work and build their future in peace.

During last weekend I intervened regarding the receiving of Russian vessels into British Ports. The actions of our Dock worker members were critical in the UK government’s subsequent decision to formalise the port restrictions.

Many Unite members have asked for details of a solidarity fund knowing that support for food, clothing and crucially medicines is urgently needed. The global trade union movement is acting speedily and unions in neighbouring countries are providing shelter and necessities for the many thousands of refugees who have fled Ukraine.

Unite is supporting the ITUC Fund  please see details here

Please publicise and encourage support.

In solidarity,

Sharon Graham


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The Metaverse is workplace and a labour issue


First published at on 1st February 2022

The Metaverse has been talked about only in terms of gee-whiz technologies – but it raises very serious labour concerns.

In mid-January, the news that Microsoft was investing almost $70 billion in the ‘Metaverse’ hit the headlines. Yet it was only the latest in a series of such massive investments. Technology companies such as Google and Epic Games, brands such as Gucci and Nike, and even retailers such as Walmart are entering or even shaping the Metaverse—and, of course, only a few months ago Facebook rebranded as ‘Meta’ to signal its commitment.

The Metaverse is envisaged as a new way of interacting with various components of cyberspace—augmented reality, the combination of digital and physical aspects of life, three-dimensional technology, the ‘internet of things’, personal avatars, and digital marketplaces and content providers—to generate a more active, immediate and immersive experience. And this could respond to the crisis of long-established ‘social media’, disrupted by young users’ uninterest and regulators’ intense scrutiny.

Legal complexity
As Microsoft’s deal indicates, however, this is more about money than meaning. Last June, the purchase of a virtual Gucci handbag for the equivalent of $4,000 in virtual currency, to be worn by an avatar, was emblematic of the economic transactions which may populate the Metaverse.

Legally, so many issues arise. Who owns that bag, for example: the buyer, the platform or the producer who rents it to a client? What happens if the platform does not work properly and the bag does not look pristine? Could another subject ‘steal’ it—and then what? Could the bag be ‘taken’ from one platform to another, just like carrying a handbag bought in one shop into another? If not, do anti-trust issues follow?

These are only instances of the legal complexity surrounding digital exchanges. What law will apply in the Metaverse amplifies the wider uncertainty as to what law applies on the internet.

Is it the law of the country where the company owning the platform is based? What then if the platform is shared? Is it the law of the place where the servers are based? And what if the platforms are underpinned by blockchains and dispersed around the world? Or is it the law of the place where the product’s virtual producer is based or the country where the consumer brand is based? Why not the one where the client is based? Even the simplest transactions can unleash mind-boggling legal problems, including about labour laws.

Metaverse as workplace
The Metaverse will have its users but it will also be a ‘workplace’ for many. This year, Microsoft is reportedly set to combine ‘the mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh’—which ‘allows people in different physical locations to join collaborative and shared holographic experiences’—with the better-known ‘productivity tools of Microsoft Teams, where people can join virtual meetings, send chats, collaborate on shared documents and more’. The aim is to create a more interactive and collaborative work experience for remote workers.

While this may sound like a good thing, a first concern is that such a combination will add to the stress of being subject to ever-more invasive and relentless forms of algorithmic surveillance, already experienced by remote workers, the sometimes toxic and oppressive dynamics of the office. The potential for augmented psychosocial hazards cannot be overestimated, including because new forms of cyberbullying at work could be enabled by the technologies constituting the Metaverse.

Moreover, if these ‘Metaverse offices’ were really to spread, the risk of ‘contractual distancing’ for the workers involved would soar. If businesses are able to have virtual offices which persuasively mimic physical ones and, at the same time, have access to a worldwide workforce of prospective remote workers, their ability to outsource office work towards countries with much lower salaries and weaker labour protection—and to engage in mass misclassification of employment status—will increase enormously.

Platform blueprint
The platform economy will serve as a blueprint. Here, businesses have already lucratively combined heightened surveillance, sham self-employment and ‘crowdsourcing’ of work towards the global south, taking advantage of abysmal pay rates and zero employment protection. Nor have they ever been stopped by time zones, as crowdworkers have long worked unsocial hours for clients everywhere in the world.

The Metaverse could however make these trends explode in the not-too-distant future. It will not only affect work already done remotely. Big chunks of activity in retail and ‘in-person’ customer care could be moved online if the virtual experiences are sufficiently convincing and smooth. Why leave home to go to a shop and seek advice about an item, if one can speak satisfactorily with a shop assistant, through an avatar, and buy the item online?

Then, alongside all the risks identified, the question will be: what employment and labour regulations will apply to these working activities? Those of the countries where the platforms are located—and, again, where is that? Those where the employer is based (ditto)? Or those where the workers are based? And how to build solidarity and foster collective action among a globally dispersed workforce which can only ‘meet’ via proprietary, business-owned platforms?

Adding to the threat that these workers will be misclassified as self-employed, through a variety of legal stratagems and shrewd Big Tech storytelling, payment in cryptocurrency—another expected feature of the Metaverse—will likely be used to muddy the waters over employment status and protection. The next-to-nothing application of labour protection to crowdworkers hitherto makes these urgent concerns.

Content creators
Many professionals are already working to shape the Metaverse. They have been said to include researchers, cybersecurity specialists, system developers and hardware builders; marketing experts and business developers are in there too. Crucial will be the content creators designing and initiating the experiences, events, post contents, and traded goods and services of the Metaverse.

This is already a complex labour issue, as many content creators have been rendered heavily dependent on the platforms where they share their contents: how these contents are distributed, how the algorithms rank them and make them visible, how they are monetised and indeed what content could lead to their account being deactivated. Content creators have seldom any say or agency on this.

So far, attempts to build a collective voice for these workers—even when supported by major trade unions, as with YouTube creators—have not really come off. Even where creators have an employment contract, as sometimes happens in the video-games industry, labour conditions often remain dire, although workers and unions are challenging some of these practices.

The Metaverse certainly opens up new prospects for creators but it also enhances opportunities for their exploitation. The growing number of people who will be performing such activities to serve the Metaverse warrants far more decisive attention by regulators, unions and public authorities.

Moreover, contrary to the touted mirage of a decentralised virtual domain, the Metaverse could result in a more intense concentration of private power. Mistrust of old institutions is here once again misappropriated to shift users’ and investors’ interests towards top-down technologies, where the ‘polycentricity’ rhetoric is a smokescreen. Evgeny Morozov has warned that ‘networks, once operated by private players and without democratic public oversight, could be just as tyrannical and constraining as hierarchies, albeit in different ways’.

Not another ‘wild west’
When it comes to these and other labour issues triggered by the Metaverse, it is vital to learn from the past and not wait until these problems are already embedded. Reaction to the challenges of platform work has been much slower than needed: digital labour platforms bought crucial time while everyone else was embroiled in the questions ‘is this really work?’ and ‘does it warrant and deserve protection?’. This time, we could at least try to skip that, by saying that ‘of course this is work, and every work deserves protection, no matter where and how it is discharged or how it is paid’.

The Metaverse should not become another ‘wild west’ for labour protection. It is crucial to dovetail new models with existing regulation and fine-tune legislation to accommodate new initiatives. But for this to happen, attention and strategic planning are urgently needed.

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Lula seeks to bring Left back to power in Brazil as Bolsonaro’s presidency crumbles

By Tim Young, Brazil Solidarity Initiative.

As Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s domestic and international status continues to decline sharply, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is stepping up his campaign to win the presidential election that will take place in October this year.

Bolsonaro’s standing has been seriously damaged by his mishandling of the Covid pandemic that has killed more than 615,000 people, one of the highest death tolls in the world. The far-right president has also been losing support in the country for his neoliberal programme, including budget cuts and the privatisation of public companies such as Electrobras which produces 30% of the country´s power.

Over two-thirds of Brazilians polled in December said they did not trust the president, and a similar figure did not approve of the way he was governing Brazil.

Brazilians have been badly hit by a combination of rising unemployment and soaring inflation, particularly for foodstuffs, increasing both poverty and hunger in the country. This led throughout 2021 to a wave of demonstrations in major cities across the country against Bolsonaro, demanding his resignation.

Bolsonaro has also been accused by a Senate panel investigation of ten serious offences, including crimes against humanity, for his government’s chronically inadequate response to the pandemic. The inquiry uncovered evidence pointing to potential illegalities in the way that the Indian vaccine Covaxin was acquired for the government’s programme.

Although Bolsonaro refused to approve an investigation into the Covaxin deal, federal prosecutors subsequently opened a case on the contract, citing a number of concerns about how it was managed. Whether or not Brazil’s Prosecutor-General acts on the Senate report, which could lead to impeachment and criminal trials, Bolsonaro has been wounded politically by the six months’ long probe into his governing record.

Meanwhile, Lula, with his political rights restored in March 2021 after Brazil’s Supreme Court Judge Edson Fachin annulled the criminal convictions against him, has been building support for a run at the presidency in the autumn.

As well as taking a leading role in the anti-Bolsonaro opposition in Brazil, Lula has been seeking to restore Brazil’s standing abroad. Bolsonaro’s diplomatic isolation has been particularly affected by his cavalier attitude to the impact of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon which has soared to a 15-year high.

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Speech To International Workers Action / Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and All Anti-Racist & Anti-Imperialist Freedom Fighters.

Speech to International Workers Action / Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and All Anti-Racist and Anti-Imperialist Freedom Fighters. Webinar February 2nd

I’m Tony Burke the former Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union in the UK and I want to start by saying it’s a privilege for Unite to have been asked to make an intervention at this vitally important and timely meeting.

Unite has a long and proud history of standing shoulder to shoulder with those that are the victims of oppression and injustice, and we take our international solidarity work very seriously – especially around political prisoners.

Comrades many people around the world look to the USA and have the naïve belief that it really is the land of liberty, freedom, and equality.

They simply have no idea about the injustices and inequalities that exist in the US or how the justice system really operates – the structural racism and deep political bias that pervades the system.

But frankly that’s also no different to the naïve impression that many people around the world have about the UK, where just as many structural inequalities and injustices exist, and where my country’s record of political incarcerations runs long and deep.

Unite has always understood that states built on exploitation and injustice will always lock up or attempt to silence those who really stand up and challenge the system at its core.

That’s why we stand with you today in your call for the liberation of political prisoners in the US and around the world.

That’s why back in 2015 when there were real fears about the health of Mumia, Unite joined the international demands for immediate medical attention and for his immediate release.

We re-iterate that call today and we join you in the call for the liberation of all prisoners that are being held on political grounds, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, the remaining prisoners of the Move group imprisoned now for over 40 years, and the remaining Black Panthers who still sit in jail decades after being imprisoned.

And I think it’s important to also remember that it’s not just American citizens that are locked up indefinitely by the American state.

My union had a huge campaign demanding the liberation of the Cuban 5 when they were locked up here in the US after doing nothing other than trying to expose and prevent the terrorism of Cuban exiles against the island of Cuba.

We also continue to call for the freedom of Simon Trinidad, the Colombian political prisoner who should have been liberated with the other former combatants when the peace agreement was signed in 2016, but who still sits in an American jail in total and indefinite isolation.

And as committed internationalists we are under no illusions about the inherently racist nature of the American justice system and how it punishes those who dare to question how America works or behaves – whether that’s from people inside the US or outside.

But on top of recognising that the US imprisons people from both within and without on a political basis, as committed internationalists it’s also vitally important we understand that the struggles in our own countries are inherently linked to the same struggles to free political prisoners around the world including Julian Assange, held in a British jail at the behest of the U.S. government, for telling the truth about the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And you can be proud that  on May Day 2008 the Longshormen’s union shutdown all West Coast ports in America to oppose that  war!

It’s why for two decades we have campaigned for the release of so many of the Colombian political prisoners who were held under trumped up charges of terrorism – mostly for simply having the audacity to try and stand up for their rights against the murderous Colombian state and – a state that was shamefully supported by the US and the UK.

It’s why we currently have a big campaign – that I personally have been heavily involved with – demanding the liberation of the jailed Kurdish political leader Abdullah Ocalan who has been locked up for over 20 years and held in total isolation with no access to lawyers or his family.

It’s why our solidarity work with the people of Palestine includes the demand to release the Palestinian political prisoners who are locked up in appalling conditions, again for simply daring to challenge the Israeli oppression and to demand an end to the apartheid regime that is being installed there.

Last year dockworkers supported picket lines of Palestinian supporters against the ZIM Lines ship Volans, protesting at the slaughter of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Comrades that’s what international labour solidarity looks like.

And it’s why, of course, we, like so many others around the world, stood at the centre of the demands to Free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid in South Africa – at a time when Margaret Thatcher and right wing UK politicians was still referring to Mandela as a terrorist for challenging apartheid and white supremacy.

So, I close with this.

Comrades, your struggle to free your political prisoners is the same struggle that is going on in the UK and many, many other countries in the world and we stand with you in that fight.

Just as you’ve seen the rise of Trump and a Far-Right racist movement that has become ever more powerful and ever more dangerous, so too we’ve had the Brexit, anti-immigrant movement of Boris Johnson and the right wing of the Tory party.

Just as you have witnessed waves of renewed police brutality and moves to remove the right of death row prisoners to even be able to appeal their cases, so we see in the UK moves to further limit our right to take actions like boycotts and divestment, and new legislation to limit the right to protest.

Just as you witness a dominant right wing media feeding lies and propaganda to fan the flames of hatred and divisions, so too we face the same problems in the UK.

But there’s also a growing international movement that’s more and more aware that the struggles they have in their own countries are just a part of the wider struggle for global justice and equality.

And that’s why it’s our duty to continue to stand together and demand freedom for political prisoners in the US and around the world.

It’s why we must urgently redouble our efforts to build the campaigns and the pressure that we need to get them free.

Unite has been with you in the past and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in our joint struggles – fighting for international solidarity and freedom for all US political prisoners!

Thanks to Jack Heyman ILWU (USA) and Simon Dubbins Unite.

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Speech at London Rally – Sheikh Jarrah Palestine January 22nd

Comrades and friends Tony Burke, Labour & Palestine and Unite

I am here to express on behalf of Labour Palestine and Unite our solidarity with the Palestine and the people of Sheikh Jarrah.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian people and we will continue to do so.

Under the cover of darkness and freezing cold the Israeli state violently attacked the home of the Sal-hee-ya family. They beat the family, they arrested the family and they destroyed their home of over 60 years.

There cannot be any argument that this was not the actions of a violent apartheid state who are ethnically cleansing East Jerusalem.

15 people are now homeless, and join the thousands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed by Israel to make way for their illegal settlers.

The cruelty of this act and the cowardice of it, shows the world just how barbaric Israel now is.

Yet the world stands by and watches.

Our governments only urge caution to Israel, and by doing nothing the Israeli state is given a green light to continue their suppression, repression, ethnic cleansing and implementation of apartheid against the Palestinians,

And it is outrageous when we witness the mass destruction of Gaza at the hands of Israeli military, the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah, and this most recent act against the Sal-hee-ya family, to suggest that this a war of two equal parties.

The resistance of the Palestinians is in no way comparable to the massive military might of Israel; It is Israel that has occupied Palestinian lands for the last 54 years, It is Israel that has moved nearly 700, 000 illegal settlers into the West Bank,.

It is Israel that is been actively ethnically cleansing Palestinians from their homes and lands, it is Israel that has inhumanely blockaded Gaza for the last 14 years and it is Israel that has become a state guilty of building and implementing a system of apartheid against the Palestinians.

We should never forget thought that with international boycott actions we helped bring down apartheid in South Africa and ensured that Nelson Mandela became president and we can do this again.

We must stand with people like the Sal-hee-yafamily who are attacked and oppressed by states wherever it occurs in the world, in Colombia, in Turkey, in Western Sahara and in Palestine.

We must fight against our governments supporting the regimes that inflict oppression, ethnic cleansing, violence and apartheid.

We must fight back against our own government’s plans designed to oppress our solidarity;

– we must oppose the police and crime bill and we must oppose the anti BDS law andwe demand an end to the barbaric actions of the Israeli state.

For too long the international community has stood by as the Israeli state has been allowed to carry out its crimes and this cannot be tolerated or accepted any longer.

So I say this – even though it is difficult, and there are forces against us we can end Israeli apartheid!

 Solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah and Free Palestine!

Below is the full text of the Israel and Palestine motion passed at the Labour Party Conference 2021

Composite one – Israel and Palestine

Conference condemns the ongoing Nakba in Palestine, Israel’s militarised violence attacking the Al Aqsa mosque, the forced displacements from Sheikh Jarrah and the deadly assault on Gaza.

Together with the de facto annexation of Palestinian land by accelerated settlement building and statements of Israel’s intention to proceed with annexation, it is ever clearer that Israel is intent on eliminating any prospects of Palestinian self-determination.

Conference notes the TUC 2020 Congress motion describing such settlement building and annexation as ‘another significant step’ towards the UN Crime of Apartheid, and calling on the European & international trade union movement to join the international campaign to stop annexation and end apartheid.

Conference also notes the unequivocal 2021 reports by by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch that conclude unequivocally that Israel is practising the crime of apartheid as defined by the UN.

Conference welcomes the International Criminal Court decision to hold an inquiry into abuses committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 2014.

Conference resolves that action is needed now due to Israel’s continuing illegal actions and that Labour should adhere to an ethical policy on all UK trade with Israel, including stopping any arms trade used to violate Palestinian human rights and trade with illegal Israeli settlements.

Conference resolves to support “effective measures” including sanctions, as called for by Palestinian civil society, against actions by the Israeli government that are illegal according to international law; in particular to ensure that Israel stops the building of settlements, reverses any annexation, ends the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, brings down the Wall and respects the right of Palestinian people, as enshrined in international law, to return to their homes.

Conference resolves that the Labour Party must stand on the right side of history and abide by these resolutions in its policy, communications and political strategy.

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