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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Posted in European Trade Unions, International Trade Unions, Labour Party, Media, Politics, Trade Unions, Trades Union Congress, Unite The Union, Workers Uniting | Leave a comment

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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Chile: Another Good-Sized Nail In Neoliberalism’s Coffin

The Chilean Presidential Election Explained.

By Francisco Dominguez

Men [and women] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.  – Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

A few days ago, when neofascist candidate José Antonio Kast was winning the first round of the country’s presidential elections, Chile’s 2019 rebellion aimed at burying neoliberalism appeared to be at an end. However, it has been greatly reinvigorated with the landslide victory of the Apruebo Dignidad (1) (I Vote For Dignity) candidate, Gabriel Boric Font, who obtained 56 percent of the vote in the second round, that is nearly 5 million votes, the largest ever in the country’s history. Gabriel, age 35 is the youngest president ever.

That result would have been greater had it not been for the policy of the minister of transport, Gloria Hutt Hesse, deliberately offering almost no public transport services, especially buses to the poor barrios, aimed at minimising the number of pro-Boric voters, hoping they would give up and go back home. (2) Throughout Election Day, there were constant reports on the mainstream media, especially TV, of people in the whole country but particularly at Santiago (3) bus stops bitterly complaining for having to wait for two and even three hours for buses to go to polling centres. Thus, there were justified fears they would rig the election, but the determination of poor voters was such that the manoeuvre did not work.

Kast’s campaign, with the complicity of the right and the mainstream media, waged one of the dirtiest electoral campaigns in the country’s history, reminiscent of the US-funded and US-led ‘terror propaganda’ mounted against socialist candidate Salvador Allende in 1958, 1964 and 1970. Through innuendo and the use of social media, the Kast camp spewed out crass anti-communist propaganda, charged Boric with assisting terrorism, suggested that Boric would install a totalitarian regime in Chile, and such like. The campaign sought to instil fear primarily in the petty bourgeoisie by repeatedly predicting that drug addiction – even implying that Boric takes drugs, crime, and narco-trafficking, would spin out control if Boric became president. Besides, the mainstream media assailed Boric with insidious questions about Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, for which Boric did not produce the most impressive answers.

To no avail, the mass of the population saw it through and knew that their vote was the only way to stop pinochetismo taking hold of the presidency, and they had had enough of president Piñera. Their perception was correct, they knew that in the circumstances the best way to ensure the aims of the social rebellion of October 2019 was by defeating Kast and his brand of unalloyed pinochetismo.

As the electoral campaign unfolded, though Kast backtracked on some of his most virulent pinochetista statements, people knew that if he won he would not hesitate to fully implement them. Among many other gems, Kast declared his intention as president to abolish the ministry for women, same sex marriage, the (very restrictive) law on abortion, eliminate funding for the Museum in the Memory of the victims of the dictatorship and the Gabriela Mistral Centre for the promotion of arts, literature and theatre, withdraw Chile from the International Commission of Human Rights, close down the National Institute of Human Rights, cease the activities of FLACSO (prestigious Latin American centre of sociological investigation), build a ditch in the North of Chile (border with Bolivia and Peru) to stop illegal immigration, and empower the president with the legal authority to detain people in places other than police stations or jails (that is, restore the illegal procedures of Pinochet’s sinister police).

Kast’s intentions left no doubt as to what the correct option was in the election. I was, however, flabbergasted with various leftist analyses advocating not to vote, in one case because ‘there is no essential difference between Kast and Boric’, and, even worse, another suggested that ‘the dilemma between fascism and democracy was false’ because Chile’s democracy is defective. My despair with such ‘principled posturing’, probably dictated by the best of political intentions, turned into shock when on election day itself a Telesur correspondent in Santiago interviewed a Chilean activist who only attacked Boric with the main message of the feature being “whoever wins, Chile loses”. (4)

The centre-left Concertación coalition (5) that in the 1990-2021 period governed the nation for 24 years, bears a heavy responsibility for maintaining and even perfecting the neoliberal system, expressed openly its preference for Boric, and assiduously courted support for im in the second round. Hence, those who believe there is no difference between Kast and Boric, do so not only from an ultra-left stance but also by finding Boric guilty by association, even though he has not yet had the chance to even perpetrate the crime.

This brings us to a central political issue: what has the October 2019 Rebellion and all its impressively positive consequences posed for the Chilean working class? What is posed in Chile is the struggle not (yet) for power but for the masses that for decades were conned into accepting (however grudgingly) neoliberalism as a fact of life, until the 2019 rebellion that was the first mass mobilization not only to oppose but also to get rid of neoliberalism. (6)

The Rebellion extracted extraordinary concessions from the ruling class: a referendum for a Constitutional Convention entrusted legally with the task to draft an anti-neoliberal constitution to replace the 1980 one promulgated under Pinochet’s rule.

The referendum approved the proposal of a new constitution and the election of a convention by 78 and 79 per cent, respectively in October 2020. The election of the Convention gave Chile’s right only 37 seats out of 155, that is, barely 23 per cent, whereas those in favour of radical change got an aggregated total of 118 seats, or 77 per cent. More noticeably, Socialists and Christian Democrats, the old Concertación parties, got jointly a total 17 seats. The biggest problem remains the fragmentation of the emerging forces aiming for change since together they hold almost all the remaining seats, but structured in easily 50 different groups. Nevertheless, in tune with the political context the Convention elected Elisa Loncón Antileo, a Mapuche indigenous leader as its president, and there were 17 seats reserved exclusively for the indigenous nations and elected only by them; a development of gigantic significance.

The mass rebellion also obtained other concessions from the government and parliament such as the return of 70 percent of their pension contributions from the private ‘pension administrators’, which rightly Chileans see as a massive swindle that has lasted for over 3 decades. This has dealt a heavy blow to Chile’s financial capital. A proposal for a fourth return of the remainder 30 percent in parliament (end of September 2021) failed to be approved by a very small margin of votes. I am certain the AFPs have not heard the last on this matter.

The scenario depicted above suddenly became confused with the results of the presidential election’s first round where not only Kast came out first (with 27 percent against 25 for Boric), but which also elected Deputies and Senators for Chile’s two parliament chambers. Though Apruebo Dignidad did very well with 37 deputies (out of 155) and 5 senators (out of 50), the right-wing Chile Podemos Más (Piñera’s supporters) got 53 deputies and 22 senators, whilst the old Concertación got 37 deputies and 17 senators.

There are several dynamics at work here. With regards to the parliamentary election, traditional mechanisms and existing clientelistic relations apply with experienced politicians exerting local influence and getting elected. In contrast, most of the elected members of the Convention are an emerging bunch of motley pressure groups organised around single-issue campaigns (AFP, privatization of water, price of gas, abuse of utilities companies, defence of Mapuche ancestral lands, state corruption and so forth), which did not stand candidates for a parliamentary seat.

A most important fact was Boric’s public commitment in his victory speech (19 Dec) to support and work together with the Constitutional Convention for a new constitution. This has given and will give enormous impetus to the efforts to constitutionally replace the existing neoliberal economic model.

What the Chilean working class must address is their lack of political leadership. They do not have even a Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) as the people of Honduras to fight against the coup that ousted Mel Zelaya in 2009. The FNPR, made up of many and varied social and political movements, evolved into the Libre party that has just succeeded in electing Xiomara Castro, as the country’s first female president. (7) The obvious possible avenue to address this potentially dangerous shortcoming would be to bring together in a national conference, all the many single-issue groups together with all social movements and willing political currents to set up a Popular Front for an Anti-Neoliberal Constitution.

After all, they have taken to the streets for two years to bury the oppressive, abusive and exploitative neoliberal model, and it is becoming clearer what to replace it with: a system based on a new constitution that allows the nationalization of all utilities and natural resources, punishes the corrupt, respects the ancestral lands of the Mapuche, and guarantees decent health, education and pensions. The road to get there will continue to be bumpy and messy, but we have won the masses; now, with a sympathetic government in place, we can launch the transformation of the state and build a better Chile.


  1. An electoral coalition of essentially the Broad Front and the Communist Party, with smaller groups.
  2. In Chile voting is voluntary and the levels of abstention for the first round was 53 per cent; El País on Dec 17 reported that 60 per cent of the voters in La Pintana, a Boric stronghold, stayed home in the first round.
  3. Santiago has over 6 million inhabitants of the 19 million Chilean total.
  4. The leaders and presidents of the Latin American countries that make Telesur possible would fundamentally disagree with such an, in my view, irresponsible message.
  5. The Concertación is made up essentially of the Socialist and Christian Democratic parties, plus other smaller parties, with the Socialists and Christian Democrats holding Chile’s presidency respectively for 3 and 2 periods out of a total
  6. The battle for Chile,
  7. See my take on Honduras here

First published on

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Interview: TUC’s Frances O’Grady On Omicron, Furlough, Wages, Pay & Internationalism

Frances O’Grady – did she put a jinx on Boris Johnson?

This is a long read – but we are am sure that for many readers the issues under discussion are of sufficient interest to warrant the length.

When I spoke this week to Frances O’Grady, the leader of the Trades Union Congress, she had come straight from a TUC general council meeting, which, she said, had put her in a good mood. She was buoyed by the “appetite for practical solidarity, not just talking it but doing it.” That positive approach is a hallmark of Frances O’Grady’s approach to her position as general secretary of the TUC, and it could not be more useful at such a brutally difficult time.

Omicron has moved with such speed that when we had originally lined up to speak, it was not an issue at all. So before anything else, it was necessary to talk about covid-19 and omicron.

I put it to her that it is a problem that the government has moved towards restrictions and guidance to cope with Omicron, with serious consequences for workers in sectors of the economy like manufacturing, travel, hospitality, retail, the arts, but without anything approaching a furlough system in place to deal with it.

Frances O’Grady: “This is a major gap in the government’s approach: announce first, sort out how to deal with that announcement afterwards. The TUC has been saying for months now that we need a ready-made wage subsidy scheme. [There are] a lot of brilliant lessons to learn from furlough. Furlough of course was, I think one of the big achievements the trade union movement collectively can notch up, the first time we had a wage subsidy scheme in this country.

And without it, we are in no doubt we would have faced mass unemployment and all the high personal and economic costs that involves. But yes, here we are again, where despite our best efforts to encourage the government to plan ahead we don’t have that ready-made scheme in place. And even with working-from-home guidance, never mind the potential of further lockdowns, we are already seeing particular industries, particular plants and firms in real difficulty and livelihoods on the line. So whether it’s travel, whether its culture, whether it’s hospitality, we need support, but critically we need that support channelled through wage packets because that’s the best way to ensure not only jobs and skills are protected, but that we maintain demand in the economy. Because the one thing about ordinary working people is, people spend their money in local shops and businesses. They don’t stash it away in offshore tax havens. It does that positive circle of maintaining demand even in difficult times, makes all the difference between good jobs and viable businesses surviving or not.”

Simon Fletcher: You’ve been arguing for the ‘daughter of furlough’ even before omicron appeared, and all those arguments you were making have been demonstrated to be correct by what’s happened in the last few weeks.

Frances O’Grady: “Yes, and it’s why of course so many OECD countries, European countries already have that option of a ready-made scheme ready to go. And we’ve set out report after report giving government options on how you would design it, drawing on the best of those schemes. But it’s important not just because of the emergence of new variants – and none of us know for sure how long these waves of the pandemic are going to continue – but also just thinking about some of the other big changes we face, whether that’s the potential disruptions of moving to net zero, or automation and AI. Any decent business can go through a period of difficulty, [and] rather than see jobs go to the wall, it makes sense, it’s value for money, to support those jobs and businesses through the transitions they need to make through any temporary difficulties in order that our economy can bounce back so much quicker, and we avoid that what I still believe – as somebody was young during the 80s – the big evil of mass unemployment.”

The idea of applying lessons from the pandemic to other major questions like just transition for net zero is interesting and points to the benefits of planning for change in the economy.

Frances O’Grady expanded on this argument: “we’re now in much more extreme circumstances where supply chains are hitting disruptions, where we’ve got labour shortages in key areas, and now where we’re facing potentially large parts of the workforce being off sick, high vacancy rates, public services under pressure – you need a plan. This is the basic point trade unions are very practical people who like to have plans to solve the problems that we face in a way that is fair to working people.”

In The Times on Wednesday Frances O’Grady urged the government “get round the table like we did in March 2020” to discuss a daughter of furlough wage subsidy scheme for the present crisis. So far at least the necessary support is not forthcoming. It is an absolute priority to back the pressure to restore a furlough scheme to support everyone hit by the consequences of this new phase of the pandemic.

With pay and living standards hit hard by omicron, rising inflation – now up to 5.1% – is bound to intensify the cost of living squeeze for millions of people over Christmas and into the new year. The TUC’s leader had strong words about what is happening.

Frances O’Grady: “What we’ve seen is rising inflation ripping through pay packets and as our brilliant TUC team showed very clearly this is the biggest Christmas wage squeeze we’ve seen in nearly a decade. And that’s on the back of a decade of stagnating wages, stagnating at best, in many cases real wage cuts. On top of that, we’ve had Universal Credit cuts, which have hit some of the lowest paid, but we know also the middle are going to be hammered by that National Insurance contribution tax hike that very unfairly burdens lower paid workers, average workers and young workers. So it’s quite a cocktail that this government has mixed up. And we think there’s a responsibility on them to take, again, some very practical action.”

She argued to “lift what is a minimum wage closer to a real living wage”. Indeed, the question of wage rises was key: “We need real wage increases for public sector workers, key workers, workers across the board. And of course, an imaginative government would nick Labour’s proposal for fair pay agreements, starting with social care whereas we know the majority are on a good deal less than £10 an hour”.  Without that, it is a time of real stress and concern: “people shouldn’t have to be worrying about paying for Christmas, and there are an awful lot of families and not just the lowest-paid ones, who are really anxious and worried about how they’re going to foot the bill for Christmas this year. That shouldn’t be the case. Families shouldn’t be put through that worry. But just as importantly, it’s bad for the economy, when wages are not rising, it is very difficult to get sustainable growth. And we desperately need to kickstart that growth.”

I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the opposite pressure that is coming from the government.

Simon Fletcher: Just on this point about wages: around their conference, and in the autumn, the government talked about wages needing to rise and they sold the budget as removing the public sector pay cap. But the Treasury has made it submission to the pay review bodies and argued that the pay settlements shouldn’t match inflation. And that’s essentially an argument for pay cuts in real terms for public sector workers. So we’re seeing pressure for pay restraint and real terms pay cuts from the Treasury itself. That must be of grave concern in the TUC and in the trade union movement. Do you have a message to the government about how to deal with this question of pay cuts and pay restraint when people’s living standards are being severely squeezed?

Frances O’Grady: “They need to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror, and frankly, I think they should be ashamed of themselves. This kind of issue of double-standards and double-talk, of praising key workers to high heaven, and then proposing that their real pay should be cut, I think people are sick and tired of the hypocrisy of it, frankly. And, as you’ll be aware, strikes are always the last resort, particularly where workers have a sense of vocation, it’s never an easy decision for them, and nobody wants to get there. We could get around the table and sort this out. But I think the government should be under no illusion that there is hurt and there is anger, about the way key workers have been treated.”

“They need to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror, and frankly, I think they should be ashamed of themselves”

Frances O’Grady argued that the government’s attitude to trade unions was making wage improvements harder: “We’ve heard a lot from the Prime Minister about wanting to see wages surge, well the one thing they’ve never tried is boosting workers’ bargaining power and it won’t grab the headlines but last night [Tuesday 14 December], the government laid the regulations for the so-called unfinished business on the anti-trade union act, that is designed to tie unions up in ever more red tape and frustrate unions being able to represent working people which is what we exist to do. Now, if you were serious about getting wages rising again, you would recognise the key role that unions have to play just as the governments in New Zealand and the US and plenty of other countries have done, and in our case that call for fair pay agreements, starting with social care, because my goodness me, they’ve earned it, that would be a great place to start. So, you know, I would ask the government to listen up and think again and start treating public servants and key workers with some respect.”

Simon Fletcher: Yes, because in truth, the pressure for an increase an increase in pay is not an inflationary pressure, it’s a response to inflation, and actually at present it’s a response to years and years and years of pay being squeezed. And it’s just going to continue.

Frances O’Grady: “Yes, well, I have to constrain my impatience with this attempt, in some quarters to talk up the risk of a wage-price spiral. (Laughs). I mean, frankly, you do not need an O Level in economics to see that real wages have been suffering for years and years. In fact, in Rishi Sunak’s own budget in the small print [there was] buried away a recognition that real wages in fact, I think it said were going fall this year, and we’re going to stagnate but the next five.

So do us a favour, we’re not stupid, trying to blame workers for inflation is frankly, a very poor joke. On the contrary, we need to address that issue of living standards and boosting demand.”

And she senses a shift amongst the workforce:

“I think there is a new mood amongst working people, I think something has happened in people’s heads. You know, they have put up with so much, they’ve been so dedicated, without any respite, by the way, through this crisis. It’s astonishing, the dedication, that people have shown and at the same time, they’ve seen other people getting rich on the back of this pandemic, through those VIP covid contracts. And It’s sickening, and I think something has shifted in people’s heads. And we’re beginning to get that feedback through our unions, through those consultative ballots that people have had enough. They’re not going to be taken as mugs.”

Simon Fletcher: So we’ve got wages squeeze, inflation, pressure from the Treasury over public sector pay, inadequate sick pay, and the absence of updated furlough. And then in a number of sectors are running arguments over pensions. All of that combined is a big problem for those the workers themselves but also a massive challenge for the trade union movement. How does the trade union movement meet this unfolding challenge?

Frances O’Grady: “I think there is a real sense in the trade union movement that we are more than the sum of our parts, and that when we work together, we can achieve more than any individual union can alone, so it might be an old fashioned word, but it means a lot for us and it’s about solidarity.

“I’m not going to lie I think we have a challenge to build workers’ confidence that we don’t have to accept this, that workers do have a right to be rewarded and treated fairly. But we are seeing some of those wins,” she argued, reflecting on cases that had been discussed by the TUC’s general council: “From Clarks, where actually Community has achieved a real pay rise for a number of workers when of course they were threatened with fire-and-rehire and wage cuts, to Weetabix. We’ve seen various bus companies. There’s a whole range of wins that unions are notching up.

“I think we haven’t seen the official figures yet but I’m pretty sure that that mark-up of union membership in terms of good pay and conditions is about to get sharper. And there’s a clear message there isn’t there, that yes, unions can achieve more by working together and so can workmates, joining together in the union is still the best way to get decent and fair pay.”

On this I asked Frances O’Grady for her thoughts about Clarks and fire-and-rehire, subjects that we have covered here before. Recently the Labour MP Barry Gardiner took a Bill to the House of Commons to seek to outlaw the practice. On one hand, we have seen the downside of the fire-and-rehire tactic being used during the pandemic.  On the other hand, there has been a higher public profile for the issue. Clark’s is a recent example of that – it is a very high profile, high street brand.

Frances O’Grady: “I think there is a kind of sense of public shock, in fact, that we were seeing some very big household names deploy such ugly and, well, obscene tactics in terms of their own workforces. When in so many cases, there was very clearly no financial reason to do so. They couldn’t even claim that, it was it was shocking. But I think I take great heart from what was a very well-organised pushback against that, that I think if any other employer was thinking about it I think they might think twice now, because they’ve seen the strength of that response. But yes, of course, we have to change the law to make it clear, but no employer should be able to get away with that treatment.

Barry Gardiner’s Bill was a great opportunity for a government that expressed the same disgust at the practice as the opposition, and yet when it came to it seemed to find every excuse under the sun not to vote for a bill that was put before it. And what’s also worrying and again, this comes back to a question of trust, we’ve been waiting two years now, at least two years for an Employment Bill that was promised to make Britain the best place in the world to work. Where is it? And how come laying those sneaky regulations to tie unions up in more red tape was a priority and bringing forward an employment bill to deal with the obscenity of fire and rehire, zero-hours contracts, false self-employment and introduce positive rights for unions to organise and to represent workers – how come back is still apparently not a priority for this government? How many more cases do we need to see?”

There is real anger from the TUC’s general secretary about inequality within the injustices of the economy: “this isn’t just an issue of workplace fairness. As the TUC showed, workers on insecure contracts are twice as likely to die from coronavirus as those on steady contracts. Now, we’ve been campaigning hard for a public inquiry to address this and many many other issues. But what no one can deny is that black and ethnic minority workers, key workers, very often on low pay, very often on zero hours or insecure contracts, have been far, far more vulnerable to hospitalisation and death. And this to me, is a national emergency. Injustice is jeopardising the health of workers who are absolutely essential to take care of the rest of us. Why doesn’t the government see this as a priority? Why aren’t their lives valued?”

Expanding on my question about the challenges and opportunities for the labour movement, I asked about building trade union strength in the digital age, how you get more recognition agreements with companies that are resisting them, and how you unionise places like Amazon.

Frances O’Grady: “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is thousands and thousands of workers turning to unions and joining for the first time and seeing unions as the best line of defence for their safety they health, their pay packets, their job security. So we have been growing for the last four years in a row, not as fast or as much as I would like, but nevertheless, it’s in the right direction.”

She stressed that like everybody else, the pandemic brought its challenges for the unions but it had also opened up other ways of organising. She points to the teachers’ union, the NEU, organising a zoom call with half a million people on it. For Frances O’Grady, advances such as that raise the question for unions of “figuring out how to convert that kind of mass engagement into finding and supporting new activists, new leaders to build the organisation sustainably. So and of course, you know, we’ve also been supporting our unions through online organising to boost turnout in ballots because that’s about our democracy. We are not going to stand by and let it wither on the vine because of anti-union legislation that makes it hard for us. Well, you know, it’s always been tough. I think our foremothers and fathers, to be fair, probably had it a bit tougher.”

Whilst emphasising successes and opportunities, Frances O’Grady points to the need for existing forms of organising alongside the new ones, stressing the importance of “face-to-face engagement and organising” to understand the needs of trade union members.

Before concluding, we took the opportunity to step back and consider some of Frances O’Grady’s wider experiences as TUC General Secretary.

Simon Fletcher: In your time as general secretary, you’ve seen three Tory Prime Ministers, three Labour leaders, three general elections, a referendum on Brexit and now a global pandemic. It’s not a very quiet life, is it?

Frances O’Grady: “I know I did see the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago and look what’s happened since. I kind of thought, I wonder if he thinks I’m a jinx!”

Asked what conclusions she had drawn along the way, she was very clear: “It absolutely confirms my internationalism, for one, on every level.” She gave a highly relevant immediate example: “a real urgent pressing issue – we are always going to see new variants emerge unless the whole world is vaccinated and fairly. It may be very difficult for some right wing people to contemplate but we need intellectual property rights waived on the vaccines so that poorer countries can get the production they need to get support with developing public health services, that are not for profit in order to get those jabs out there around the world. And, this isn’t just because that’s the moral thing to do, it’s because actually, it’s in our worldwide collective self-interest. So internationalism: it’s never been more important, including of looking at the rise of the radical right as much as the, if you like, the traditional fascist variety. That’s another reason.”

“It may be very difficult for some right wing people to contemplate but we need intellectual property rights waived on the vaccines”

Her internationalism was also part of her perspective on how the economy must change. “We can’t keep digging into the pockets of working people to pay for the infrastructure we need in this country. The likes of Amazon, it’s long past time they paid their fair share. And that does require more international action and more ambitious international action as well as domestic measures.”

Returning to the point about the need for an internationalist approach to the pandemic, we discussed the absence of adequate global action. She referred back to the 2008 financial crisis and made a comparison between the present Tory Prime Minister and the last Labour occupant of Number Ten: “whatever you think about what happened, compare the leadership in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash under Gordon Brown, compared to what we have today – for all the talk of global Britain, it seems to me the UK Government has not shown leadership at an international level, has not brought people together.”

The political context of the last ten years – including all those huge events both here and internationally – raise big questions for the trade union movement. I suggested it was possible to take a pessimistic view about the political opportunities available to trade unionists. I asked if Frances O’Grady could see a route through to a strategy that starts to deliver on the objectives that the unions have long-talked about, whether that is sectoral collective bargaining or the other priorities of the TUC. Again, her approach was positive.

Frances O’Grady: “I think our big, not so-very secret weapon is the strength of our organisation and the breadth of support we have in communities up and down Britain. As I say, we know that what we call for is popular. We know that, we know it would be an election winner for any party that cared to take up, for example, decent sick pay. People get it. Or fair taxes on the likes of Amazon, people get it. They think it’s common sense and should have been done long ago.

“So I have real confidence in our political strategy, in terms of what we’re asking for. There’s also some really interesting work through the nations, through the regions, through the cities, towns, local communities, where in many ways some of the more creative thinking and practical action is happening, including on issues like a just transition for workers to reach net zero.”

Thanks to Frances O’Grady for sparing the time, and to TUC staff for their assistance.

This interview by Simon Fletcher first appeared on and is re-published with his permission.

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Morning Star Xmas Publishing Schedule

The Morning Star publishing schedule over the Xmas holidays is as follows:

24th December Published edition

25th December NO EDITION

26th December NO EDITION

27th December NO EDITION

28th December Published edition

29th December Published edition

30st December Published edition

31st December Published edition

1st January  Published edition

2nd January NO EDITION

3rd January  NO EDITION

4th January  Published edition

Please feel free to use and repost on your Facebook, Twitter, What’s App Groups.

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The Venezuela Solidarity Campaign congratulates Venezuela on the successful completion of its regional and elections on November 21st. 

Venezuelans voted on Sunday to choose representatives for 3,082 elected positions: state governors, mayors, regional legislators and local councillors.

Over 70,000 candidates from 111 political parties took part, illustrating how extensive the competition was for each post.

The entire electoral process from start to finish was overseen by the National Electoral Council (CNE). Venezuela has an automated system that is the most audited in the world. In all, 17 audits of the process were conducted from beginning to end, in the presence of representatives from participating political parties.

Coupled with biometric identification being required to vote and automated voting throughout, this means that rigging election results is technically impossible in the Venezuelan election system.

International observers were present for the election, including teams from the Carter Center, the European Union, the Council of Latin American Electoral Experts (CEELA), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the African Union.

The election day went smoothly, with biosecurity measures in place at all polling stations.

Results from the elections for governors show the PSUV winning 20 governorships and opposition parties three. Full results will be announced by the CNE for more local contests in the following days.

The successful conclusion to the process represents an important victory for the policy of peace, dialogue and of seeking to resolve political differences through transparent elections.

Once again, despite negative propaganda from abroad, Venezuelan citizens have shown their commitment to democracy and exercised their right to determine their own future.

VSC calls on the UK and US governments to abandon their policy of non-recognition of the Venezuelan government and engage in constructive dialogue with President Maduro.”

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