On Wednesday afternoon, convention delegates watched video messages from UE allies from Japan, Italy, Quebec and Mexico. All of them reported how working people in their countries have had their lives disrupted by the pandemic, but are fighting for safe jobs and a secure future.
Masako Obata, the newly-elected president of the militant union federation Zenroren, reported on the pandemic’s effect on working people in Japan. “Infections are surging and the nation’s healthcare system is on the verge of collapse,” she said, a situation made worse by the fact that the government went ahead with holding the Olympics and Paralympics despite “strong opposition” from working people. Zenroren is “demanding policy change to drastically improve healthcare, nursing care for elderly people, and the public health system” and “taking our demands directly to the government for negotiations.” The union is encouraging people to share their pandemic-related experiences in the workplace and local communities through letters to the prime minister, which Zenroren is then distributing on social media. Zenroren members also held demonstrations across the country on September 5.
Obata said that the failure of corporate-friendly economic policies during the pandemic demonstrates the importance of Zenroren’s call for a “society without economic inequality, in which people can live their lives in a decent manner if they work eight hours a day.”
“Zenroren is developing a struggle for secure employment, a substantial wage increase and a raise from the bottom up,” she said. Zenroren is demanding a uniform national minimum wage of 1,500 yen (close to $15) per hour. Their actions have resulted in the minimum hourly wage being raised to 930 yen (close to $9). While this is far from their demands, “we will keep fighting to earn a living in a more humane manner in solidarity with U.S. workers, who are making progress in Fight for 15.”
Obata also spoke about the importance of winning political power in the upcoming elections (which unfortunately did not produce the advances they had been hoping for -ed.), but emphasized that “activity in the workplace is key to the struggle. Discussion of demands in the workplace ... is the driving force for changing the workplace and local communities.”
“Over the last 30 years Zenroren and UE have worked together to help connect workers from different workplaces in pursuit of international solidarity in the fight against global capital,” Obata concluded. “We hope we will further develop solidarity between Japanese and U.S. workers to achieve their demands.”
Dominique Daigneault of the Quebec union federation CSN, who has attended a number of UE conventions, told convention delegates, “Despite the distance, the pandemic, and the difficult times we are all experiencing, the CSN is here standing in solidarity with UE.” Daigneault, who is president of the CSN’s Montreal council, introduced Caroline Senneville, the newly elected CSN president. Senneville said that international solidarity is “more necessary now than ever before, as the world has not yet recovered from the worst pandemic in modern times.” She noted that during the pandemic, workers in Quebec have lost jobs and income, and some have even lost their lives, while “employers have not necessarily made things easier.”
“Unions are there, not only to protect their members, but also to protect the most vulnerable members of society, who have suffered considerably over the past 18 months,” Senneville continued. The pandemic has highlighted “the inequalities that affect our society, such as racism and sexism. We must make every effort to put an end to these inequalities.”
“We need to redouble our efforts so that post-COVID, our society will be fairer and more equitable for workers and the population as a whole. This is the heart of our mission.”
At UE’s 2019 convention, Rosalba Calva Flores and Eladio Abundiz, two of the co-coordinators of UE’s long-time Mexican sister union the FAT, shared how through struggle, independent unions have won better labor laws that allow for fair, secret-ballot elections, and require transparency from unions representing workers. In the video they recorded for this convention, Calva Flores reported that “We currently have a Federal Labor Law in place in Mexico that speaks to the basic principles of labor law: justice, fair collective bargaining, and respect for union organizing that translates into democracy at work.” However, she noted that there is “a lot to do to propel these changes forward.”
Abundiz reported that in Mexico, as in the U.S., “The COVID-19 pandemic has left thousands of women and men out of work [and] many companies continue their systematic violation of labor rights.”
“Yet in spite of it all, our two organizations have continued to work together, maintaining our ties of solidarity to strengthen ourselves.” He concluded “For the working class! Viva UE! Viva FAT!”
The members of UE ally FIOM, the Italian metalworkers’ union (which is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year), were some of the first to feel the impacts of the pandemic outside of China. Francesca Re David, FIOM’s general secretary, and Daniele Calosi, who has attended several UE conventions, reported how Italian workers have fought hard for protections for workers, while also fighting back against employers who are using the pandemic to attempt to relocate work to places where they can get away with paying workers less.
David reported that Italian workers won the passage of a law prohibiting the firing of workers, which lasted until June of this year, but that once the law expired, employers are beginning to fire workers and attempt to close factories. When that happens, David said, “We permanently stake out and picket the factories so that the machinery is not removed … Let’s say something very simple and clear: no recovery and resilience is possible with factory closures.”
“We think there is an increasing need for unity in the labor movement,” David concluded. “Only by getting together can we change the state of things, not only resisting the attacks we suffer but fighting together, united for a better world.”
Calosi pointed out that “This pandemic has hit workers hard all over the world,” both in the industrialized countries of Europe and North America and in the developing world. “The only way to effectively combat COVID-19 is to fight for the rights of all workers, because they have paid the highest price of the crisis.”
In her report to the convention, UE Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson noted the different ways that governments around the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic:
Some governments met this moment of crisis by expanding their social safety nets to include unemployment benefits that met 85 to 90 percent of workers’ salaries and ample paid sick leave. But unfortunately, too many governments, like our own, pressured employers to reopen prematurely, endangering the lives of millions of workers and their families. And in other countries, governments have used this moment to crack down on unions and other workplace organizing, imprisoning and sometimes even killing their leaders.
Thompson specifically mentioned brutal crackdowns in the Philippines, the military junta that took power in Myanmar, the arrest of the president of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in South Korea, and the dangerous worker and human rights violations perpetrated by far-right president Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil.
She also reported on UE’s participation in the third Congress of IndustriALL Global Union, a world wide union federation to which UE belongs.