Economic conditions have sent workers in numerous sectors on strike across the United Kingdom for the past several months, culminating in a February 1 strike of over 500,000 workers, including teachers, civil servants, and university and railroad workers. During the day of industrial action, union leaders delivered petitions signed by more than a quarter of a million people demanding that the government withdraw its anti-strike legislation.
The new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is a conservative who is attempting to slash spending instead of investing in essential public-sector workers. His conservative parliament has introduced legislation that, if passed, would curtail the right to strike for many sectors, requiring unions to send members across their own picket lines upon pain of workers being fired and the unions being sued.
From the railroad and postal sectors, to healthcare and education, workers across the country have been out on picket lines demanding higher wages that keep pace with inflation that has caused prices to rise more than 11 percent over the past year. UE ally Unite the Union represents many striking workers in the public sector, such as the National Health Service, as well as in the private sector, such as workers at Wabtec facilities that also went on strike last summer. More strikes are expected in various sectors throughout February.
In Israel, parliamentary elections in November resulted in a change of prime minister, but not to a new face: Benjamin Netanyahu resumed the post, as part of a coalition agreement with a far-right party. The new government poses a threat to the rights of Palestinians, including for Palestinian workers to advocate for humane working conditions. Our union partner, MAAN, which organizes both Palestinians and Israelis, has referred to this as “an extreme rightwing government.” In their statement on the election, MAAN calls “for the joint building of one democratic state that can provide an alternative to the violent and destructive reality that has been feeding from years of occupation and injustice.”
The world’s attention was on two other events in the Middle East last fall, both with implications for workers’ rights: COP27 and the World Cup. The UN’s Conference of Parties in Egypt continued on-going conversations about addressing climate change but in a location where the right to free speech is severely curtailed. While IndustriALL and some other union organizations had a presence at the event to demand that a just transition for workers be a part of planning for the changing climate, there was little meaningful movement at the conference.
A few weeks later, the World Cup was held in Qatar, where more than 6,500 workers died to build the stadiums, hotels and other facilities used for the games. Some unions and human rights organizations highlighted problems with work permits that amounted to indentured servitude and unsafe working and living conditions for the migrant workforce. The Qatari government attempted to say their labor laws have been reformed, but they also refused to comment on specific allegations of unsanitary conditions and have tried to cover up worker deaths.
Unfortunately, the Qatari labor conditions have bled into allegations of corruption among officials in the European Union, and at least one international labor leader. Luca Visentini was elected to lead as General Secretary the International Trade Union Confederation (UE is not an affiliate) in November. In December, Visentini was arrested on corruption allegations. He has admitted to taking €50,000 in cash from an NGO funded by Qatar. He also happens to be one of the labor leaders who said Qatar had improved their workers’ rights. Though Visentini has denied that he did anything wrong, many of UE’s international allies are outraged that he would tarnish the reputation of international unions and confederations that are trying to improve working conditions.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the government announced revisions to its “national security strategy,” which include a huge increase in military spending that would put them third behind the U.S. and China. UE’s ally Zenroren released a statement condemning a military buildup, which contradicts the Japanese constitution’s prohibition on maintaining a standing offensive military. Zenroren committed to “help people raise the call from all over the country for policies for better livelihoods and not for arms buildup. [Zenroren] works to develop a major movement to win political change to defend peace and livelihoods.”
In South Korea, UE ally the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is facing attacks reminiscent of the Cold War-era attacks on the UE in the United States. Just as democratically-elected UE leaders were accused of being Soviet agents in the late 1940s and 50s, South Korea’s conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol is accusing KCTU of meeting with North Korean spies — and the South Korean intelligence agency raided the KCTU offices in January. KCTU has condemned the raids as an effort to suppress the labor movement and promised to “struggle against the violence of the Yoon Suk-yeol regime.”
Finally, in France, workers across the country in at least 200 towns and cities walked off the job on Thursday, January 19, to protest plans announced by Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. UE’s trade union ally CGT united with other unions to shut down large parts of the country, impacting everything from public schools to train transportation, and from shipping to public television and radio broadcasts. The CGT estimated that 1.8 million people participated across the country, with 800,000 of them in Paris. It is unclear if the retirement age legislation can pass the French parliament.