Date: Fri, 7 Nov 1997 12:41:28 +0800 (HKT)
Bill Jordan's ICFTU: British Unions' "new realism" goes global
By Gerard Greenfield, 7 November 1997
Remember Bill Jordan? No? While most people in Britain have probably forgotten him, the 3000 striking electrical workers he sold out in the late 1980s when he was president of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union remember him very well. And we have got to know him here in Asia all too well. After selling out his members in the UK, he went on to be appointed General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in January 1995, where he now employs his subtle blend of compromise and more compromise in a confederation that claims a membership of over 126 million workers worldwide.
The compromises and concessions which underpin Bill Jordan's global union strategy has its origins in the "new realism" which swept the British trade union movement after the defeat of the miners' strikes in 1984-85. As a precursor to Britain's New Labourism, 'new realism' mean that union members had to be realistic about pit closures and factory closures, realistic about the casualisation of work and the loss of job security, realistic about the end of collective But the socialist movement which grew out of the miners' strikes taught us that being realistic about all of these things would only concede more ground to the New Right and exacerbate the losses inflicted on the labour movement. We also understood that with unionists like Bill Jordan in charge these losses were more or less self-inflicted.
After each concession that further diminishes the capacity of workers to exercise their collective power, after each compromise that limits the power of trade unions in the bargaining process, there is a 'realistic reassessment' of the new situation by union leaders. They start off by saying, "The best we can do under the circumstances....", and before they've finished workers have heard a list of new concessions and compromises. A lot of this is justified in terms of raising productivity and becoming or staying competitive. So rather than fighting to maintain a critical space for workers' collection bargaining power, and rather than demanding what is _necessary_ (as opposed to limiting ourselves to what the New Right leads us to think is _possible_), union leaders are returning from the bargaining table to tell their members that there's no alternative but to accept what's being done to them. When Bill Jordan did this to his own union the result was that the electrical workers - like so many other unionised workers in Britain - had to go back to the bargaining table individually, not collectively.
This is what business unionism boils down to. In the pursuit of a partnership with management, and the personal power and privilege that this brings to union leaders, the space for collective action by workers is disappearing and the whole notion of 'struggle' is thrown out as irrelevant and old fashioned. And the benefits? A few members keep their jobs - sometimes the majority - but the class interests of workers and their communities are abandoned. The greatest benefit of all is enjoyed by the union leaders themselves, who no longer have to feel isolated and marginalised from the decision-making structures of governments and corporations. This is precisely what underlies Bill Jordan's bid to be included in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as the representative of global labour. In fact the ICFTU's internet updates on proposals to include a social clause in the WTO already refer to Jordan as the "global union boss"!
In asserting its claim to be the legitimate representative of global labour in the post-Cold War world, the ICFTU has managed an easy convergence of business unionism and authoritarian state unionism. Under the helmsmanship of Bill Jordan and pressure from the conservative Japanese trade union confederation, Rengo, the ICFTU is moving quickly towards recognition of the official All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Of course no mention is made of the ACFTU's support for the state's massacre of workers and students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The ACFTU played an active role in this repression by denouncing the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation and calling on its members to report the names of labour organisers involved in the movement. Since 1989, the ACFTU has continued to play this repressive role by intervening to end workers' strikes and supporting the arrest and conviction of independent labour organisers as 'subversives'.
At the international conference of the ICFTU's Asia and Pacific Regional Organisation (APRO) held in Hong Kong earlier this year, the ICFTU leadership made it clear that they have _not_ forgotten the ACFTU's role in the Tiananmen Square massacre. That's exactly why they referred to the massacre as an "incident", and suggested that it was time to move on. Jordan even pointed out that he has been meeting with the ACFTU and holding "fruitful discussions". He then reassured the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) that all is well, despite the very real possibility of repression by the ACFTU after reunification. As the conference dragged on it was increasingly clear that the "global labour boss" was distancing himself from the HKCTU. This comes as no surprise since the HKCTU is one of the few ICFTU affiliates in Asia which is independent of both business and the government. (In the September 26, 1997 ICFTU-APRO Labour Flash the ICFTU report on its visit to China, ICFTU-APRO praises the work of ACFTU in protesting workers' rights, concluding: "The delegation was particularly impressed with protections for workers and trade union rights in the Special Economic Zones.")
It was during this same conference in Hong Kong that Bill Jordan revealed both his 'new realist' agenda and his ignorance. He started off by telling the audience of local union representatives that, "Hong Kong's tradition of democracy and a strong labour movement has made it one of the most dynamic economies in the world". Local unionists were a bit stunned, because Jordan had hit on the two things Hong Kong has never had. At the time he was speaking Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule and was about to see another non-elected government take power. Moreover, only 4% of workers are organised and there are only two collective bargaining agreements in the whole of Hong Kong. After 150 years of colonial rule the labour movement is still struggling for the right to organise and collective bargaining, as well as protection against dismissal and the right to union pluralism. And despite the rhetoric about Hong Kong's economic success, the average working class _wage_ is less than ten per cent of the average monthly _rent_ in the middle class residential districts.
While the fate of the HKCTU remains unclear, there is no doubt that the partnership emerging between the ICFTU and the ACFTU will consolidate the fusion of business unionism and authoritarian state unionism within the region. But is Bill Jordan's compliance with the demands of conservative national centres like Japan's Rengo and Singapore's state-run National Trade Union Council (whose president is usually a government minister) simply due to his complete ignorance of what's going on? His speech on Hong Kong's democratic traditions and "strong labour movement" suggests that this might be the case. But if we look at the nature of business unionism in Asia, the alignment with the management structures of transnational corporations, the obsession with managing workers to ensure competitiveness and productivity, and the compromises and concessions imposed on workers to bring their unions into line with the interests of management, then we can see that what Jordan did to electrical workers in Britain is merely a microcosm of all this. There's no doubt about it: new realism has gone global.
Some may question the impact of all this on the local scene, arguing that, "Our national union centre may be a member of the ICFTU, but it's a real union so none of this global union politics really affects us." Well it does. First of all we should remember that the 'new realism' is all about the concessions we're told we must make to stay competitive. But if workers' collective rights are being rolled back all over the world, then these concessions in the name of competitiveness will lead to a race to the bottom for all of us. The second point is that the international departments of even the most progressive and democratic trade unions are often dominated by the ICFTU's own politics of compromise.
Most important of all is the fact that most of us draw our inspiration from workers' struggles overseas as much as struggles at home. So if the ICFTU's business unionism is affecting these struggles, then it's our business too. Take the general strike in South Korea, for example. The massive, nation-wide strike by workers in South Korea demonstrated that we can and should wage a collective struggle against the attempts by governments to reverse the gains of workers' movements in the name of competitiveness. It also represented social movement unionism in action, with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) building alliances and partnerships with a number of human rights, women's, students' and community-based organisations and movements. However, although the ICFTU declared its support for the general strike, the ICFTU leadership focused solely on the illegality of the new laws and the violation of International Labour Conventions. During Jordan's visit to Seoul, the ICFTU was careful to stress that the strike was a struggle over workers' legal rights, and not a struggle for political and social change. Of course Jordan's line did not have much impact on the KCTU leadership because the militancy of the workers' movement and its ties to other social movements ensured that they were not about to reduce their demands to a narrowly defined set of rights.
It's worth remembering that Jordan did not issue any criticism of the new anti-worker labour laws until it was clear that the state-controlled Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) would also oppose the new laws. We should also recall that at the time of an even greater struggle by the independent union movement in South Korea and its bloody repression in the 1980s, the ICFTU only recognised and worked with the trade union federation controlled by the state and big business - the FKTU.
It is ironic that at the time of the general strike in South Korea Bill Jordan presented it as having an organic link to the work of the ICFTU. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ICFTU promotes the kind of new realism and business unionism that tells workers to accept the sacrifices being demanded of them, to compromise and settle things quickly. Their message to their 126 million members is no different from Jordan's message to the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union members: don't strike, just go home and we'll sort things out for you. In contrast, the workers in South Korea took to the streets and refused to compromise. Rather than reflecting any organic link with the ICFTU, the South Korean workers' struggle represented a rejection of business unionism and new realism. By mobilising communities and forming alliances with other social movements, they demonstrated the importance of social movement unionism as a strategy for reinvigorating working class struggle. This also reinforced the notion that only if unions are _in struggle_ will they succeed in representing the interests of their members and the working class at large, and only by being _in struggle_ will they challenge the attack on collective bargaining rights, the casualisation of work and the destruction of job and income security. But with the predominance of new realists and business unionists like Jordan in the leadership of the ICFTU, genuine workers' unions must not only be _in struggle_ against corporations and governments, but also against the ICFTU itself.
On 11/17/97, at 12:14 PM, AMRC wrote:
>Please also note Chris Bailey's correction to my article concerning the
Sorry about January 5. The correction was actually sent on Nov 15th, but it seems my computer had reset the date while I was away for a week.
Anyway, I am glad to see Aaron is carrying the correction. I think Jordan's role in the late eighties was actually far more serious than just selling out a strike. The "New Realism" that he and others were seeking to accept was Thatcher's attempt at the wholesale destruction of the British trade union movement. By trying to collaborate with her plans the New Realists were offering to give up genuine trade unions. They were ready and willing to turn trade unions into organisations policing the working class on behalf of the employers and state. Gerard's article reveals that Jordan is now carrying out precisely the same role with regards to China.
Having just spent a week with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, who are likely to be the next to suffer from Jordan's activities, I think Gerard's article is very timely. I'll put a link through to the article on Aaron's site from LabourNet.