Opening Speech to the International Trade Forum in Defense of ILO Conventions
By Ed Rosario, Sunday 7 June 1998
Geneva, Switzerland - Preventing the International Labor Organization from becoming an Appendage of the World Trade Organization
It gives me great pleasure and honor to be here with you, trade unionists and activist who have gathered here today. We who have gathered in defense of the International Labor Organization Conventions.
I bring you greetings from the San Francisco Labor Council (AFL-CIO), representing 75,000 union members. I also bring greetings of solidarity from the 412 delegates of the Western Hemisphere Workers' Conference Against NAFTA and Privatizations, who comprise and constitute the Continuations Committee. These 412 delegates coming from 20 countries, collectively represent tens of millions of workers throughout the Americas.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) was established in 1919 and today regroups 150 countries. Though a tri-partite body of government, corporate and union representatives, it has registered the gains of more than 100 years of labor struggles in conventions guaranteeing the formation of free independent unions without prior authorization of the state (ILO Convention #87), the right to collective bargaining (ILO Convention #97), and the outright ban of child labor (ILO Convention #138), to mention but a few. All these conventions, which are the law of the land in the ratifying countries, are today an obstacle to the "globalization" offensive by the Multi-nationals and the financial institutions and governments in their service. Defense of these conventions is a central task facing all unionists fighting to defend the past gains and the very existence of the trade union movement globally.
We have gathered together today, despite our different points of view, our different political origins, and our different traditions. We have succeeded in drawing the same conclusions: free trade agreements, along with structural adjustment:
Ironically, the constituency who should be the most outraged, and building a serious fightback against such austerity, are the world's labor movements, who are represented at the "Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development", the organization who has brought the world the "Multilateral Agreement on Investment" (MAI), have simply called for a "social charter, a social pact", instead of mobilizing against such policies.
This position has been resisted by environmentalists and human rights organizations, and now a growing number of unions of the United States have come to the same conclusion.
This sentiment was also expressed by a majority of delegates to the Western Hemisphere Workers Conference. This is why the delegates voted to build global unionism as the only solution to global capitalism.
For us in the labor movement, building global unionism means defending all the norms and standards that have been codified in the ILO conventions. That is why when there is an attempt to transform the ILO as an direct appendage of the World Trade Organization, we say loud and clear:
Every nation on this earth should all ratify ILO conventions and more than this, they should implement them. They must become the law of the land in every country. They must be enforced. These are key, as well, to the sovereignty and self determination of peoples and nations.
We in the labor movement are often accused in the media of being protectionists and global-phobes. This is false. We are opposed to corporate barbarism. And we are setting out to build labor community ties across nations, reaching out our hands of support across borders, across oceans, to build a common fightback against global pillage and union-busting.
This year, in the name of carrying out wholesale "reform" of the ILO, the 150 labor conventions of the ILO are under attack.
The World Trade Organization (WTO), which has spearheaded the international drive toward "free trade" and deregulation, has long demanded a "reform" of the ILO to make it more adapted to the current needs of "economic globalization" and "competitive deregulation".
For the WTO, those countries that have ratified ILO conventions and thereby made them the law of their lands, are in a "comparative disadvantage" on the world market in relation to other countries where production costs are lower and labor laws are more "flexible". The ban on child labor and forced labor, the legal limitations to laying off workers, the very existence of independent unions and collective-bargaining agreements - all these, according to the WTO, are intolerable restrictions on the "normal functioning of open markets".
They are considered "barriers to free trade".
The goal of the WTO - as stipulated in a proposal adopted by the 1997 WTO Summit in Singapore - is to bring the ILO under its umbrella, thereby making it totally subservient to the needs of global capital. In fact, the WTO has organized a series of roundtable "discussions" with trade unions across the globe to promote the concept of "social pacts" between labor and management, which they describe as "corporatist". This is a very chilling perspective that would spell the end of trade unions as the independent voice of working people. The most recent example of corporatism is Mussolini's Italy. That is where global capital wishes to take our trade union movement.
The core ILO conventions under attack by the WTO are as follows:
1. ILO Convention 87 on trade union rights (1948)The mechanism employed today to sidestep and ultimately do away with the ILO conventions is devious - reflecting the fear by the Multi-national corporations and the governments in their service of the workers' reaction.
A year ago, just prior to the 85th annual assembly of the ILO, preparations were under way to amend the ILO Constitution so as to introduce a clause that would outright repeal the current ILO conventions. New, less-restrictive conventions were to be introduced.
For example, there was a discussion of replacing ILO Convention 138 with a convention that would condemn "the most intolerable forms of child labor." Thus, instead of a ban on child labor, we simply would have a ban on its "most intolerable forms of child labor." This would have represented the acceptance of child labor under its "most tolerable forms." WTO representatives stated openly this could include reducing a 60-hour workweek for children to 50 hours a week!
This language for the regulation of child labor was taken essentially straight from "Article 5" of the Labor Side Agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Once they learned of this threat, trade unionists worldwide - following the lead of the conveners of the Fourth Annual Independent Trade Forum in Defense of the Norms and Conventions of the ILO - sounded the alarm and forced the WTO bosses' representatives of the ILO to beat a quick retreat.
This years "reform" proposal is no less dangerous - though it has been packaged in such a way as to elicit support of unwary unionists and supporters of labor rights.
The administrative committee of the ILO is proposing that a "Declaration of Workers' of Fundamental Rights" be submitted at this 86th ILO assembly, with the goal of adopting it by 2001. A draft declaration has been published and circulated among the delegates to the upcoming ILO assembly. It's a document that embodies the "principle" of the seven fundamental ILO conventions I referred to earlier.
The problem, however, is that countries would be allowed to sign this Declaration of Rights without actually ratifying the seven core ILO conventions. And unlike the ILO conventions, which must become the law of the land when ratified, this declaration is not binding in anyway. It is a statement of intent to respect certain principles, nothing more. It has no teeth, no mechanism of enforcement. In the hands of governments that are pushing the World Trade Organization/International Monetary Fund corporate agenda, this Declaration would be worth little more than the paper it was printed on.
This is why such a Declaration of Rights is simply a public relations maneuver devised by top functionaries of the WTO to mask the drive to marginalize and ultimately get rid of the ILO conventions. The United States, for example, which has only ratified two of these seven core ILO conventions, could sign this Declaration and parade as a champion of labor rights -at the very moment it is pushing "free trade," deregulation, union-busting and privatization both at home and abroad.
We who have set out to promote Global Unionism have a fundamental responsibility to defend international labor laws that have registered our gains and permitted us to fightback against the bosses and governments in their service.
Defense of these ILO Conventions is at the heart of Global Unionism. It is one of our central cries for mobilizing and organizing internationally as a community of workers.
I thank you all for giving me your time. May we have a very successful discussion today. May we come to a conclusion, which gives us a plan of action which we can rally in solidarity in defense of all ILO conventions. Thank you very much!
Closing Speech to the International Trade Forum In Defense of ILO Conventions (Sunday, June 7, 1998)
We have all gathered here today at this conference, a delegation representing 37 countries from around the world, participating in a rich discussion in defense of the ILO Conventions to not just be ratified, but to be implemented, and become the law of the land in all countries globally.
But in our discussion today, it is also quite obvious that we cannot discuss the attacks against these conventions, without pointing to the policies of austerity that governments have implemented on behalf of global capital, the balance sheet of free trade, the slave-like working conditions you find in free trade zones, export processing zones, maquiladoras, by whichever name you may choose to call them, and how these free trade zones are to a certain extent a caricature of the rapid "globalization" of the economy.
You cannot separate these attacks against the ILO Conventions and the independent trade union movements right to mobilize, organize, and build Global Unionism. This they consider a "trade barrier". You cannot separate the proposed "Declaration of Rights" and there wanting to mollify us with social pacts and clauses. This will not appease us!
You cannot separate the attempts of rendering the ILO conventions unenforceable internationally, and the articles of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) superceding the rights of ones self determination and democratic rights, the laws of the land, municipalities, and countries of the world.
What they truly seek is greater flexibility to dismantle hard earned gains of workers internationally. Gains that have been taken for granted, gains that people have died for. What they truly seek to create is a "one world maquiladora." Evidence of this is the maquiladora at the United States and Mexico border, which now run well deep within the interior of Mexico since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on January 1, 1994.
The reason is quite obvious why global capital is against any ILO convention, or any environmental, labor rights and protections - even clauses gained in side agreements or any that may be gained within the master document of any free trade agreement -- and their need to expand the globalization of the world economy (the expansion of "corporate barbarism"), and their need for governments to carry out their global corporate agenda.
There is usually a direct link between the type of political regime in the host country and the social and trade union situation in the regional trade zones. The ILO stated unequivocally "precarious contracts, piece work, extremely long days, poverty wages, the violation of freedom of association, and other inhuman practices are not the preserve of certain enterprises in the maquila industry, but are part of the deep rooted culture of the exploitation of human and natural resources of our countries."
These trade zones are seductive to investors precisely because they are an enclave. In other words they are physically, economically, and socially separate from the rest of the country. This "apartheid" explains why the advantages given to foreign investors, freed from the burden of bureaucracy, taxation, lack of infrastructure, and the application of labor codes, do not necessarily translate into benefits for the host country.
Should we close our eyes to the situation, in the same way just as in the 1980's, the labor movement and civil rights organizations were asked to close their eyes to the torture in Chile, or disappearances in Argentina because as it had been put to them at the time, "These countries cannot be compared to the old western democracies?"
To accept this reasoning, that social rights are relative, amounts quite simply to calling into question the most important international conventions on human and trade union rights, which uphold the principle of equality between persons, and agreeing to the views of Multi-national corporations that exploitation is an inevitable step along the road to development and democracy in the Third World.
Capital has no boundaries or borders. Exploitation has no boundaries or borders, and workers should accept no boundaries or borders in uniting to defend our interests and our gains.
A totally unified response is the very response the bosses and the politicians fear the most. That is precisely the response we must forge.
This is why we say the government should not interfere in the internal affairs of any independent trade union, such is the case with the "Teamsters." This undermines the rights of union members to having a democratic discussion and having democratic elections, voting into office the leaders of their choice.
Or the most recent attack where fortunately Proposition 226 was just defeated in the state of California. If it had passed it would have allowed the government to interfere with the ability of unions to be part of the political process. It would have prevented unions from being the political voice for all workers, union or non-union, yet none of the same restrictions were to be placed on corporations.
When we see the Han Young workers of Tijuana, Baja California, under attack from the government and the police, we heed the call and reach out in solidarity.
These issues are of international concern and have international consequences for all workers globally. And this is why we are "one" community of workers, building Global Unionism.
It was a great victory for not just the labor movement of the Americas, but a victory for the labor movement of the world when the voice of the United States labor movement was raised against President Clinton from gaining "Fastrack Authority." Fastrack Authority would have allowed the President the opportunity to expand NAFTA throughout the Americas, paving the way for the creation of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).
This opportunity created the much needed room for the delegates of the Western Hemisphere Workers Conference held in San Francisco, California, November 1997, and the delegates of the Peoples Summit held in Santiago, Chile in mid-April 1998, to mobilize not in the traditional defensive posture, but from an offensive position. We did not come together to just have a discussion. We came together to mobilize towards action, internationally.
And this is how we must march on, in our hearts, in our minds, on the offensive. We are speaking with one voice, as one people, everywhere!
For no matter who we are, or where we come from, your fight is my fight, my fight is your fight. It is just one fight. It is all the same fight! Thank You Very Much.