ICFTU Global Day of Action on November 9

Andrew Pollack

The leaders of
the world’s biggest union body, the International Confederation of Free Trade
Unions (ICFTU), have issued a call for action which could dramatically
transform the movement against capitalist globalization.

In a press
release dated July 19, the ICFTU announced that “trade union leaders from
around the world, meeting in a special session of the ICFTU Steering Committee
held in conjunction with the G8 Summit in Genoa, took the decision to mark the
launch of the next Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization
(WTO) in Doha, Qatar by staging a Global Unions’ Day of Action by the
Workplaces of the World. The Day of Action will take place on November 9,
2001, the opening day of the WTO Conference.”

The federation
described the Day of Action as being “co-ordinated at global level and
delivered at a local level, taking the form of diverse actions to be
determined in individual countries ranging from stoppages and demonstrations
to workplace discussions, public meetings and high- profile media activities”
(see their site at www.icftu.org).

The same day
the ICFTU call hit the web, for instance, the LabourStart website was
reporting on the following actions by workers around the world:

  • 10,000 German railworkers
    demonstrated against threatened job cuts and promised to strike to protect
    their jobs
  • hundreds of thousands of
    South African workers were preparing for strikes the following week against
    steel and energy companies
  • Korean workers were
    organizing to protect their leaders threatened with arrest for having led
    general strikes against layoffs and other austerity measures
  • 95 percent of the
    workforce in Argentina participated in a general strike against spending
    cuts imposed by the government at the behest of the IMF

In reporting on
the Argentinian strike even the mainstream media admitted that 95 percent of
the working class had struck. That means millions of workers on strike against
the effects of capitalist globalization. What’s more this is only the latest
in a series of general strikes in that country against IMF-imposed policies in
the last two years. Workers and peasants around the country have, during that
same period, blocked roads to protest the same policies.

The press has
been full of speculation about whether the Argentinian government will be able
to stave off economic collapse, whether it will be able to impose the cuts
demanded by the world’s banks and their agencies and whether Argentinian
workers will stand idly by. Speculation also abounds about whether Brazil’s
economy will be pulled down in the wake of Argentina’s troubles.

Brazil is the
home of several other militant forces in the anti-globalization movement. Its
Landless Workers Movement has occupied land and fought battles with the
government to protect their land seizures, and during the World Social Forum
in Porto Alegre in January, 2001, 1,300 farmers occupied a Monsanto farm  and
destroyed genetically-engineered soybeans. It’s also the home of the Workers’
Party, the main sponsor of the WSF.

Latin America
has been a hotbed of strikes and occupations in recent years. Mass
working-class actions last year in Bolivia forced U.S.-based Bechtel to cancel
its plans for taking over privatized water facilities, and Mexico, Ecuador,
Colombia, and Venezuela have been rocked by mass protests by workers, farmers,
and indigenous peoples.

What is the
November 9 Day of Action likely to look like in Latin America? If the unions
there pick up on the day as a focus for their members, the possibility of a
continent-wide general strike is not hard to imagine. Given militant actions
over the course of the last decade by peasants and indigenous peoples, such a
strike could dovetail with other actions, perhaps looking more like an
uprising than a strike.

Nor is it hard
to imagine countrywide, and in some cases, continentwide general strikes, in
other parts of the globe. Patrick Bond provides a useful list of some
important grassroots actions, including:

  • a general strike in South
    Africa last May “by half the country’s workforce, furious over job-killing
    neoliberal policies adopted at the behest of the World Bank, and protest
    marches” which brought 200,000 out into the streets in several cities
  • “a strike the next day by
    20 million Indian workers explicitly to protest the surrender of national
    sovereignty to the IMF and Bank”
  • other general strikes and
    mass rallies in Ecuador, Argentina, Turkey, Haiti, Paraguay, Nigeria, South
    Korea, and Brazil (see www.zmag.org/CrisesCur-

This working
class upsurge has even struck the imperialist countries. Greece has
experienced two general strikes in the last year and memories of the 1996
general strike in France are still fresh. In Italy just a few weeks before the
Genoa summit hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, and chanted
“We’re going to Genoa.” in response to speeches by Genoa Social Forum
activists. Naturally this militancy has spilled over into increasing
participation by unionists in countersummit actions, including civil

In the U.S. the
potential is much less clear. If left to their own devices, the top leaders of
the AFL-CIO will no doubt be happy with a Day of Action marked only by workers
signing anti-WTO postcards during their lunchbreaks and showing up for tepid
after-work rallies.

On the other
hand, some unionists in Seattle threw in their lot with those seeking to shut
down the summit, and this April, as part of the run-up to Quebec anti-FTAA
demonstrations, Jobs with Justice organized actions around the country linking
globalization to local struggles such as hospital privatizations, union
organizing drives, workfare scams, etc.

In New York
City the debate over what the Day of Action should look like will probably
revolve around whether unionists should participate in a projected shutdown of
Wall Street already being organized by local activists. It’s likely that the
majority of union leaders will oppose participation, carefully scheduling
their rallies miles away. But it’s also likely that as in Seattle, and later
in Quebec, some more radical unionists will break with their leaders and join
with those seeking to engage in direct action.

In a way, the
calling of a global workers’ action was facilitated by the WTO putting its
meeting in “safe” Qatar. That is, the option of trying to get workers to go in
large numbers to the summit location was never an option, and locally-based
protests were the only option. The continued relocation of summits to remote
places (such as the one planned next year in Canada) means that the question
of whether to shut down summits will not come up nearly as often (earlier this
year the World Bank canceled its Barcelona meeting altogether in favor of a
cyberspace conference).

On the other
hand, the question of civil disobedience, whether “violent” or nonviolent,
won’t go away and is already posed around the projected November Wall Street

The movement’s
ability to shut down or at least disrupt several global summits has helped
swell our ranks and draw in ever bigger and broader forces, giving the
movement more self-confidence and inspiration to continue. It has also
encouraged new forms of activity—for instance, the Social Forums held in Porto
Alegre and in Genoa, uniting the forces and ideas of thousands of groups from
around the world, as well as the pro-immigration march during Genoa and the
pro-immigrant actions along the U.S.-Mexico border during FTAA protests.

Capital is
upset when its meetings are disturbed; Seattle, Prague, Quebec, etc., have
called into question the legitimacy of its political leaders, their claim to
be representing democratic institutions and processes, in the eyes of the
majority of the world’s people. But capital only grants concessions when it is
afraid that by not doing so it will be unable to continue making profits.
Threats to a company’s profits for a day, a week, a month, can scare it into
granting a decent union contract or wage increase. Threats to the profits of a
national ruling class can scare it into passing laws for new wage and hours
laws, creating or restoring social services, or stop it from privatizing
companies. Threats to its very right to exist as an economic and as a ruling
(i.e. political) class—threats which can only occur during strikes and
uprisings participated in by the majority of the working class—can cause a
crisis in self-confidence that, if matched by an equivalent rise in
self-confidence by its opponents, can lead to the demise of its rule.

That’s why, for
instance, a general strike and road blockades forced Bechtel to back down in

What’s more,
since it’s the global system as a whole—not just individual corporations or
governments or agencies such as the IMF—which is the context mandating the
imposition of job and service cuts and privatizations, only a global working
class struggle, with internationally coordinated actions, will be able to take
on that system.

Many labor
activists are already in touch with others around the globe as a result of
decades of attempts to forge international solidarity, especially at the rank-
and-file level. We are also in touch through labor websites and e-mail lists,
and our participation in summit actions and forums like Porto Alegre and
Genoa. We need to use those links to discuss what should happen on November 9.
Some guidelines to consider are:

  • maximizing official union
    support and participation, but not waiting for it before planning possible
    activities or letting its absence hold back our discussions
  • developing structures
    that maximize input from union members and workers in general about the type
    of actions they think are possible and desirable, and around what issues
  • discussing which of those
    structures to maintain after November 9 as permanent, democratic means for
    continued collaboration

websites and email lists could be built, and existing ones expanded. On
November 9 perhaps there could be a global labor teleconference so that
workers could view each others’ rallies in real-time. For instance, this March
the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) called for this year’s World
Water Day to be declared a day of mourning for the millions of people who are
sick and dying as a result of not having access to water. SAMWU demanded that
“all commercial- ization be stopped and water be restored as a public

To my knowledge
March 22, the target date for such actions (pegged to a UN Water Day), came
and went without much activity. But what if that day had been the focus for an
internationally-coordinated mobilization by all involved in local struggles
around water—such as those fighting on the same issue in Bolivia mentioned
above—and by others in solidarity with them?

Could our
discussions in the run-up to November 9 create the kind of global working
class network that can launch follow-up days of action around specific issues
such as water or around education or health care or other services being
privatized and slashed around the globe, and around which workers in
individual countries have already mobilized? Could we launch a worldwide
general strike demanding the cancellation of the Third World debt (and the end
of its First World equivalent, the tax giveaways to banks)?


What Are We
Fighting For?

None of this is
to minimize the barriers in our way—including from the ICTFU and its national
affiliates. We can’t assume that the officials running these bodies will
necessarily look kindly on independent, ad-hoc bodies organizing around
November 9, and we’ll have to carefully balance the need for official
endorsement and independent initiative.

On the other
hand, the very issuing of the call indicates an official recognition of the
desire in labor’s ranks for joint action. During Porto Alegre, Marcello
Malentacchi, head of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, one of the
ICFTU’s biggest affiliates, took other union leaders to task for flocking to
Davos (the meeting of the bosses to which the World Social Forum in Brazil was
counterposed). Furthermore, he argued that the “debate about globalization
from a social perspective…cannot and must not be restricted to just the
Third World. Trade unions from every continent must participate and contribute
to the conference in Brazil” (see www.imfmetalorg).

In a follow-up
column he encouraged formation of a “tribune for global unions,” writing: “I
think the time has come for global unions to take a leading role in the debate
on globalization….”

Of course union
leaders’ presence in Davos, and their eagerness to hobnob with the bosses both
at summits and at home, is symptomatic of the fact that most labor leaders,
while resisting some of the impact of neoliberalism on their members, have no
alternative ideology to it—a fact reflected in the ICFTU call, and in the
statement issued by that and other union bodies during Genoa in their appeal
to the G8 leaders. While putting forward various positive demands, they also
called for “opening up the WTO system to consultation with trade unions and
other democratic representatives of civil society.” Most activists against
capitalist globalization, in contrast, call for abolishing the WTO and similar

Furthermore the
unions’ statement boasted that “In Genoa, a large trade union delegation is
taking part on a meeting on July 19 with the host of the Genoa Summit, Italian
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, organized by the Italian trade union
movement, together with TUAC, the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the
OECD”—the same Berlusconi who organized the murderous attack on anti-G8

But the
organizing of a global labor network in the preparation for November 9 will
give more radical labor activists a chance to explain why the WTO, IMF, et
al., can’t be reformed. What’s more, direct discussions between unionists in
different countries about their projected actions will inevitably raise the
question of how to counter protectionist demands by individual union
bureaucracies—and turning such demands instead into platforms that call for
the right of all workers to protect their jobs, for autonomous but coordinated
development under public control.                          Z