LabourStart’s “Global Solidarity Conference” in Berlin on 23-25 May 2014 was its fourth major gathering and, with more than 300 participants, its biggest.
The conference was hosted by the German trade union ver.di, and comprised nearly three days of plenaries and workshops covered a range of themes.
A substantial chunk of the conference examined “Digital communications” — how unions can use electronic media to build themselves and their campaigns: LabourStart’s raison d’être!
In an introductory session, Derek Blackadder, who works for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, described the work and structure of LabourStart as a network of more or less prolific correspondents who only have to accept LabourStart’s founding principle: unions are good. There is an infinitesimally small amount of editorial interference in who posts and what they post.
• “Fair play? Working conditions at mega-sports events” discussed using the interest in conditions for workers in the run-up to events such as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as a way to boost longer-term union organising in those countries — no small task!
• “Union strategies toward migrants” was a fascinating workshop which included migrant cleaner Henry Lopez describing the UK-based IWGB’s “3 Cosas” campaign.
• Another workshop described campaigning for the release of jailed Iranian trade unionists, including Shahrokh Zamani.
There was controversy in some workshops. In “Workers’ rights and labour organisations in Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries” a row broke out over the attitude to take to events in Ukraine. The Ukrainian participants, who were, in the main and broadly speaking, “third campists”, were told by some German and Russian participants that the country was run by fascists.
A Canadian participant who lives in Ukraine pointed out in reply that in that day’s presidential elections, the far-right Svoboda and the “right sector” were likely to get 2-3% of the vote, significantly less than the expected vote of fascists in many countries in the EU on the same day’s elections to the European parliament.
One participant questioned why some people are ready to accuse Ukrainians of “fascism” while at the same time supporting the actions of the Putin government.
Despite the very heated and emotional debate it remained — by and large — comradely, as a speaker from the IUF union federation confirmed in the closing plenary. Sharp debates are necessary for the workers’ movement to develop.
In the closing plenary — discussing the way forward for LabourStart — speakers emphasised the potential for the labour movement in the region to fight the slide into nationalism and war among Ukrainians and Russians, partly through emphasising social demands against the ruling classes on both sides.
We were urged to follow the LabourStart website for news from Ukraine and give as much solidarity as we could.
Other highlights of the conference included a demonstration supporting workers from the supermarket chain Edeka who are fighting for union rights along this multinational’s global supply chain, including in Brazil and Germany; and a multilingual singing of the socialist anthem “The Internationale” at the end of the conference.
The venue for the next LabourStart conference is in discussion. (LabourStart’s founding editor Eric Lee expressed his wish that one day the conference could be hosted jointly in Jerusalem and Ramallah — sadly, a long way off.)
It is clear that LabourStart has a productive future though its shape is still evolving. It was initially set up to promote the use of social media by trade unions through demonstrating a variety of means:
• its news website;
• an experimental trade unionists’ social networking site;
• online solidarity email campaigns run jointly with national and international trade union bodies.
What LabourStart clearly has become and hopefully will develop further as is a vital tool for building solidarity between workers around the world.
In one important speech, Kıvanç Eliaçık of the Turkish union federation DISK, speaking on the Soma mining disaster, found a moving way to express the need for this global solidarity: “There are some words that all workers know, whatever language they speak: Soma, Rana Plaza, Qatar...” We need solidarity in order to end the class relations that lead to disasters like these.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was well represented at the conference and we sold a good range of our publications.