Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
How many people, even those who are union members, know anything much about what the trade unions do internationally? Dipping into union branch pockets to donate a few pounds to a solidarity campaign is one thing. But are the unions – here in the UK and across the world – doing enough to respond to and mobilise the energy of the working class, particularly the young who are fearful of the decades ahead and agitating to create something vastly better for themselves and everyone?
For the past four years the Global Labour Institute (GLI) has been running an International Summer School to stimulate greater discussion and interaction among trade unionists internationally. Held at the workers’ education venue Northern College in South Yorkshire, it brings together young trade union activists from across the world with a number of highly experienced trade union leaders, along with representatives from other types of workers’ organisations and a smattering of labour educators and researchers. Over five days they get to discuss the key issues of our times and how the trade union movement is – or should be – responding.
The first International Summer School was held in 2012, and there have been three more each July since then. At each one, some 100 participants from more than 30 countries attend. As the word has spread, more are keen to be there, but the GLI keeps the number limited so that real, lively interactions can take place. They also restrict the number of British participants, so the school stays truly international. From among the global unions, the 2015 school had leaders and activists from the food workers’ IUF, building and woodworkers’ BWI, transport workers’ ITF, service workers’ UNI, public sector workers’ PSI, and domestic workers’ IDWF.
For those who are not in the room, there is live video streaming, blog posts, and a Twitter feed. Each year, the GLI has been extending the social media reach of the school, working closely with Union Solidarity International. For 2015, it was estimated to be over 200,000.
There’s no big financial backing. This does mean that the school can only run in one language, English. Meanwhile, Unite in the UK pays for the accommodation and meals at the college. Some other unions let their officers contribute in-kind help with organising the event. The school could not happen without voluntary support from friends and colleagues too.
One important thing is how the week is run. While each day there are presentations and panel discussions by people with experience on particular subjects, there is no way that those higher up the hierarchy are there to tell the others what to think, say or do. Rather, a key aim is to put the younger activists at the heart of the week. It is a chance for them to gain confidence in the issues, learn more about the international activities in which their unions are involved, and put forward their ideas for what needs to be done better to union leaders who come because they are prepared to listen. All through each day, the meeting breaks off into dynamic discussion groups on each subject. And, to give them some form of ‘final say’, the younger activists form a commission which meets every evening and on the final day presents their recommendations in the form of a ‘Living Manifesto’.
The latest developments in global neoliberal capitalism are at the heart of the discussions. Previous schools have discussed the way that capitalism bounced back after the financial crash of 2007-8, and the changing nature of corporations such as their ‘financialisation’. Now activists around the world are abuzz about the trade deals being negotiated in secret, such as the TTIP, all intended to strengthen even further the dominance of big capital by allowing it to operate without hindrance from social, labour or environmental constraints. So where are the unions in this development?
In the opening session, Asbjorn Wahl, a Norwegian trade unionist who also holds prominent positions in the international transport workers’ ITF, voiced his concerns, shared by many, that the labour movement needs a radical shift, to regain control over the political narrative of the economic crisis, and proactively use it to disarm the proponents of neoliberalism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the manifesto agreed with him.
Unions have also come to distance themselves from the wider working class by prioritising their own members, largely those in formal employment. Globally, however, those with ‘jobs’ have never been the majority of the working poor. Far more depend on the informal economy for their livelihoods. In recent years, such informal workers have been increasingly organising themselves. At the school this year were, for example, representatives of organisations of domestic workers in South Africa, home-based workers in Pakistan, and sex workers in France. Even standard union members – those with ‘jobs’ – are more and more being employed on precarious terms: short-term, part-time, zero hours, ‘apprentices’, seasonal, etc. The ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ are merging. The manifesto reflects this with a call on unions to reform their constitutions and structures so that they can represent and organise all workers including the informal, precarious, unemployed and migrant ones.
A return to politics may well be needed. But what does this mean, for example, for unions’ relationships to political parties? The answer is not simple, as unions around the world have very different political histories and relationships, and organisational structures. Many union members tend to assume that their model of trade unionism is pretty much universal, which is not the case. Whatever structures exist, the school participants were clear they want their unions to have financial and political autonomy, and exercise far greater transparency and accountability to their members.
The manifesto also reflects the participants’ desire for the trade unions to rebuild themselves from below, and do more to ‘build truly global solidarity movements using horizontal strategies, and engage with broader social justice movements, community groups and campaigns’. As an example of such possible alliances, among the guests giving an evening presentation were representatives of the Housing Assembly in South Africa which campaigns against housing poverty there, on a UK tour hosted by War On Want. Also, being at best ‘blanked’ by the mainstream media, unions must take advantage of social media to ‘animate the invisible’, as Unite organiser Ewa Jasiewicz put it.
As for climate change, as the manifesto notes, this ‘remains on the margins of the union agenda’. In fact, the 2015 school met at a seminal moment for the British union movement. The GMB had just signed a ‘charter’ with the gas industry body UKOOG, while others such as PCS, Unite and UCU have issued statements opposing fracking and encouraging members to join in ‘Frack Free’ demonstrations. The GLI body in the USA – Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) – promotes these issues in the international labour movement. As TUED’s Sean Sweeney said, simply integrating renewable energy into the neoliberal framework is not the solution. We need much more discussion within unions here and across the world on how to bring about a just and fair transition to renewable energy, putting workers’ interests at the heart of the debate and bringing energy generation into public ownership.
The issues and debates are huge. This is a small snapshot of what happened across five days at Northern College. Videos, presentations and guest blogs from the sessions are available here.
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee