Nine-hundred delegates from all over the world to vote on green social justice agenda.
By: By Tom Sandborn
Secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation Ryder, a Cambridge graduate, was trim, relaxed, eloquent and dapper in a well cut grey suit when he spoke with The Tyee this spring, in town for preliminary meetings in advance of the ITUC's second world congress that runs June 21-25 in Vancouver.
The ITUC is the world's largest umbrella group of independent unions, representing 175 million workers in 155 countries. If all of Ryder's members were gathered together in one nation, it would be the sixth largest country by population in the world, just larger than Pakistan and just smaller than Brazil.
Ryder said his organization is facing historic challenges during the current economic crisis, and he talked with excitement about some of the approaches the ITUC is pursuing to rebuild the house of labour after decades of neo-conservative onslaught.
'From crisis to social justice'
The "jobless recovery" reported in the business pages, he said, is not a recovery at all unless it allows workers to get back to work and to earn a fair return for their labour.
Ryder said this week's congress in Vancouver, working under the slogan "Now the People: From the Crisis to Global Social Justice" would focus on workers' rights, migrant workers, climate change and HIV-AIDS.
"The last three decades have been very unfavorable for working people," he said. "Starting with the Reagan/Thatcher years, the labour share of global wealth has now been driven down to the level we had in 1930. The International Labour Organization says the current crisis has destroyed 34 million extra jobs in the past two years. The aggregate trend is negative and the international labour movement has got to find ways to deal with job losses and follow and organize jobs when they are shifted to the third world."
Those trends are evident in Canada. In 2008, 31.2 per cent of Canadian workers belonged to unions, down from 33.7 per cent in 1997, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Rates of unionization varied from 24 per cent in Alberta to 39.4 per cent in Quebec. B.C.'s rate was 31 per cent.
The economic downturn of the past two years has only worsened the picture for labour, driving the Canadian national figure for unionization down to 29.9 per cent for 2009.
Of the 4,605,193 union members in Canada in 2009, over three million belong to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the host group for the upcoming ITUC meeting in Vancouver.
CLC president Ken Georgetti told The Tyee, "Having the world congress in Vancouver gives the labour movement in Canada the chance to see the struggles of workers around the world first hand. It's also a chance to learn that most of us have the same struggles, and we share the same aspirations -- a decent job, decent and safe work, the ability to retire in dignity after a lifetime of work with a decent pension."
'Just transition, green jobs' agenda
To these gatherings of the leaders of the world's most powerful economies the labour leaders will be bringing a set of proposals for what Ryder calls a "just transition, green jobs" agenda that will repair the world economy without making climate change and other environmental damage worse.
New generation of leadership
Ryder said that if the June congress had been held two years ago, trade agreements and their impacts on workers would have been at the top of the agenda. Now, however, in the wake of the current global financial crisis and mounting concerns about climate change, other topics have shouldered their way to the top of labour's agenda. As noted, the ITUC is committed to helping to build an environmentally friendly economy that fairly treats all workers, especially the women and migrant workers who continue to bear the brunt of economic disruptions.
Ryder said his organization will be lobbying for the creation of a "financial transaction tax" that would collect a small amount each time a stock, bond or derivative is traded, with the revenue collected earmarked for job creation, progress on the United Nations mandated Millennium Development goals and a worker friendly, jobs oriented economic recovery plan.
"More financial regulation is needed," Ryder said. "Some transactions should be ended altogether, like the 'naked credit default swaps' that are such a big part of the Greek crisis now."
"Naked" credit default swaps are a particularly bizarre phenomenon of modern finance, a purely speculative insurance policy purchased by someone who does not hold any of the bonds or other financial instruments that underlie the CDS. "It's like having fire insurance on your neighbor's house," said Ryder.
"Derivative trading should be tightly regulated," he told The Tyee. "Derivatives were originally developed as a hedge, a way to insure against future loss, but speculators have flipped them on their heads. Anything that shrinks the size of financial speculation is a good thing. Lots of it occurs in totally unregulated areas now."
Lee was more ambivalent about Ryder's suggested financial transaction tax.
"While it is a good idea, and one we've discussed at the CCPA for years now, you have to be careful about the competing claims that are made for such a tax. On the one hand, proponents say such a tax will reduce speculation, while on the other they tout it as a source of revenue for achieving useful social targets like the Millennium Development Goals. If the tax is successful enough in reducing speculation, it will likely reduce the revenue base that is being promised for progressive policy goals."
The International Trade Union Confederation held its founding congress in Vienna in 2006, merging the two major global labour groups then in existence, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation of Labour. The merger was made possible by the end of the Cold War, during which the WCL represented unions aligned with the U.S.S.R. and the IFTU represented labour centrals aligned with the U.S. and other non-Soviet powers.
Tom Sandborn is a Tyee contributing editor focusing on labour and health issues.
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