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This is a careful and illuminating account, drawn from Judith Marshall's own first-hand experience, of some of the novel links that are currently being forged between Canadian trade unions and their South African counterparts. Marshall emphasizes, the way in which this labour solidarity is increasingly being grounded in a shared understanding, at both ends of the exchange, of the vulnerability of workers to capital's world-wide dictate. And such solidarity can contribute, in turn, to creating the kind of active global "civil society" whose political assertions might eventually democratize and socialize a globalization process that currently seems beyond workers' control. (jbv)

vol 11 no 3

"Globalizing from below": The trade union connection
Judith Marshall

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
Page 9
"South Africa - Canada"



Judith Marshall is a writer and educator who worked for many years in Mozambique in workplace literacy. She is currently the Education and Linkage Coordinator for the Steelworkers Humanity fund in Toronto.

Popular organizations in South Africa and their counterparts globally established significant ties over the course of the long struggle to dismantle apartheid. These ties have come up for redefinition as the political configurations of post-apartheid South Africa emerge. Some of these connections between civil society actors like the trade unions, women's groups, churches, literacy and housing activists have begun to disappear. Some analysts in Canada attribute this to reductions in Canadian government support, the loss of moral purpose associated with the demise of apartheid or the ambiguity of the enemy. But for Canadian Steelworkers - and many others in the labour movement - I would argue that the ties with South African working people have never been stronger.

Canadian workers global relationships over the years have been organized through three different discourses. These are the discourse of globalization, the discourse of solidarity and the discourse of development. By discourse I do not mean just a way of talking but a fluid constellation of institutions, forms and practices, including language practices, through which international relationships are organized. The social relationships between working people in Canada and South Africa are shaped through these discourses, offering a repertoire of possible roles ranging from donors and victims to competitors and strategic allies. Each of the discourses asserts itself strongly in particular moments and contexts as the dominant way to make sense of a given historic moment or experience.

The discourse of global competitiveness has come at our members with particular intensity over the past decade. It pits Canadian Steelworkers against working people in other parts of the world, all being urged to greater efficiency and flexibility in order to attract foreign investment. Under global competitiveness, whichever jurisdiction can offer the most plentiful cheap, skilled labour, the biggest tax and tariff concessions, the least environmental protection, the fewest fetters on taking out profits, wins the day. The logic offered by management is "us" - workers and management together - versus "them," the competition. While global competitiveness may be felt with more immediacy for Canadian workers in the investment flow to the Americas and Asia, there is no doubt that our members also feel connected with working people in southern Africa in facing the global challenge.

The discourse of solidarity is an old one to the trade union movement, whether with fellow-workers, a nearby workplace or internationally. During the long era of apartheid, Canadian labour, like other sectors, built up a practice of political and material support for the forces working to dismantle apartheid. Leaders from the major trade unions in South Africa became familiar figures at Canadian labour gatherings. Steelworker director Leo Gerard likes to reminisce about moments like the time when Cyril Ramaphosa, then a National Union of Mineworkers leader, called him for a rapid donation towards purchasing tarpaulins. South African trade unionists wanted to use these tarpaulins for a rally as a way to get around the apartheid regime's latest manoeuvre, a ban on outdoor meetings.

The third discourse that shapes the links between Canadian working people and working people in South Africa is the discourse of development. The standard framing of the development discourse for our members comes through the mainstream media, advertising and travel brochures. It tends to be premised on a stereotypical south uniformly peopled by impoverished masses for whose alleviation we, in countries like Canada, have the remedy. It supports a set of practices that have to do with a flow of financial and human resources from north to south. North-south power relationships tend to be operationalized as a set of donor-beneficiary relationships through the development discourse.

These discourses are, of course, fluid rather than static. Solidarity, which has all too often been something of a one-way flow, is having to take on new dimensions in an era of unregulated capital. The hegemony currently enjoyed by the discourse around global competitiveness makes it urgent for our members to find new forms of north-south connections and strategies for working together. In this new era, workers will either be played off haplessly against each other as rights and standards fall to the lowest common denominator or find ways to work in concert to level rights and standards upwards, inventing new bottom-up forms of globalization.

The prevailing development discourse has also come up under new scrutiny by the creation of international development funds in four major trade unions in Canada over the past decade. The efforts of these funds to put a distinctly labour signature to their work at this historical moment creates an interesting interface between the three prevailing discourses.

Labour-based Development Funds - a new phenomenon

The increased involvement of Canadian labour in international development emerged more strongly just as the formal apartheid system began to wind down and the forces of neo-liberal fundamentalism preaching the gospel of global competitiveness intensified. Since 1985, four major Canadian unions, three in the private sector and one public sector union, have established funds for international work. The pioneer was the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, established at a policy conference in 1985 and now in its tenth year of operations. After it came the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Humanity Fund (CEP), established in 1990. In 1991, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW ) established the CAW Social Justice Fund. The newest union to create an international development fund is the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), whose Union Aid fund was incorporated as a registered charity in 1993.

The mechanism for these funds is a characteristically labour mechanism, the collective bargaining agreement. There are now, a decade later, close to 400 Steelworker bargaining units that have included the Humanity Fund in their agreements. This means a penny for each hour worked is donated to the fund. About 10 percent of the contracts include a matching penny an hour from management. The other funds have similar mechanisms. For the Steelworkers, this means raised revenue of $8-900,000 annually which, when matched by CIDA co-funding, becomes a sizeable development fund.

Each of the four unions brought a distinct history of international connections into its development fund, some through a history of active involvement in International Trade Secretariat activities in different regions of the world and some through direction union initiatives. All of them had developed direct working links with counterpart unions in South Africa in the final years of dismantling apartheid.

The Steelworkers Humanity Fund emerged in the wake of the Ethiopian crisis, at a time when people throughout Canada were inventing ways to respond to this human tragedy. If the original mandate of the Fund was relief and development activities triggered by the Ethiopian experience, the events during the ten years of its existence have considerably broadened its mandate. As Jim Saare, a long-time board member who had travelled for the Fund to Nicaragua in the early 1990s commented at a Board Meeting in 1993, "Either we find a way to make the Fund relevant to how international questions are coming at our members or we will lose it." For Saare, this meant addressing international questions like NAFTA. It meant a hemispheric trading bloc of the Americas. It meant BC mining companies opening rounds of bargaining by telling Canadian miners what profits they could make from their operations in Chile or South Africa - and how Canadian miners had to lessen wage demands and lean on their governments to lighten up on environmental standards, on corporate taxes, on protection of native people's land rights, if Canadian mining was to be competitive globally.

During 1994 the four labour funds and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) entered into a series of negotiations with each other and with CIDA about changes in the funding of the Canadian labour movement's international development activities. The four labour funds found themselves in an anomalous position vis--vis other NGO development agencies. As "new kids on the block" with substantial capacity for raising revenue, they argued for the same right to matching funds that long-established NGOs enjoyed - and this in an era of shrinking funds.

Another major concern of the labour funds was the large portion of CIDA funding going to private sector initiatives, both through bilateral programmes and programmes like CIDA Inc. Given the historic understanding operative in Canada that the private sector is comprised of both a labour and a management side, the labour funds put forward strong arguments about the need to balance CIDA's much increased support for the corporate side of the private sector with significantly larger CIDA funding specifically for trade union development in the south.

The upshot of all of these discussions was the formation of a Labour International Development Committee (LIDC) made up of the four funds and the CLC. The LIDC successfully negotiated a 5.2 million programme with CIDA that will channel greatly increased resources to southern trade unions to build up their capacity to represent their members effectively and contribute to stronger civil societies in their respective countries.

Post-apartheid labour connections with southern Africa - where next?

The Steelworkers Humanity Fund marks its tenth year with a level of strength and resilience to it connections with African trade unions far beyond its own projections. The most active connection, by far, is with the National Union of Mineworkers where there are now multiple layers of connections weaving in and out of a variety of areas in the institutional life of our two unions. There is a complex and fluid mixture of links, some fuelled by funding and others driven by the similarities of outlook of the two organizations as they face management - at times even the same employers - and the global economy.

The specific projects supported by the Steelworkers Humanity Fund are five, with co-funding from the LIDC programme and the South Africa Special Fund/South Africa Bilateral Country Program. There is a housing project which supports the establishment of a NUM Housing Unit that has made housing a bargaining issues and tackled the complex question of mine hostel up-grading. The second project is with the NUM Education Department. NUM has recently negotiated paid educational leave for its shaft stewards and has acquired a training centre in Johannesburg. It is now piloting courses for stewards on various themes and will carry out exchanges visits to look at how labour education is organized in Canada.

A third project is with the NUM legal department. This department will send a senior staff person for a three month training visit. The NUM staff person will be based in the Steelworkers legal department, looking at labour law and the role of unions, corporations and governments in labour governance. The fourth project is with the NUM development department. NUM is supporting laid-off mineworkers returning to their rural region or country of origin with a programme of credit and training for cooperatives and micro-enterprises. Some of the funding comes from bargaining retrenchment packages with management and some of it comes from external funding sources like the Humanity Fund.

NUM's role in labour development goes beyond strengthening its own organization. It is also playing an active role in setting up regional structures such as the Southern African Mineworkers Federation (SAMF), to strengthen smaller mining unions in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The Humanity Fund grant will support training workshops in SAMF.

The interweaving of the connections organized through discourses of development, globalization and solidarity is captured by the exchanges between our members. While the focus of a visit may fall solidly within institutional strengthening logic of the "development discourse" woven into any exchange are strands coming out of a deep sense of common interests as trade unions and an urgent need to share experiences and strategies around globalization.

Global labour ties

After ten years of existence, the Humanity Fund has built up a solid practice of development assistance with a $1.6 million programme supporting projects of about 30 labour and community organizations in 12 countries in five regions of the world. This development assistance has, at its core, a funding mechanism, with a transfer of monetary resources from a northern trade union-based fund to finance the activities of an organization in Africa, Latin America or Asia.

Yet even while this practice, organized through the development discourse, has been consolidated over the past decade, the discourse of development is too narrow to contain the global connections that predated it and are now being fed by it. The expectations of the organizations receiving support from the labour funds are high; they expect a "labour signature" to the work. They want the relationship to a labour-based fund to take them beyond a donor relationships, important as funding may be, towards working links with the union as a social actor in Canada.

The development education programme of the Humanity Fund has, from the outset, situated the development work of the fund in the broader context of the global economy. The week-long "Thinking North South" course gets members working with the concepts of the globalization, looking at their own insertion into the global economy, putting themselves into the shoes of southern workers. It specifically challenges the comfortable relationships organized through the development discourse and reinforced by media images of north-south power relationships that assume "donor-beneficiary" relationships with Canadians as the "developed" offering our resources to the "undeveloped." Role plays explore the differences between relationships of dependency and relationships of solidarity based on mutual interests and strategic alliances.

The education programme includes working visits to the organizations supported by the fund as a fundamental component. We have resisted the tendencies to make these into "donor inspections" with our members seeing themselves/being seen as "mini-project officers." The objectives of the visits have to do with education of our members about the realities of the south, and solidarity. Members are asked to speak from their own strength and experience, as social activists in Canada, carrying out their activism through their unions. These visits, like the courses, straddle "development," "global economy" and "solidarity" discourses.

Our members are being confronted with international questions on a daily basis, forced to compete globally, with the threat of closure and a move to Mexico or Chile constantly held over their heads. Effective servicing of the needs of our own members forces the union to establish new international practices, ones which cannot be carried out by old forms of labour diplomacy and solidarity. The forces of globalization demand sectoral links between workers in the same industry in different jurisdictions, or working for the same company in different parts of the world.

Arguably the really interesting space being created by the labour funds is the work and the connections they are creating in points of interface between the three all too often unconnected discourse of development, solidarity and globalization. Our members live these interconnections in their daily lives, caught between powerful macro forces of multinational companies and international institutions like GATT and NAFTA and the micro realities of their fights for jobs and communities and social wages and a future for their children. Can the new labour development funds use the institutional space these funds create to promote alternative kinds of labour connections and practices of global solidarity, ones that, over time, contribute towards building up forms of globalization in which working people have genuine input?

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