Tony Burke: why Wisconsin needs global solidarity

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Solidarity with US unions

We are one campaign

4 April 2011

As part of the TUC's support for the US trade union movement's campaign to defend collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, the TUC held a solidarity rally on Monday 4 April.

Unite Assistant General Secretary and TUC Executive Committee/General Council member Tony Burke spoke about inequality, collective bargaining and global solidarity. This is an edited text.

I'm pleased to have been invited to speak this evening to bring Unite and the TUC General Council's solidarity with American workers and their unions now fighting to defend collective bargaining in Wisconsin and other US States.

Unite is the largest union in the TUC, and we are part of the first global union, Workers Uniting, formed with the United Steel Workers in the US and Canada.

We formed Workers Uniting because both unions recognized that global capital knows no boundaries. Global corporations move work and capital around the globe: creating a race to the bottom and pitting worker against worker to see which workforce will do a deal to win a contract, in many cases just to hang onto their jobs.

We saw this in Europe when global companies moved work to central and eastern Europe, and then moved on to India and South Asia.

In the USA, unions have seen work moved to South Asia and Latin America, notably Mexico where independent unions are now under a massive anti-union attack by the Government and employers.

Employers and governments have exported the neo-liberal agenda around the world, and in order for it to be successful they need to break unions and break collective bargaining.

USW President Leo Gerard was in London to speak at the March for the Alternative last week and he brought a message of solidarity from the workers of Wisconsin - so I am pleased to return our support to those unions battling to win back collective bargaining and union rights in the USA.

The assault on equality

Let us look at why global capital and their supporters in the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the USA want to dismantle collective bargaining.

The reason workers in the USA are facing an attack on their rights at work, and here in Britain why we are under attack in public services - and now in the private sector - is inequality.

Inequality was the main cause of the global economic crisis.

Workers' wages fell so far behind that the only way people could maintain a decent standard of living was to take on huge personal debts.

These debts were peddled by banks and financial companies who knew full well that people would never be able to pay them back. It was phantom economics, run by spivs and shysters who, we are told, will leave the country if there is too much regulation and caps on bonuses. Well I know plenty of people who would be happy to run them to Heathrow to catch the next plane out.

These bankers in the City of London and on Wall Street turned that toxic debt into an imaginary income stream, which led to the financial meltdown which created public sector deficits as governments bailed out banks that we were told were too big to fail.

Rather than make the rich pay for the crisis they caused, the Conservatives in Britain and the Republicans in America are making ordinary working families pay. Making the poor poorer and squeezing the middle classes. Making inequality even worse.

Collective bargaining works

In the post-war years, collective bargaining meant that wages rose as productivity improved. Ordinary people were treated with respect, were able to save, children led better lives than their parents, people owned houses, and had pensions for some dignity in retirement.

But since the 1970s, and the neo-liberal experiment, wages have stagnated but profits have soared. Unbalanced and unregulated globalisation has allowed the rich to plunder developing nations while keeping wages down at home.

As a result, people in Europe and the USA expect their kids to be poorer than they are, work longer hours, and take fewer holidays - saddled with debt if they get a degree.

Electing a Government committed to equality isn't enough, although it's certainly better than the alternative.

Labour did a lot to promote equality - the minimum wage, tax credits, sure start - lots of good policies. But their folly was to believe in a 'light touch' to all sorts of regulation - from the regulation of banks, through to employment rights.

When they had the chance - to build strong unions who would have acted as a brake on excess - they missed the chance by failing to repeal the anti-union laws, or soft peddling on employment rights such as temporary agency workers legislation and information and consultation laws.

That's why rebuilding strong unions, underpinning collective bargaining, is a vital part of creating a modern, equal, socially just society.

It's the only way to make sure that the profits of growth are shared around.

The role of global solidarity

But before we can rebuild it, we've got to defend it.

That's why we must show solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and the other states where collective bargaining is now under attack.

The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, was - and still is - being bank-rolled by some of the super rich.

People like the Koch Bothers, multi-billionaires who have set up front organisations such Americans For Prosperity, front organizations for the right wingers and cranks in the Tea Party.

It is their agenda that Walker is promoting and it won't just rest in the USA.

As I said, one of the reasons we set up Workers Uniting was to fight back against global capital, The Koch Brothers own companies around the world - but importantly they own paper mills in the USA and here in the UK.

And it is not just the name of the manufacturer - it is no longer the brand - it's the money. Global financial companies, hiding in the shadows

Rebuilding collective bargaining in a globalised economy is not possible without global solidarity.

We can't win in one country if the market is global, or when our employers are global corporations - that is why we need to fight back.

That's why supporting our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin is vital.

That's why the TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber went to see the US Ambassador today to register our protest at what is happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the USA. And it's why we're all here tonight.

We stand ready to heed the call of our fellow trade unionists in the US, just as we stand by our colleagues in Egypt, Tunisia, in Burma and in Colombia and Mexico.

Whether it's lobbying Prime Ministers and Presidents or demonstrating on the streets, we must all play our part to help those in struggle - to win union rights and win back collective bargaining.

We need to make sure that our activists and our branches know what is happening in other countries so that when they need our help we can give it, and so that when they come for us, as they surely will, we know what to expect.

From Warrington to Wisconsin - we are fighting back. From Ipswich to Illinois - the resistance has started.

Collectively, solidarity is our only strength - the strength of working people - with your help we will surely win through.

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