Contribution by the Communist Party of Australia Speech
by Anna Pha,
Central Committee Secretariat, Communist Party of Australia.
International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties, Athens, June 23-25, 2000
The international meeting of Communist and Workers’ parties held in Athens last year (May 21-23) analysed at some length the process of capitalist globalisation and its social and economic consequences for the people of the world. There is no need to go over the ground again, except to make a few comments.
We see globalisation as an objective process. It has its basis in technological developments, international trade, production processes, giant mergers and takeovers, communications, the Internet, large-scale migration, the functioning of a variety of international organisations and other factors. This process is under the control of the transnational corporations (TNCs) of the leading capitalist countries and the international organisations that they have created — the IMF, WTO, OECD, World Bank and other agencies. Their objective is not only the drive for maximum profits but for total control of the world’s resources including the labour force of all countries and control over all governments. Our aim must be to wrest control of this process from the TNCs and make it serve the interests of the working people of the world.
Millions of working people around the world are experiencing the lash of the TNCs as they attempt to drive down workers’ wages and working conditions, lengthen hours of work for many while extending casual and part-time work for many others. The task of the working class fighting back against the attacks and going on the offensive is made more difficult by the attacks on trade union and democratic rights. Added to this is overproduction, high levels of permanent unemployment, job insecurity and the ability of TNCs to move enterprises, and hence, jobs around the world. They deliberately create an environment where workers are pitted against each other, on both a local and international basis.
The present offensive of big capital, both foreign and domestic, is aimed at the intensification of the exploitation of workers. The rate of exploitation has risen steeply in the last few decades and the profits of corporations have reached dizzying levels.
Australian workers are feeling the effects of these processes, as are the workers of every other capitalist country. Although each country will have its specific experiences and situation, the underlying processes, we think, are common to us all and are well known. What is also a common development is the rise of working class and community movements against these policies and their effects. There are strikes and demonstrations against the attacks on trade union and workers’ rights, for wage increases, for shorter hours, for collective bargaining rights, for health and safety on the job, against privatisation, against cuts in services, in defence of democratic rights, for women's rights, for national independence and sovereignty, for preservation of the environment and so on.
In Australia the conservative and social democrat parties have pursued the TNC agenda when in government. There is considerable disillusionment and loss of confidence among the people, who are disillusioned with the major parties. The communist and other left and progressive forces at this stage are not a strong enough force to be seen as a viable alternative by the majority of the electorate. The Greens and Australian Democrats (a liberal, pro-small business party) and several independents have gained seats in State and Federal Parliaments. At best they hold the balance of power in some Upper Houses.
Most of the struggles taking place are around single issues as they arise: a hospital closure, new anti-worker legislation, the destruction of a forest, opening a new uranium mine, cuts to a particular service, privatisation of a public service, etc. Only a few of the struggles deal with the bigger picture, become more politicised and bring in the wider community. There are some noteworthy exceptions.
One is the campaign to stop the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which had the support of environmentalists, some small farmers and small business organisations, the left and extreme right of the political spectrum, some trade unions, church, aid and other groups. The stop-MAI campaign drew together and gave a sharper focus for many of the issues of concern to people.
The attempt in 1998 by the Australian Government and employers to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia and de-unionise the waterfront was highly ideological and political. It was also noteworthy for the sophisticated tactical nature and the broad alliances that were formed. International solidarity played a critical role. It is highly unlikely that the MUA could have won on its own.
I want also to mention the demonstrations that have just taken place in sympathy and solidarity with the indigenous people of Australia. A quarter of a million people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge only a few weeks ago in what was undoubtedly the largest single demonstration every to take place in Australia on any issue. It brought together a very large number of organisations and individuals in support of a single cause. There were other very large marches in other main Australian cities.
Because TNC policies are also having catastrophic consequences for small businesses, small producers and small farmers, for teachers and doctors, for ethnic and indigenous communities, the possibility for the working class to win allies in what is often a common struggle has greatly improved. Increasingly trade unions, environmentalists, peace activists and other community groups are finding it impossible to fight on their own. At the same time globalisation is internationalising the struggle against imperialism.
Since the last Athens meeting, there have been the highly successful international actions in Seattle and Washington. It is to be hoped that the representatives of the big corporations will be met with an equally rowdy reception and determined opposition when they meet in Prague and Melbourne in September of this year. Trade unions and left political parties are already mobilising to demonstrate against the forum of big business leaders planned for Melbourne.
We want to give one more example of a campaign an international one being waged against the world’s largest mining transnational corporation, Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto has 63 operations in 40 countries, and an abysmal record of anti-trade union and anti-worker practices, human rights abuses and environmental destruction.
A network was established in 1998 under the auspices of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM). The network includes trade unions, environmental organisations and indigenous peoples.
The strategy adopted by the network was based on a scientific study of Rio Tinto including its assets, profit sources, corporate structure, human rights abuses, environment record, its buyers, investors, the unions covering its sites, which sites are non-union, and a detailed knowledge of working conditions.
One of the difficulties is that the company is very large and powerful and workers and their unions feel isolated and powerless to deal with it. The company has had considerable success in arguing to unions and employees that each site must compete with other sites, both inside and outside Rio Tinto, if workers are to keep their jobs.
To overcome the isolation and build unity, the unions undertook considerable networking, discussions with indigenous and other groups, produced videos documenting Rio Tinto’s abuses of human and worker rights and their damage to the environment across the world. Unions in the USA, Indonesia, Namibia, Europe, South Africa and Australia have been involved. Representatives of the Dayak people (Indonesia) were brought to Australia.
Protests were held and embarrassing questions asked at Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meetings of shareholders in London, Brisbane and Perth. The ICEM staged a “counter-AGM” and launched a website campaign. ICEM produced two stakeholder’s reports which were distributed at company Annual meetings “Tainted Titan” and “Behind the Facade”, based on research by the Australian union and NGOs into the company’s record and economic performance. An infuriated Rio Tinto management was forced to go into print to defend itself. Rio Tinto was taken to the OECD for breach of OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and for its illegal mining activities in Lassing, Austria, where 10 people died in a mining disaster.
In what is believed to be the first ever shareholders’ campaign conducted on an international basis by trade unions, two trade union-backed resolutions put before the recent AGMs of Rio Tinto attracted support of around 20 percent of shareholders’ votes. The first resolution was a demand around improved corporate governance and the second resolution called for company compliance with ILO conventions (e.g. on employment of child labour, for equal pay, recognition of trade unions and the right to bargain collectively in the workplace). Rio Tinto management fearing the impact on share prices of the bad press and TV coverage it received around the world, made a conciliatory statement about recognising and negotiating with trade unions.
The shareholder campaign was a cooperative effort of trade unions in Australia, Britain, the US and South Africa. Prior support was gained from a number of significant shareholders, particularly institutional investors. With the growth of pension funds the investment of these workers’ retirement savings has become an important part of investors’ equity in many companies. Where trade unions have some say in the investment of these funds (as many do in Australia), there is a potential to put pressure on companies.
The MUA and ICEM struggles are significant for their sophisticated tactical approaches in deal- ing with the complexities of the conditions of each struggle and adoption of new methods of struggle, while not abandoning traditional ones.
They confirm the validity and necessity of winning allies and of internationalism, not that these are new concepts. There is a long history of internationalism in the labour movement. In the past internationalism was primarily an expression of solidarity as in the MUA struggle. The Rio Tinto campaign moves on to a new form of internationalism reflecting the new global divisions of labour and socialisation of labour. The international participants in the Rio Tinto actions all had a direct relationship and common interest in defeating Rio Tinto and were involved in the planning and carrying out of the struggle. With globalisation and the deliberate efforts of employers to pit workers in different countries against each other, struggle on an international scale becomes an imperative. This also raises the question of the organisation of unions. Should trade unions consider being organised on an international basis? This is already being considered in some trade union circles. Perhaps this is a subject for a future international meeting.
The Rio Tinto example illustrates the importance of international struggles being specific, being launched against specific TNCs. It is not sufficient to fight TNCs “in general” or limit our struggles to opposition to the policies of governments. In the past big corporations have been able to say: “Governments come and governments go but we go on forever.” But now their power and anti-working class attitudes, their savage exploitation of the working people wherever they operate, are being dragged into the open.
Rio Tinto is now seen as the common enemy of the working class in many countries and workers no longer feel that they are alone. This is not, of course, an argument to neglect the struggle against conservative governments doing the bidding of the TNCs.
We cannot fight the TNCs unless we know of their operations and policies in detail. These will vary from one site to another and from one country to another. Capitalist globalisation is bringing into existence working class globalisation. The slogan of the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!” is being given real practical meaning.
In the course of these struggles there is need to challenge the specific ideological arguments of the big corporations that everyone has to accept globalisation implemented by the TNCs; that there is no alternative; that if the TNCs are challenged there will be a flight of capital and they will take their operations to another country and all will lose their jobs; that public ownership doesn’t work any more because many shareholders are now ordinary working people; that private enterprise is more efficient; that governments should not be involved in “business”; and so on.
Comrades, finally we would like to thank the Communist Party of Greece once again for their initiative and hospitality and in the knowledge that the co-operation of the communist and workers’ parties is as important as that of the growing internationalism of the trade union movement, and also in the knowledge that there must be more such international gatherings.
The tremendous upsurge in the world-wide struggles now to be clearly seen, places a great responsibility on all communist and workers’ parties, yet our internationalism, the practical planning and implementation of our policies, does not yet seem to have reached the same level as we are beginning to see between some trade unions and their respective Trade Union Internationals.