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Day Two begins: General Secretary's speech

IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald is now speaking. The full text of the speech is below.


Distinguished guests...........

And that's about as far as I got in preparing the remarks I would use to introduce our congress before I started thinking.

And the first thing I thought about was what I was going to call you all when I looked out at such a great sight.

Allow me then to indulge a little in English terminology at this point.

Family often comes to mind in our movement and sisters and brothers would therefore be an option. But you know genes often, though not necessarily always, play a role in there somewhere and despite the assertion that everybody on the planet is ultimately separated by no more than six other people I won't start my remarks by claiming a genetic link with all of you. And besides family also conjures up images like ageing overweight fathers like myself wandering around the hallways at home in various states of undress to the great embarrassment of their growing kids and that frankly was not an image I wanted to carry with me into the congress - nor one I would have wanted to wish on any of you. So perhaps I would make no reference to family on this opening day - so sisters and brothers was out.

Friends then. But friendship needs time to grow and whilst many of us have become friends there is sadly never time to develop a friendship with all those we meet in our movement so friends was out too.

Colleagues perhaps. It's true we often work hard together and in that sense are colleagues. But we do much more than work together. I recall being in the IUF office through the night of October 31 1989 after hearing of the bombing of a union office in El Salvador which killed ten unionists that I knew and one particularly that like so many I loved and admired Febe Velásquez. I went to the IUF office at 11pm that night and stayed until dawn. I was joined by an IUF staff member who worked those days at the IUF and thought as I had that we needed to do something....anything. So we spent some hours through the night sending messages and trying to keep each other sane faced with such horror. When I thanked her later for coming in through the night she was a little offended. She simply said "what did you possibly think I was going to do." Thirty-six hours later I was staring in horror at brain matter of people I knew on the walls of a shattered trade union building in San Salvador. I looked out and on a pile of rubble saw an improvised fax machine, wires trailing out and taped together. They had done that to get messages from all around the world starting with the one we had sent that night from the IUF. Those working in the rubble that day drew a large part of their courage from those messages from unions and members all over the world.

I recall holding in my arms Hernan Correa of our Colombian banana workers union SINTRAINAGRO in the ILO building as I brought him the news that yet another of his brothers had been killed in Colombia. I recall being in New York in September 2001 in the office of Local 100 of the hotel and restaurant workers as union volunteers and counsellors sought to bring some grain of comfort to the families of the dozens of union members killed in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Centre. I recall holding a fellow member of the IUF staff during our congress in September 1989 at the moment we got the news of the assassination of Anton Lubowski a great Namibian trade union leader gunned down by agents of the racist regime in that country at that time. I recall looking at the faces of the IUF's Administrative Committee members in Bogota Colombia three years ago when two bombs wrecked the hotel dining area we were in on the night we arrived in Colombia and we got a first hand taste of the violence our members there face all the time and have to organize despite of. I recall sitting with members of the Shangri-La union in Jakarta facing a two and a half year lockout and in their faces seeing deep concern about how they were going to feed their families in a country with no social safety nets. And yet at the same time seeing their grim determination not the let the hotel boss beat them into submission. And those same workers in Indonesia when at a protest outside the hotel they were more concerned about my wellbeing and getting me to safety when they heard police were on their way to arrest me outside the Shangri-La Hotel. I recall sitting with members of the Self Employed Women's Association in India as they celebrated moving from unorganized weaknesses to organized strength and dignity allowing them to secure minimum benefits for their home-based members. I recall being hugged more meaningfully than I ever have been outside a relationship by a woman in the US who had fought for over two years at a catering outlet run by the French company Sodexho. And all because I told her the IUF would stand with her union UNITE HERE for as long as it took for her and her fellow workers to get a union. They have one now!
I recall The Korean KCTU president Dan when I stood in court with a group from other internationals whilst the government jailed him for being a defender of his members rights. And I recall visiting him in prison where he had been sent to serve an unjust and cruel jail term. And then visiting him in his offices in the parliament building in Seoul a very few years later where he was serving as an elected representative.

And there are countless other such almost routine examples of courage and determination that I recall.
Fired Parmalat workers at a plant slated for closure in St Louis whose union we worked with. Their company had issued a press release that workers who had worked for more than twenty years at the company would, in addition to four weeks pay, get four weeks additional medical insurance premiums for their families. A press release that suggested workers should express their gratitude to the company for generously throwing in a further four weeks health insurance benefits for twenty year plus workers whose families after that would have no health and welfare coverage. Total strangers and yet after we worked successfully to considerably increase the Parmalat offer those St Louis workers met me like we were so much more than strangers. Accor workers in New York who had spent twelve years trying to get a first collective agreement and then succeeded when their local union worked with us and pressured Accor's head office to act and get an agreement in place. Polish Coca-Cola workers who had been told by their company that their's would be the first ever union in Coca-Cola if they succeeded in organizing and then found through the IUF dozens and dozens of unions in Coca-Cola ready to come to their defence. Korean Nestle workers who slept on the floors of the IUF building in Geneva when they brought the fight for rights to the belly of the Nestlé beast at the Vevey headquarters.

I could go on almost for ever with such experiences as I know many of you could too such is the depth of such experiences in our movement.

And in thinking of these - both the tragically dramatic times and the more routine times where so-called ordinary people become extraordinary people as they fight for nothing more than basic justice - the word I was looking for came to mind. The word that describes what happens to us when we struggle together, when we stand together and when we fight for our rights together. That word is comradeship.

And so, whilst asking the indulgence and understanding of any amongst you that might find it strange in large part because like much of our language this word was stolen from us for a while and corrupted, I will address you not as sisters and brothers, not as colleagues, not as friends - though you may be all those things - I will rather address you as my comrades.

And of course comradeship is also what distinguishes us from our counterparts on the other side of this struggle. Our comradeship will always stand in the way of the greedy and the oppressor. Our comradeship is what we have that they can never have, can never understand and ultimately it is what they will never defeat, corrupt or repress.
So guests and comrades - and the many guests who are also comrades.

And let me pause here to recognize someone who could not be more a comrade than one of our guests today. Someone who epitomises a permanent state of righteous outrage at injustice and has never stopped trying to do something about it. My predecessor in this position Dan Gallin - Dan please stand for a moment.

Comrades and guests.

I have the opportunity at this point in the congress to introduce the report which congress has before it, to outline why we have designed the congress in the way we have and give some indication of how I would like to see the IUF emerge from this congress and move forward over the coming five years and beyond.

Congresses can be peculiar events. They are often described as central to an organization's existence and yet they are too often seen by the organization as something to be survived rather than embraced, to be ritualized rather than celebrated and to remain largely in the possession of those organizing it rather than in the possession of those to whom truly belongs - delegates who in our case come from all parts of the globe. Well I hope that is not the case for our congress.

Its true that our great but relatively small staff has worked incredibly hard and of them may feel today that to have survived only the preparatory weeks and months still alive and standing is an achievement in itself! And they are probably right!!

But we are not here to survive this congress. We should all be here to celebrate it and to celebrate the members that this congress brings together as well as those who could not make it. You should never accept that this congress belongs to those who have organized and prepared it. It is your congress not mine. It is yours to enjoy and to run, not mine. I invite and challenge you to do so. Use the opportunity to play a part in guiding the IUF. It is by the way your IUF and not mine. Take the congress and drive it in a way that makes all of us feel that what emerges is our collective future and not only the future of secretariats in Geneva and elsewhere or a handful of vice-presidents and the president. In reality without you we are not capable of doing what is needed. Without you and the workers you represent the IUF is not capable of defending those it exists to defend. Without you the IUF is easily beaten, becomes bureaucratic and irrelevant and frankly would not deserve to win because without you and those you represent winning would have no meaning.

But there are not enough of you. And there are frankly fewer and fewer. And that is one of the key themes we have allowed time for at this congress.

Our movement has great arguments and the most just of just causes. But those arguments are increasingly made in a whisper. Of course our whispered voices remain powerful because we whisper of justice, of fairness, of an end to repression, of peace and of a world of enlightenment, tolerance and civilization. But a whisper is a whisper and I believe that our whisper is growing fainter against the cacophony of war mongers, of intolerance, of racism and xenophobia, of sexism, of homophobia and of greed as the world grows ever more divided between those in the centre of the world's wealth and those on the periphery - the excluded - and I believe that those on the periphery exist everywhere - North and South, Rural and Urban, Moslem, Christian, Hindu, Sikh Jew, Buddhist or whatever religion, men and women, gay and straight, white and people of colour. The periphery is everywhere and everywhere the periphery is always exploited and too often oppressed.

Our whisper should represent the voices of all those on the periphery wherever and whomever they might be. And the voices of those on the periphery everywhere if organized would be more than loud enough. And like it or not, accept it as modern or dismiss it as archaic, that periphery is a class and if we are not comfortable with that analysis then look at those in the centre. Those exercising and controlling massive and obscene wealth and express openly in part in words but mainly through their acts that they are a class and that they are at war with the rest of us. It's an analysis that is not even particularly Marxist or any other "ist". It is simply common sense and an open-eyed analysis of how it is. Saying that is not so is as clear a state of denial as you will ever see.

In the USA that well-known billionaire Warren Buffet is not in a state of denial. As he makes and dispenses billions whilst one seventh of the world's population struggles with the basic right to food, he publicly declared two years or so ago and I quote, "If there is a class war going on in my country my class is clearly winning it". And he is self-evidently right.

Against this stands our whisper. A powerful whisper for sure because it is righteous but one that is growing dangerously softer as we fail to grow and as we continue to lose our strength of numbers.

And that lies at the heart of our congress this week. How can we determine what is to be done, how can that translate itself into action and union growth and how we can transform our whisper to a relentless wave of sound. A wave to reverse the barbarism we have seen growing stronger, to turn back greed, to defeat intolerance, to deny those who would use war as a preferred option of policy. A wave of protest from those on the periphery so fearsome that we can not only better defend what we still have but take back and advance the gains of social and economic justice our movement was born to lead us to.

This is not a congress to debate whether we should focus on organizing or not. Whether we should seek to take our whisper and make it ever louder. That debate, which in any event should never have a place in a mass movement, is a non-issue. Our debate has to be about how we do it and with what resources and which allies.

And in doing that we need to listen carefully and tolerantly to each other and collectively try to work out how we do it and what has to change.

For change is important as we should all know. Capital is changing - we will explore its most recent mutations when we look at financialization and private equity on Wednesday. Capital has left far behind the shackles of national borders. They have engineered economic arrangements and free trade areas which no longer leave them tugging at such shackles. And they are continuing to ensure that there are few or no borders left that they will have to hurdle. Capital did with hurdling borders some time ago - they are in the business of simply taking them down. Now whenever they see a hurdle they systematically seek to buy or manipulate political influence to have it diminish and disappear - and there is no better evidence of this than what they have done to today's international institutions in which so many had pinned their hopes for true multilateralism. They have largely become capital's tools to the point where even our language is turned against us. When did any of you last hear the word "reform" used in a politically, socially or economically progressive sense - and yet reform - social and economic- was key to the birth of our movement and was at one time only associated with progressive changes. Now World Bank reforms, IMF reforms, trade reforms are virtually entirely regressive and mere tools to plough the furrow for capital's need to sow their seeds of greed and exploitation.

But we can admire capital for one thing at least. Their ability to change and to change quickly if it serves their interests. I recall one CEO saying the time to change is not when things are going badly…the time to change is when things are going well….they are thinking of changing even when they are winning.

Well like capital we also need to change. We do not have the luxury of changing when things are going well because they patently are not going well for those we represent or should represent today.

But let me be clear what I mean by that. We should aggressively and critically look at how we do things as a movement. And change radically if we need to. I am all for that and our congress is designed to allow delegates to talk in large numbers I hope and challenge how we do things at every level - local, national and international. But we should be careful when we talk about why we do things. Our reasons for doing what we do have to remain true to the values of our movement and to those things I spoke of earlier.

I am enthusiastic to join and even lead a debate about how we do things but will never lead one that threatens our values, our principles or why our movement needs to do what it needs to do. Loss of vision there would make any change we talked about not only pointless but actually counterproductive if that change does not serve those we represent. I once heard the Reverend Jesse Jackson speak of "changing times but constant values". "Changing times" naturally mean we always have to think about changing our ways of doing what we do. Changing how we do things. "Constant values" means we should not change or lose sight of why we do things.

Ahead of you in this congress you have a combination of looking back and planing forward. The reports you have hopefully had some weeks to read under items 7 and 8 in the binders now but on our web site earlier largely tell you what we have collectively done that brings us to this congress today. But the congress is structured we hope to avoid our spending our time only looking backwards in a four day exercise of accountability. Accountability for what we do is of course critical and in part what congresses are about. However the richness of having so many of our affiliates here should not be used to mainly look back. It has to be used as far as it possibly can to look forward and allow you to plot our future and to do so with vision, with ambition and with the gritty determination that the IUF has become known for over many, many years. Vision because without that our path just meanders - and without vision only accidentally in the best of cases does it meander forward progressively. Ambition because our backs are to the wall and I firmly believe that that is the time for our ambition to rise even if that might appear a contradiction. In our movement a knee-jerk reaction to being back against the wall can often be to become more and more withdrawn and defensive - to lower our ambition. That might work on the chessboard or the sports field but it does not work for a social movement. Withdrawing, reducing ambition, becoming defensive will inevitably deal us defeat. And managing that defeat is in contradiction to our entire reason for existing and is not something any of us is interested in doing. So the IUF's ambition - our collective ambition - has to rise and not fall.

Gritty determination because that has so often been how our members and how the IUF have won. The Shangri-La workers in Indonesia, Coca-Cola workers in Guatemala, Pakistan and elsewhere, banana workers in Colombia and elsewhere, hotel workers in North America, migrant workers in the UK, Gate Gourmet workers in Germany and many many others have ultimately made progress by adding a massive streak of gritty determination to the other ingredients of strategy, courage and solidarity that make up our capacity to win. And the IUF's determination never to give up on members anywhere and to stand and fight with them no matter how long it takes is a characteristic that friends and enemies alike need to see and particularly need to feel. Our message to members in all these fights is the same. As long as you are prepared to fight the IUF will stand and fight with you. A major international company asked me recently whether the IUF would back down because only a small handful of workers were left in a fight. I think in their "profit and loss" thinking they assumed the answer was going to be yes. What they heard was that it was the very fact that only a handful of brave and determined workers remained in the fight as a result of so many others being bullied or bribed into submission that would guarantee the IUF would remain in that fight too and would do so for as long as that small handful of our members were fighting. At that moment of shock and frankly of clarity that company suddenly understood more about the IUF than they had thought they understood from all our meetings and conversations. They saw the true nature of our international and that realization played no small part in their deciding then to seek an end to the fight that brought the handful of workers still in the fight justice, dignity and enormous pride in themselves, in the union and, as they told, me in their membership of the IUF.

Those characteristics of vision, ambition and gritty determination I believe remain amongst our greatest weapons as we defend and advance our values. Changing the way we actually do things, and in many cases changing radically, has to be added aggressively to the mix since we do what we do in a radically changing world.
So we have parts of the congress aimed to challenge us all as we move forward.

We have sessions dedicated to rights and employment. The rights environment is critical to our capacity to do anything - which is precisely why we spend so much of our time, resources and energy defending and expanding it. Whether through activity to create that space in countries like China and Burma. Whether through our collective efforts to allow Colombian unions to organize without the constant fear of violence and assassination against a background of total impunity for their killers. Whether through our resistance to initiatives in Europe like the Services Initiative that would have stripped many workers of rights won over many years. Whether through the work of our women members, often though not often enough supported by the male comrades, to throw off a history of oppression at work, at home, in communities and sadly also inside too often unions. And much the same for migrant workers and others. Whether through our growing membership in one of the most barbaric labour relations systems in the world in the United States of America where a political administration that cynically justifies bombing people to help them on the road to democracy will refuse to pass an Employee Free Choice law to allow its own people to exercise one of the most fundamental of democratic rights - the right to join a union and organize without fear of discrimination or pressure from the boss. I truly believe that such a law would ultimately build a stronger USA than any brutal display of military and economic power abroad. Why? Well for a start there was no greater example of "shock and awe" in recent years as the one that allowed so many inside and outside the US to see that when Hurricane Katrina swept aside lives and property it also swept aside the thin veneer of the American dream. We all got to see the grotesque spectacle of driving poverty in a country of staggering wealth. It also made many of us shudder to see the way a president and a whole administration treated people on the periphery even though they had some theoretical power over him through their role as voters. If that is how the US's own poor who can theoretically at least vote get treated how do others around the world imagine such a superpower might treat them without the restraint of even the limited fear of a political backlash. And make no mistake the denial of the basic right to organize and fight back for millions of workers is a critical factor that produces that kind of crushing poverty in the richest country in the world. I truly believe that we all have as much a vested interest in a United States with millions more unionized workers fighting back hopefully shoulder to shoulder as equals with workers elsewhere as we have a vested interest in a China where workers can also organize freely to defend and advance their rights and interests. Strong labour movements stop barbarism and in today's smaller and smaller world we all have a vested interest in strong labour movements everywhere. Fighting together for that is not simply solidarity - it is self-evidently self-interested solidarity and that I believe is the strongest solidarity of all.

We will also address the employment crisis during the congress. We are moving toward a future where huge chunks of future generations will ask their parents innocently and with tragically little irony - so what was a real job like? The destruction of work is a form of disarmament in the war we are in. Juan Somavia, the ILO's Director general said it well some years ago when he appealed for a global defence of employment. He said that in a world of one billion unemployed or underemployed people rights are under great threat and probably cannot survive. He is right. When the right to work is so fundamentally denied and where that denial is growing through endless outsourcing, contracting, casualization and the destruction of work all other rights come under threat. And without any doubt our ability to fight for those rights is massively undermined because employment provides our main weapon of organization - our members - and have no illusion employment is currently being systematically and deliberately destroyed. So we will look at employment in this congress as a fundamental part of our defence of rights and as critically linked to our ability to organize for power.

We will also look forward against the background of the political and economic environment we are fighting and organizing within. Those who set the rules are not doing so in everybody's interests. Global corporate power is imposing on the decisions of all major international institutions and it is their rules that are in the forefront of much that has been adopted in recent time. When we look to the WTO, the Bretton Wood financial institutions and even the FAO and Codex Alimentarius we see them all succumbing to pressure to adopt corporate rules for food, agriculture and trade. But we have talked of much of that in our last congress and set our path in relation to those structures that set the environment we fight within.

At this congress we will focus on an emerging force that the IUF has termed as "financialization". Not an easy sound bite - and I wish interpreters well - but frankly a rather good descriptive one. And we will look at one driving piece of the man-made phenomenon of financialization - the dramatic rise in recent years of private equity funds.

Despite its efforts promoting its "flying doctor healing the sick and restoring the good health of ailing companies" image the truth is that they more often slash and burn - less like flying doctors and more like flying locusts. Hundreds and thousands of our members have in very recent years found themselves working not for food companies that compete around who makes the best yogourt or the best biscuits but for financial entities that compete around whose productive value and coffers can be most easily pried open, plundered and left as empty financial shells with the productive reproductive organs ripped out and gorged on in a frenzy of greed.

Our members are supposed to be restructured quietly while private equity locusts stuff their bloated financial bellies with more cash! No way! At the time of the end of year bonuses for the relative minions of these Wall Street private equity and hedge fund companies BMW, Ferrari, Porsche and other luxury car franchises physically moved their sales outlets closer to their offices to pick up some of the fat dripping from obscene tables of greed fed by those end-of-year bonuses. If our members even get paid a bonus at the end of the year millions of them have to first pay off debt and then provide the most basic needs for families and communities. The Wall Street bonuses at the end of 2006 actually caused an upward blip on property values in New York - imagine the end of year bonuses it takes to do that!

We no doubt all support the Make Poverty History campaign and its makepovertyhistory.org web site. Well the IUF has acquired a web site domain called makeobscenewealthhistory.org because we can never accept that the only way to end poverty is to pick up the crumbs from the obscenely wealthy's table through the charity of the Buffets and Gates' of this world. Ending poverty must be related in some way to ending obscene wealth - I firmly believe one cannot exist without the other.

But speaking of charity by the way private equity firms are about to massively increase their portfolio of good deeds - and no doubt will shortly be crowing about the millions they too will give to good causes and the poor. Well here's a tip - don't steal the poor's money and gut their jobs in the first place and we might not need to stand in awe of your generosity. And the same incidentally is true for countries. Here's another tip for the international institutions controlled by the richer countries. Stop setting rules that facilitate the sapping and stealing of wealth from poorer countries as resources flow from South to North and you might not have to agonize so much about how to charitably give so much back. Oh and while you are at it stop providing arms and the massive means of repression to your corrupted agents in power in much of the South to guarantee that the South to North flow of wealth continues. That reverse flow of wealth from poor to rich is a critical part of our global economic and political environment though for time's sake I will not go further into those issues now.

Our congress will also allow us to look to the pressures that are specifically bearing down on our members in all our manufacturing sectors as well as in agriculture. Our congress session aptly named "The real cost of cheap food" will take a close look at who is paying the price for growing profits in many parts of the world's food chain. All taking place against a background of savage price competition and a consumer culture that too often is being brainwashed into believing that there is no limit to how low prices can go. We will take a look at this issue from the perspective of the entire food chain with some challenging interventions from outside our union ranks as we try to find ways forward and possible allies to move forward with.

Our last major external contributions will come in a panel set to open a debate on global companies and global unions. There is much talk of global unions in our movement - at least at some stratospheric levels of it - and "global unions" have or should it be it has become something of a brand - though hardly one of the more widely known brands. There's nothing wrong with having a brand in today's world. But the world's biggest brand name Coca-Coal has something more than a brand of course. They at least have a drink called Coca-Cola! We might therefore do well to take a good look at whether we have a union that is global if we are to promote the brand "global union". And perhaps we also need to clarify agree first that we agree we need one before we go on to talk about what one would look like. And then of course we will need to build one. Vision is certainly one thing we need. But a brand without a product is at best a mirage of something that might exist and at worse an illusion. And illusions are dangerous things especially if we start to believe our own illusion right in the middle of the kind of fight for our lives we are currently in!

So I believe you have to talk and talk urgently about your need for a global union. Is there such a need? if so what is it? Do enough of you want it? If so how much do you want it? And if you want it enough how do we build it? The IUF will not assert that we will become something much less that we already are something unless you are prepared to help design and build that that we assert we will be. Unions, local, global or interplanetary are built on and by members. So any global union in the food, beverage, hotel, tobacco and agricultural sectors will be built on and by you and those you represent. Our panel on Wednesday afternoon will hopefully open the door to that robust discussion as well as take a relatively quick look at our counterparts across the table - global companies.

Many of us are determined to be part of organizing our power at the self-evidently needed global level but we can only do that with your help - and that means more than resolutions. It means a vision on the part of as many as possible, it means gritty determination, it means investment of all kinds and it means a plan which is anchored in progressive politics, which is strategic, smart and which can survive the many discouraging moments that will stand in the way of such a vision. But discouraging is a relative thing. Imagine the discouraging moments our members in South Africa faced during apartheid and yet overcame. How many discouraging moments Colombian unionists face as their comrades are gunned down with impunity around them and yet they continue to fight on.

Discouraging moments as workers voice their rights and end up in Chinese work camps - and yet more workers come because amazingly that is what the human spirit and workers will do when fighting for rights. Discouraging moments have to be and can be inspirational only if we have the vision and if we truly believe in what we are trying to build.

Comrades if elected I am determined to lead an IUF that grasps that challenge and applies all our hard won resources, our talent and our ingrained characteristics to move us all towards a vision of global organization and global worker power. That will I believe mean moving us from a loose and under-resourced international federation of unions often focused in many different directions to a democratically run, global union working through powerful local and region organizations all within a focussed global strategy. I won't do that without you or with not enough of you. I will not declare it done through branding, slogans or press releases. In fact I will in part watch our opposition and their reaction to what we build. When the Nestles, Danones, Krafts, Carghills and Pepsi-Colas of this world start to act like they are up against a global union and we start to progress in ways we do not yet today then I will know we are getting somewhere. And I won't have to tell you by the way because you'll know it too as you feel the power we will have organized to build. Comrades, our collective ambition cannot come bigger than that!

We will end our congress with our members talking about organizing to build that power. A combination of featured presentations and spontaneous delegates' presentations will be at the heart of and at the end of our congress.

There can be no better way to do this than to put the single most important challenge we all share today in your hands. It is after all your congress and not anybody else's.

Those presentations will have to address some fundamental issues. How we organize. How we build power. How we use power to build the world we all so passionately believe in and we all know almost without thinking is the only one that is sustainable. A world that will allow us to be proud of what little we did to hand on something fairer and more just to generations that follow. In essence comrades -how we win!

Thank you