It is more than appropriate that ORIT (Workers’ Interamerican Regional Organization) is holding its 16th Congress in Brazil. The Brazilian trade union movement is in the international vanguard for social justice and global solidarity.
I am so proud that my good friend and trade union brother, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected President of the world’s fifth largest nation with an overwhelming democratic mandate in October of 2002.
His victory was a triumph for all of us as trade unionists, and we in the AFL-CIO continue to salute his efforts to develop a “left wing of the possible” in both Brazil and the entire world, and for making an agenda for growth as well as social justice truly sustainable with prudent leadership and fiscal responsibility.
Indeed, President Lula has chosen the most judicious and effective path, given all of the hostile challenges of today’s global economy.
As President Lula reminded me during his most recent visits to the United States, I’ve owed him and our Brazilian trade union hosts a trip to this magnificent country for some time. Indeed, I am truly honored and delighted to have made it.
This is also a very sad occasion, because we are missing our brother Luis Anderson. His passing is an irreparable loss for our cause, but I know he would be very pleased and honored with the theme and the working agenda of this 16th congress.
We could pay no better tribute to Luis than by dedicating ourselves to the task of achieving even more unity within our Inter-American labor movement, and by strengthening the ties with our natural allies in progressive civil society and progressive government.
This is also a task that Brother Victor Baez has assumed with extraordinary courage, skill and perseverance.
At our ICFTU world congress in Miyazaki last December, we made real progress in our discussion of strategic approaches to globalization – improving our international trade union structures, and achieving more worldwide unity, including Solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the WCL.
I know the 16th ORIT Congress is dedicated to these same objectives.
The AFL-CIO was honored to host ORIT’s 15th Congress and its 50th anniversary in Washington, DC four years ago. But so much has happened since we last met – the attacks of September 11th and the invasion and occupation of Iraq mean that the world will never be the same for us as international and Inter-American trade unionists.
The global challenges and threats to trade unionists have become more profound and complex.
Since we last met in Washington, the social, economic and physical conditions for workers, campesinos and trade unionists in this hemisphere have only become more grave and threatening.
For example, Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. Over 94 of our sisters and brothers in that country were assassinated last year, with well over 3000 having been murdered systematically since the mid-1980’s.
The Colombian government’s protection program for labor leaders covered only 1,252 people last year, making for tens of thousands without any safeguards, not to mention the chronic impunity for all of those responsible for the killings.
In addition to leading the world with physical attacks on trade unionists, our hemisphere has been the epicenter for neo-liberal experimentation. The Washington Consensus has been applied to Latin America with a vengeance.
The International Monetary Fund forced the unraveling of labor protections and national collective bargaining structures as the condition for structural adjustment throughout the 1990’s, as our sisters and brothers in Argentina know only too well.
The Bush administration and its corporate allies have treated this hemisphere as the testing grounds for a regime of so-called free trade agreements.
NAFTA has not only meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the United States and Canada, it has failed to stop the continued drop in real wages and purchasing power for our Mexican sisters and brothers over the last decade.
Because of the onslaught of subsidized agro-business exports from the North due to NAFTA, the percentage of the population living in poverty in rural Mexico has jumped from 59 percent in 1984 to well over 81.5 percent today.
In addition to unenforceable labor rights provisions, NAFTA’s Chapter 11 on investor rights has meant that multinational corporations are successfully challenging and subverting otherwise legitimate social and environmental laws in all three countries.
Multinational enterprises and their champions in the Bush Administration are currently trying to extend NAFTA by means of bilateral and sub-regional agreements in the Americas.
The proposed US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is the latest manifestation of this offensive. If passed, it will only mean more ineffective labor rights enforcement and unsustainable conditions for Central American workers in the cities, in the maquilas and in the countryside.
How can 50 percent of the Central American workforce, employed in the rural sector, possibly compete with North American agro-business exporting products to the region at prices hundreds of percentage points below the real cost of production due to massive subsidies?
The result can only be more displacement, more immigration, more unemployment, more privation, and more social instability – and I can assure you we are doing everything we can to defeat CAFTA.
The neo-liberal promises of economic prosperity for everyone in Latin America and the Caribbean based on free trade and investment agreements, cuts in public expenditures, and more privatization of social security, public services and state enterprises have not worked.
The promises have been dashed in the last decade by flat and declining growth for most of the region, increasing income inequality – a record unemployment rate of over 10 percent, a frightening growth of the informal sector, increasing insecurity for retired workers, a steady drop in real wages, and increasing poverty.
And what does the current administration in Washington have to say about all of this?
Reflecting his not-so-benign neglect of Latin America in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush told the Monterrey conference on the millennium development goals that a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas and a little more progress on fighting corruption will magically solve all of our problems in the Western Hemisphere.
Such a ridiculously simplistic and incomplete approach is a recipe for disaster and we steadfastly oppose it.
As all of you know, we did our utmost to defeat George Bush and elect John Kerry in 2004. Obviously, we were disappointed, but we are not out by any means.
Bush brags about the unprecedented number of votes he received in November. What he fails to mention is that 2004 also represents the biggest absolute number of opposition votes to an American President in our history.
And every day he loses more and more domestic support due to his tragic mishandling of foreign policy, his arrogant unilateralism on the world stage, his tax policies that only favor the rich, his lack of a real economic growth and jobs strategy, and his unpopular assault on our social security system.
His outrageous actions have actually rekindled the spirit of American workers who now, now more than ever, need and want a real voice in their workplace, in their community, in their nation, and in the global economy.
And even though I just cited many of the dire challenges facing our Inter-American movement, we should also recognize, celebrate and build on our victories.
There is a real “axis of good” of center-left governments that have been elected in Latin America, thanks to the political mobilization of workers and their unions – President Lula in Brazil, President Kirchner in Argentina, President Lagos in Chile, President Torrijos in Panama, and, most recently, President Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay.
And we sincerely hope that with President Chavez prevailing in the referendum of last year, he will give real sustainability to his social agenda by entering into genuine dialogue with all of the labor movement in Venezuela.
We salute and applaud his emphasis on social justice and his criticism of the FTAA, but we also urge that he truly respect freedom of association and collective bargaining principles.
We can also celebrate the unity of our movement in our opposition to the Bush plan to extend NAFTA to the entire hemisphere.
The admirable position of Brazil and other governments of the global South represents a real alternative to multinational enterprises from the North running roughshod over the legitimate concerns of sustainable development in the name of the FTAA and free trade.
Our praise and great gratitude to Brazil.
The theme of this congress – “Social Justice and Global Solidarity for the Development of the Americas” – is not only appropriate but essential to the hope of democracy and our survival as a movement.
It suggests a more social and a more creative trade unionism, demanding not only a reversal of our declining representation in the workplace, but more effective political mobilization with stronger alliances in civil society.
We must operate on a variety of fronts, if we are to win as an Inter-American movement.
We must truly organize our sisters and brothers in the informal sector – politically mobilize to strengthen and rebuild our social security systems – and look to the untapped potential of our pension funds to maximize the interests of our beneficiaries and achieve more responsible corporate behavior.
We must do everything that we can to support the campaign to combat hunger and poverty, championed by President Lula, and work with our global union federations to achieve genuine cross-border capacity with multinational companies.
My brothers and sisters, we must do everything possible to eliminate racial, gender and all other forms of discrimination by supporting and strengthening INSPIR, the Inter-American Union Institute on Racial Equality.
The AFL-CIO is committed to working with all of you in ORIT to insure that immigrant workers, whether documented or not, are fully organized and protected in this hemisphere.
There is so much that all of you can do to help us fight for your compatriots working and struggling in the United States.
We can and must find a way of urging the labor-friendly governments of this hemisphere to support a social clause incorporating fundamental labor rights in global trade.
If we truly work together on this issue, I know we can avoid the protectionist traps and insure the necessary recognition of basic labor standards. Our sisters and brothers from the Southern Cone have already proven it can be done – just look at the social clause in Mercosur.
And finally, we must not rest until we stop the slaughter of our trade union sisters and brothers in Colombia.
You have our full commitment, be it at the ILO in Geneva or in the halls of our Congress in Washington, to do everything in our power to end this nightmare.
John J. Sweeney is the president of the AFL-CIO and the text above are his remarks at the ORIT Congress, in the Brazilian capital, Brasília, on April 21.