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UE Convention: International Guests—“Our solidarity is without borders”

Pittsburgh

On Tuesday afternoon, convention delegates were joined by international guests from Japan, Mexico, and Quebec. Takeshi Takeshita and Keisuke Fuse, both deputy secretaries-general of Japan’s militant labor federation Zenroren, described the “long history of friendship and solidarity” between Zenroren and UE. That history included Zenroren taking action to put pressure on Japanese multinationals such as Kobe Steel and Hishi Plastics when their workers in the U.S. sought to join UE.

Takeshita and Fuse reported that “the working class has been in miserable working conditions in Japan” but that Zenroren’s members “have been aggressively organizing struggles” to improve their situation. They also said that one of the important struggles for Japanese workers is opposing their government’s attempts to divert resources from social needs to the military.

The Zenroren representatives congratulated UE for victories in the Wabtec strike and in organizing graduate workers. They declared, “This is what international solidarity looks like,” and said they looked forward to UE and Zenroren continuing to work together to “defend peace, democracy, and human and workers’ rights.”

Sonia Vázquez, a rank-and-file worker from a garment factory in Mexico and a member of the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), described how she and her co-workers threw out a corrupt union. “They did not defend us, what they did was not in favor of the worker,” she said. “But everything changed in September, thanks to the work of the FAT.”

Taking advantage of the labor reforms passed in Mexico several years ago, Vázquez and her co-workers, with the assistance of the FAT, were able to negotiate a new contract with improved wages and other benefits. However, “When it came time to sign the contract, the company denied it [and] implied that we had intimidated the manager to accept it.” The workers submitted a complaint using the labor enforcement mechanism of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2020. “Following six months of constant attacks by the company,” they finally won a contract that included “a raise, time off for the union, training for all employees, and most of all … recognition from the company.” Lenin González Tellez of the FAT also attended the convention as a guest.

Chantel Ide of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) in Quebec spoke on the convention theme of “building strike power,” which she called “such an inspiring theme.” She said that “Going on strike is an act of courage, an act of solidarity. It’s never a decision that workers take lightly. This is how we win the respect we deserve as workers.”

In her remarks, Ide described one recent, one ongoing, and one potential upcoming strike by CSN members. A group of 13 women at a child care facility in a remote location in Quebec struck after the employer offered improvements to 12 of the workers, but not to the worker responsible for preparing food at the center. But, Ide said, “her 12 comrades wouldn’t let her down” and after nine weeks on strike, the employer relented. She also spoke about a group of 70 office workers at Montreal’s oldest cemetery who have been on strike for a year and without a contract for five years, and negotiations in Quebec’s public sector, where 400,000 workers will be conducting strike votes soon.

“When you are attacked, we are attacked,” Ide concluded. “We stand with you in solidarity. Our solidarity is our power over the ruling class. Our solidarity is without borders. When we fight, we win!”

Now Is the Time to Fight for the Better World Workers Deserve

In a recorded video, Roxane DuBois of UE’s Canadian sister union Unifor delivered a message of solidarity and a report on how Canadian workers are fighting for economic and social justice. “Canada is facing many political, social, and economic challenges, just like many countries in the world,” she said. Working people face “a real affordability crisis” while “corporate profits soar,” and Unifor has been actively calling out central bankers for raising interest rates while “having no regard for the impacts of their decisions on the lives of working people.” Unifor has also been fighting to protect social programs and defend the public sector from privatization, and to oppose the far-right targeting of members of the LGBTQ+ community.

DuBois described a recent strike by 70,000 Unifor members who work for a grocery chain that makes “profit off the back of minimum wage earners.” The strike was successful in winning back a $2 wage gain given during the pandemic but then taken away.

She concluded by saying that in the current moment, “Support for our demands is high, support for unions is high. Now is the time to build our unions and … fight for the better world workers deserve.”

Daniele Calosi of the Italian metalworkers’ union FIOM, who also recorded a video for the convention, reported that “We have … the heirs of Fascism ruling Italy.” Calosi said, “The task of the union is to organize the workers so that there is the possibility for them to assert their rights, which are more and more denied by a clearly fascist government.” He warned in his “message of solidarity” that the possibility of a new fascism developing “is real,” in the U.S. as well as Italy. “We must continue to exercise high levels of solidarity,” he said, and ended with “a big hug by the Italian comrades of FIOM-CGIL. Come on — let’s fight together!”

Convention delegates also watched solidarity videos from Frédéric Sanchez of the French metalworkers’ union FTM-CGT, and Maicon Michel Vasconcelos da Silva of the Brazilian metalworkers’ union CNM-CUT.

“It is time that we think global as well”

In her report, Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson said, “The bosses love nothing more than to have an easy scapegoat of blaming workers in other countries for the decisions they make here.” She described “some of the things workers around the world are up against” and pointed out that “if we’re honest, it should sound really familiar. The bosses are doing the same things there that they do here.”

Thompson reported that Locals 506 and 618 received solidarity messages and photos from unions all around the world during their ten-week strike against Wabtec. “These unions care what Wabtec is doing in Erie and Wilmerding because they know they are next,” she said. “Our approach to international solidarity helps us to protect ourselves collectively and to push back against our organized bosses.”

During discussion of the resolution “International Solidarity,” Scott Slawson, Local 506, reminded delegates that “As work filters out of our own country to other countries we tend to want to blame the workers, and we need to understand that it is not the worker, it is very much the corporate greed and the politicians that cause our problems.

“Companies today, like the one that I work for, Scabtec, are global companies, they are in multiple countries, and it is time, and I’ve said this since [the 74th UE convention in] Baltimore in 2015, that we think global as well.”

Bryce Carter, Local 150, spoke about his trip to Japan in 2019 to take part in a meeting of public-sector union hosted by Zenroren, and praised the public transit system in Japan. Kevin Sites, Local 1186, also spoke on the resolution.

Florence Criley Speaker: Cross-Border Connections “Tremendously Powerful”

Following the convention session, retired UE Director of International Affairs Robin Alexander gave the 2023 Florence Criley Women’s Leadership Speaker Series talk at City of Asylum bookstore in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. Alexander spoke about her 2022 e-book, International Solidarity in Action.

Alexander recounted how, in the early 1990s, UE realized that “we really needed to do international solidarity in a different way,” and she was given the opportunity to help shape that new approach, one that involved rank-and-file members and was connected to organizing. That history forms the subject of her book, framed by the close relationship that the UE developed with the FAT.

She read excerpts from her book, especially focusing on relationships developed between public-sector workers in the UE and the FAT. Those relationships had “a tremendous impact within UE,” she said, especially on members’ understanding of the dynamics of immigration, as they came to realize that Mexican workers were just like themselves and, given the opportunity for decent jobs in their home country, would generally prefer to stay there. She called the cross-border connections between workers made by UE’s international work “tremendously powerful.”

Alexander was introduced by Nichel Dunlap-Thompson, Local 150. Following her talk, Alexander discussed the book with current Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson, then took questions from the audience.

A recording of the talk, which was live-streamed, is available at https://vimeo.com/857170291. International Solidarity in Action can be downloaded, and donations can be made to support UE’s international solidarity work, at InternationalSolidarityInAction.org.

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