IUF Congress: Day 1

The first session of the IUF congress has begun. Hundreds of delegates from dozens of countries on every continent have filled the hall. Union banners hang from all the walls.

The session was opened by the IUF’s President, Hans-Olof Nilsson, a trade union leader from Sweden, who introduced a short video on the theme of the organisation’s 27th congress.

This was followed by a welcoming address by Vania Alleva, President of UNIA, one of the IUF’s Swiss affiliates, which has about 200,000 members and is the largest union in the country. Quoting Antonio Gramsci, she spoke about the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will — and then outlined the challenges facing the labour movement. She spoke about the need to organise and recruit new members. She is thanked by the IUF’s General Secretary, Ron Oswald, who is himself a UNIA member.

Rémy Pagani welcomed congress delegates on behalf of the City of Geneva. A former mayor of the city, he was a trade unionist for some twenty years. He is a member of the “À gauche toute! Genève” party. He spoke among other things about the need for social dialogue.

François Longchamp, President of the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva also welcomed the delegates. He also spoke about the importance of social partnership.

Oswald explains to delegates why the building is so warm, due to Geneva’s rules about cooling buildings. Delegates continue to wave their conference papers as improvised fans.

Nilsson formally opens the congress. He reads out the names of some of the IUF members who passed away since the last congress. Delegates stood for a moment of silence.

Oswald introduces various conference procedures and the standing orders. He emphasises the zero-tolerance policy of the IUF on the issue of sexual harassment. Congress votes to approve the draft agenda and standing orders. The Credentials Committee is elected, and the Resolutions Committee is confirmed.

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The Congress has re-convened after a short break. Oswald has welcomed former IUF President and former General Secretary Dan Gallin to the congress. He introduced the Secretariat’s Reports with a powerful speech.

He explains why he uses the term “comrade” instead of “colleague”. The labour movement, he says, is in crisis everywhere, facing attacks on workers’ rights, and reviews the situation in different regions. He asks why workers — many of them members of IUF unions — who voted in large numbers for Trump, Erdogan, Duterte and other right-wing politicians. He speaks about a politics of class, of inclusion, and more. He expresses pride in the IUF’s holding of the first LGBTQI conference by a global union. He speaks of democratic socialism, and makes reference to the Bernie Sanders campaign. He calls for political reform to strengthen workers’ rights — and to reclaim the very term “political reform”.

He reminds congress delegates of the 2012 victory — during the previous congress — for Nestlé workers in Indonesia. He told a moving story about how not one of the workers agreed to take money from the company, insisting instead on the right to remain employees of the company, and union members.

If we neither organise nor fight — we can guarantee that we will lose. This is not in the DNA of the IUF, he says. He thanks members for their support and affection over many years. His speech was welcomed by delegates with a standing ovation.

The IUF is growing, with 137 more unions than it had five years ago, at the time of the last congress. He anticipates further growth, especially in the global south. Congress approved the report on membership.

The next report was on trade union development projects, and relations with other organisations. There is some discussion on this, with speakers from Brazil, Mozambique and North America. One of these raises the issue of Fair Trade and workers’ rights, expressing some concerns.

As the discussion ended early, items from tomorrow morning’s agenda come up for discussion — first of all, on trade group, sector and transnational companies activities.