Italian Metalworkers’ Union Joins UE to Celebrate May Day

Chicago

A UE delegation joined guests from Italy and hundreds of immigrant rights activists for May Day in Chicago this year. UE hosted representatives of Federazioni Impiegati Operai Metallurgici (Federation of Metalworkers, FIOM-CGIL) to commemorate International Workers’ Day with a new plaque on the Haymarket Square monument.

Scipioni speaking at immigrant rights rally.

The day’s festivities kicked off in Union Park, where Marcello Scipioni, Head of FIOM’s International Department and Head of the Health, Environment and Safety Office, addressed the rally. He noted that the immigration struggles in the US mirrored challenges for immigrants in Italy, and that in both places, it’s important to struggle for immigrants’ rights to work to be recognized so that they are not exploited and can be reunited with their families. “Millions of workers came here from Europe and all over the world to win the bread, and they found themselves fighting for the roses too, and gaining dignity,” he said. “To me it’s very important to be here on May Day in Chicago because the symbol of May 1st is an international struggle for workers to have equal rights.” Scipioni was joined on the trip by Daniele Calosi, General Secretary of FIOM-CGIL Florence, and his wife Alida Magherini.

The UE delegation was led by General President Carl Rosen, and included retired Secretary-Treasurer Amy Newell, retired International Representative Terry Davis, International Representative J Burger, Field Organizer Sean Fulkerson, Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson, and Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee Organizer Tristan Brock-Hughes. The UE and FIOM delegations marched from the park to the monument at Haymarket Square, where they met leaders of the Illinois Labor History Society and other trade unionists who were there to honor the memory of those who died calling for an eight hour day for all workers. While there, the group met Congressman Jesus Chuy Garcia, who has been a strong UE ally in congress.

Later that afternoon, Rosen and Thompson brought the FIOM delegation to a birthday party for Mother Jones at the Irish American Cultural Center, where they heard beautiful music from local musicians and rousing remarks from Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. (Nelson addressed UE’s most recent convention by video message.)

Left to right: UE General President Carl Rosen, Daniele Calosi and Marcello Scipioni of FIOM, AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, and Mother Jones (Brigid Duffy Gerace of the Working Women’s History Project).

On Monday, the Italian trade unionists met Rosen at UE Hall in Chicago for a tour of the mural by John Pitman Weber and Jose Guerrero. Thereafter they had a discussion with Rosen and Director of Organization Mark Meinster about the challenges and opportunities in the US and Italian labor movements. In the afternoon, Scipioni and Calosi saw more of Chicago’s labor history on a tour around the city, including stops at the Haymarket Martyrs monument in Forest Park Cemetery, and the recently restored mural “The History of the Packinghouse Worker” by William Walker.

Scipioni (left) talking with UE Local 1110 President Armando Robles (right) at the New Era Windows Cooperative factory.

On Tuesday, Scipioni joined Thompson for a tour of New Era Windows with Armando Robles, president of Local 1110. The plant is a worker-owned cooperative that emerged from the 2008 occupation of Republic Windows and Doors. Scipioni expressed his admiration for the operation, and suggested that perhaps there could be a future exchange with similar worker efforts in Italy.

At the conclusion of his remarks to the May Day rally, Scipioni noted that “We must struggle together” for a world in which workers do not compete against each other. “Happy May Day to you. Let’s struggle together.”

UE Visitor to Cuba Finds Culture of Solidarity

On a recent delegation to Cuba, UE Project Staff Chris Hollis asked local union leaders at an electronics plant in Havana how workers in Cuba would go about organizing a union.

“They didn’t understand my question,” Hollis told the UE NEWS. After several attempts to rephrase his question — “How do you go about building unions in these plants?” — the source of the workers’ confusion became clear: in Cuba, “every job has a union.” Workers are not forced to go through the same difficult process as workers in the U.S. in order to exercise the right of collective bargaining.

Hollis, who first joined UE as a founder of the Blue Collar Workers Organizing Committee at the Valley Proteins rendering plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is currently working for UE organizing municipal workers in Virginia Beach and Newport News, Virginia. In November, he took part in a “Friendshipment caravan” organized by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace. Since 1992, IFCO/Pastors for Peace has worked to bring an end to the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba through such caravans, which provide humanitarian aid to the Cuban people in defiance of the blockade.

Before he received the opportunity to join the caravan, Hollis said, “All I knew [about Cuba] was what I was educated to believe coming up in school” — that Cuba was an island full of terrorists. Leading up to his departure, he said he took time to read about Cuba, because “I wanted to not take that mindset with me.”

In Cuba, Hollis chose to visit the electronics factory, because “I really needed to learn and see how the trade unions operated in Cuba.”

He described an “electrifying atmosphere” when he arrived at the plant, being greeted warmly by the union members. “These weren’t people that were just put in place to put on a show,” Hollis emphasized, “these were workers.”

Following up on his question about organizing, Hollis asked whether anyone was laid off during the pandemic. He learned that, although workers’ hours changed because the factory changed to one shift, “nobody lost their jobs during the pandemic.” In fact, when production later picked up dramatically and the plant’s profits increased, “They would take that extra money and distribute it to the employees as bonuses.”

“I thought that was amazing,” said Hollis, “because they actually looked out for the workers.”

“This is a socialist society, we all help each other,” explained the union president.

In the U.S., Hollis noted, “You are going to have capitalist companies that are always going to be at odds with unions,” but in Cuba “company people work hand in hand with labor unions to make sure workers are treated fairly.”

“Their collective bargaining agreements are very detailed,” Hollis reported, including guarantees of workers’ rights to concerted activity and disciplinary action towards management for any violation of the agreement.

The delegation also met with the President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel. During the meeting, in response to a question from Hollis, Diaz-Canel said that the Cuban government supports trade unions in ensuring that workers are treated fairly and have adequate wages and safe working conditions.

Hollis said that because of Cubans’ culture of working together and taking care of each other “in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a 60-year blockade, they are able to be successful, and the workers are living good lives.” He did point out that “They could live better if it was not for the sanctions” imposed by the U.S.

UE Policy passed by delegates to the most recent UE convention states, “Our government has no justification for the economic blockade of Cuba, which makes it more difficult for Cubans to access medicine, food, and essential life-giving supplies. The blockade hurts workers in both countries. Jobs are lost, while U.S. manufacturers are denied a major market just 90 miles offshore.”

Hollis reported that “A lot of businesses opened up and flourished” in Cuba during the Obama administration, when the blockade was eased somewhat, and people were “able to live better because trade became a lot more available.” After Trump re-imposed full sanctions, however, “those businesses tanked.”

Hollis told the UE NEWS he believes that the culture of solidarity he experienced in Cuba should be a model for unions and working people in the U.S. “If we only had this kind of culture,” he said, we would have more ability “to bring workers together, to give workers a seat at the table.”

Photo, left to right: UE Project Staff Charles Brown, interpreter Rosbel Lazaro, and UE Project Staff Chris Hollis.

New E-Book Documents UE-FAT Cross-Border Alliance

International Solidarity in Action, a new e-book written by UE’s retired Director of International Affairs Robin Alexander and published by UE, was released today. It provides an in-depth look at the decades-long relationship between the UE and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), an independent Mexican labor federation.

“Corporate globalization has destroyed millions of good jobs in the U.S. through trade deals like NAFTA. Robin Alexander’s book demonstrates that the most effective way for workers to fight back is by building links with workers in other countries,” said UE General President Carl Rosen. “Her account of our union’s alliance with the FAT shows how worker-to-worker exchanges can transform attitudes and lives, and how international solidarity can win real victories for working people.”

The book details the origins of UE’s relationship with the FAT in the fight against NAFTA, joint UE-FAT campaigns at companies including General Electric, Echlin, and DMI/Metaldyne, and exchanges between public-sector and co-op workers in the U.S. and Mexico. It describes the development of the International Worker Justice Campaign, which brought international attention to North Carolina’s denial of collective bargaining rights to public-sector workers. It ends with a description of the historic labor law reform enacted in Mexico in 2019, and the role of international solidarity in winning this critical victory for Mexican workers.

Throughout, Alexander highlights the role played by rank-and-file UE members in building solidarity with their counterparts in Mexico, and the pages are full of the names of local UE leaders from across the country.

International Solidarity in Action has also drawn praise from others around the labor movement.

“At a time when we need global unions perhaps more than we have ever before, the story of the UE-FAT cross-border relationship provides just the inspiration and model needed,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the Director of Labor Education Research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“Robin Alexander has written what is a political memoir, an analysis of the struggle for militant, democratic unionism in Mexico, and a strong argument for international working class solidarity,” said Bill Fletcher, Jr., who addressed UE’s 1999 convention. Fletcher is a long-time labor activist and author and former president of the TransAfrica Forum.

“This timely e-book builds up to the story of labor law reform in Mexico, getting there via micro-histories of some of the struggles to win against the corrupt charro unions, worker-to-worker exchanges among UE and FAT members, and cross-border cultural projects,” added Ashwini Sukthankar, former coordinator of the International Commission for Labor Rights and former director of global campaigns for UNITE HERE. “Consequently, the reform process really does come across as the culmination of real workers’ struggles, and not as an imposition from above, or the technical fiddling of lawyers.”International Solidarity in Action can be downloaded at internationalsolidarityinaction.org. There is little to no cost*, but UE is asking those who download the book to make a donation to support ongoing solidarity work with the FAT. (*Kindle users will need to pay a 99 cent fee to download the book from Amazon.)

Triumph for Independent Mexican Union

In the early morning of Thursday, February 3, workers at a General Motors factory in Silao, Mexico, learned the results of a union election that was held at their plant earlier in the week: the independent union led by workers won by a wide margin. This is a huge victory not only for these workers, but for all Mexican workers who have been struggling to improve their labor laws for decades.

For more than two decades, the workers at this factory had been covered by a collective bargaining agreement under the union Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), but the workers received little benefit from this contract and had no rights to elect their leaders or to be involved in the contract negotiations. Their contract was known as a “protection contract” because it protected the company from having to negotiate with a real union. The CTM is one of many Mexican unions that cuts deals with employers, often before workers have been hired at a new facility. They are known as charro unions.

Under Mexican labor law reforms passed in 2019, this kind of corrupt union practice is no longer legal, and workers have a clear path for getting rid of these protection contracts. However the Silao factory is the first large plant to go through the whole process. That is one reason why this election is so important.

The independent workers’ union, known as SINTTIA (​​Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores de la Industria Automotriz, or National Auto Workers Union), has been organizing at the shop since 2019. Last year, they moved forward with the first step in this process.

In order to get rid of the CTM, they had to hold a vote to dissolve their old contract. They did so in August. Under the new laws, the company had to keep all the terms of the contract in place until the workers had the opportunity to elect new representatives.

The union election was scheduled at the plant on February 1 and 2, but SINTTIA was not the only union on the ballot. In addition to the CTM, two other unions registered themselves: one that was known to have an affiliation with the CTM, and another that sprang up out of nowhere, but had a name similar to SINTTIA. Activists suspected they were added to the ballot to confuse the workers.

Leading up to the election, there were reports that the company and the CTM were trying to disrupt the secret ballot election. The company fired a union activist, and the CTM was trying to bribe workers to vote for them. However, during the election itself, independent observers were there to make sure things moved forward smoothly. These observers included UE allies from Unifor in Canada and the CUT in Brazil.

When the results were announced Thursday morning, SINTTIA leaders claimed a clear victory, receiving 4,192 votes of the 5,389 valid ballots cast, about 78 percent of the votes.

“​​The workers are fed up with the charro unions and seek to have freedom and democracy through another type of union,” said Eladio Abundiz Gaudian, a co-coordinator of UE’s Mexican ally Authentic Labor Front (FAT), who has addressed several UE conventions. “In this victory, it was a great job by all the national and international organizations that always showed their support for SINTTIA. I remain convinced that thanks to the 2019 labor reform and the impartiality of the labor authorities, there are great possibilities for other workers, women and men, to have labor justice. It is important at this time to publicize the changes to the labor law, through training workshops and forums.”

“I am excited to see this victory for an independent union in Mexico, especially one with an American employer,” said UE General President Carl Rosen. “UE has been a strong advocate for reform of Mexico’s labor laws so that workers have a say over their own working conditions. We cannot improve working conditions in the U.S. when corporations can run off to Mexico or another country to take advantage of workers who are forcibly denied basic labor rights. We look forward to SINTTIA putting forward a strong contract campaign to fight for the needs of the workers at this shop.”

Under the new labor laws, all Mexican union contracts will have to be voted on by secret ballot of the workers by May 1, 2023. The process in Silao will be an important example for workers across the country over the next year.

Photo: Unifor

Chilean Unions Celebrate New, Pro-Worker President

On Sunday, December 19, the working people of Chile decisively elected a new president, Gabriel Boric, who has vowed to fight “the privileges of the few” and undo the right-wing, “free market” legacy of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The labor federation Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT), which endorsed Boric in November, congratulated him on his victory, praising him for his commitment to workers. CUT President Silvia Silva noted that Boric supports raising the minimum wage above the poverty line, and has promised to meet with workers’ representatives within the first hundred days of his administration to discuss a plan for job creation.

Boric, 35, will be the youngest president in modern Chilean history, and one of the youngest in the world. A leader of 2011 student protests demanding free education, he entered Chile’s Congress in 2013 as one of the first congress people not to come from the two established parties.

The election gave Chilean voters a clear choice: Boric’s opponent, José Antonio Kast, was closely associated with the Pinochet dictatorship, in which his brother served as labor minister and president of the country’s central bank. During the campaign, Kast expressed admiration for Pinochet and campaigned on a platform of “law and order” and demonizing immigrants.

Pinochet came to power in 1973 in a U.S.-backed military coup. He brutally suppressed unions and political opponents, privatized public services including the country’s retirement system, and generally turned the country into an experiment in handing everything over to the “free market.” The result, as organizer Yoel Bitran wrote recently in Labor Notes, was that “Poverty rates exploded and inequality soared—while some people made enormous amounts of money.”

CUT leaders pointed out that the stakes in the election were high for workers. Carlos Insunza, who coordinates the union federation’s public sector board, said that “it is enough to take a brief look” at Kast’s program to see that it is based on hostility to the very idea of a public sector. Carmen Luz Scaff, the vice president of the Organization of the National Association of Fiscal Employees and president of the National Federation of Public Health Associations, added that a victory for Kast would lead to “layoffs, reduction of workers and also persecution, especially of trade unionists.”

The presidential campaign occurred while Chileans are in the process of re-writing their constitution — a process that Boric supports but Kast opposed. The current constitution is a product of the dictatorship. Although Pinochet was forced by popular protest and international pressure to call elections in 1989, his constitution has remained in place, locking many of his policies in place, including many directly affecting workers and unions. As Bitran explains, “The current constitution and legal system are extremely hostile to the formation of powerful majority unions,” enshrining “right to work” and limiting collective bargaining to single worksites. In 2016, labor reforms passed by a progressive government were ruled unconstitutional.

In 2019, popular protests, including a two-day general strike called by the country’s unions, forced the government to call for a referendum on calling a constitutional convention. Delegates to the constitutional convention were elected in May, and they began their work later in the year.

In the conclusion of his Labor Notes article, Bitran wrote that “a new constitution could open the door for a radical transformation of the labor movement and increased bargaining power for Chile’s working class … [and] transform Chile into a beacon of worker and union rights for the entire region.”

Many union leaders cited the importance of the constitutional process as they urged workers to vote. ​​Manuel Díaz, the CUT’s Vice President for Organizing, said “This is not a simple election […]. Today is not about having one more President. Today is about dignity. It’s about the Constitution. It is about claiming the fundamental rights of workers.”

UE’s Perspective Sought by International Allies

Following the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, UE’s international allies have been reaching out to us to gain a better understanding of how his election will impact working people in the U.S. and around the world. UE received many thanks for sharing our initial analysis in written form in February. We subsequently received invitations to present our perspective because of our reputation as a union that is independent from the Democratic Party and has a clear understanding of working-class needs.

Poster announcing FIOM Bologna assembly.

On March 21, UE Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson attended the virtual General Assembly of FIOM Bologna, along with other international guests — UNITE from the United Kingdom, CGT of France, and IG Metall from Germany. The meeting focused on how workers were impacted by their own governments’ response to the pandemic. FIOM also wanted an assessment of what trade unionists anticipate from the Biden administration.

On the day of the meeting, FIOM members and organizers participated in a strike and picket action at Amazon warehouses across Italy. Shortly after the meeting began, some of those members joined the meeting for a few minutes to share a report about the enthusiastic support on the picket lines.

Thompson shared remarks informed by General Executive Board statements, reflecting the optimism that public pressure has forced Biden to address workers’ priorities but also that UE members cannot afford to be complacent in our broader demands for better jobs and healthcare, the right to organize, and to address the climate and racial justice crises.

Valentina Orazzini, Head of the Europe Office for FIOM-CGIL National, closed the event by noting that in past pandemics, workers have been able to organize for improvements in their living and working conditions. She expressed hope that organized labor would be able to do so this time.

A few days later, Thompson attended a virtual event hosted by the CSN of Quebec, Canada. She was joined by Hannah Allison, a Kansas para-educator who is a member of the Communications Workers of America and in the national elected leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Xaviar Lafrance, a professor of political science and a CSN member. The CSN also wanted to discuss the prospects for workers under the Biden administration and how working people are pushing back against right-wing politics. CSN members asked great questions to the panelists, including one that highlighted the need for trade unions to build coalitions to increase popular support for our goals.

On May 5, Thompson took part in an event organized by Helmut Scholz, a member of the European Union Parliament and its Left Caucus. On this virtual panel, entitled “100 Days of Joe Biden in Office: Assessing the Start,” she was joined by Austin Gonzalez, a member of the national elected leadership of DSA; Joe Dinkin, Campaigns Director at the Working Families Party; and Kendall Gilcrease, a university student who was a recent intern in Scholz’s office. All the panelists emphasized that it was progressive activism in the streets leading up to the election that has pushed Biden away from the corporate-friendly policies he has previously championed. Attendees at this event were curious about what would come from Biden’s foreign policy. Thompson noted that this is an area where Biden must be pushed to improve, or he will fall under the influence of warmongers in his cabinet.

Solidarity with Colombian Unions and Working People

UE joins many of our global allies in expressing solidarity with the Colombian people, and particularly with striking union members, as the right-wing government of Iván Duque attempts to suppress popular protests with violence.

Millions of Colombians have taken to the streets since late April, opposing a bill that would have imposed heavy taxes on working people. While the government has withdrawn the bill, its violent repression of the strikes combined with anger over inequality, poverty and human rights abuses have fueled ongoing mobilization.

37 people have been killed since the protests began, with at least 89 people reported missing, and thousands of reports of violence by the army and police.

UE has signed onto a declaration demanding “investigations and punishment for those responsible for this violation of human rights in Colombia.” Other unions endorsing the declaration include the Brazil metalworkers’ union CNM-CUT and STIMACHS, an affiliate of our close Mexican allies the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).

The labor federation Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, along with others, initiated strikes against the proposed tax bill on April 28. The bill would have imposed taxes of 19 percent on necessities for working people such as food and utilities, while retaining the sizable tax breaks granted to financial, oil and mining companies by the same government in 2019.

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and was long one of the most dangerous for trade unionists, who were often targeted for assassination by the military, police, and right-wing paramilitary groups aligned with them. The government has also handled the COVID-19 pandemic extremely poorly, as Alejandra Marín Buitrago reported recently in CounterPunch:

“Instead of prioritizing direct negotiating with Pfizer, the government authorized private health companies to negotiate in order to purchase doses for the elite. Public testing is hardly available, and at $50, private labs testing is well beyond the budgets of most families… Social media and news outlets have ridiculed the incompetence of the government and the high-profile staff who, as is well known throughout the country, fly to Miami to get vaccinated while prioritized groups in the low-income class wait anxiously for their first shots.”

For more background on the Colombian trade union movement, see this report written by UE Field Organizer John Ocampo about his participation in a labor delegation to Colombia in late 2019.

Stop Arrests and Killings of Union Leaders in the Philippines

UE joins Kilusang Mayo Uno, the independent and democratic labor center in the Philippines, in condemning the murder of KMU National Council member Dandy Miguel and the illegal arrest of KMU National Council member Florentino “Pol” Viuya.

Miguel, the vice chairperson of regional chapter PAMANTIK-KMU and president of local union Lakas ng Nagkakaisang Manggagawa ng Fuji Electric – OLALIA- KMU, was shot dead in Laguna province last Sunday night, March 28. According to initial reports, he was shot eight times while on his way home from work. Miguel’s killing came three weeks after nine activists were killed in simultaneous dawn operations called Bloody Sunday in the Southern Tagalog region south of Manila, where Laguna is located.

Along with other union leaders and families of the Bloody Sunday victims, Miguel filed a case at the Commission on Human Rights last March 15. Despite threats on his life and security, Miguel was at the forefront of the struggle to defend the rights and welfare of the people.

Pol Viuya

Viuya, who has been consistently red-baited by the Philippine government, was arrested under a fake warrant of arrest in a raid on the morning of March 30. Peasant leader Joseph Canlas was also arrested in a simultaneous raid in the vicinity the his organization’s office in Pampanga.

Viuya is also chairperson of the regional labor center Workers Alliance, and has been involved in the campaigns against the Joint Industrial Peace Concerns Office (JIPCO), a collaboration between the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Export Zones Authority that targets “radical unions” to ensure “industrial peace” and “ease of doing business.”

To date, Miguel and Viuya are the second and third KMU national council members to be attacked by the Philippine government, after the illegal arrest of Noly Rosales of KMU Negros in 2019.

UE calls on the Philippine government to stop the series of intimidation, harassment, illegal arrests, and killings of union leaders, labor organizers, activists, and human rights defenders.

Japanese Workers: Raising the Standard of Living All the More Essential Due to Pandemic

BY MASAKO OBATA, PRESIDENT, ZENROREN

As the first anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic approached, the UE International Department asked two of our international allies, Unifor (Canada) and Zenroren (Japan), to share with UE NEWS readers a glimpse into what work and life is like now in their countries. We asked these allied unions to share what their government’s response to the virus had been like, as well as how these unions were organizing or in other ways helping workers to protect themselves during these new health and economic challenges.

Zenroren, the National Confederation of Trade Unions in Japan, represents almost one million workers across all 47 of Japan’s prefectures (like states) in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. They are long-time allies of UE in the struggle to reduce military spending and eliminate war and nuclear weapons. (Read Unifor’s contribution here.)

I send my warmest greetings and solidarity to all UE members. I was elected president of the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) at its Convention in July last year.

The workers and people in Japan as well as the United States are seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On December 29-30, and January 2, union members from Zenroren, Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), and Zenrokyo (National Trade Union Council) took part in a year-end-New Year labor consultation in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. Japanese labor lawyers took the initiative for the event called “Consultation Village.” A total of 344 people, who were out of work or who became homeless, visited the site seeking help to solve their problems. About 70 percent of them were in their 20s to 50s, and 20 percent were women.

Neoliberal policies under the successive governments of prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga have overemphasized the principle of “self-responsibility,” ignoring the constitutional provision that “all people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” In Japan, there are a growing number of contingent workers who are afflicted by poverty due to job losses or business closures. They may run out of food if they don’t have work for a month or two.

The point is that real wages have been declining over the many years in Japan since before the outbreak of the coronavirus. The pandemic is exacerbating the employment situation and further holding down wages. Contingent workers and women workers are particularly affected by the contradictions, producing a surge in the number of suicides.

The immediate goal of our movement is the creation of a society that provides increased public support instead of sacrificing the working people as we make efforts to overcome the coronavirus crisis. We refuse to resign ourselves to life affected by the pandemic. We are aiming to win substantial wage increases while raising the standard of living in order to ensure that everyone can enjoy a decent life. We are demanding stable employment and strict working time regulations as part of the effort to establish rules to ensure that everyone can work with dignity. We are fighting for healthcare and other social services and public systems that guarantee people’s safety and life free from anxiety.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that wages for workers have fallen to levels that are inadequate for supporting their lives. The policies serving the best interest of the business sector at the cost of worker well-being have been exposed. We reject a choice between job security and pay increase, and fight for job security and substantial wage increases while raising the standard of living, along with a national minimum wage at 1,500 yen (about 14 dollars) per hour. We argue that these are all the more essential because of the pandemic. We are encouraged by the US workers’ fight making progress for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour under the new administration of President Joe Biden.

Securing living wages for all workers is the only way to get over the present economic situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A taxi drivers’ union federation affiliated with Zenroren has successfully protected their jobs despite the pandemic having a severe impact on the industry. Many new unions have been created since last year among taxi drivers. Healthcare unions have refused to take a pay cut and are continuing to fight for workplace safety. In Okinawa, workers in the tourism industry have organized themselves in a new union. They successfully won monetary compensation for restaurant and other food service industry workers during business closures by influencing politics. Our fight is directed to win living wages for anyone who works 8 hours a day by increasing international solidarity.

Zenroren President Obata (center) leads a demonstration in front of the Japan Business Federation

Today, the Japanese government and the financial circles are trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to promote what they call “diversity and flexibility in work style” and “freedom to choose”. They are encouraging people to work remotely, have a second job or side business. They are calling for using a discretionary working system, easing rules for dismissals, and working in the gig economy, which is exempted from labor laws. The attempt to institute a system to let people work on their self-responsibility is underway in many countries, including Japan and the United States. We must reject attacks that obscure management’s responsibility for arranging reasonable work hours that allow workers to get appropriate rest.

On January 22, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) went into effect. The treaty is a milestone in banning nuclear weapons for the first time under international law. The nuclear-weapon countries are still continuing to compete for the development of nuclear-capable missiles and other weapons while modernizing and reinforcing their nuclear arsenals even at a time when their citizens are at high risk of COVID-19 exposure. We are increasing a movement to press the United States and Japan, which relies upon the US nuclear umbrella, to ratify the TPNW for the sake of preserving people’s lives and the Earth’s environment.

Japan’s government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is calling for the largest-ever military expenditure in the fiscal 2021 (Apr. 2021-Mar. 2022) government budget. What is the point in compiling the largest-ever military budget at a time when the Japanese people are experiencing hardships? The government’s shopping spree for US military hardware continues. It is even purchasing weaponry, which is linked to the plan to acquire capability to attack enemy bases in violation of the Constitution. (The Japanese Constitution, adopted after World War II, prohibits Japan from having a standing military or attacking other countries to settle disputes. -Ed.) These are absolutely unnecessary for defending our country and its people. The demand for “slashing the military budget and redirecting the money towards securing jobs” is shared by Japanese and US workers.

The Japanese and US governments are pushing ahead with construction of a new US Marine Corps base in Okinawa Prefecture in defiance of firm opposition from the people of the prefecture.  Accidents and crimes by US service members are continuing without an end, giving rise to calls to revise the unequal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Japan and the United States. We hope to join our forces with US friends to develop a movement for Japan and the US to replace their bilateral Security Treaty, a military pact, with a peace and friendship treaty.

Japan and the United States are geographically far apart from each other and it is now very difficult for unions from both countries to meet in person due to the pandemic. But we can work to increase solidarity between our two unions by organizing grassroots movements in the workplace and local communities in both countries.

Canada’s Workers and the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the first anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic approached, the UE International Department asked two of our international allies, Unifor (Canada) and Zenroren (Japan), to share with UE NEWS readers a glimpse into what work and life is like now in their countries. We asked these allied unions to share what their government’s response to the virus had been like, as well as how these unions were organizing or in other ways helping workers to protect themselves during these new health and economic challenges.

Unifor is Canada’s largest private sector union, with more than 315,000 members across the country, working in every major sector of the Canadian economy. They are partners with UE in the North American Solidarity Project, which aims to transform the labor movement in North America based on democratic, militant, and social movement unionism. (Read Zenroren’s contribution here.)

Over the past year, workers in Canada have felt much of the same effects as workers across the world. At first, initial enthusiasm for the contribution of essential workers was applauded and then their pandemic pay was cut. Front-line staff engaged in the fight for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), sometimes facing employers who deliberately prevented workers from accessing life-saving PPE. After the initial wave of layoffs related to COVID-19 shut downs, many workers are back to work with heightened health and safety protocols. However, many workers, including those in the airlines, hospitality, and gaming sectors, are still largely out of work. Others, including in aerospace, are watching layoffs mount. A year into the pandemic, Canadian workers continue to fight for sector-based relief packages and expanded workers’ rights.

The employment situation in Canada has been impacted by the pandemic, like it has in much of the world. As the COVID-19 crisis continued into 2021, the economic impact of a second wave of lockdowns on the Canadian economy revealed itself in a sharp uptick in job losses during January. From December 2020 to January 2021, nearly 213,000 jobs were lost with the unemployment rate increasing 0.6 percentage points to 9.4%.

Job losses were significantly greater for women compared to men and their unemployment rate was similarly higher (9.7% for women vs. 9.2% for men), reversing a well-established trend over the past decade when women tended to experience lower unemployment than men.

The federal government maintains special income assistance measures, including through various so-called “recovery benefits” as well as expanded unemployment insurance (called Employment Insurance, or EI, in Canada). Calls are growing for government to make special EI rules permanent, alongside other improvements. Updated mandates issued by the Prime Minister’s Office charge the federal employment minister to embark on a modernization of EI, a generational opportunity for change. The expansion of EI access rules, which have historically been restrictive and exclusionary, has disproportionately benefited women during the crisis, including those earning low wages.

Unifor’s Road Map for a Fair, Inclusive and Resilient Economic Recovery

In Canada, the federal government was quick to roll out supports for Canadians affected by the pandemic in the early days. While initial efforts in the form of income replacement, emergency benefits and wage subsidies were welcome, much of these efforts have been undermined by right-wing provincial governments who preferred to deny or delay the supports many Canadians needed at the time they needed it.

In fact, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report highlighting that “Canada has earmarked $374 billion between federal and provincial governments in direct COVID-19 emergency spending, but almost every province is sitting on unspent funds.” This has prompted many questions about the role provincial governments might have played in making life even more dangerous and difficult for Canadians across the country.

In June 2020, Unifor released a comprehensive document called Build Back Better: Unifor’s Road Map for a Fair, Inclusive and Resilient Economic Recovery. (The document, which was released before Joe Biden announced his recovery program of the same name, can be found online at buildbackbetter.unifor.org.)

The vision document aims to provide workers and activists with the blueprint to inspire the post-COVID era, while recognizing that the pandemic is not yet over, and that much work remains to be done to eliminate the virus. More than simply returning to what was, it is imperative that Canada redesign its economic programs, its social infrastructure and public services to build an inclusive, fairer and more resilient economy. Investing in workers’ shared prosperity, not in private profits, must be the government’s objective.

Unifor members and local unions are encouraged to apply the Build Back Better road map to fight for improvements, both within their workplace, and within wider society on five themes: income security, green jobs and decarbonization, critical infrastructure, rebuilding domestic industrial capacity and strong, enforceable conditions on corporate support packages.

Historic Bargaining in the Auto Sector

In the fall of 2020, Unifor set out to bargain major collective agreements with the country’s unionized automakers, namely Ford, FCA (now Stellantis) and General Motors. Through this historical and unique round of bargaining, Unifor secured nearly $6 billion in total investment commitments, adding approximately 4,000 direct jobs in Canada.

These agreements included a full conversion of the Ford Oakville plant into Battery-Electric Vehicle-only by 2026 and new BEV/Hybrid architecture in FCA Windsor by 2024. It also marked the return of truck assembly to GM’s Oshawa plant after a hard-fought campaign led by the union following an announced closure just two years prior. Additional EV investments in GM’s CAMI facility in Ingersoll, announced earlier this year, will bring electric commercial delivery van production to Canada for the first time.

With this round of bargaining under pandemic rules, Unifor signaled the launch of a new green auto strategy in Canada.

In addition to significant gains for members, Unifor also bargained a new workplace racial justice advocate, a position that will provide workers of color with direct union-side support in dealing with discrimination and racism at work. The bargained language also recognized March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, with a mandated one-minute moment of reflection and workplace awareness events organized on that day. Unifor is encouraging all local unions to put racial justice on the bargaining table.

The pandemic exposed the cracks in an already weakened safety net. As the one-year mark comes to a close, workers including Unifor members are taking part in the fight to improve basic standards for all workers.

Across jurisdictions, hundreds of thousands of workers earn less than $15 an hour. In fact, the Conservative government in Ontario marked its arrival to power in 2018 by clawing back two important workplace gains, among others: a $15 minimum wage and two legislated paid sick days for all. Those gains would have turned out to be very helpful in responding to a pandemic.

The pressure is mounting not only on the Ontario government to mandate permanent paid sick days, but for all provinces in Canada to recognize that employers don’t go the extra mile to provide workers with paid leave, and that ending the pandemic is dependent on people being able to stay home if they are sick. Unifor is calling for seven permanent paid sick days and 14 additional paid sick days in the case of a public health emergency.

The pandemic isn’t over, and the fight for workers rights continues north of the border.