The events in Paris should provide a wake-up call to trade unionists everywhere: it is time to rediscover the unitary and non-discriminatory principles of the labour movement and so provide the impetus for truly democratic change.

Trade unions are the bulwark of democracy, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation told the recent UNI global union gathering in Cape Town. What she might, more accurately, have said, was that trade unions should be the bulwark of democracy.

Because, although the founding principles of the labour movement are liberty and equality on a global scale, in many areas the movement has become distorted, manipulated and otherwise corrupted, all too often infused with the poison of nationalism. The concept of an injury to one being an injury to all, of workers of all countries being united, is frequently lost in a regional, religious, ethnic or linguistic fog of patriotism, of my country/sect/faith/region right or wrong.

This has nothing to do with that basic tenet of the labour movement: that there is only one race, the human race and that all should have equal rights and the liberty to pursue them. But the idea of unity of the vast majority of humanity that, to one degree or other is exploited and oppressed, is anathema to those who benefit from a fundamentally corrupt and exploitative system.

As a result we have situations where differences in language, ethnicity and religion are used and abused by politicians on a local, regional or global scale. Trade unions — their leaderships in particular — all too often fall prey to the manipulation of such elites. And it is usually the same cynical politicians who use the resultant tension or violence as an excuse to erode the civil liberties that the labour movement has always fought for.

Here, hypocrisy is the name of the game — and it was glaringly obvious in the massive Je suis Charlie march through Paris last Sunday. Much was made of the fact that more than 40 “world leaders”, their arms linked, briefly led the march from the Place de la Republique to protest, primarily, the killing of 12 editorial staff at the magazine, Charlie Hebdo.

But in that line of leaders were many who are responsible for the creation and maintenance of terror whether it be by “shock and awe” bombing or tit for tat reprisals that create an environment that spawns barbaric actions and reactions. Among the European leaders were the likes of David Cameron of Britain whose government enjoys a profitable arms dealing relationship with the brutal tyranny in Saudi Arabia.

It was notable that none of the leaders who support this Saudi centre of Salafi religious nationalism that has spawned Al Qaeda and Sunni exceptionalism had anything to say about the persecution, including executions and floggings, of those who have dared exercise even mild freedom of speech in that country. It would also have been embarrassing for some of those leaders to be reminded that, since 2011, some among the 720 media workers who have been killed, died in their countries.

Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu was also prominent although his country — under a religious sensibility law —bans publications such as Charlie Hebdo. Turkish premier Ahmet Davutoglu was also there, without a mention that his country now holds the 2014 record for jailing more journalists than any other — and where trade unionists suffer repression.

And, in our globalised world, it is trade unions that comprise the largest organised grouping based, fundamentally, on unity without regard to gender, race, religion, language or geographic origin. As such, they are a threat to those who profit from division and exploitation. So they continue to be targets of bribery, coercion and manipulation.

However, the latest turmoil, highlighted by the events in Paris, should provide a wake-up call to unionists everywhere: it is time to rediscover the unitary and non-discriminatory principles of the labour movement and so provide the impetus for truly democratic change.

Of course, it may not happen. In which case we would all do well to heed the 1915 warning of Rosa Luxemburg: that, without radical change, the alternative is barbarism.


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Terry Bell

Cape Town, South Africa-based journalist commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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