The Climate Challenge The Political Challenge Bala Tampoe of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union of Sri Lanka and Dan Gallin of the Global Labour Institute in Geneva talk about the challenges facing the movement. GLI ISS 2013: …

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The Climate Challenge

The Political Challenge

Bala Tampoe of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union of Sri Lanka and Dan Gallin of the Global Labour Institute in Geneva talk about the challenges facing the movement.

GLI ISS 2013: The Political Challenge for the International Trade Union Organisations

– Transcript by Josiah Mortimer

Bala Tampoe (Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU), Sri Lanka) and Dan Gallin (Global Labour Institute, Geneva)

Dan Gallin introduced Bala Tampoe. Though the emphasis on the summer school is youth, Gallin and Tampoe are 173 years old combined, and thus have an incredible amount of experience and knowledge to offer, particularly having worked together while Gallin was General Secretary of the International Union of Food-workers (IUF). Tampoe is the longest serving union General Secretary in world.

Bala Tampoe

Bala has had 65 years in office as General Secretary of his union, and his activism goes back to joining an underground party banned by the British during WWII. His experience of politics goes back to 1942, giving him the privilege of travelling every country in South and South East Asia except Nepal, and much of the world.

Bala addressed blacks in Harlem at height of Vietnam war speaking against it, and spoke at Harvard University on the issue in a seminar organised by Kissinger. There, Bala simply stated that ‘if I were in US today, I would be fighting arms in hand to drive the US out of Vietnam’. Kissinger later called him and said ‘you have upset the natives’ – the US army in Vietnam – as well as his housewife who to Kissinger’s dismay started asking questions about Vietnam.

On the issue of the international trade unions, Bala believes the international trade union organisations cannot be called a movement. Instead we have the ITUC, a confederation the CMU never signed up to. In Sri Lanka, ‘we regarded all Western trade unions as collaborating with Anglo-American imperialism’, though the attitude has shifted.

The key question is this: ‘What is the social challenge to international trade union organisations?’ We face essentially a social challenge which goes down to the fundamental question of human survival – climate change. It is a global challenge stemming from the methods of production dominant in the world – the capitalist system. But the people who run this system and who dominate do not consider climate change a danger to their system.

In the US, there was the issue of black liberation. This affects the US today, and many countries across the world including Sri Lanka. ‘We had a 30 year civil war, ending in complete military defeat and destruction’. Bala comes from a law background, and during the civil war defended a Catholic priest charged with aiding the laundering of funds. With this experience, ‘I describe myself no longer as just as a Marxist, or Trotskyist – but a humanist. We must address our fellow human beings as human beings’.

Bala points to his union’s experience of this when struggling to prevent two American transnationals setting foot in Sri Lanka for phosphate deposits. The companies wanted to seize the resources and put them to the world market. In response, a Buddhist priest in the area organised a defence of the deposits. He was a peasant in a rural area – but he mobilised a movement to come to Colombo to seek the assistance of union leaders like Bala after police repression, asking for the support of the working class. Bala asked him to address the CMU’s general council. He spoke, and the committee said ‘we didn’t realise people like this exist in our country. Yet we had common interests as workers and peasants. But this kind of man was rarely heard in our country’. Bala’s union held a large demonstration, a half-day general strike – and the campaign was won. The government cancelled the project, and the deposit remains in public hands for use over the next 200 years. This is real solidarity – a word often used in our movement. Solidarity is not just sending emails!

Bala once asked Jack Ryder, the director general of the ILO what the main themes of the last ILO conference were. He said job creation and decent work. ‘Yet these are just slogans’. The trade union movement can demand job creation while staying under the same capitalist system – a system which depends on the destruction of jobs. For example, a food company in Sri Lanka where CMU members organise wanted to ‘downsize’ – to shift to a factory of 15 workers – from one of over 200 workers.

The CMU fought for the Termination of Employment of Workers Act in the 1970s after 70 strikes of one month’s duration over the course of a year. The PM questioned why the strikes were happening – and Bala highlighted employers laying off thousands with no notice or recall, outlining the need for a law demanding companies hold inquiries before laying off workers. He agreed, and asked Bala to draft a law, a law which was later passed.

Bala ended on a light note, highlighting his hatred for Human Resources departments! CSR departments present their factories as fantastic, despite often disturbing conditions. One factory owner recently said ‘we have never had to deal with a genuinely independent union until we met yours!’ – a fine tribute.

Dan Gallin

The general picture emerging is that we are dealing with highly fragmented movement – in terms of organisation and perception of society. At the same time, we face an onslaught of capital with a common narrative of society, while our movement has lost a common narrative.

We have the fragmentation of perception, partly due to success of movement! The international union movement is for the first time truly worldwide, covering a great range of societies and cultures than any time in history. This means it is affected by this greater diversity of cultures. At same time, the main union organisations have become largely depoliticised, partly due to long series of events and defeats after WWII, with unions increasingly dependent on the state. Unions became focused on collective bargaining and leaving society to the state.

The merger of organisations leading to the ITUC was that of the lowest common denominator. The ITUC is thus adrift without any recognisable politics, depriving the world’s workers of common narrative about society – what it is, how to change it – a democratic socialist narrative. Such an ideology survives only in a few union federations now. This is critical problem which weakens international class consciousness and abandons class consciousness to wildly different notions of society.

The ETUC is politically and financially dependent on the EU, and as such is a Eurocentric body which clings to idea of social partnership. In the Southern hemisphere, Latin American unions are understandably sensitive to the dangers of US imperialism – yet they are far less concerned about the dangers of the politics of Stalinism and the USSR. This applies equally to South African unions, whose remoteness from really existing Stalinism has enabled the World Federation of Trade Unions to acquire an undeserved credibility. Stalinism seems attractive option to them, being seven thousand miles away from Russia.

The unions currently in the former Soviet bloc were suppressed for decades. However, they have no ideology, focusing instead on simply repudiating the ‘socialism’ of USSR as socialism in general. This is the ideology of the rulers and police state. Some unions have adopted neoliberalism, while others have been attracted to revolutionary syndicalism. Solidarity in Poland was high-jacked by Catholic conservatives, inviting Margaret Thatcher to its congress. In China, the union structure is based on Soviet model, while its government has adopted capitalism. Yet as the ITUC cosies up to Chinese ‘unions’, workers are fighting back at the grassroots. We must decide: which side are we on?

The trade union movement as it is has to be our point of departure. We must recover the movement to a movement of our class, with a politics of our class. And there is a need to recover a common narrative about our history and society. ‘We must rise above our own experience, opening up to the experiences of others’, rebuilding the movement from below and remembering that we are a part of world working class.

Socialism remains our goal. But its meaning must be radical democracy – real power exercised by real people at every level: no vanguard parties, and no ‘progressive’ autocrats. We cannot delegate the task of emancipation to anyone else. We are part of society, not independent of it or a ‘special interest’ group as our enemies say. And we must remember there are social groups not directly linked with labour who are or should be our allies – because we are not strong enough alone. Instead we must build world-wide political coalitions to liberate us from capitalism. Movements like garment workers unions in Asia, WIEGO, the human rights movement and so on are allies and inspirations.

Global Labour Institutes have created free space for discussion, a space which is expanding. Use it, and keep using it. The GLI has no bureaucratic structures – we are trade union activists working together and with others in common cause to build world trade union movement that workers need and deserve.


We have lost a universal narrative in our movement. There are tendencies now to look for a new narrative. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about Soviet societies which we must challenge.

Khalid Mahmood from the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan highlighted the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan, alongside a fragmentation of social movements. There’s no union movement in Pakistan basically – so how do we go forward? Our terminology is also important – if we say comrade to each other, it is seen as typically considered traitorous in Pakistan. We must try to continue building for the working class without necessarily using old terminology.

Edd Mustill (LabourStart) highlighted a contradiction, in agreeing with the central point of putting class-based socialism back into labour movement, while at the same time we’re also talking about alliances with non-union social movements. How do we reconcile the two? How do we be socialist but also able to appeal to non-socialist allies?

One participant noted that movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy have a lot of movement but not much by organisational structures. Conversely, unions today have too much organisational structure and too little movement behind them! How can unions relate better to these social movements?

Cedric Gina (NUMSA, South Africa) asked how to form broad coalitions, and what experiences can we use. On the issue of Soviet politics, we must be careful of saying it was due to ignorance of the South African working class about the impact of the Soviet Union that led to growing union links in the country with the World Federation of Trade Unions. They are moving towards it due to need for need for unity – attempting to join all the union confederations.

Dan Gallin responded by emphasising that though not ignorant, the South African working class during Apartheid was shielded from knowledge about true nature of Stalinism through censorship of all left-wing material under the regime, meaning the USSR was the only visible example of an alternative.

Bala Tampoe, responding to Khalid, said the question to be considered is that of culture. The Pakistan union movement is indeed a mere collection of unions – when he visited, most of the union leaders were old, bearded and many were Muslim fundamentalists. Yet the CMU has members speaking 3 languages, made up of Buddhists, Hindus, Catholic, Muslims, Christian and so on. Over 90% of my members are Buddhists – but they are also workers! Marx and Engels didn’t give proper thought to human cultures and different kinds of people. Buddha said: may all beings be without suffering, and may all beings be happy. However, we must recognise that many workers are selfish, with narrow interests, and we have to overcome that. Challenging my union’s representatives, Bala asked ‘do you have casual workers? They said yes. I said, are they in the union? And they said no, they are casual!’ We need to overcome this thinking, because though you may have reached higher ground, workers are still stuck in the mud. Give them a hand and get them on to the ground. In Sri Lanka, Bala introduces workers’ unity in terms of Buddhist culture.

Trotsky, in Problems of Life, pointed out that we think in language. Clear and precise language is a requisite of clear and precise thinking. Interest workers in their own language and culture and you will connect. So it is key to try to understand the culture and the language of those you represent.

Dan Gallin noted that though we don’t need to use sectarian language, but we mustn’t use language of the enemy. A whole new industrial relations terminology has emerged from the EU – and we shouldn’t adopt it. The language of social partnership is dangerous and fundamentally that of the enemy. On the issue of working with non-socialist social movements – Gallin said he has less a problem working with non-socialist social movements than non-socialist socialist parties! How movements originate doesn’t determine our relationship with them. Instead, we make alliances based on objectives. Who knows what will happen with the Spanish Indignados, with Occupy, the Arab Spring and so on. They are mass movements, not conspiracies. 14m took to the streets of Egypt in recent weeks. The point is this: they include millions of workers, so we need to relate to them.

Regarding the terminology of movements and organisations – our international organisations are composed of workers who are themselves a movement, even if the organisations aren’t. Despite this, we shouldn’t get hung up on the terminology.

Finally, radical democracy must be emphasised at all points, even if there are few examples of it. Our guides should be the early stages of the Russian Revolution, Catalonia in May 1936, self-managed factories in Greece and elsewhere, and political democracy.

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