Education International
Education International

Speech by Sharan Burrow, President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

published 22 July 2007 updated 22 July 2007

Below is the speech, in English, by Sharan Burrow, President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on the Opening Day of the 5th EI World Congress in Berlin.


Colleagues, friends, proud union members of EI – I am delighted to be amongst you again and honored to take part in the opening of the 2007 Congress.

Let me begin by acknowledging the indigenous peoples of our world, thank them for their custodianship of the lands they generously share with all of us along with the ancient and diverse cultures and languages that anchor our world. Let us reaffirm our commitment to continue to stand in partnership with our indigenous bothers and sisters against the injustice that remains for first nation peoples.

I am proud of the work of the EI in this regard and believe you have an international leadership role to play in this regard.

Let me also acknowledge your work – knowledge, care, creativity, personal growth and opportunity - the gateway for individuals to realize their aspiration, the foundation stone for peaceful, cohesive societies and the roadmap for sustainability; noble work indeed. Your workforce is increasingly multicultural and thus you are can demonstrate 21st century workplaces where racism and xenophobia have no place; workplaces where migrant rights are realized.

Is it then difficult to understand why so many of the world’s governments fail to respect and value this work when both individuals and communities owe you so much.

We watch world governments that have pledged commitment to education for all, have made a commitment to achieve the millennium goals, fail again and again to deliver the funding and the respect for teachers, academics and other education workers necessary to provide quality education.

We see governments turning their backs on their first responsibility for free public education – a proven base for both democracy and development. We share your frustration with teacher shortages that could be averted with investment in initial teacher education and respectful salaries and conditions to retain education workers.

We are concerned for the sustainability of our economies, of decent work as university and vocational education and training are increasingly impoverished and privatized despite resulting skills shortages and we stand with you in the fights for human and labor rights for teachers.

Contract work, casualisation, undermining professional qualifications, inadequate wages, professionally demeaning models of performance pay, attacks on academic freedom and school violence are just a few of the challenges that I know you face.

Unions worldwide value the work of EI and its affiliates. We watch and appreciate your efforts as you stand up for professionalism with pride, take practical responsibility in the fight against HIV/AIDS, fight for the elimination of the abhorrence of child labor, support teacher efforts often central to the struggles for peace and democracy in conflict countries and consider your role in the now very real fight for the survival of our planet as we face the challenge of climate change which relies not just on our advocacy but on the research and technological solutions that your members can and will provide.

Equally, we value your participation in the new ITUC and our shared ambitions not just for a new international but for a new internationalism. We are proud of the unification process that has seen the ICFTU and the WCL form our new organization; an organization that is stronger and more determined to take on global issues.

A significant, perhaps the most significant, development in this quest is the Global Council of Unions which will see both the GUFs and the ITUC meet as one to pit the might of the union family in unity against the key challenges to tackle the dark side of corporate globalization. We all owe a great debt to the tireless work of both Guy Ryder and Fred Van Leuuwin, supported by the retired secretary of the former WCL, Willy Thys. But today, Fred, it is your unique blend of tenacity and diplomacy that I wish to acknowledge and commend for the Global Council of Unions would still be a dream without your efforts. We - Guy and I - all of us applaud and thank you.

Now we have the challenge to make it all work.

The fight for independent trade unionism, for human and labor rights, for decent work, for gender equity and for public services everywhere requires us to act in unity as never before.

We are starkly reminded of the breadth of our work, here at this Congress. You will extend the hand of solidarity to teachers in conflict zones, in impoverished nations, in countries raped by HIV-AIDS and at the same time plan how to deepen the fight for the investment necessary in all nations for quality education.

I am also mindful of the solidarity necessary across the union movement from Columbia to Belarus to Burma to Ethiopia, the Middle East and many other states where trade unions are under threat. A stark example of your significance in the fight for independent trade unions is your courageous colleagues in IRAN, teachers standing up at great peril for the right to independent trade unions, standing up alongside other workers – in particular our brother Mansour Osanloo of the Iranian Bus Drivers who has been kidnapped . We recognize the courage and salute the solidarity of teachers demanding and defending rights and freedoms around the world.

Equally, we understand that it is our responsibility to stand with you in the fight for education for all. This underpins the heart of the new internationalism we must build. It requires unity and strong solidarity built on both union and political power. Union strength in our workplaces must extend to both union and political influence within and across nations.

Our house, the union house has a commitment to a shared humanity that demands peace, justice, equality and self-determination for all. It has withstood atrocities of all forms which have been visited on the lives and the livelihoods of its occupants; workers and their families. Equally it has seen the celebrations of great victories; liberation, emancipation, democracy, human and trade union rights, development and decent work; victories too numerous to detail but victories of or with organized labor that have shaped a better world.

But that progress is stalling and in many nations it is seriously under threat. The EI, amongst other union voices, has railed against the Washington Consensus because you knew it was wrong, you knew that there would be winners and losers and you knew that the demands for privatization would rob developing nations of independent pathways to development. Well, the good news is the Washington Consensus is dying if not dead, the bad news is that it has left an impoverished legacy.

As the global economy grows, we should have cause for celebration for the prosperity delivered for workers and their families all over the world but the reality is that corporate greed is driving profit share at the expense of wages, safe workplaces, conditions and entitlements for workers and denying governments the necessary taxes for public services such as health and education.

With more than 2 billion living on less that $2 US a day, 187m unemployed, 80 million of them young people and around 2.2 million dying at or from work every year, the scourge of child and forced labor growing in some nations, and almost 25%, a quarter of the world’s labor force under stress because they cannot earn enough to live with dignity and security, the corporate world is not contributing to the growth that we care about – decent work everywhere.

This approach, the leave-it-to-the-market or trickle-down theory has delivered a world that in spite of massive growth now has more people unemployed, experiences increased unrest and is a world in which there is substantial marginalization amongst local communities, greater numbers of economic migrants and growing economic inequity both within and across nations.

Even major advocates of this approach as a development framework accept that a blind faith in privatization, trade liberalization and globalization with the attendant demands of small government and deregulation has had unacceptable consequences and that the social dimensions of globalization require urgent attention.

As a basis for trade with the imbalance of power between nations, this framework enhanced by consequent self-interest and the moral bankruptcy of a global economy without a commitment to human rights, labour rights and the environment has worked to perpetuate a culture of corporate greed which does not serve the interest of working people.

Capital has a global reach but without global rules. Without a global governance architecture that protects the rights of workers and their communities the corporate law of the jungle grows and so does the dislocation of jobs and the consequent divide between the rich and the poor within and across countries. This requires both union and political action from us. Unions have been instrumental to the fight to achieve legal entitlements, to organize and bargain for the re-distribution of wealth nationally and we now need to do it globally. Equally we must fight for the social wage commitments of quality education, healthcare and housing. Public services are as important today as they have ever been.

This requires that we recognize that while the priorities for global justice are established by all of us responding to our own environments, where we act together and succeed with those of just one affiliate, one GUF or indeed the new international, we succeed for all of us

Every victory will assist us to build the twin ambitions of union and political power.

Free and independent trade unions, organized and organizing, to shape a fair globalization; that is our mission.

For we must tackle a global jobs crisis, underemployment and poverty in the developing world, aging populations and shrinking workforces in the developed world, the entrenched inequity of women’s participation, pay inequity and retirement incomes, the global shift in the location of both manufacturing and service jobs, the shifts in rural populations and the development of mega-cities, migration, increasing inequity of wealth within and across countries; these are massive challenges and governments can no longer segregate their global expectations into silos of trade, aid, rights and the environment.

The frustration of marginalised workers is already spilling over into civil unrest in many countries.

The Washington Consensus must be buried, and a new model established.

There is some optimism in the following developments:

1. Recognising these realities, in a remarkable act of leadership in November 2005, the United Nations endorsed the proposition that fair globalization equals full employment and ‘decent work’. The subsequent ECOSOC meeting in June last year puts decent work, work where rights are respected, at the heart of this new model. It also recognizes that the ILO is a lead UN agency in this quest. That ensures that we can be both at the global table of realizing these ambitions and through our organizing capacity driving it within our own nations.

2. The World Bank’s IFC has adopted core labour standards as part of the conditionality for loans and,

3. There is emerging recognition within OECD nations that wages are stagnating or declining against profit share and the consequent threat of political unrest from politically influential middle income earners is a significant challenge for national political leaders, and

4. Following the collapse of the trade talks on the DOHA Round, the voice of Pascal Lamy who says “there is a time for reflection now and we call upon governments to get back to the drawing board and get serious about setting up trade rules that put decent work at the heart of the system”.

Then there is the conversation being led by the WB’s chief economist who is talking about “good jobs” and “bad jobs” and poses the question as to whether the capacity to measure such requires a minimum wage.

Decent work, fair trade, full employment, minimum wages and social protection, fair globalization. Now there is a world we can embrace.

In the face of this global jobs crisis, unequal development and escalating economic migration, the debate must now be how best to provide employment and decent work opportunities. We must be determined and equipped to play in this debate for a decent job is the fastest way out of poverty and sustainable employment is the only route to development. Education for all to the highest possible standard sits at the heart of this and makes the work of the EI central to our aspirations for a just globalization.

The consequences of not meeting this challenge are twofold:

A threat to growth and sustainability of domestic markets if the world has hundreds of millions of producers who are not able to access even small amounts of discretionary income for necessary consumption for survival; and,

The social threat of having 25% of the world’s labour force either excluded or deeply frustrated by inequity is a time bomb in global security terms with a whole other level of threat to a sustainable global economy.

As the director General of the ILO says, “if we continue along the present path, the world risks becoming more fragmented, protectionist and confrontational”

We can only influence a better future if we are united and committed to action. Increasingly our fate is interdependent and the challenge to shape a new globalization requires us to realize a capacity for doing the things we do nationally, internationally. The link between national and international work is now much more than a rhetorical sense of solidarity. It is our reality and we must give practical effect to it.

Labor is not a commodity. That is the principle on which we have founded almost a century of struggle for human and labor rights. This is the principle that has demanded that we fight for freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively for a fair share of the wealth created by our labor; it has underpinned a sustained and continuing fight against the enslavement of forced and child labor and driven our demands for safe workplaces. This principle has shaped the work of labor inspectorates, the judgments of labor courts and the reform of labor laws.

Laid down in the Philadelphia Declaration and set out in the constitution of the ILO, this principle has been a touchstone of our work yet the new face, the intolerable greed, of corporate globalization right here, right now, threatens its very core.

In the private sector to bargain with a MNE in one country must be to bargain with that company everywhere. That requires organizing within and across borders, it requires union recognition rights, built on the foundation of global framework agreements and bargaining on a global scale. This is where solidarity becomes self interest. All employees of a MNE, irrespective of global location, must have the confidence of our shared values, our capacity to mobilize and the effective solidarity of response from our own global architecture.

But union action must work for union members across the board and our strength must also hold politicians accountable for the rights that their citizens are entitled to. Governments who fail to stand up for workers rights and moderate corporate behaviour, who fail to provide a rights framework for bargaining with their own public sector employees, don’t deserve the votes of working people.

Likewise, governments who turn their backs on public services, central to the dignity, respect and human rights of all peoples must be challenged politically and we must have the strength to do so.

We cannot indulge in isolationism. A new international alone without unity of purpose will not win the day - whether it is a campaign for labor laws in specific countries, public services, bargaining with a multinational company, our ambitions for reform of the UN structures or other issues of social justice. We know that unity is strength – the challenge is ours!

Union strength must mean political strength as well as industrial strength.

Our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and the Call to Action Against Poverty is simply the beginning. We must build alliances with appropriate NGOs but we need to recognize that at the heart of these efforts is the very serious drive for political influence – setting the political agenda and holding governments to account.

With a few exceptions, the governments of the world have moved to the right, are easily seduced by corporate board rooms, are intimidated by the dominant financial policies of the WB, the IMF and the OECD and, where they are not leading it, are timid in opposition to the rise in social division, racism and xenophobia. Only when unions and civil society stand together against the might of the corporate world and in defense of good political leaders will we send the pendulum back the other way.

I am optimistic even as I recognize the often overwhelming challenge of the struggle ahead of us, not the least of which is central to the very heart of my own country right now. Our political campaign for rights at work along with issues of public health, public education and affordable housing must see a conservative government off if we are to take back a decent Australia; an Australia where working people and their families are again respected; a nation we can hand on to our children and grandchildren.

Political power is essential if we are to achieve our ambitions. We want a global political force able to be mobilized. Imagine that world where there is a job for everyone, where our children live in peace and go to school, where HIV/AIDS is defeated, where women have genuine equality: these ambitions and others are not dreams for us, they are key objectives and require us to take political action.

The challenge for us is to be able to mobilize on a scale that can both influence the ballot box and then hold governments to account as we drive a consciousness that democracy extends beyond polling day.

Human rights, workers rights, quality education and social justice –EI is and will always be at the heart of this struggle

Let me conclude by returning to the question of governments – too many of them who disrespect and/or seek to devalue the work of educators. They cannot defeat you for you share a set of values that are too powerful, values that are essential for a just world. This means that you are both at the forefront of advocacy for the rights of the child, human rights, peace and democracy and equally the last line of defense – the bulwark – against those who would seek to make incursions into the very rights and freedoms central to your values.

Knowledge is power, your collective knowledge and shared values woven with solidarity will continue to be a force to be reckoned with and I am proud to be one of you.