International Union Rights - Latest Issue

Latest International Union Rights Focuses on the Americas

Deputy Editor Steve Gibbons introduces the latest edition of the Journal of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights:

It is without doubt that the American continent contains extreme wealth and opportunity. Many workers, particularly in North America, have enjoyed unparalleled growth and prosperity throughout the second half of the 20th century. However, for many throughout the Americas the situation looks as precarious as it did to so many new European immigrants arriving to work, whether it be in Boston or Buenos Aires, at the start of the 20th century. What ís more, in various countries throughout the Americas, workers and the trade union organisations face the same type of violence and extreme hostility that was around at the beginning of the last century. All of this can be set out in the context of pressures for free trade agreements that, if we are not careful, will only further undermine workers’ rights.

The theme of this edition of International Union Rights is a broad one. We look at a range of issues relating to labour rights in North, South and Central America and we also cast an eye to the Caribbean. A number of common themes run through our contributions. One is the immensely powerful and potentially destructive role the United States government and US multinationals can play in relation to international labour rights. While the Clinton administration did make some positive contributions to the development of international labour rights – financially increasing its contributions to the ILO, supporting calls for the conditioning of international trade by reference to international labour standards, and going some way to provide at least some government acknowledgement of the burgeoning anti-sweatshop movement, it should be remembered that the Clinton administration failed to force through a number of measures in Congress such as the ratification of the two most important ILO conventions – 87 and 98 – and failed in many other areas. By contrast there can be no doubt that those who strive for the implementation of international labour rights should expect very little from the Bush administration. As the AFL-CIO’s Barbara Shailor forcefully points out, the early signs from the Bush administration are not encouraging for trade unions, workers and the poor.

One facet of American hemispheric policy that the Bush administration inherited from its predecessor is Plan Colombia. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this heavily-criticised interventionist US policy, one thing is for certain – the situation for trade unionists in Colombia is dire. Words alone cannot express the perils of being a Colombian trade union or human rights activist. As we went to press with this edition, the number of trade unionists assassinated in 2001 had already reached 48. We must all wake up to the reality of what is happening in Colombia – and the sooner the better. ICTUR supports the international trade union campaign for an ILO Commission of Inquiry into Colombia, but we must also seek to build support mechanisms through the trade union movement to publicise the abuses that take place and provide some support for our Colombian brothers and sisters.

The upside of all this are the examples of immense courage and ingenuity that we see throughout the Americas in the face of these challenges, some of which we can read about in this journal. David Bacon’s photos and writing – like Ken Loach’s new film – bring home both the difficulties of being a Latino worker in California and on the Mexican border, but also show us the power that workers, unions and communities can exercise if they stand firm together. The struggle of the Chentex workers in Nicaragua further illustrates this for us. Finally, we must salute the courage of trade union leaders like Costa Rican Gilberth Bermudez and Colombian Jesus Gonzalez – both profiled in this edition. Their strength and vision shows a way forward and puts one in mind of the Bertolt Brecht poem, more famous in Spanish than English, that concludes – Pero hay los que luchan toda la vida: esos son los imprescindibles. (But there are those who struggle all their lives: these are the indispensable ones)

Subscriptions to International Union Rights are UK£15 or US$40; Cheques should be made payable to 'IUR’ and sent to International Head Office, UCATT House, 177 Abbeville Road, London SW4 9RL, England. Email:

Web Site:  The website contains the contents list from the current edition as well as a selection of articles from back issues.