International labour movement brings message of peace and solidarity to the Vatican
An international trade union meeting took place at the Vatican, Rome, in November upon the invitation of Pope Francis. In recent times the Pope has invited a number of civil society groups to the Vatican to consider their views on the current and worrying state of the world in terms of climate, inequality, work, care, peace and economic and social justice.
Over 200 union leaders from all continents attended the meeting which was convened under the theme “Labour and the workers’ movement at the core of integral sustainable and supportive human development - Why the labour world remains key to development in the global world”.
Ann Selin, President and General Secretary Philip Jennings led the UNI Global Union delegation to the meeting.
Ann Selin, who is president of UNI and of PAM, Finland’s Service Union United said, “In his work, the Pope has repeatedly spoken out on the importance of action to reduce poverty. Therefore, it is an honour to be able to discuss with the Vatican the practical ways to improve the conditions of work and workers’ rights around the world.”
The agenda for the two-day meeting reflected the importance of the world of work to human development. Panel sessions enabled union leaders from all parts of our international union structure, from the ITUC, its regions, ETUC, TUAC, Global Union Federations and national centers to make their case for peace, for a sustainable and humane world of solidarity.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, who is responsible for the humanitarian and sustainable development work of the Vatican, set the tone for the meeting with a critical analysis of the current state of world economic development.
His remarks reflected a preparatory document drawn up by the Vatican for the meeting and constituted a hard-hitting critique of a world driven by values that placed capital over people. The document argued strongly for inclusive growth and was critical of climate degradation, inequality, and called for a new paradigm for our times to protect our common home.
The report commented that the beginning of the 21st century was characterized by social fragmentation; inequality, and exclusion; the fourth industrial revolution; financialization of the economy; an increasing distance between the developed world and real situation at the fringes; a growth in violent conflicts; a conceptual and actual crisis in politics and forms of government in society.
The report recognized that there is a new awareness of the fragility of our planet and welcomed the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 which were supported in the Pope’s encyclical, the Laudato Si.
The Cardinal’s remarks draw attention to the fault lines in the global economy – “An awareness of the existence of discarded people coexists with naïve optimism in the trickle-down theory… misery with opulence, the arrogance of the market with the increasing inability of governments to impose regulations needed for the common good”. The Vatican sees that “the role of politics in society is blurred and states have lost their central role to corporations… with countries deprived of their capability to regulate economic processes in accordance with the common good.” Attention was drawn to technological change, delocalization, flexibilization of work, precarious employment, where workers increasingly stuggle just to make ends meet.
The Vatican observed, “We are moving from a welfare democracy towards a survival democracy.” They express alarm at the deterioration in the world of work, the impoverishment of the working poor without rights and for whom “work is no longer a guarantee of social integration”.
A new perspective is called for and the Vatican draws on its social teachings and previous encyclicals devoted to the world of work from the Rerum Novarum, Populorum Progressio and the Laudato Si of Pope Francis. The trade unions are seen as key actors to bring about inclusive growth.
“The unions are still valid and can help advance social inclusion and human development… transforming the conditions of injustice in which the vast majority of the world population live.” A repeated theme in the meeting and speeches was that we must fight once again for “the principle of the priority of labour over capital”. There was significant criticism of the ideology of neo-liberalism that falsely places “total confidence in the arithmetic functions of markets.”
In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis advocates a new dialogue about how we could shape the future of our planet with the “idea of the common good as the purpose of politics. The economy must be at the service of people, justice, and the defence of mother earth.”
“Human beings are the source of all economic and social life. The Pope underlined that “it is essential we prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone, no matter the limited interests of business and their dubious economic reasoning. Work is no longer acknowledged to be a source of social value generation or a remedy for injustice and exclusion. Its’ absolute commercialization leads to dehumanising replacements in the form of automization and robotization.
Remarks made during the conference, and in the reports presented, underlined the critical role that unions play and unions were encouraged to ‘restructure their present way of thinking, living and doing things’ but ‘not to retreat from defending human rights and dignity.’ To fight for jobs, a living wage, to provide freedom to unionise and organise for those ‘basic trade union freedoms that are the foundation of free, civil and democratic co-existence among human beings.’
Trade unions must be ‘beacons in defence of the old rights and at the same time a compass to identify new ones’, referencing the fourth industrial revolution and climate change. There is a call for unity, a push to ensure representation of new generations of working people to build a voice and dialogue with multinationals.
The Vatican is aware of the repression that unions face but we must not give into ‘discouragement, despondency or the abandonment of political positions’ wherever there is adversity ‘there must be more political action, more ideas and more enthusiasm to emerge from political situations.’
There was a rallying call to unions to formulate ‘new far reaching union strategies that are in line with the real feelings and needs of workers.,’ to be courageous for a more ‘just, collaborative and common world.’
Several union speakers drew upon the words of Pope Francis which he delivered the CISL Italian trade union confederation in June 2017.
In those remarks he called for a new human social pact, a new social pact for labour. For unions to contribute their essential role for the common good they had to face two epochal challenges.
The first is prophecy; unions are the prophets of society. ‘Unions are born and reborn each time that, like the Biblical prophets, they give the voice to those who have none, denounce those who would sell the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 2:6), unmask the powerful who trample the rights of the vulnerable workers, defend the cause of foreigners and the rejected.’ He called for unions to be innovative, to be sentinels not just for those ‘who don’t yet have rights, for those who excluded from work, rights and democracy.
There was a clear message to the globalised world of finance, multinationals, to capital: ‘The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of trade unions, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of business.’ He wants unions to fight harder for the rights of the ‘not yet’ among those rejected from work. To fight harder for young people, immigrants, the poor who are below the city walls, for women’s equality. If we do not do so then it is a corruption of our purpose. He says unions must go to the peripheries. There is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries – that does not transform the economy’s ‘rejected stones into its cornerstones.’
The Pope’s message was clear ‘there is no good society without a good union.’
In his lively remarks Stuart Appelbaum, representing the AFLCIO, speaking on the symbolism of the meeting said, “In order for the labour movement to achieve our objectives for working people, I have long believed that we must work closely with communities of faith and I believe that in order for the church to achieve the world it envisions, it should see the collective voice of working people as important.”
He welcomed Pope Francis’ call for a “new and universal solidarity” and called on unions to “fight for what we believe in at least as much, if not more, than we simply fight for what we are against.”
Ruben Cortina, UNI Americas President suggested that this global gathering should be repeated in the respective continents and nations.
Frances O’Grady General Secretary of TUC stated, “The Catholic Church and trade unions share a belief in the importance of social solidarity. Together we can achieve than we ever could alone.” The TUC marks its 150th anniversary in 2018. O’Grady hoped the Catholic Church would call on its own congregation to join a union and “encourage employers to do the right thing, morally and ethically, by recognising trade unions.”
UNI General Secretary Philip Jennings in his remarks said world values had strayed from a sense of the “common good” in the 1970s, captured by the Margaret Thatcher declaration that “there is no such thing as society.”
This sentiment had reverberated around the world, he said, and accelerated an unravelling that has left our social fabric threadbare. From that unwinding a thousand societal abuses flourished. The new paradigm should be founded in dignity, love and mutual respect, where we should assert our collective humanity, achieve world peace and protect our planet.
He emphasised “there can be no peace without justice and there can be no justice without peace.”
We must move from a culture of ‘greed is good’ to greed is dead.
Guy Ryder referred to the meaning that work gave to peoples lives and not just to pay conditions but also as the Philadelphia Declaration stated that all human beings have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development. It was for people to decide the direction of the technological revolution and not otherwise. The social teaching of the church had influenced the work of the ILO.
Luca Visentini, GS of ETUC referred to the challenges facing the global labour movement, saying “Neoliberal globalisation has failed. We need a fair and sustainable model, a just transition and decent work. The impact of precarious and unstable work and migration, where the EU approach has been shameful, has had a negative effect on society.”
Mary Kay Henry president of SEIU USA and Canada said the push of the unions for social justice was rooted in the belief that “when individuals join together, the impossible becomes possible.”
Unions had to organise on a global scale, link up with other social movements and all of this required we reach out to young people.
Hector Daez, President of the CGT Argentina, looked forward to further such meetings in the various regions and regretted that what had once been a region of hope had now caught the chill winds of neoliberal policies that are already turning back the clock on the social progress made during the last decade.
Patricia Kay, GS of Irish Trade Union Centre (ICTU), said inequality was at the heart of the upheaval facing people. Time was running out to deal with climate change. Ireland is top of the OECD low pay league table and the struggle to deal with it was handicapped by the absence of mandatory collective bargaining.
A rousing speech was delivered by the Reverend William Barber II, a prominent figure in the fight for jobs and justice in the USA. The call for solidarity had to take place on multiple fronts. Unions must reach out to the broader based social movements. His emotional words raged against the systematic racism in the USA which has manifested itself in voter suppression, poverty pay, little social mobility and poor access to labour rights. Systematic racism means systematic poverty. The time has come for a “poor peoples’ campaign” to shift the national and international narrative.
At the conclusion of the conference these points were repeated by Pope Francis in remarks read on his behalf by Cardinal Turkson. A declaration was also adopted and presented to the meeting by Sharan Burrow, GS of ITUC.
The declaration states that, ‘The current model of globalisation has failed working people: the conference reaffirms the right to decent work, fair labour standards, the strategic role of trade unions through social dialogue, collective bargaining and freedom of association.
It calls for precarious work to be eliminated, a just transition to face the fourth industrial revolution and climate change. The declaration appeals to the CEOs of multinationals to develop a fair market economy, to respect workers’ rights to organise, collectively bargain for fair wages and a fair work-life balance.
Additionally, the declaration called for strong public services, universal social protection care, and the elimination of tax evasion.
It ends with a commitment to peace in a world free from nuclear weapons and a rejection of the policy of extremism including xenophobia, racism and all forms of exclusions, if we are to adhere to the common good. There was a call to launch similar dialogues in local and regional meetings.