UE’s Eastern Region VP Joins Labor Against War Delegation to Korea

“South Koreans don’t want [U.S.] missiles there, they don’t want any of that. They want unification,” reports Eastern Region Vice President Darrion Smith, who represented UE on a US Labor Against the War (USLAW) delegation to Korea at the beginning of May.

Smith and the USLAW delegation arrived in Korea on the heels of the “Panmunjom Declaration” between North and South Korea at the end of April. The two countries agreed to a goal of formally ending the Korean War with a peace treaty by the end of this year, immediately ending all hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, and complete denuclearization of the peninsula. The Declaration was made possible in large part because the labor and social movements in South Korea forced out a corrupt president in the “candlelight revolution,” paving the way for current president Moon Jae-in, a supporter of peace. UE welcomed this move towards peace.

They arrived in time for May Day demonstrations, which were “like something I had never seen before,” said Smith. “Workers from all sections of labor came together and celebrated workers’ rights, struggles, and victories. All workers mourned the loss of fellow workers, and also celebrated victories from the #metoo movement in Korea and the world.”

The USLAW delegation was hosted by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which represents close to a million workers across all sectors of the economy. They were there to learn from the KCTU members about the conditions for workplace organizing and also how warmongering affects the lives of average people.

At the demilitarized zone that directly separates North and South Korea, Smith met a 70-year-old woman who had been separated from her family in the North since she was four years old. She shared her sadness at not being able to return home to care for and then bury her parents. “It was so devastating [for her],” said Smith.

He also learned about the community organizing that the KCTU is a partner in. The village of Sosengri is the site of US construction of a launch pad for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program. Many of the villagers have led protests against this construction, including laying their bodies in the streets to prevent equipment from being moved into the area. Smith was impressed by the resistance these villagers displayed to prevent war from encroaching in their community.

“They are like, ‘Get the US out of the way because that would be better for the [peace] talks,’” Smith said. The people he met with told him the U.S. is in the way of reaching peace on the peninsula.

“They really don’t trust Americans,” he said, but that once people learned about UE’s proud tradition of having independent foreign-policy ideas based on international worker solidarity, it opened the door more more dialog.

South Korea is a “very capitalist” society, Smith reported, dominated by big corporations like Samsung. He was impressed with the way that the KCTU organizes even in the face of repression, including beatings, being jailed and threats to their families. “They have to be very militant,” he said. “They’ll strike in a heartbeat.”

Not long after the group’s return to the US, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced he would free the imprisoned former KCTU President Han Sang Gyun. This had been among the demands of the delegation, and of many international unions, because President Han was wrongfully jailed for leading protests by workers against the corrupt former Korean President Park Geun-Hye. UE General President Peter Knowlton sent a greeting of warm welcome to President Han upon his release in late May.

UE Helps Mexican Workers Defeat Attack on Labor Rights

Update, August 2018: This legislation did not pass out of the Mexican Senate before their session ended, and the results of the Mexican elections on July 1st mean that it is unlikely to see daylight again.

In December and January, more than 1000 supporters signed on to a UE petition opposing attacks on workers’ rights in Mexico. The petition, addressed to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, demands that he prevent an agreement on a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while horrendous labor legislation is pending in Mexico.

In December, two Mexican legislators submitted proposals for reform of Mexico’s labor law which would make it easier to subcontract work and to fire workers without even putting the termination in writing. What makes this proposal even more outrageous is that it was submitted by leaders of so-called unions, Senators Isaias Gonzalez Cuevas of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farm Workers (CROC) and Tereso Medina Ramirez of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

Our allies in Mexico called for support from workers and unions everywhere to help them stop this legislation that will only benefit corporations, not working people. The independent, democratic unions of Mexico fear for their very survival if this legislation is not curtailed.

In 2017, positive reforms to Mexican labor law went into effect. These changes made it much more difficult for companies and corrupt unions to enter into so-called “protection contracts,” in which these parties signed contracts without the involvement of any of the workers covered by the agreement. (These contracts protect the companies, not workers.) In some cases, companies entered into these contracts before they had even hired workers. The new reforms said that workers must have the opportunity to vote on contract agreements by secret ballot, and they must be able to access a copy of their contract.

The new law proposed by these senators would undo this, and more. Changes to the the rights of workers in Mexico have a ripple effect in the North American economy. When it’s easier for corporations to exploit Mexican workers, greedy bosses have incentive to move jobs from the U.S. and Canada into Mexico. All workers suffer under such a rigged system.

UE sent out a message to our supporters and received back more than 1000 signatures on our petition to Lighthizer. We are not alone in mobilizing against this law. Over 180 members of congress sent a letter to Lighthizer decrying this legislation and its potential impacts on workers in both Mexico and the U.S. It read in part, “While many of us have ongoing concerns over additional provisions of NAFTA affecting labor, we felt it was important to highlight with a unified voice the primary source of significant outsourcing: Mexico’s low wages and lack of labor rights.”

In addition, the AFL-CIO and the UNT (the largest organization of independent unions in Mexico, which includes our partners at the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo) filed a formal complaint through the office that enforces the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), NAFTA’s labor side agreement. Their complaint alleges that this legislation violates NAALC.

UE Helps Set Up Global GE Trade Union Network

On November 29 and 30, UE Director of Organization Gene Elk and Local 506 President Scott Slawson traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to participate in a preparatory meeting to set up a General Electric Trade Union Network, the first international network of unions representing GE workers from around the world.

The participants in the meeting came from eighteen unions from eleven countries, including Unifor, UE’s partner union in Canada, and close UE allies CGT (France) and FIOM (Italy). One of the FIOM representatives at the meeting, Daniela Calosi, addressed the 75th UE Convention in Pittsburgh this past August.

The GE union members updated each other on the company’s behavior in the various countries. Slawson reported on GE’s intention to transfer work away from the Erie plant, and Local 506’s determination to fight it. “One thing that really encouraged me to believe this was both a powerful and genuine pact was each country learning from the others how similar the story is with a global giant like GE,” said Slawson. “No matter where you go the story was virtually the same.”

Participants at the meeting adopted a statement, which reads in part:

General Electric management disrespects the long-term commitments made with employees and communities where it operates but instead engages investors who only look for short-term benefits. Management has even intensified its attacks on … the right to engage in collective bargaining.

The goals of the trade union network include:

  • Developing cross-border union cooperation and solidarity to achieve fair and just working conditions for all workers.
  • Making workers’ voices heard in General Electric at a global and regional level.
  • Protecting and promoting sustainable jobs, social and economic justice, limiting precarious work and promoting the principles of Just Transition.

“We’ve taken the first step towards setting up a world-wide network of GE unions to make sure the company behaves itself internationally,” said Elk, “and we look forward to establishing this network at a follow-up meeting next year.”

“I am very excited about the possibilities the future holds with the formation of the GE Trade Union Network,” Slawson concludes. “I really look forward to working with our brothers and sisters from around the world. We are building some powerful relationships and some valuable allies. Together we will succeed in making a better world for all.”

The follow-up meeting is tentatively scheduled to be held next May in Toronto, hosted by UE partner Unifor.

UE Leaders Meet with Canadian, Mexican Unions to Build Continental Solidarity

On September 13 and 14, 2017, UE and Unifor representatives participated in a series of meetings in Mexico City to facilitate continent-wide labor solidarity. UE was represented by General President Peter Knowlton and Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson, and the Unifor delegation consisted of Secretary General Bob Orr and Director of Human Rights and International Department Mohamad Alsadi.

The UE and Unifor leaders met with the UNT, a federation of independent unions in Mexico, during the UNT’s weekly meeting.

Later that day, the group took part in a meeting discussing strategic trinational solidarity, which included many members of the UNT and the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). The conversation centered around NAFTA negotiations, but also covered other possible projects to raise working standards in all three countries. Raising wages for workers in Mexico is a top priority for all the parties.

The following day, the US and Canadian unionists spent time with the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT-Authentic Workers Front) at their offices. FAT leaders shared a report about the educational work they are doing for both their members and their surrounding communities on gender equity, ethics pertaining to human rights, and developing technological skills. Participants in FAT workshops learn not only the content but also how to share the information with coworkers and family members after they return home.

President Knowlton remarked, “These exchanges deepen our understanding of the challenges faced by the independent democratic union movement, especially in Mexico, and we should be optimistic about the movement’s future. Strengthening our cross-border work and supporting each other allows us to better defend and improve the conditions of all workers across the continent — and defeat the divisiveness of corporate assaults on our living standards, like NAFTA.”