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A friend of Africa

My colleague Joe sent me a message last Friday which really pleased me. He heads our African team. He asked me if I could train our affiliates in his region so that they will become international campaigners like me. Hey, that made me smile after a hectic week.

I have been conscious from the very beginning of my work here that what we do won’t end-up as talking shops. How can we make our unions stronger practically? I have also followed my chief’s motto “to respond to the needs of our affiliated unions – old and new, big and small – in all regions”. (See p20)

One answer I found was the organisation of our Action Day campaigns. We choose a theme like “Fatigue Kills” or “Safety First” as our common denominator which brings together the vast majority of our affiliates onto the same platform and on a chosen day of the year they will all take actions. Surely the different laws and customs mean what each union will do on that day are different. But through centralised coordination at our end and simultaneous provision of information, we make the worldwide events as visible as possible.

It is true that unions from the developing countries may come to our meetings and ask for more assistance, irrespective of the agenda (it is equally true that some unions in the industrialised countries are only concerned with their own topics like digital tachograph and don’t care much about workers’ global solidarity). We confronted those people all the time but I have always been blunt in my reply that “we are not a charity organisation”.

But then, when we discuss the planning of the Action Day in those meetings, the very same people who were asking for more computers or printers really change their attitude. They realise that we are dealing with issues pertinent to their rank and file members and that many countries share common problems like transport deregulation. I would say that 70% of those plans that these participants agree to organise at our meetings are actually implemented on the Action Day. Better still, many materials like banners and T-shirts are paid and produced by these unions locally. I even go onto say that some of the actions by our unions in the developing countries have been far more powerful than what you see in the industrialised countries.

Still, action days alone will not make our unions strong. We need to weave them with our education activities and day-to-day contact from our regional people like Joe is very important. And there are firm outcomes and achievements that quite a number of unions have gained. Read my chapter in the book Global Restructuring, Labour and the challenges for Transnational Solidarity (Routhledge 2010) for more details.

One big bi-product from our successful campaigning method is that our affiliates became so familiar with this type of action day mobilisation that we have been able to protest against oppression to trade unionists in Iran or in solidarity with Turkish workers quite spontaneously. Our latest Action Day for dismissed UPS workers in Turkey was put together in less than two weeks. There are many labour issues in Turkey which involve multinationals but no other global unions has organised a worldwide day of protest like we did on 1 September last year and successfully.

I was very happy with what Joe told to me, partly because I have not been to Africa as much as I used to. I spent many weeks and visited lots of countries over these years. There are so many difficulties, not just for the unions but the society in general. But every time I visit Africa, from your plane’s window, looking onto that huge continent, you feel so much potentials. And the people are always friendly and optimistic.

I must also disclose one episode with Joe’s predecessor, Ben. We worked together for almost ten years before his retirement. Once, there was a very tense meeting with which he and I made sure that all will end well and it did. He threw a cocktail reception that night and made a speech, which was not so typical of him. And he said that I am a “friend of Africa”. Why? Because, he said, he dealt with so many visitors who quietly said “oh by the way, I got an extra day that I want to use to see Africa privately. What can you show me?”. He said in his speech that his reply was “shall I show you our poverty?” and went onto say that I have never troubled him like that.

People are watching you. That’s for sure.

At the end of the day, as my chief stressed, I have been trying to work our way through with everyone, old and new, big and small, in all regions. When I tell-off some people that we are not a charity organisation, how can I be a trade union tourist?

I wish to stress that our work may not always have an instant outcome. Things we do may take time to develop. Patience is needed. That is why I am so pleased to find out that our Action Day campaigns have found their roots in Africa and we are now in the new phase to re-strengthen our work. Your friend of Africa will always be at your disposal!