Learning from the South

Article excerpt

I wandered into Mercado Latino in Ottawa's Byward Market the other day looking for some tortillas. The delicious smell of cornmeal wafted through the door and I asked what it was. "She's cooking papusas," came the reply from the store clerk, a women from Chiapas, Mexico. "They're from El Salvador," she said. "Elsie, the cook,is from there too."

I had been reading a book about how peasant guerrillas ate papusas cooked over an open fire in the jungles of Latin America. I mentioned out loud how they had been supported by a rebel radio station called Radio Venceremos. The peasant army had been supported by broadcasts throughout much of the 11-year civil war in the 1980s. Elsie perked up her ears.

She'd been in Canada for many years, but still remembered the power that Venceremos had brought to her peasant countrymen end women during that tragic war. -What she didn't know was that it had also inspired a short-lived Canadian version to support a union struggle in northern Ontario.

I do international labour solidarity work for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. As part of that work, I had been searching for ways to illustrate how such solidarity was growing more critical to our own struggle as a workers' movement.

The need has become increasingly clear as giant mega-companies consolidate their corporate power and look for ways to maximize profits by using cheap international labour. Helped by the willingness of governments to privatize public services and relax trade laws, these corporations have made the concerns of the Third World much more relative to our own.

The problem was to convince other trade unionists, especially rank-and-file members, of the need to build international labour solidarity.

If they were interested at all, they wanted to know what possible good it would do at a time when they were fighting for their own work lives.

The predominant approach of Union members has been to make a charitable donation to a non-government organization, then forget about it for another year. Why get involved - and spend union dues - on member exchange visits or educational tours? Why pretend that trade unionists from the world's poor countries ean work in partnership with the powerful countries of the west? What can a trade unionist from South Africa, Latin America or Asia possibly teach us?

Two-way street

I enjoyed another bite of my papusa and thought if the only thing we learned from the south was how to make these delicious cornmeal cakes filled with meat and cheese, we'd be ahead of the game. But obviously, international solidarity is about much more than food.

As economic restructuring takes hold through policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, what happens to workers in the south ultimately affects those in the north. If their workplaces are unhealthy and unsafe, their job security is weak or their wages and benefits are inferior, employers could and do demand that we lower our standards to allow them to compete.

Intellectually, I was sold on international labour solidarity. But emotionally, I too was struggling with some of these doubts.

Perhaps some latent racist tendencies were influencing my ability to understand how we could foster union-to-union, member-to-member solidarity. More likely it was my failure to read the events and lessons of trade unionists and other social activists in poor southern countries. As CUPE get more engaged in building partnerships in South Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean, I searched for tangible ways that international labour solidarity could be shown as a two way street.

Letters from our members

We had set up a fund called Union Aid International. This made it essential to have arguments which could persuade members to bargain a penny a member an hour for this work. Slowly these arguments started to form, not from study or reading so much as from stories brought back by our own members. …