Speech by Michalis Papanikolaou, Secretary General of UITBB, at the 17th Congress,
Athens, Greece, 31 / 01-01 / 02 2020
I would like to greet everyone and welcome you as well at the 17th UITBB Congress.
I would like to begin by expressing my heartfelt thanks to the comrades of the Federation of Construction Workers and Allied Trades of Greece for their great effort in organizing this very important Congress and for their warm hospitality.
Greek comrades, on behalf of UITBB, I thank you very much!
We meet here today, in Athens, for our 17th Congress, at a critical juncture for the global trade union movement. Before proceeding to deliver my speech, I would like to especially mention a very important event concerning our organization. A few months ago, marked the 70th anniversary since the founding of the UITBB in Milan, Italy. It was at this time that the founding Congress of Construction Workers was held, which decided to set up the WFTU TUI for workers in the Construction, Wood and Building Materials industries. The purpose of this effort was to bring builders, carpenters and construction workers together in a common, class-oriented struggle for workers’ rights. This union later evolved into today’s UITBB.
UITBB was founded just four years after the bloody and devastating Second World War and the overwhelming defeat of the Nazis and fascism forces, at a time when workers’ hopes for lasting peace were in danger from the imperialist circles of capitalist countries, who never concealed their plans to launch attacks on the democratic, progressive forces of humanity.
The governments and the ruling class that expressed and supported the capitalist system, by nature and as expected because of its thirst for increasing profits, did not live up to the promises they made during the war, for political and social freedom in the post-war years. They did not live up to their promises for the creation of a society free from unemployment and poverty, with guaranteed political and democratic rights, characterised by trade union freedoms. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of builders and carpenters were out of work, and millions of workers were deprived of even the most basic housing needs. Undeterred capitalist monopolies set the prices of raw materials and industrial products, leading to a continuous increase in the cost of living and a reduction in the purchasing power of wage-earners.
During the time of the founding of the UITBB, reactionary employers tried their best to destroy and stop the gains of trade unions in the areas of social benefits and improvement of employment conditions. A key tool they used to weaken the trade union movement was to engage in a war of attrition, both nationally and internationally.
Unfortunately, the enemies of the working class managed to break up the international trade union movement and that is why unity was one of the key issues on the agenda and debates at both the Second WFTU Congress and the founding Congress of UITBB, the sectoral body of builders and carpenters. From that time, UITBB, despite the occasional difficulties, continues to move forward always within the lines of WFTU, on the path of class struggle, optimistic about its future course, always leading the daily struggles of construction workers.
The pioneering comrades who created UITBB amidst extremely difficult conditions had a vision – to improve the miserable living and working conditions of workers and their families, and thereby to improve the world and build a new, fair society, free of exploitation. Today, 70 years later, we stand with awe at the bravery of the pioneers of the progressive movement and express our great appreciation for their sacrifices and their offerings. The best way to honour our history and our pioneering comrades, is to continue with the same militant spirit and determination on the path of their class-oriented struggle, having the same faith and optimism. This is our fate and this is our promise; our presence here today from all parts of the world is proof that the future belongs to the workers and that the glorious past of our organization will continue with an even brighter future.
The 17th Congress of UITBB takes place at a crucial time for the workers around the world. In all the continents, as you can see in the reports of colleagues from the various regions included in the Political Document/Action Report, workers’ rights are ruthlessly being attacked, while capital forces are trying to shift the cost of the capitalist crisis on the shoulders of the working class, reducing their earnings and abolishing labour and social rights acquired over the course of time through fierce struggles and many sacrifices.
With this philosophy stemming from the very nature of the capitalist system, the bourgeoisie attempted in the period we are reviewing from our previous Congress, to increase its profits both for the present and for the future, by reducing wages and abolishing benefits, without this being an isolated incident, as it was observed in all the capitalist countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and Oceania. It is for this reason that, as you can see in the Political Document/Action Report, we pay a great deal of importance to the coordination of labour forces.
Monopoly capitalism is at its highest stage, imperialism. Throughout the world, but especially in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East regions, imperialist interventions and wars are at their peak, as the deep capitalist crisis has led to an intensification of intra-imperialist contradictions and rivalries. The only solution to increase the profits of competing imperialist powers is war. Our region is of particular importance to the imperialists because of its mineral wealth, and its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. From Iraq to Syria and Libya, the imperialists have sowed destruction, and have caused millions of people to become refugees and live in misery.
The recent assassination on Friday, January 3, 2020 in Baghdad, Iraq of General Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the “Quds” Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in Iran ordered by US President Donald Trump, is just the latest violation of Iraqi national sovereignty, as well as international law. We must therefore not only condemn such actions with all our hearts, but also enlighten workers on the real causes of wars, which lie in the very nature of the capitalist system, and prepare them ideologically and politically for the future.
Since our last Congress in Uruguay in 2015, when the new leadership took over, a lot has been done but a lot also remains to be done. We have been able to greatly stabilise the situation of our international union, normalise its day-to-day operations, create institutions with clear obligations and activities, and generally change the way things were done, always with a view towards better organisation and coordination. Through such actions, we have managed to create a solid background for the future, but at the same time we must think about what we need to do from now on, to further improve the functioning of UITBB. The Political Document/Action Report that you have, lists these issues in detail, but I would like to summarise our actions and activities over the last 4 years and show the way for the next 4 years.
With the transfer of UITBB Headquarters to Cyprus, a long and difficult period of adjustment began. Briefly, the results were:
1. A technical support team has been set up to deal with UITBB daily. In this effort, the Cyprus Building, Wood, Mine and General Workers Trade Union PEO, has provided the entire mechanism, resources and support to UITBB. I feel the need here, as the General Secretary of Cyprus Building, Wood, Mine and General Workers Trade Union PEO, to express my gratitude for its multifaceted support.
2. There is constant, regular communication with all members of UITBB around the world, mainly via email but also via Skype, mail, and social media. Furthermore, our website (www.uitbb.org) has been re-designed after years of inactivity, in 3 languages (English, Spanish and French) with news and photos from various activities of our organizations around the world. Within 2 years of its reopening we have reached the point of having 11,000 pageviews. This number can be greatly increased, however, given our members’ potentials.
3. We send our redesigned newsletter/bulletin 4 times each year. Its new format makes readers click on the link that redirects them to our site. We have made an official YouTube channel where we post videos of our sessions, our mobilizations, etc. Since this is fairly new, we do not have many subscribers, so we all need to follow the UITBB Official Youtube Channel.
I have to say here that as a result of the above, we are now visible online. If anyone now types “UITBB” on Google they will see all of the above, which was not the case in the past. Instant communication is everything colleagues. Proper co-operation, cohesion and class unity worldwide, come about through proper communication. Digital media gives us instant access to millions of employees around the world, without restrictions. The largest media conglomerate in almost all countries are controlled by the capital and the bourgeoisie and it is very easy for them to get their messages across, spread their propaganda, and influence and guide the masses for their own purposes. It is clear that the media is fuelling and are fuelled by capitalist monopoly. Thus, we need to strengthen our own media for the working class, in order for the workers’ voices to be heard. That is why it is important to safeguard and strengthen this sector. In the future, we are also planning to add other languages to our website and create Twitter and Facebook accounts for even more immediate updates. However, that requires a constant stream of news, photos and videos that must come from all of us.
4. As for the financial situation, it has really changed for the better. By reducing costs and managing finances in a better way with professional help, we are in a much better position today, to the point where we can help our organizations and members who really need it. I would like to make a special reference again here to the Cyprus Building, Wood, Mine and General Workers Trade Union PEO which has assumed many of UITBB’s indirect and direct costs, in addition to its contributions. Specifically, the Cyprus Builders Union pays for office spaces, electricity, internet access, transport and much more, thus benefiting UITBB. With this well-managed enormous help, and also certainly because of the organisations that always pay their fees on time, we can look to the future with optimism. At this point, I especially thank those organisations that are consistent in their financial obligations. This enables us to be present everywhere, to operate smoothly, to develop closer relationships among ourselves and to organise our actions in an even better and more efficient way.
You can see that today we are hosting our Congress in a comfortable and very good environment, which also reflects the new era for our organization. I would like to take this opportunity to say again that it is extremely important, not only financially but also as a statement of political solidarity, for everyone to pay their contribution. Unfortunately, colleagues, a large number of UITBB members present at our Conference today, have almost never paid their subscription. I find that even a symbolic amount each year will help a lot. Finally, it would be a mistake for me not to mention our member organizations who assume huge costs by organising large conferences and meetings of UITBB bodies. This involves not only financial costs but also other resources, and I feel the need to thank those that have organised regional or other meetings in the 4 years I have been Secretary General, such as our organisations from India, Vietnam, Greece, Uruguay, Portugal, Nepal, Cyprus, Cuba and elsewhere.
5. We have worked hard and managed to hold almost all of our regional meetings as well as many new bilateral visits. Especially in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, we are almost constantly organizing our meetings and coordinating our actions.
6. In the period under review we have been able to organize meetings, seminars and build relationships with new organizations in Belarus, Russia, Latin America and elsewhere. It is our great pleasure to see new faces in the room, friendly forces and organisations that want to join us. I think this is extremely important and is indicative of the right path we are on.
7. We have also participated in WFTU Presidential Councils, ILO Conferences in Geneva and many international conventions following invitations, all of which you can see in detail in the Action Report. We have organized massive mobilisations and demonstrations around the world, observing and commemorating WFTU’s Days of Action for immigrants, refugees and so on, demonstrating the sense of international solidarity which we should all exhibit.
8. We have been involved in numerous calls for international solidarity by organising actions and sending messages of support, all of which you can see in detail in the Action Report.
Many changes have happened in the last 4 years, changes in attitudes, the daily functioning of UITBB, communication, financial management and elsewhere. You can read about them in the Action Report, and of course we will have the opportunity to discuss all these issues during our Congress as well. At the same time, having laid the foundations for this transitional period, our attention now needs to shift in new directions so that we can improve UITBB even further, and move forward for an even better tomorrow, and the new a society we all envision. Some of the issues that we should pay particular attention to in the future, in our view, are the following:
1. The more frequent meetings of UITBB bodies, especially in areas such as Africa, is something to which we should pay particular attention. We are not as present as we would like in such a huge continent like Africa, with so much human resources and so much potential. What needs to be done is to conduct specialised studies in order to know the situation and circumstances as precise as possible so that we can make the right decisions and actions to improve our work. This requires better communication and feedback to UITBB headquarters from its members in the region. Developing closer cooperation between our members in developed countries with our members in developing countries, will also help in the organising of activities with the possible help of WFTU in the region.
2. The same is true for Latin America, despite some actions specifically in Cuba last year. It should be noted here that in Latin America, activities are being carried out through FLEMACON, the regional organization of UITBB. What needs to be done is a meeting of all UITBB members and friendly organisations across the continent so that we can start becoming more active again. Our meek presence in Latin America has given the right to some others, on the pretext of helping, to take initiatives. However, we are the ones that need to take such initiatives, because we have the experience and the means. This interference is something that in no way the progressive movement should allow to continue. A similar thing must happen in Africa. Our members there must inform the headquarters immediately of any problems, propose and organize actions and be present at as many meetings and seminars in the region as possible; UITBB will help them in these endeavours.
3. The election of the new leadership is an opportunity to clarify the roles of each UITBB official. Each of us must know what to do, where and how, so that we can better organise our actions globally.
4. Some organisations are permanently absent from our activities. This is not acceptable. We should also analyse the reasons for not attending our meetings. For example, some organisations do not even respond to UITBB invitations. If financial assistance is available in some cases, this should be sought.
5. We must also continue to participate in all WFTU events. On the occasion of the participation of my colleague George Mavrikos, General Secretary of WFTU at our Congress, I would like to underline that, and I believe I speak for all of us here, we will honour WFTU’s 75-year anniversary in the best possible way, with our participation in all WFTU events and celebrations, organisation of various activities by our members around the world.
6. The issue of organization must be high on our priorities list, both nationally and internationally. We must intensify our efforts to organise workplaces while striving to strengthen our International Union by recruiting new members. The main weapon for organizing new members and workplaces can be the Collective Agreements and the requirement to enforce labour laws. Experience in various countries has shown that Collective Agreements are perhaps the most important conquest of workers, and a powerful lever for labour law. It is very important that Collective Agreements are adhered to as the main objective is to maintain and increase the purchasing power of workers as well as to improve their quality of life. Of course, we should not consider Collective Agreements to be the end of the road, but through them we should aim at practical improvements in their lives and work.
7. Finally, we still need to organise seminars on topics such as Safety and Health, Migrant Workers, Uninsured Work, and Female Workers. With the help of UITBB headquarters, these meetings should be organised by local organizations with a particular sensitivity to the subject, so as to inform and train workers in each area, and the results should be disseminated to everyone in the spirit of exchanging good practices. These issues are extremely important for us. On Health and Safety, I would like to stress that employers should be pressured to take action and that the cost for such measures should be determined by the need for complete safety. Compulsory on-the-job training on safety and health issues should also be introduced for all workers entering the industry for the first time as well as for existing ones. Depending on the circumstances of each country, this measure should be accompanied by a relevant training certificate.
At this point I would like to add a few ideas on some general issues of interest to the workers in our sectors.
An increased economic power of monopolies in the capitalist countries, inevitably leads to total control of political power. The expansion of monopolies action in developing countries aims at subjugating them through neo-colonization. We need to coordinate our actions to counter the evil practices of multinational companies that create miserable working conditions for employees. Multinational companies, because of their size, financial and political power, and huge range of activities, can influence many people and organisations, and increase their profits to the detriment of the living and working conditions of workers and their families.
On immigration, I would like to emphasise that the working class, regardless of colour, religion, language and origin, is united and has common class-oriented interests. That is why we continue the struggle to stop the main reasons for the creation of immigration, both external and internal, that are no other than the poverty and misery that capitalism and imperialism cause. At the same time as UITBB members, we continue our efforts in every country to integrate our fellow immigrants into the daily struggles, and we intensify our efforts so that these people are not used as cheap labour, which leads to the creation of negative emotions among local workers, which in turn leads to xenophobia, racism and fascism.
For working women, I reiterate that they must enjoy all the rights deriving from international treaties, such as equal treatment, equal pay, the right to education and promotion, maternity leave and protection against dismissals, the right to a safe work environment free of sexual harassment etc. One way to ensure this is to elect more women to our offices and to organize training seminars specifically on this subject. I am of the opinion that the thought of creating a special section in UITBB for women, which has been discussed earlier, despite the difficulties, can be returned to the relevant bodies for discussion and further reflection.
Lastly, we should never forget what is happening on the planet because of climate change. The capitalist system, as an exploitative system in its core, with the sole purpose of increasing profits, has no reservations to go as far as to destroy the planet for profit. Since Donald Trump’s election as US President and the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Treaty on the Environment, the situation has worsened as we see a denial of climate change. Ideologically, we repeat that we believe we are one with Mother Earth which must be respected. Unfortunately, look at what is happening in countries like Australia or Brazil where for the sake of increasing land available for cultivation in the name of profit, huge fires are set which destroy everything. The above attitude contributes greatly to the extreme weather phenomena that are occurring at an ever-increasing rate, such as floods, rising temperatures and the melting of polar ice, which are destroying our planet. If we don’t act now, it will soon be too late. Let us not forget, colleagues, that we have not inherited this land from our ancestors, but we have borrowed it from our children.
I would like to end, dear colleagues, with an optimistic message.
UITBB in its 70-year history, it has followed faithfully a class-oriented line of struggle for the workers’ rights. Our pioneer comrades who met in Milan in 1949 for the founding of our International Union, were characterised, among other things, by faith in the rights of the working class and a sense of solidarity among them, as well as by the determination and great optimism that the rightful struggle of the working class would be vindicated through hard work.
Attending today’s Congress of this historic organization, I am sure that all delegates share the same feelings as those pioneers. We share the same sense of optimism about the future of UITBB and the justification of workers’ struggles in our sectors and of the working class in general.
So, let us move forward comrades! Let’s fight for a better world, for a new society free from the exploitation of humans by humans! Let them call us dreamers! Through our daily struggles we will change and we will determine our own future!
70 years of class struggle! The fight goes on!
Long live international solidarity!
Long live the working class!
Long live UITBB!