Ken Lewenza is the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union.
Leaders representing the G20 nations participated in a two-day summit in June to discuss a variety of global issues, including how to stop the slow, continuous bleeding brought on by the most devastating economic recession in recent memory. But it was a tall order for a two-day country club-style gathering of politicians, especially since many of them actively promoted the free market, deregulation-driven agenda that caused this mess.
Working people were rightfully cynical that this get-together would yield meaningful and positive change. The G20 meetings sparked a renewed debate over the civil liberties of Canadians, instead of much-needed public dialogue concerning new economic protective measures and policies for workers.
Although the G20 meeting failed to lay out an ambitious agenda for decent jobs, income equality, poverty reduction, environmental protection and peace, such goals are still achievable; they just won’t be realized by world leaders sipping expensive wines and dining on gourmet foods inside a heavily fortified convention centre.
Unions provide the most effective means of making such ambitious goals a reality. They bring together workers and other citizens to challenge existing structures of authority and help rectify the major power imbalances between rich and poor, forcing social change.
I was inspired by news of Chinese auto workers who, against all odds and possibly facing severe repercussions, hit the streets to protest insufficient wages and poor working conditions at two Honda parts factories in Guangdong. The province has experienced a huge jump in labour disputes, prompting the local government to move quickly on long-overdue minimum wage reforms. Although these reforms are insignificant by most standards, they represent a big step forward in a country where an incredible amount of wealth is amassing but distributed unevenly among its massive population.
Some major employers, including Honda, are offering higher wage increases to bring down picket lines and stave off growing worker discontent. Others, particularly the now-notorious electrical equipment manufacturer Foxconn (maker of highly sought-after Apple electronic gadgets), have been forced to make substantial workplace changes as a result of heavy public scrutiny following a string of heartbreaking worker suicides.
Spirit of trade unionism
Whatever their form, these protests are symbolic in a country known for its low wages, income polarization, poor living standards and authoritarian state control. They exemplify the principles and fearless spirit of trade unionism and are an acknowledgement of the disconnect between working people and their “union representatives”—many of them simply entities of the state that act as “company unions” would in Canada or elsewhere.