The success of collective strategy

A «Plus» Conference

With Ron Oswald
The IUF’s dairy sector
The success of collective strategy
A «Plus» Conference
Photo: Nelson Godoy
La Rel interviewed IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald, during the 3rd Conference of the IUF’s Dairy Sector held in Sunchales, Argentina. He analyzed the outcome of the Conference, the sector’s current situation within the IUF, relations with transnational companies, the serious situation of Europe today, possible strategies for dealing with transnational companies, the crisis from the viewpoint of workers, and the necessary commitment from the political authorities in relation to the people’s objectives, among other things.
-What is your opinion about this Conference?
-There are two outstanding aspects to point out about this 3rd Conference. The most important one is the attendance by so many international delegations in such a significant event for the city of Sunchales, for Atilra, and for the region, as the opening of this incredible Technological Education Center.

We have all been very positively impressed by the commitment that Atilra has shown towards health and education in the community, beyond its main role in defending the rights of the sector’s workers.

I think it has been an honor to all the participating delegations to be included in such a historical instance as this, which also consolidates Atilra’s image at the worldwide level and as part of our International movement.

This enterprise is meant to have an effect not only on the surrounding region of Sunchales, or on Argentina as a whole, but also at the regional level of all of Latin America, towards training in the dairy sector.

That is why we can say that this has been a «Plus Conference.»

-And what would be the second aspect to point out?
-The possibility of confirming that opening a political space in the IUF for organizing the dairy sector worldwide has been the right decision to make.

The idea was not just the construction of a network uniting our affiliates, but also the will to focus on certain aspects of the sector, from producers to the sales of dairy products. Our priority is to detect where and how the IUF can make further contributions. In this case this is possible by putting pressure on the interests of international employers.

A whole sector in just a few hands
Growing presence of transnational companies
As in other sectors, the growing interests of transnational dairy companies are never ending. And this has consequences on planet Earth, on animal genetics, on the employment within the industry, and on dairy producers. The sector has become increasingly concentrated on fewer and fewer companies.

From the IUF’s perspective, this Conference represents a turning point for monitoring where we are standing exactly in relation to the transnational companies, and for deciding the ways towards our organization and the inclusion, in our workers’ unions, of more individuals from the transnational companies’ production chains.

And this will be a hard thing to accomplish, because, in certain countries, organizing workers into unions is sometimes very expensive. There are situations where the individual’s life depends directly on that job, and this means a condition affecting everything else.

-What would be a proper strategy to balance that existing concentration?
Putting together an international network to make the individual problems of specific unions in the sector an issue for all, and thus allow the possibility of facing the transnational companies all together.

But also, like any other workers’ union, we must battle to obtain the recognition of these companies, because we must deal with those who are at the top ranks of decision-making.

-Could you give us some examples?
-Right now, we are having a significant struggle with Nestlé. We are discussing with them at the global level at a negotiating table.

In relation to Danone and Unilever, both present in the dairy sector as well, we are aimed at promoting other initiatives in several companies to that the IUF may be recognized as a union.

Even when the most important aspect continues to be what goes on at the plants, within communities, and the type of battle they have at those levels, we can put pressure towards opening spaces for workers’ unions to be organized.

More unions and more power
The need to intensify what we are fighting for
-What would you consider was the Conference’s main contribution to the sector?
-I think we concluded this activity with a clearer idea of what our priorities should be and where we’re headed for the next two or three years.

We are quite clear on the degree to which we have achieved an organization within the main international companies in our sector. I think that in three years’ time we will have to assess the situation again to verify our growth, because power can only come from organizing ourselves into workers’ unions and we are in need for more unions.

-In this sense, there are very different situations…
-In some companies we’re working on the concept of 100% membership. For example, the New Zealander company Fonterra, has 50 plants around the world, 48 of which are members of our organization.

The other two are located in  Sri Lanka, where I hope we will be organizing a union next year, and in Saudi Arabia, where we will probably have a long stretch before having the possibility of a union. One this will be a reality, though it seems it won’t be so soon.

And we expect the same to happen at Danone, after its acquisition of a Russian company called Unimilk, where repressioneven physicalagainst its workers as a threat to their integrity has been long standing.

No one there wants to speak up because they are afraid of the reprisals they might suffer. And we should not blame them, when prior to the acquisition by Danone, the Human Resources Manager at Unimilk had previously occupied the Safety Manager position.

Unimilk has 28 plant throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, with close to 14 thousand employees.

We are working on having all of Danone’s plants unionized for next year. And it will not be an easy task to achieve this, because Danone will probably implement a restructuring, with which some plants will be shut down I’m afraid.

Anyways, we consider this top-level relation with Danone as useful, because despite the pressures that remain, it is the first time that these plants will have workers’ unions.

An adverse situation
The need for a different and reliable Left
-What are the main aspects on which the IUF is currently focused?
-I have been unionized since 1969, when I was working as a porter at London’s airport.

And never before have I had the sensation to be working within a political context as complicated as the one we have today. In Uruguay you are in fact quite privileged, because the global political framework is actually quite bad.

There is a majority of rightist governments with a neoliberal vision, both at the local and at the international levels, though there are also leftist, and center-leftist, governments who also implement the same neoliberal policies.

This is a time when we not only need to fight for our unions but also, I believe, for economic and social policies by a Left that must necessarily be a lot more reliable than what we have nowadays.

The financial dictatorship
Weakened democracy
In the 1960s, during my years of activity in politics, our belief was that we were in politics to achieve the society we aspired at, while economy was the tool to build such society.

Today, things have turned around totally. The economy and the world of finances dictate, to the political systems, the type of society we are allowed to have.

The social democratic parties of all time are now caught in a trap. They may win elections one day, but the day after that, the world of finances imposes the flight route and indicates all the restrictions that any government will encounter in carrying out its actions.

At first, the democratic system ensures citizens the right to decide how life is to be lived, though the right is becoming increasingly reduced. To say it in short: I think this is the main problem we have worldwide.

-And how do financial corporations exert that power?
-For instance, today, there are ratings applied to countries by a variety of international business corporations, like Moody‘s, among others, which conditions the overall policies of governments.

These type of NGOs, located in the United States of America, are controlled by the financial sector which indicates how governments how their economy should be working.

And this is not democratic. It is a financial dictatorship. I believe that this is the fundamental crisis that the Left has to deal with now. We are still in need for a solution for these processes. That’s why at the IUF we must fight not only at the traditional worker’s organization level, but also in politics in order to change our current reality.

Otherwise, I think that young Europeans will continue to think that it doesn’t matter which party they vote for, and they will end up in a situation of people not voting, which in fact means an advance for far-rightists movements.

Today in Europe there is a great threat that this gap and lack of hope could be exploited by the far Right to gain political predominance in France, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, England, and Greece.

A new agro-alimentary system
A way to generate more and better employment
-How do common people live this?
At the economy level, workers are continuously subject to restructures. No one could say now that where he or she will be working in the short term, in the case they do have a job.

In the food sector, for instance, I think that we must change the world’s alimentary systems, because we might be producing more food, but the levels of employment will not be increased.

We must analyze the way to generate a sustainable alimentary system for producing healthy foods that are more environmentally-friendly, while also generating quality employment.

This overall trend to eliminate employment is parallel to an increasing degree of unstable employment. When I joined the IUF I was 35, and I’m sure that, if back then, we had asked the workers of the organization as to its five main challenges, probably a few of them would have mentioned the fight against unstable employment. However, if we were to take that poll now, most workers would place it among the five main challenges.

And we’re not talking about a lifetime job here. The mere idea of a decent permanent job is becoming less and less common amongst workers. In its conferences of 2007 and 2012, the IUF had this subject practically as item one on the agenda for debate and analysis.

Unstable employment is, apart from an economic issue, a matter of rights. For example, what is the actual entitlement of an outsourced worker of Manpower or similar entities to be unionized? There is no such thing. It is just writing on paper.

When employees work as outsourced for twenty years with day-to-day contracts, they lose their actual right to be part of an organized union. And if the case proved possible, who would those workers have to negotiate with?

Unstable employment is in fact a factual threat to the human right to be part of workers’ union organization.

Workers’ battle, and political battle
More State presence, public policies and global coordination
-Is the battle put up by workers’ unions enough to change reality?
-No, many of these objectives cannot be attained without a necessary political support.

We shouldn’t expect to win all battles –like those relative to unstable employment or the pressure that large shopping centers exert on our people along the production chain- if we do not have the positive support of a State approving and promoting regulations, and monitoring compliance therewith.

But even without a global political intervention, we will still be able to overcome some battles, as it was the case with the IUF. However, we will continue to lose the war.

New must pursue the alliance of progressive governments, actually leftist, to enable us to face up to global powers. And I pretty much doubt it that an isolated government may attain such an objective.