In recent years, we have witnessed a setback on gains achieved by progressive and left political movements with the emergence of right wing populist movements that have gained power through the political electoral system, and thereby, threatening democracy as a whole in a number of countries.
At the 4th BWI World Congress held in Durban, South Africa trade union representatives from Brazil, Austria, and the United States addressed the phenomena, where the disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society have turned their hope to the populist right-wing and conservative parties. They also discussed the impact rise of populism on trade unions and workers in their respective countries and how to respond through a unified global trade union movement.
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States shocked the world but it also sent alarm bells within the U.S. trade union movement as it braced for a series of anti-union policies to undermine trade unions while at the same time benefiting corporations. However, trade unions had to struggle with the reality that a significant number of its members supported Trump even though its leadership had campaigned against him. In Brazil, those who had fought for democracy turned sides as they supported those calling for the impeachment of Dilma Rousef as President in Brazil. In Austria, a country whose economy and industries are dependent upon the hard work and contributions of migrant workers, saw the rise of the far-right populist Freedom Party which emerged victorious mainly due to its anti-migrant xenophobic rhetoric and campaign.
Moderating the discussion, Dave Noonan, the national secretary of CFMEU Construction and General Australia, emphasized the crisis in the capitalist system marked with the decreasing wealth and increasing job security.
Noonan stated, “The far- right opportunist and racist are talking opportunity of fear, insecurity and division. This is a wake-up calls reminding us of the real threat of fascism in power.”
Dora Cervantes, Secretary-Treasurer of the Machinists, North America, spoke on the general public and working-class sentiment growing tired of politicians’ rhetoric as a component contributing to the Trump’s victory. She stated, “Many fell into the trap of Trump’s alpha male propaganda using hatred speech.” Lack of education and political awareness are cited as the major issues among the working class in the United States.
Meanwhile, Adalberto Souza, President of SINTEPAV-Bahia in Brazil spoke about the challenges workers in Brazil are facing under the right-wing Michele Telmer administration in Brazil and the government’s neoliberal policies such as capping government social spending, privatization of major State-Owned Enterprises, and welcoming the increased presence of Chinese capital.
According to Souza who is also a member of the National Congress in Brazil, the government is increasing public debt and introducing labour reform are to undermine trade unions and the collective power of workers in favor of capital and big business. He stated, “We need to challenge the State hegemony by asserting our union’s political hegemony. We, the workers, must resist against the onslaught of democracy.”
Joseph Muchitsch, President of GBH, Austria, reiterated similar remarks on democracy being undermined by the rise of right-wing political parties. Referring to the victory of far-right Freedom Party in Austria, Muchitsch cautioned BWI delegates about the danger of neoliberal policies that go hand-in-hand with fascist tendency overriding European policies.
Muschitsch who is also a member of the Austrian National Council stated, “The far-right populists have created fear in society with their anti-immigrant policies and as a trade union movement we need find concreate ways to challenge these divisive sentiments.”
Commonly shared by all panelists, this situation leads us to the question of existing democratic institutions. The cultural and social economic dimensions of the right-wing populist embraced by many reflects the vacuum of genuine representation.
Dave Noonan summed up the session by emphasizing the obligations and responsibility of trade unions to fight against racism and xenophobia. In his closing remarks, he stated, “We need a trade union movement as a global movement that can confront and fight against the neoliberal forces advanced by the right-wing populist parties