Interview with Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary

Image: Reiner Braun (second from the left) and Sharan Burrow (third from the right) at the Seán MacBride Peace Prize Ceremony for Jeremy Corbyn.

Sharan Burrow is the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). During her time at the head of ITUC, she has helped to foster relations between trade unions and the peace movement – bringing together themes of peace, justice, conversion, and the need for a peace dividend. IPB Executive Director Reiner Braun sat down for an interview with Sharan to discuss the interconnections between the trade union and peace movements.

You are the Executive Director of ITUC, the biggest trade union network worldwide, with more than 200 million members. Can you describe the main challenges of your work and above all your peace-related work?

Tragically the world is in the grips of crisis. Even before Covid-19, the historic levels of inequality were driving despair and anger in many parts of the world and the climate crisis was being ignored by too many governments.

Covid-19 exposed the underfunding of health and care services. It exposed the disintegration of a labour market in which 60% of the world’s people are working informally without rights, minimum wages, or incomes and have no social protection. And then, even for the 40% of those with an employment contract, a third of their jobs are insecure or precarious. And the impact across the board has been disproportionately on women.

Then there is the sad reality that conflict in the world is rising.

For the ITUC, 2021 is a year in which people are still living with Covid-19 and unions are struggling to maintain the advances they made in health, jobs, wages and social protections; but it is also a year in which governments must implement serious plans for recovery and resilience against future global shocks.

In 2020, trade unions established the global call for a New Social Contract for recovery and residence. One year on, even the UN Secretary General is echoing this call.

But this year we are focusing on the 5 key demands that workers want in their social contract. These are:

  1. Jobs: Climate-friendly jobs with a just transition.
  2. Rights: The promise of the ILO Centenary declaration of rights and protections for all workers, irrespective of employment arrangements and the promise of tackling corporate impunity with a dated due diligence.
  3. Universal Social Protection:  Social protection for all with the fight for a global social protection fund for the poorest countries.
  4. Equality: Progress is stalled, and in some nations set back by the pandemic. Workers demand equality of incomes and equality of gender and race.
  5. Inclusion: Working people want a peaceful world and a just, rights-based development model with the promise of the SDGs.

This recovery must be funded with fair taxes, debt relief and targeted support for developing economies. It will not be achieved with austerity.

Tax evasion, monopoly power, and exploitation of workers will only be eliminated if we end corporate impunity with mandated due diligence and the elimination of corruption.

How do you see the international situation? Do you see the danger of a great power war?

The geo-political divisions are serious and unless we get a greater alignment of political leaders, the power wars between China, the US and Russia will deepen. The people’s quest for rights and social justice, for a stable planet with a commitment to protecting our oceans and biodiversity along with the reform of business models to end corporate greed with a commitment to shared prosperity will only be realised if we have both political will and cooperation.

What are the key points for the peace work of ITUC and how do you see the collaboration with the international peace movement?

The ITUC’s work on peace focuses on three key issues, under the overarching principle – originally set out in the 1919 Constitution of the International Labour Organisation – that there can be no peace without social justice.

First, we want to replace the fake protection of the nuclear umbrella – which is in fact a toxic, existential threat to humanity – with the real protection that common security offers. Forty years on from the groundbreaking Olof Palme Commission, we need to renew the thinking and the commitment to new ways of resolving conflict and making people feel safe. Peaceful resolution of disputes is at the heart of trade unionism – it’s what collective bargaining at the workplace teaches our activists every day, and we know that without democracy and the rule of law, without a real voice for people about what is happening in their lives, and without the social justice that the ILO stands for, there can be no lasting peace.

Second, we want a peace dividend. The trillions of dollars spent every year on weapons of war should be devoted instead to tackling ill-health, ignorance, squalor and want. We want those tax dollars (because we should never forget that it is our members’ money) to be used for quality public health and education, for investment in the care economy, for living minimum wages and other social goods. Just the money spent on nuclear weapons, if redirected, would pay for the Global Fund for Social Protection many times over.

And third, we want to convert the jobs, wages, and skills of workers in the nuclear weapons industry – in the arms industry full stop – into a resource for the future of humanity.

You are also organizing the workers of the military industry. Do you see problems for their future working places? Is conversion a project for a more peaceful future?

Conversion with justice is critical to the process of disarmament. We can’t have the common security we need for peace without security for the people who work in the sector most affected. We need to beat the nuclear swords into the ploughshares of peace, with good jobs, on decent wages that put the skills of workers in the industry to good use.

The peace dividend we talk about is also a skills dividend. As well as using the money spent on preparing for war on a better society, we can use the skills that workers in the industry have to design better technology for health and education. The environmental challenges we face, our ageing society, these are problems worthy of the application of skills currently being wasted on more and more efficient killing machines.

How can we develop a deeper collaboration between workers and peace movement? Are great common actions like in the 80s possible again?

I believe that people are willing to stand up for what they believe in, as the working people of Chile, Somalia, Myanmar, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong have shown us over the past year, and as workers in many other parts of the world have shown us in recent times.

In the past year, we have secured the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) with over 50 states ratifying it, and we must continue to build the campaign to make nuclear weapons not just immoral but illegal, too.

The peace movement and the workers’ movement are just two aspects of the same struggle for dignity, respect and security. Some people are more involved in one than the other, although so often people don’t distinguish. We need to share our goals, our motivation, and our commitment and the unity in action will follow, but that unity in action is the cement that will bind the movements back together.

ITUC and IPB have become really strong partners. How do you see the future of this collaboration and could it be an example also for other national and international cooperation?

The IPB’s Co-President, Philip Jennings, has spent a lifetime in the trade union movement first in Britain and then globally, and he represents the strength of the relationship. Working together at the regional, as well as national, level, bringing young and old together in our inter-generational events, and supporting the same lobbying and public campaigning will make that relationship truly powerful.

Maybe you have a final personal  word for all the Easter marchers”?

I pay tribute to those people who are marching for peace in the same way that trade unions have always marched for justice – indeed, before the internet, before even the telephone, it was marching that brought us together and demonstrated – if I can use the word – that the power of our arguments was underpinned by the argument of our power.

In your activism, in your protest, though there are often setbacks and obstacles in your way, there are victories too. And above all, know that you never, ever, walk alone.