John Sutton’s Speech in Asia/Pacific Building Unions Seminar Sydney 2002

Let me begin by extending a warm welcome to this international gathering of Asia/Pacific Construction Unions. Some of you have travelled long distances to be here to participate in this important seminar – we thank you and your organisations for making the effort – we hope and trust that the effort will be worthwhile with a rewarding conference over the next two days.

This gathering of delegates from the Asia/Pacific Construction Unions is truly historic. We have delegates from nine nations representing construction unions and construction workers; we have a tenth nation present which, while they were not able to make the journey at the last minute, have provided us with their paper containing valuable information on their country situation. In this way, trade unions from ten nations are participating in our gathering – China, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.

Due to difficulties in obtaining visas, our friends from Pakistan cannot be with us and the Vietnamese and Malaysian delegations have not been able to join us because of unforeseen circumstances.

This seminar is a joint initiative and is jointly sponsored by the Trade Union International of Building and Woodworking Unions (UITBB) and its Australian affiliate the Construction and General Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).

I say it is a historic gathering because it is eight years since the UITBB last hosted a regional gathering of building unions in the Asia/Pacific region and it is the first time the CFMEU or its predecessor union have hosted a gathering of unions from the Asia/Pacific region.

The famous proverb about ‘living in interesting times’ is probably apt when we think about the contemporary regional setting. In other words the background to this seminar is one of enormous change, enormous complexity and enormous challenges. There is no more faster growing, more dynamic, more culturally complex and more socially and politically diverse region in the world than the Asia/Pacific.

In the ten nations participating in this seminar approximately half the world’s population lives and with population growth rates such as they are the proportion of the world’s population living in this region will continue to climb.

This kind of population growth places huge demands on social and physical infrastructure and will ensure that construction activity continues to surge in this region for many decades or centuries ahead.  This naturally means that construction workers and their construction unions will have not just a growing role but a critical role as the region rapidly develops.

When I speak of the diversity of the region; that diversity is reflected in the participants in this seminar.  We have delegates from countries with huge populations like China and India, through to delegates from New Zealand with its 4 million people.

We have delegates from communist countries and/or unions with a communist orientation through to delegates from unions with a more politically conservative orientation.  We have delegates from countries with distinctly Asian cultural backgrounds, from countries with cultures that are a mix of indigenous and colonial vestiges through to places like Australia and New Zealand with our dominant European culture.

I find the mix of people and cultures exciting and it should make for rich (or totally confused) discussion over the next 2 days – I trust it will be the former rather than the latter.

The timing and location of this meeting in Sydney, Australia has proved very fortunate.  It provides the trade union movement of the region with an opportunity to voice its views on a number of recent significant events that are impacting on all of us.

The World Trade Organisation concluded a meeting of trade ministers in Sydney on Friday last.  They met at the same hotel where we will be having our Conference Dinner tonight.  I’m sure delegates to our trade union seminar will want to contrast our vision of economic growth and development to that advocated by the representatives of big capital who currently control and benefit from WTO and World Bank processes.

We meet on the eve of UN weapons inspectors going back into Iraq to carry out the UN Security Council’s recent Resolution on Iraq.  We have witnessed over the last 4 months an unrelenting drive by George W. Bush and the United States imperialist machine he commands to not only threaten the innocent men, women and children of Iraq but treat the United Nations with contempt as he seeks to impose his world view with constant threats of unilateral military action.

As he told the world after the September 11 atrocity, ‘If you are not with us, you are against us’ and you will be treated accordingly.  It is a matter of enormous concern to all of us, including in the Asia/Pacific, that we have a cowboy controlling the White House.

Another recent development, particularly resonant for Australians and Indonesians, are the events on the Indonesian island of Bali on October 12.  More than 100 Australians were killed or maimed by the atrocity carried out on that previously peaceful island.  Members of our union and family and friends were killed in terrible circumstances by the terrorists who carried out the atrocity.  I expect this meeting would have a view that terrorism and its new partner, religious fundamentalism, is no answer to the social and economic injustices which civilised people need to tackle through civilised methods.

So, friends, you can see that the political background or setting to this meeting is replete with major, pressing issues.

What about the economic and industrial issues before us.  It seems to me the range includes:

  • The challenge to the legitimacy of trade unions and trade union rights;
  • The policies of economic liberalization which see trade unions as an impediment to economic growth;
  • The rapid concentration of capital and political power in multinational corporations (MNC’s) which supersede the sovereign state;
  • The role of MNC’s in the building industry and their powerful grab for the Asia/Pacific construction market;
  • The interaction of the MNC’s with the trans-global regulators, such as the WTO and the World Bank;
  • The attempt by the owners of big capital to legitimize the free movement of labour across borders for the purpose of breaking down regulated standards;
  • The question of how trade unions should deal with guest labour – whether legal or illegal;
  • The question of how unions across the region should communicate and engage in solidarity actions to achieve our mutual objectives.

Comrades, I have here only touched upon some of the big issues.  There are any number of issues and challenges that can be raised and hopefully many will at our meeting over the next 2 days.

The UITBB (the Trade Union International of Building and Woodworking Unions) had its 13th World Congress in Larnaca, Cyprus, in April this year and set out an ambitious plan to grow the organisation so that we could play a more active part in intervening and confronting the dangerous, undemocratic and anti-peoples policies of economic liberalization.

I was elected by the delegates to the 13th World Congress as the new International President of the organisation.  For that honour I also feel the great weight of responsibility to help take the International forward with the rest of the leadership team.

The UITBB is holding a similar seminar to this in Cuba next week.  Building unions from all the Latin American countries will be gathering to discuss similar issues and themes that we will be dealing with over the next two days.

In your papers for this conference, we will be including the key documents and decisions from the UITBB’s 13th World Congress.  The UITBB is alive and growing today because there are many construction trade unions around the globe who believe in and are committed to class struggle-based trade unionism.

There is no smooth or easy way to confront capitalism.  Those trade unionists who are committed fighters for their membership and the working class generally should know that there is an international organisation of building workers unions that has that same outlook and aspiration.  Naturally, because the UITBB has a class struggle based political ideology, it is not always well-accepted in some of the European and US halls of power.  Some of the resources that flow to more co-operative union Internationals do not flow to the UITBB.  But the important issues here are ideas, commitment and leadership and, on this score, the UITBB is wealthy.

Before I turn the conference over to you, I want to say some thanks.  I want to thank my own organisation, CFMEU, for agreeing to host this gathering.  I thank John Robertson for agreeing to open our meeting.  I thank my comrades, Lindsay Fraser, Tom Roberts and Linda Hockey for all the work they have done over many months to prepare for this meeting.  Let me also say thanks to University of Sydney academic, Stuart Rosewarne who will be spending the next 2 days with us assisting us with his knowledge of Asian/Pacific issues.

So, with these words, let me wish everyone well for a successful meeting.


18 November 2002