What exactly do internationalism and transnational organization mean for unions from nations without their own state? How does the struggle for sovereignty link up with the class struggle, or the fights against racism and sexism?
Koldo Sáens De Benito was born in 1981 in Lesaka, Navarre. He has served as the LAB’s International Coordinator responsible for international outreach since 2017.
Translated by Eve Richens and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
In this interview, Gaston Kirsche poses these questions to Koldo Sáenz, the International Coordinator of the Stateless Nations’ Trade Union Platform and the person responsible for international outreach at the Basque trade union Langile Abertzaleen Batzordeak (LAB). The Basque Country is the region with the strongest history and tradition of strike action in Europe, and LAB is the largest and strike-friendliest union in the Basque region. LAB is one of 12 trade unions to have come together under the banner of the platform, which unites trade unions from stateless nations across Europe.
How and in what situation did the Stateless Nations’ Trade Union Platform come into being?
The Stateless Nations’ Trade Union Platform was born out of a conference in Donostia-San Sebastián that was organized by LAB in May 2004. It was the result of a lot of hard work, especially the collaboration with the STC, the Sindicatu di i Travagliadori Corsi or Corsican Workers’ Union, which became a very important ally when LAB made the decision to operate in areas of the Basque Country which are under the administration of the French state.
In 2000, LAB became the only Basque nationalist union, the only one that operated throughout the entire Basque country, across existing state borders. It was a really hard year in the Basque Country because of political conflict and the collapse of the Lizarra-Garazzi process, which had attempted to involve civil society in the peace process, was still very present in everyone’s minds. However, for LAB, the sixth congress had taken place in Iruña-Pamplona in 2004, and the union was experiencing growing membership and workplace representation.
At an international level, 2004 was also the year when the LAB attended the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) Congress in Havana, and was officially inducted into the WFTU, so one can say that these were years of growth and expansion for the union. The founding of the Stateless Nations’ Trade Union Platform was another important step for us in this context.
How are you organized?
Since the meeting in the Aosta Valley in December 2018, we’ve had a general coordinator, namely LAB, and also working groups organized by state: France, Italy, and Spain. Each group develops its own dynamics within the overarching logics and strategies of the platform.
Which unions from which territories are participating with the Stateless Nations’ Trade Union Platform?
The platform’s participants are the Sardinian Confederazione Sindacale Sarda (CSS), the Galician Central Unitaria de Traballadoras-es (CUT), Intersindical Canaria from the Canary Islands, Intersindical Catalana from Catalonia, we from the LAB, so the Basque Country, Syndicat Autonomous des Travailleurs Valdotains (SAVT) from the Aosta Valley, Sindikad Labourerien Breizh (SLB) from Brittany, Sindicatu di i Travagliadori Corsi (STC) from Corsica, Union Générale des Travailleurs de Guadeloupe (UGTG) from Guadeloupe, Union Generale des Travailleurs de Martinique (UGTM) from Martinique, Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Kanaks et des Exploités (USTKE) from New Caledonia, and the Coordinadora Obrera Sindical (COS) from the Catalan country around Valencia.
Is there a basic programme that everyone signs on to?
All the unions on the platform are national and pro-sovereignty unions in our own countries. We’re associations from and for stateless nations, and as such we defend the right to self-determination of our respective peoples. We understand that processes of political and social transformation must come from the Left and that the rights of all people and peoples must be centred in our work.
And what role does feminism play in this for you?
In 1996, the LAB women’s sector was established. At the ninth congress in 2017, LAB decided to take the leap from having a Women’s Secretary to having a Secretary of Feminism, aiming to take steps towards a more feminist union with feminist values. In this spirit, various projects and groups were initiated including the Feminist School, the Plan for a Better Life, the comprehensive Feminist Plan, the Feminist Supporters, and Feminist pickets.
LAB is committed to a feminist trade union movement that centres women’s lives and fights against the multiple kinds of oppression women face, and that are experienced by women, as the result of discrimination based on gender, class, origin, gender identity, or race because we understand that this is structural and inherent to the capitalist, heteropatriarchal, colonialist, racist, and ecocidal system that we are fighting against.
We put our trust in life, not capital. LAB is committed to ending the gendered division of labour, the wage gap, violence against women both in the workplace and elsewhere, and any type of discrimination that prevents women from being free. At the tenth LAB congress, a meeting of international women delegates was held and as a result a network of women and feminist trade unionists was formed with the intention of furthering international feminist relations.
One of the most important conclusions we can draw from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the need for international relations that defy the logic of the ruling blocs, and instead are based on the rights of all people and centre human life.
The creation of LAB’s Union Secretariat for Antiracism remains one of the most important decisions taken at the tenth congress, held in June 2022, in Baiona-Miarretze. It was the result of a lengthy internal process. In the process, workers with migrant backgrounds and racialized workers participated in workshops and training sessions with union members from different sectors, territories, and jurisdictions.
Organizations from migrant groups in the Basque Country were also involved. More than 140 racialized workers or workers from migrant backgrounds participated, and they were joined by officials from the union and around 20 antiracist groups from across the Basque Country.
The Antiracism Secretary, who is on the union’s governing body, supports the struggle against the specific kinds of discrimination faced by migrant and racialized workers in the Basque Country. Creating a path towards a model for an antiracist trade unionism is a major challenge for us. Racism is everywhere, it permeates our society without us being aware of it. Therefore, antiracism is a practice that demands that we scrutinize and re-position ourselves.
To what extent do migrant workers participate in your unions?
We’re not all the same and we wouldn’t want to be. As trade unions we need to be able to see these differences. If we don’t take them into account in the workplace, they can lead to asymmetries and violence.
Migrant and racialized workers are affected by various structures of oppression such as race, social class, administrative action, a lack of a social network or community, and fear and misinformation regarding rights. Capitalism, the big bosses, and management carry racism in their DNA and they exploit racist attitudes, using them to scapegoat and target migrant and racialized workers, positioning them as responsible for all of society’s ills.
At LAB, we see migrant and racialized workers providing our organization with both many new members and new forms of collective organizing. They are often people with experience of various struggles, knowledge, and talents that are not always appreciated. They have a lot to teach us about struggle and organization.
This is the case, for example, with the agricultural workers in Nafarroa-Navarre, the workers at delivery services such as Amazon, and domestic workers in Bizkaia. They have demonstrated their tremendous personal skills, skills that have strengthened our union and enriched it with diversity.
In the face of growing fascism, increasing exploitation and the spreading of racism and hate speech, we at LAB, as a pro-sovereignty, feminist, and internationalist trade union are pushing forward and building a counter-narrative and counter-power based on worker solidarity. It is important that we, as a working-class group, are aware of our collective power and intelligence, an important issue for the Basque Country.
Then is mobilizing intelligence from below also important to you in other ways?
Yes, the LAB is a socio-political trade union, a union that counters the current power structures, with over 46,000 members and more than 4,000 union representatives (who play a similar role to German workers’ councils), working across all sectors in the Basque Country. Right now, as capital is strongly organized and cohesive, the working class needs to be well organized to activate the social and trade union struggles in our country.
One could say that in the Basque Country there are three very different trade union models: firstly, the Spanish unions UGT and CCOO that have committed to social dialogue and abandoned the struggle; secondly, on the Basque side, the ELA trade union, which is also a social partner; and thirdly the LAB trade union model which involves claiming and committing to being a tool for the working class to advance the struggle and bring about the political and social changes the working class needs.
The working class?
The subject of class, as we understand it historically, is evolving in leaps and bounds, and the working class is becoming increasingly atomized. For this reason, at LAB we’ve established a flexible organization model that recognizes the different realities of the world of work and organizes the workers in the union around their own work realities. The struggle is a part of the identity of Basque trade unionism, and the members of LAB are all present in this struggle.
The Basque Country is the part of Europe where the most strike action occurs. This is because there is a trade union presence that is different from the rest of the territories, union counter-power is real here and there’s a history of confrontational unionism also. Thanks partly to this history of union mobilization, working conditions are better in the Basque County than in other parts of Spain.
How do you organize your solidarity work?
Solidarity is a hallmark of our union. The commitment and militancy of LAB union members sets our model apart from other unions. The rapid growth of the union, particularly over the last few years, has helped us improve.
The LAB Fight Fund, which is financed 100 percent through membership dues and — unlike the funds of other unions — is not used just to provide financial support to striking workers, is of particular note. The fund also supports members who are victims of police violence and laws like the “gag law” that criminalizes social protest.
Is there coordination on campaigns against European capital?
Sadly not, although the current international situation does demand it. However, in the Basque Country there is the platform Euskal Herria Kapitalari planto! (Basque Country Against Capital!) and starting from the pro-sovereignty trade union movement, we can articulate an alternative to the Europe of states and capital.
One of the most important conclusions we can draw from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the need for international relations that defy the logic of the ruling blocs, and instead are based on the rights of all people and centre human life. The people can promote an alternative world order on the basis of solidarity and fraternity between peoples.
Do you have any approaches to transnational trade union work along global value chains?
Nothing has been developed on the platform for this yet but we and other unions who met at the second meeting of pro-sovereignty unions in Valencia in November 2022 set ourselves the task of working on this in future.
Is this platform important to you as a union in the Basque Country?
For LAB, as the pro-independence union that it is, the Stateless Nations’ Trade Union Platform space is crucial. Basque independence is no nationalist dream, especially as those who want to deny the Basque right to self-determination also want to sell it. Independence and a break with the regime inherited from Francoism are absolute necessities for ensuring a dignified life for Basque people. It should not be forgotten that the class system of the Spanish state is based on its unity and that the only way to strengthen radical political and social change is to break the territorial unity of the Spanish state.
At the same time, the alliances that the platform has enabled us to build with unions like the STC from Corsica, the SLB from Brittany, the USTKE from New Caledonia, the UGTG from Guadeloupe, and the UGTM from Martinique can be important in configuring an alternative centre of gravity to the unions operating at the national level defined by the French state.
As far as the Spanish state is concerned, the only areas where there are real preconditions for change are stateless nations such as the Basque Country and Catalonia. This was demonstrated recently in relation to an attempt at reforming the Constitutional Court: state power will act against even the slightest suggestion of an attempt to advance democratization.
As for the French state, the STC is the majority union in Corsica, and Brittany is a densely populated region. If the pro-sovereignty trade union movement in the northern Basque Country and in Brittany were strengthened in combination with the strength of the trade unions in Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Canary Islands, and Corsica, it would be possible to build an alternative for the people under French state rule as well.
So, is it only unions that advocate for the independence of a nation that can participate, or are unions that represent other disadvantaged and minority groups also involved, for example, Moroccans working under the Spanish state?
Only pro-sovereignty trade unions or trade unionists who defend the right of peoples to self-determination participate in the work of the platform and in pro-sovereignty meetings.
Basque society and LAB membership is diverse, and this is also reflected in our trade union work.
Are the participating unions linked to national independence movements then?
The pro-sovereignty or independence alliances differ by area. For example, LAB comes from the Basque Country and from out of what is historically known as the Basque National Liberation Movement. In Catalonia, there is the Republican Left of Catalonia, but they are weaker, the majority of pro-independence parties are centre-left and centre-right. Nevertheless, at the grassroots level the Catalan independence movement is very broad and very diverse, and a progressive mindset is very widespread throughout their organization.
What is your relationship like with the other unions and workers that operate within the state?
It really depends on which union we’re talking about.
In the past, LAB has had really friendly relations with unions from stateless nations such as Catalonia, Galicia, the Canary Islands, Asturias, Andalusia, Aragon, and the Valencian region to name just a few, but we also have good relations with unions that operate on a country-wide level and that shared in the struggle against the regime of 1978 — the entrenchment of post-Francoist structures during the Spanish state’s transition to democracy — and support people’s right to self-determination.
Our relationship with unions such as UGT and CCOO — which have been crucial to the strengthening of the current regime and have tried to exclude us from many spaces, such as Navarre, where union apartheid was more than evident — is very different. Nonetheless, LAB has made common cause with UGT and CCOO in many negotiations and even in some struggles.
It is important to note that state-level unions such as the anarcho-syndicalist unions CGT and CNT participate in the demonstrations organized by the Basque trade union majority. The important thing to be able to fight together is not whether you are pro-independence or pro-sovereignty or not but whether you have mutual respect and are willing to fight against the system.
Does nationality play a role in strikes?
No. Basque society and LAB membership is diverse, and this is also reflected in our trade union work. What separates the Basque trade union movement from state-level unions is not national identity, not the question of “Basque or Spanish” but instead, their trade union model and the unwillingness of state-level trade unions to recognize the democratic right to self-determination of the Basque people.
What do you see for the future of the platform — will you welcome more unions from other regions into the fold?
We do know that there are pro-sovereignty unions that are not part of the platform for various reasons, and that in countries like Scotland or Northern Ireland there are no pro-sovereignty unions because the unions are branches of English unions.
To date, the most important steps have been the incorporation of the network Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland (TUNUI) and independent trade unionists from Scotland. After our first meeting in Bilbao, our second meeting was held in Valencia, and in 2023 we’ll meet at the EFACIS Conference which will take place in Belfast on the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Currently, the pro-sovereignty union space is a space that we’re very enthusiastic about working in. There are conditions in this space that suggest that it is not merely being consolidated, but also growing, in terms both of the number of trade union organizations and of the political dynamics.
In today’s Europe, the growing Left that is in a position to constitute an alternative to the status quo comprises the pro-sovereignty left in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Scotland, Ireland, and Corsica, and the trade unions must be part of these processes of transformation in order to improve the working and living conditions of the working and popular classes.