Raquel Varela hat am 15. Mai 2013 als Präsidentin der International Association on Strikes and Social Conflicts zur Eröffnung von deren zweitem Kongreß in Dijon folgende Rede gehalten.
"I want to begin by thanking the Maison des sciences de l'homme, Serge Wolikow and all who were involved in organizing this conference, all members of the Association and all present. And greet the rector of the University.
During these two years I was the president of an academic association that was founded in order to promote and disseminate studies on labour and social conflict from an interdisciplinary, global, long term historical and non Eurocentric perspective.
Two main purposes have guided our work.
The first was to establish academic and interdisciplinary links between the north and south of the world, not from an Eurocentric perspective but with a real sense that we have to listen, read, study and debate among one another to understand the history and society. We know that the 30 glorious years in Europe were years of blood and forced labour in the colonies, and were only possible because the exploitation of the colonies remained in that period. We’ve understood that slavery ended also because it was not very productive for the British Empire in the beginning of the industrial revolution. We’ve anticipated that the opening of the Chinese market in the 1990s was instrumental in bringing down the real value of wages in Europe in that period.
Global, more than comparative, is knowing that the capitalist mode of production is one. And that labour also needs to be analysed on a global scale, not only by the already known migratory waves but because the supply chain is made on a global scale and therefore on the same ship, there may be high-tech engines made in Holland in factories that are cleaned by Moroccan immigrants, engines that use steel that may have been made from the collection of ore in the Amazon, using child labour. Today, in Dubai, there are workers who were fired from Portuguese shipyards in the 1980s and who are now responsible for supervising the work of Filipino immigrants who never had the experience of a workers’ committee.
This association has been instrumental in connecting – and today you can see that in the programme of this conference – researchers from the U.S., Europe, Latin America and South Africa. To expanded it and continue this work today is therefore one of the collective goals to which we must commit.
The second purpose was to bring – in addition to studies of labour, of the labour movement, political parties and political theory, which we also study here – the notion of social conflict into these studies. Because labour is not a quiet, almost static photograph, like the beautiful works of Lewis Hine, but a complex film of a tense relationship between labour and capital, as in Chaplin’s Modern Times. Labour is not just a machine stored in a museum of industrial archaeology, it is a relationship mediated and pierced by conflict such as the one that birthed the 8-hour journey on May 1, 1886, in Chicago. We are aware that this partition between capital and labour remains a central divide and therefore its expression – social conflicts, strikes, revolutions, social movements, various forms of collective action – should be the focus of our scrutiny as social scientists.
Despite its name, this is not an association to study strikes and social conflicts, it is an association where we also study strikes and social conflicts.
We do not glorify the past but we don’t fear it. So we know that the Santo Domingo revolution in the late eighteenth century, the only successful slaves’ revolution in history which gave birth to Haiti, went much further than the British ever dreamed of when they supported the revolt against the French, then owners of the island. We know that in China more than 100 000 strikes took place two years ago forcing wage raises of up to 20%. We know that the 1929 crisis had Nazism as its outcome, but to get to Nazism they had first to defeat the Spanish Revolution, the French Popular Front, the Austrian civil war, the sit down strikes in the U.S.
And we know that Nazism was defeated after six years also because of the armed workers, forcing the birth of the welfare state as a way to counter revolution in Europe, the same social state threatened today by countercyclical measures. We also know that the Flint strike in the U.S. in 1998 only involved 9000 workers but stopped 26 of the 29 GM plants in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and threatened production in Brazil – altogether over 120 000 workers were totally or partially standing, because the supply chain, of engines in this case, was stopped at one of its tips. We remember that in 2003, 25,000 stevedores stopped the ports of California against the Iraq war, and that on March 20, 2003 there was the biggest internationalist demonstration ever in the history of mankind, against the invasion of Iraq by the USA.
History is a process, not a fatality. We make history in its tragedies and joys, a process made by social subjects and not a teleological, divine delusion. Therefore history comprises choices, of covenant or conflict, of victory or defeat, sometimes a tie, although not long lasting as we know.
In the midst of deepest crisis that Europe has probably experienced since World War II, our role as social scientists cannot be ignored, especially our social role. Regardless of our personal choices with life outside the academy, we have an obligation to disjoin the common places built in the politico-mediatic fights. Europe is not threatened by a conflict between north and south, Germany and Greece. The on-going changes in labour relations in southern Europe, with a tendency to widespread precarization, is part of a general change in Europe where the fall of the Greek worker's salary through migratory pressure, through relocation of businesses, or due to the simple existence of a relative super population (mass unemployment) at European level also means a drop in the wages of German workers and perhaps the return and the persecution of immigrants outside the Schengen area.
We don’t know whether the European workers will resist the nationalist pressures to blame whole countries for this crisis, not differentiating class and social sectors within each country, but we are also here to remember that it was the inability to build an internationalist alternative that led to the tragedies of World Wars I and II.
Before finishing let me remind you that one of the characteristics of this association is its theoretical and disciplinary diversity. More than a common place or a never reached aspiration, this association embodies research groups, archives, research centres representing the diverse and most important currents in the labour movement (social democrats, Catholics, communists, anarchists, far left, etc.) and the main theoretical approaches of labour.
You will understand that the success of these choices of this Association is measured, for now, on three facts we are proud of: the first is the publication of the academic journal Workers of the World, freely accessible online, which now has 120 downloads a day; our reunion in these conferences and the vast network that we are building every day with the exchange of correspondence, information, links that weave global labour history. We have gone from 12 to 34 member institutions and today we reach perhaps more than 10 000 researchers around the world only through this association and certainly many more through our academic journal. Today we’ve launched Workers of the World No 3, dedicated precisely to global labour history, with Christian DeVito as our guest editor. To proceed with this work, to reinforce it, to extend it depends on all of us.
Therefore I invite all members and those who want to bring their institution to the Association to be present at the General Meeting to be held on May 16 at the end of that day’s sessions of the conference.
We honour in this conference, and with this I will end, two great men of the social sciences and of social and political thought. Eric Hobsbawm from Britain and Carlos Nelson Coutinho from Brazil. Carlos Nelson Coutinho, one of the most important Brazilian intellectuals of his time, a great expert and populariser of the works of Gramsci, Emeritus Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, built his work around this phrase that he’s always cherished: "Without democracy there is no socialism, and without socialism there will be no democracy”. On this side of the Atlantic, Hobsbwam, someone you all know, the author of great books on contemporary history, left us with a warning: “The world will not improve by itself. "
I wish you an excellent conference."
Raquel Varela, President of the International Association Strikes and Social Conflicts (2011/2013).