Report from the World Social Forum

I wrote this article with Carl Rosen, President of UE District 11 (now UE’s Western Region), and Robin Alexander, UE’s Director of International Labor Affairs.  In January of 2002, when I was serving as Secretary-Treasurer for UE District 2, the three of us traveled to the second World Social Forum.

We had the good fortune to recently attend the second meeting of the World Social Forum which took place in early February in Porto Alegre, Brazil. We were part of a delegation of approximately fifty people which included representatives of Jobs with Justice and many wonderful community based organizations from throughout the United States. In this article we will attempt to give you a sense of what happened while we were there, share some of the things we learned, and explain why we think it was important.

The World Social Forum was organized to coincide with the meeting of the World Economic Forum which normally occurs in Davos, Switzerland, but which was re-located at the last moment to New York.

The World Economic Forum is a meeting of bankers, billionaires, and their friends in government and industry who paid a whopping $25,000 to attend. Meanwhile, on the streets of New York, some 15,000 protesters found themselves herded in groups with their passage severely restricted by heavily armed police.

As the corporate elite hobnobbed and schemed at the World Economic Forum, amidst protests and heavy security, a very different meeting took place in the city of Porto Alegre under the slogan “Another World is Possible.” The second annual World Social Forum brought together over 50,000 representatives from all sectors of civil society – trade unions, community organizations, women’s groups, indigenous peoples, students, environmentalists, etc. – to discuss and debate proposals for how to fight corporate globalization and build another, better world. This effort was intended as an open movement, emphasizing the necessity of a multiplicity of forces against globalization.

To give you a sense of the scale of the meeting, these are the statistics which were provided to us. There were:

  • 51,300 participants
  • 22,000 women
  • 4,909 organizations
  • 131 countries
  • 11,600 young people
  • 2400 journalists from 48 countries
  • 1000 volunteers every day
  • 2,500 children

Of the 15,230 registered delegates (those who were present on behalf of organizations) 2670 were trade unionists and 800 were educators. Following an insignificant presence last year at the first World Social Forum, this year the United States had the sixth largest delegation – 406 delegates – following Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France, and Uruguay.

Forum events were scattered throughout the city of Porto Alegre and a newspaper which was approximately an inch thick laid out the schedule for each day in English and Portuguese. The events consisted of meetings of three sizes (conferences, seminars and workshops), and were organized around four themes:

  1. The production of wealth and social reproduction
  2. Access to wealth and sustainability
  3. Civil society and the public arena
  4. Political power and ethics in the new society

In addition to the workshops and plenaries there were a variety of other activities and events. An initial peace march led tens of thousands of participants through the streets of Porto Alegre to an open air stadium where the opening ceremony took place. In addition to dancing, speeches, etc, the opening included a live video link-up with protestors in New York.

Later in the week another large march loudly denounced the FTAA, and throughout the week smaller marches and rallies took place on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights and a defense of midwives to protests against the attack on the CUT’s office (more on this below). One of our favorite parts of the marches were the “radical cheerleaders,” young women from Canada who denounced war and corporate globalization with great energy and wit.

“Testimonials” by such figures as Noam Chomsky, Rigoberta Menchu, Susan George, and many others were scheduled during the course of the week, as were various cultural events. In addition, a “Debt Tribunal” took testimony for several days from people from various countries about the problems associated with the IMF and World Bank and the impact that debt had on their countries and their lives.

Part of what made the World Social Forum so remarkable was that it took place in Porto Alegre, a coastal city of 1.2 million people, very far to the south, and fairly close to Argentina.

Porto Alegre is governed by the Workers’ Party which has run the city government for 12 years. The party’s candidates have won by large majorities because they have proved that the left can govern. The city has seen falling crime rates, improved health and education, and a noticeably more equal distribution of income than other Brazilian cities. They have cleaned up corruption and waste, and instituted a participatory budget process that is a model of transparency and democratic process. For the last two years the Workers’ Party has also held the governorship of the state, Rio Grande do Sul.

It was wonderful to be in a place where it felt like the government was working for the people rather than against them. This was evident during the course of the week, in some ways which were obvious. Upon arriving at the Porto Alegre airport, we had the very welcome experience of finding a whole office devoted to providing information and solving problems. The PT logo was all over Forum materials, signs and banners, clearing confirming what we had been told: that both the City and State governments had generously supported the event. One other indication was that some of the large meetings took place in the military gymnasium – something that would be unthinkable in the United States.

There were other government activities which were even more significant, although less obvious. We had the opportunity to meet with two representatives of the city office which coordinates a participatory budget process. We learned that the Workers’ Party (PT) has turned over a significant portion of the city’s budget to neighborhood assemblies, which are open to all, and which elect delegates to a city-wide budget council every year. For example, in 2001, 21,805 citizens, or about 1.5% of the city’s population, participated in the process.

We also gained some understanding of the landless workers’ movement – MST – a million person movement of displaced rural workers who carry out direct-action land reform by seizing unused land held by wealthy landowners and establishing co-operative farms. The Movement of the Landless is the largest and most successful land reform movement in the world, having settled 300,000 families on millions of acres of land. In one cooperative that Jonathan and some others visited, one hundred families farmed 5,400 acres together and shared the proceeds. Nobody gets rich, but no one goes hungry – as do millions of other Brazilians who remain landless and unemployed.

Some of the best things were unanticipated. By speaking to one’s neighbor in a food line or a workshop there was the possibility of fascinating conversations with people from around the world. In that way I met a film maker from England, a labor leader from Spain and an activist from South Africa who worked with workers in the informal sector. At a press conference Robin wound up having a chance encounter with a physics professor who worked with the peace movement in Pakistan. We spent over an hour in what was for me a fascinating conversation. At the end of the conversation she asked him what he hoped activists in the U.S. could do. He responded that we must ensure that it is the United Nations, not the United States which is responsible for keeping peace in Afghanistan, and that we must fight against the international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

Another unexpected delight was the friendliness of the strangers. One cultural element we loved and think we should immediately start making full use of is the thumb’s up gesture – accompanied by a great smile – that ended many exchanges.

This is not to say that everything was perfect. For example, many of the labor sessions we attended were quite dry, and there was a serious lack of representation by women on the panels. However, in one of the more interesting panels, a representative of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) challenged the labor movement to criticize itself and to honestly discuss differences with direct action and other groups in order to work together in a united fashion. She pointed to the criticism they had received from their members after the march in Quebec, where young people turned to climb the hill and tear down the fence while the labor movement continued along its original route. “What difference would it have made if we had all turned to climb that hill?” she demanded.

Another weakness was the lack of participation by trade unionists from the US. As in Quebec, there was participation from the AFL-CIO (Linda Chavez Thompson and representatives of the Solidarity Center were present in Porto Alegre), and some members of activist locals came through Jobs with Justice. However, we saw no indication that the affiliates had exerted any effort to send representatives, and we believe that the UE representatives were the only union delegates from the United States who were officially representing their union.

It seemed to us that during the Forum two issues were of overwhelming importance. The first was the role of the international financial institutions and the problem of crushing external debt. There was a lot of discussion of the recent economic collapse of Argentina, and while we were there the news reported demonstrations by the middle class protesting the freezing of bank assets and then by the unemployed demanding jobs. This underscored the point that the main issue for workers in the Global South is the debt their countries owe to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the way those institutions manipulate the debt to enforce the rules of corporate globalization.

There was also much discussion of neoliberal economics and structural adjustment policies. Although these terms are foreign to many Americans, we see the same policies all over the world: downsizing, privatization schemes, and a budget-cutting frenzy. We learned of the intimate connection between these policies and free trade, where the IMF and World bank force the countries of the Global South to base their economies on exports, turning them into low wage havens for transnational capital. It made it very clear to us that it is in the direct interest of U.S. workers to support the struggles against the IMF, World Bank and for debt relief.

Being in Brazil also brought home the importance of internationalism and international solidarity in another, more concrete way due to an extremely disturbing event which transpired while we were there – an attack by ten uniformed men on the offices of the CUT, Brazil’s largest and most progressive trade union federation.
At about two in the morning on February 2nd the night security officer at the CUT building in Sao Paulo was ordered to open the door by men dressed in civil police uniforms. He was then locked in a room while a truck without license plates was driven into the CUT’s parking area. The men, armed with machine guns and other weapons, stole thirty computers, a safe and numerous documents from the building which houses the CUT’s national headquarters, the Sao Paulo office as well as offices of many other federations affiliated with the CUT.

The attack is the latest in a series of crimes affecting the CUT, including the murder of dozens of CUT trade unionists. For example, Aldanir dos Santos, a member of the CUT’s national executive committee was brutally murdered last December. Other recent assassinations have included high ranking elected leaders of the CUT’s close ally, the Workers’ Party (PT): Sen. Toninho, mayor of Campinas, and Celso Daniel, Mayor of Santo André and Lula’s campaign manager. None of these cases has yet been solved. (Luis Inacio Lula da Silva who is known simply as Lula is running for president once again in elections which are scheduled for October of this year. As you may know, as president of the metalworkers union from the industrial area around Sao Paulo, he was a leader of the strikes in the late 80’s which involved over 3 million workers and marked the re-birth of the trade union movement. Along with other trade unionists he went on to found the Workers Party (PT), which now governs various cities and states and has elected dozens of representatives to the Brazilian Congress).

Although six of the computers were recovered and some arrests occurred, the CUT does not view this as a simple case of robbery, stating that it has “the characteristics of an act which has been planned and directed. It is hardly a coincidence that this has occurred during the World Social Forum, of which the CUT is one of the organizing bodies.” The CUT also notes that the robbery occurred on the night following the approval of a national strike to protest labor legislation which would undercut rights guaranteed by Brazil’s federal labor law.

It was not until we were in Brazil that we finally understood the broader picture, and that this attack has implications that go way beyond the CUT or even Brazil. Our time in Porto Alegre gave us some sense of what it would mean if the PT were successful in winning. But if you think that this only affects the people of Brazil, think about the implications for our hemisphere if the PT wins the presidency of Brazil and the role that Brazil will play in determining whether the FTAA is approved! In our globalized world, what happens in Brazil will affect all of us.

We ask that you show solidarity with the brothers and sisters of the CUT by sending a letter protesting the attack on their office and asking for a rigorous and prompt investigation. It is important that our governments know that we are watching! Following this article is the letter of protest sent by UE’s national president, John H. Hovis, Jr. We ask that you use it as a model or draft your own.

Upon our return to the United States a few weeks ago, we have tried to reflect on the meaning of the World Social Forum. It made us recall the story of the blind men and the elephant – one touches its tail and concludes that it like a rope, another its leg and concludes that it is like a tree.

Was it simply an amazing smorgasbord or was it something more?

Kevin Murray, from Grassroots international explained it this way when he was trying to convince people of the importance of attending: “From dawn to dusk, those at the WSF will attend workshops, conferences, cultural events and demonstrations. They will find kindred souls from dozens of like-minded organizations and will learn about their work. Some of those contacts will turn into future collaboration. Everyone in attendance will get a first-hand look at the movement for global justice in all of its diversity and difference.”

He was right. For us as a union it was wonderful! We were able to listen to representatives of the CUT and PT, see how impressive they were, and begin to understand why Brazil may soon have a socialist government. We finally connected with the CUT’s metal workers’ union, and had a chance to spend time with our friends from the FAT in Mexico, from the CGT in France, and from various unions from Quebec and Canada. We met other trade unionists, community activists and organizers for the first time. And we learned some things that we will bring back home to help us to build a stronger movement here.

But Porto Alegre was more than that. Marc Cooper, writing for the Nation, listed four areas of consensus. He observed that there was “A general recognition that the time has come to reposition the movement in positive, affirmative terms–a need to move from purely exposing and protesting to proposing and solving.” In addition he said, the “crisis of legitimacy generated by the Battle of Seattle was only temporarily mitigated by 9/11. It’s time to resume the offensive against the WTO.” Third, he noted a strong consensus in opposition to the FTAA. And finally, the need to envision and articulate an alternative economic architecture to replace the IMF and World bank.

The Nation was also right. But Porto Alegre was more than that as well. In its final declaration the document is sub-titled “Resistance to neoliberalism, war and militarism; for peace and social justice” and its 16 points are broader and more ambitious than those identified in the Nation, and more clearly linked to direct action.

But personally, on top of everything else, what we took from Porto Alegre was renewed hope. It is a hope inspired by all of the young people who were there; by the friendliness, helpfulness, and enthusiasm; by the respect for difference; that we were part of a larger delegation which represented the best of the labor and community movements in the United States and that we were all part of a much larger, global movement in which everyone was working for a better world….

In short, that another world is possible!