The WFTU Congress in Bulgaria


PAPERING OVER THE DIFFERENCES The WFTU Congress in Bulgaria BY SILVIO F SENIGALLIA Sofia Meeting in the wake of Salvador Allende's death and in the midst of the fourth Arab-Israeli war, the...

...PAPERING OVER THE DIFFERENCES The WFTU Congress in Bulgaria BY SILVIO F SENIGALLIA Sofia Meeting in the wake of Salvador Allende's death and in the midst of the fourth Arab-Israeli war, the eighth congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) inevitably reflected the recent rise in international tensions Yet the most striking aspect of the proceedings last month in Varna, Bulgaria, was the contrast between the blandly moderate statements made by Eastern European officials and the impassioned denunciations of the Chilean coup, Israeli "aggression' and Yankee imperialism voiced by African, Asian and Latin American spokesmen Since the WFTU has of course been following the Soviet Umon in stressing the theme of East-West detente to the utmost and pressing for cooperation among the trade unions of all nations, the Third World delegates could not deviate very far from the official line Nonetheless, they not only view the improvement of relations among the industrially advanced nations as a strictly European affair but fear that their Left-wing nationalist movements will be sacrificed on the altar of the new equilibrium between the two superpowers That much was clear from the urgent tone of the non-European members of the WFTU--an organization in which the Third World has a numerical majority but the Soviet bloc controls the levers of power And it explains why, as the correspondent of the French Communist party daily L'Humanite noted, the attitude of the non-European Varna participants toward Soviet labor czar Aleksandr Shele-pin in no way matched the slavish adulation accorded the USSR's delegation head at previous congresses Predictably, except for the representatives of unions operating in capitalist countries, almost everyone at the meeting spoke in political rather than labor terms One heard endless exhortations for the greatest possible unity of the working class, repetitious condemnations of multinational corporations and glowing praise of trade unionism in Socialist countries The delegates of the newly independent nations, where trade unionism barely exists and there are no capitalist governments to blame for the workers' plight, chose to dwell on the international factors retarding the pace of development In these circumstances the address by Hungarian labor leader Sandor Gaspar, devoted to such specific issues as wages, working conditions and trade-union autonomy in Eastern Europe, was especially noteworthy He acknowledged the legitimate interests of unionists living m capitalist economies and expressed regret that for too long labor officials in the Socialist nations had chosen to "hide behind the Party's back " He also emphasized the independent role of the Hungarian unions, the members' power and veto right over management's decisions (apparently making strikes unnecessary), and the unions' accountability solely to the workers The only controversy to enliven the otherwise tame congress came when the predominantly Communist General Confederation of Italian Labor (CGIL), Italy's strongest labor organization, with a membership of over 3 million workers, introduced a resolution aimed at loosening its ties with the WFTU Despite initial opposition from the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and some Third World delegations (notably India's), CGIL was granted permission to change its status from full to associate membership as soon as the General Counsel amends the WFTU charter to create such a category This will give the CGIL greater flexibility and enable it to transform its present unity of action pact with Italy's two non-Communist labor movements into a total merger, improving intraunion relations between Communists and Socialists For the Italian Socialist party, currently joined in a coalition government with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, membership in an ideologically intransigent, Soviet-oriented body has long been a source of embarrassment The new status should also pave the way for closer relations between the CGIL and the Western European trade union movement, and lead eventually to its admission into the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Aware that they would ultimately be forced to follow CGIL's step, French labor leaders fought a rearguard action Unfriendly relations with the non-Communist unions and the Stalinist mentality of its old cadres are bound to make disengagement from WFTU and entry into ETUC a slower and more difficult operation for CGT than for its Italian counterpart The final compromise on associate membership, made possible by the full support of the Soviet delegation, was a victory for CGIL The issue of a possible Chinese return to WFTU was totally ignored A Rumanian delegate told me it was still much too early to raise the question, because it would be strongly opposed by both the Soviet and French delegations Two violent tirades, by the Bulgarian labor chief and a Mongolian delegate, plus a critical article in the Sofia labor daily Trud, provided a clear indication of the congress' attitude toward Mao Tse-tung and his regime Officially, however, the Chinese had been invited, as evidenced by 45 empty rooms at the Ambassador Hotel The choice of Varna as the congress' meeting place was a feather in the cap of the Bulgarian trade unions, who mounted a remarkable organizational effort The press office functioned smoothly, and a platoon of young interpreters and all-around chaperones kept everyone informed about the schedule of activities The sessions were held at the Sports Palace on the periphery of the city, but the delegates and press representatives were lodged at Zlatni Py-assatsi, a handsome Black Sea resort 10 miles to the north Zlatni Pyassatsi, though, is no more typical of Bulgaria than is Miami Beach of the United States A two-hour drive toward the Rumanian border or even the short trip into Varna are enough to reveal the harsh reality of an underprivileged country striving hard to catch up with the second half of the 20th century For example an enormous industrial zone (mostly chemical works and cement plants) extends for miles west of Varna It employs 50,000 workers, I was told, and is being enlarged The pungent smell and heavy smoke spewing out of this complex is a threat to the people's health as well as the landscape's beauty It is understandable that the Bulgarian government, m its rush to increase the nation's industrial production, has not yet had time for ecological niceties But WFTU Secretary-General Pierre Gensous' boasts at the congress about the success of the Socialist system in the fight against air and water pollution, voiced just 15 miles from those clouds of chemical fumes, had a rather hollow ring I was impressed by both the magnitude of Bulgaria's problems and the government's determination to solve them As a Westerner, I cannot accept the principle of total state control Still, it is only fair to concede that in the fields of education, health and childcare, there is evidence of steady and substantial progress in this industrially backward country Consumer goods are scarce and the standard of living is austere, but children look happy and properly fed--in 10 days' travel, I did not see any signs m Bulgaria of the malnutrition so common m southern Italy With the representatives of the ancien regime practically all departed, the actual or potential critics of the present system are the young, restless intellectuals, who can hardly remember the hardships of the two postwar decades They do not seem to mind the austerity of life in Bulgaria as much as the seclusion from the Western world This isn't a matter of ideology, of wanting to renounce Socialism, but rather of intense curiosity, of simply wanting to visit France, Italy or Britain because they have heard and read so much about them But the day when that will be possible on a significant scale, like the day when WFTU congresses will deal meaningfully with genuine labor problems, remains far off Silvio F Senigallia, a veteran contributor, is the Rome representative of Farrar, Straus and Giroux...

Vol. 56 • November 1973 • No. 23

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