How WTO and IMF slipped into Vancouver for “secret” meeting with global labour leaders

It seemed hard to believe: a panel discussion featuring the top leaders of the IMF and the WTO with the world’s labour leaders, here in Vancouver, and not a word in the media.

Yet it happened in June, unremarked by anyone other than the redoubtable Tyee.ca. Here’s my summary, published in the Aug 3 -9 issue of Business in Vancouver:

They slipped into Vancouver unnoticed in mid-June, most in person, some by video uplink, for five days of talks on the future of the global economy.

They included the head of the World Trade Organization, the director general of the International Monetary Fund, the president of Argentina, the prime minister of Greece, who is also head of the Socialist International, and 1,500 labour leaders.

They were guests of the Canadian Labour Congress, whose president, Ken Georgetti, is a BC expatriate.

Cost to taxpayers for security: zero.

Amount of mainstream news coverage that emerged from the mostly-public gathering: also zero.

Yet this second congress of the International Trade Union Confederation arguably was as important to the global economy as any of the deliberations that led up to the G20, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with many of the labour leaders who had earlier gathered in Vancouver.

Uniting 312 labor organizations in 152 nations, the ITUC claims to speak for 176 million workers. They are members of unions that wield critical economic power in places as diverse as Greece, Australia, Brazil and South Africa, all countries whose governments have relied on labour support at the polls.

When the meltdown threatened the global economy, many world leaders had their labour counterparts on speed dial.

So it should not have been a surprise that Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou, now imposing radical economic restructuring over the protests of Greek unions, would beam greetings in from New York, where he was chairing a council of the Socialist International.

Papandreou, whose flawless English reflects the years his family spent in exile in Canada and the United States, was only one of the speakers addressing the session who noted the ironies of the global economic recession.

Eighteen months ago, he recalled, banks around the world were throwing themselves at the feet of national governments, begging for bailouts. Markets were in free fall until governments responded.

Now, with a shaky stability restored, financial markets are sitting in judgement of national economies, forcing massive readjustments where they deem sovereign debt to be too high. The deficits created by the bailouts are now to be reduced by cuts to social services.

The price is very high for Greece, said Papandreou, who argued that corruption and mismanagement were at the heart of his country’s dilemma, not the cost of social services. He argued for a “new model of green development to protect the planet and strengthen our democratic institutions.”

The main messages from the ITUC: it’s time to tax financial transactions to curb speculation and to fund the economic stimulus necessary to protect jobs.

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization, while welcoming labour’s push for greater financial regulation, would not sign on to the new tax.

Financial institutions should pay the price of new stability, they agreed, but how is a longer discussion.

The global union leaders found more support for their views from Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — her speech received absolutely no coverage in Vancouver – who told delegates that a focus on jobs was critical to ensure her country weathered its own financial crisis.

“My obsession was to protect and create jobs,” she said. “The G20 and European countries now facing draconian economic recovery measures should remember the example of Argentina.

“We need in-depth reform of the unrestrained capital movements that were one of the principal causes of the crisis we face today,” she continued, “and we need to totally rethink the structure of the multilateral institutions that are now managing the consequences of the crisis.”

Radical talk? Perhaps to the ears of Vancouver listeners.

But it was a mainstream message for many G20 leaders, who are hearing the cry for jobs and economic justice in their own countries.