A brief guided tour around the political and organisational landscape of the movement –
for participants new to international trade union discussions
Speaker: Dave Spooner, GLI Manchester
Date: Monday 7th, July.
- Dave Spooner explains it’s very hard to find an example of the ITUC’s concept of ‘decent work’ in today’s economy
- The ILO was formed in 1919 in response to the Russian Revolution – Dave Spooner describes it as a ‘theatre of class warfare’!
- Some unions are turning to the World Federation of Trade Unions, however problematic, in a search for class-based unionism
- Climate change is one of the most pressing issues workers face globally
- Most European trade union structures are dependent on EU finance, which can be difficult under neoliberalism
- Passing a pro-worker motion in the ILO is just the ‘beginning of the battle’ before state ratification
- ‘Domestic workers have faced enormous abuse across the world’
- There is a tension within unions as to whether the labour movement should be anti-capitalist – an issue we will have to face
- Precarious work is on the rise in the global north. How should unions organise those workers?
- ‘Gone are the days when a union official could knock on the door of a factory, talk to the manager and then have a union’
- Everybody was an informal worker before the trade union movement – it was only through organising that employment standards rose
- Unions across the world are questioning their relationships with ‘social democratic’ parties which have become more neoliberal
- ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow has described the situation for unions across the globe as a ‘labour war’ by neoliberalism
- Delegate: neoliberalism is ‘capitalism without working-class opposition’ – a political project against workers
— Leiv Martin Green (@leivmartin) July 7, 2014
“A Starter Kit for International Trade Unionists”
The Starter Kit began with a discussion of the two types of ‘global unions’. The first type, global union federations (GUFs) used to be called International Trade Secretariats, and are the industrial wing of the international trade union movement. The political wing is the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and its variants. So there are two levels – industrial and political. Moreover, the ITUC represents national TUCs, while GUFs represent sectoral unions.
GUFs are based on industries and sectors, paid for through union subs. The International Transportworkers’ Federation (ITF) for example is made up of different transport unions. ‘They are paid for by you’ through a percentage of members’ subs – ‘a coffee per member per year’.
There are a number of GUFs, such as the BWI (the Building and Woodworkers’ International, representing largely construction workers), EI (Education International), IndustrALL (a manufacturing/industrial GUF merger), IFJ (International Federation of Journalists), IUF (representing primarily food-workers), PSI (a public sector GUF), UNI (for service sector workers) and so on. These meet together in their combined website Global Unions, a useful resource which contains all the information about global union campaigns.
Examples of GUFs
The IUF (The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations) was founded 1920, representing 336 unions in 120 countries and 12m workers. Like most GUFs, it is based in Geneva. The GLI’s own Dan Gallin was general secretary of the IUF for 29 years.
The ITF (International Transport-workers’ Federation) is based in London, and organises seafarers, railways, road, urban transport, tourism, fisheries and so on, representing 681 unions of 4,500,000 workers in 148 countries.
A final example, the BWI, is based in Geneva, representing construction, building, forestry, wood and paper workers (among others). It represents 350 unions, 12m members, and 135 countries. The BWI congress, held every 4 years, unfortunately coincides with this year’s ISS.
Unions can be affiliated to multiple GUFs. Indeed, Unite is affiliated to most GUFs as it represents a wide range of workers and sectors.
What do GUFs do?
- Trade union development and education
- Solidarity actions – GUFs are active in resisting repression with solidarity actions through email campaigns, petitions, pickets etc.
- Research – e.g. digging up information on target companies
- Co-ordinating representation in transnational corporations. Unilever has factories all over the world and comes under the IUF’s remit. The IUF thus tries to bring together all Unilever’s unions to meet and plan action internationally in order to stop workers being pitted against each other by bosses.
- UN and employer association representation
- Information exchange – a ‘telephone exchange on a giant level’
- Campaigning – from long hours and stress for lorry drivers, to food safety and land rights and everything in-between
GUFs often get involved in national disputes. National unions put out a call for solidarity, and GUFs respond by sending representatives, starting global campaigns etc.
The global federations also offer training, and can put unions in contact with other unions worldwide, organising joint training for example.
However, it must be remembered that they are not huge organisations, the ITF being the biggest with just 100 staff in London, plus staff regionally across the world. The IFJ probably has less than a dozen staff globally, while the IUF has around 100 staff and the BWI around 50.
The International Trade Union Confederation
The ITUC can be described as the global ‘TUC of TUCs’. Most countries have more than one TUC, and indeed some have dozens, while in UK we have only have one. The ITUC itself is quite new, formed in 2006 as a merger between two others confederations – the ICFTU (formed in 1949 and social democratic/democratic socialist) with the WCL (formed in 1920s and a Christian trade union federation of mostly Catholic unions based in Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Latin America and so on). Today the ITUC is based in Brussels, and Sharan Burrow is its General Secretary.
But what’s it for?
- Representing the trade union movement on international governmental bodies – e.g. ILO, WB, IMF, WTO etc.
- Campaigning for workers’ rights, e.g. through publishing its annual trade union repression report.
- Organising solidarity actions against repression, especially governmental repression. It played a major role in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.
- Research and union development
- The ‘Decent Work’ agenda
The World Federation of Trade Unions
Established in 1945, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) is a Communist union confederation strong during the Cold War which dates back to the Labour Union International. A Bolshevik confederation, the WFTU could be described as a ‘transmission belt of party policy to unions and to workers’, strongly following the party line.
The WFTU is was based in Prague, dominated by state-controlled unions plus other communist unions. However, it essentially collapsed after the Cold War ended, though remnents remain. Indeed, some unions are returning to the WFTU, which is today based in Athens and led by PAME, a radical Greek union confederation. It is seen as undergoing something of a resurgence.
Global Unions: Regional Structures
Many GUFs give their regional branches a high level of autonomy, allowing them to set their own policy, budgets, campaigns and so on. However, this degree of autonomy varies, with some being more centralised than others.
The International Labour Organisation
In terms of the ILO, we must first note it is not a trade union body, instead being part of the UN like UNICEF. However, unions do have strong representation in the ILO at 25%, with the ITUC holding many representatives. Employers’ associations also send representatives, holding 25% of seats, while governments hold 50% of ILO representation. As an organisation, the ILO can be seen as a ‘theatre of class warfare’.
A key role of the ILO is to set global labour standards, meeting annually for over two weeks in Geneva to debates labour standards – a process which takes months of preparation. In the case of domestic workers however, it paid off – they won. But it can go the other way.
Core Labour Standards
A key issue for the ILO is determining what the core rules are which should govern everyone. However, the ILO sets rules only for governments, not companies, creating a problem – you can only complain to the ILO about governments. Moreover, ILO Conventions (of which there are hundreds) have to be ratified by national governments, and as the ILO has no enforcement powers, ILO decisions are essentially voluntarily enforced.
The core tenets of the ILO are:
- Freedom of association
- Right to collective bargaining
- Elimination of forced labour
- Effective abolition of child labour
- Freedom from discrimination
- Decent work is big theme in the ILO too.
Important Debates and Issues in Global Unionism
A key debate within union federations today is that of ‘new capitalism’, represented through trends such as the financialisation of modern global corporations. Corporations are becoming more like casinos, sitting on vast stacks of cash. In a context of austerity, ‘there is lots of money – but it’s within the big corporations’. The US car company GM makes more money by ‘gambling on stock markets’ than making cars. Indeed, what companies now make is secondary – if they can make more money by gambling, they will do. This is having a major impact on us and workers generally.
Another major debate is ‘the problem with Europe’ – the demise of ‘Social Europe’. Social partnership was traditionally promoted by EU. However, the financial crisis means ‘the employers have walked out of the restaurant leaving workers to foot the bill’. Nonetheless, many unions in Northern Europe sadly continue to cling on to idea of social Europe. Moreover, the ETUC and European Industrial Committees were established and funded by the European Commission, and are often completely independent of the global union structures. The PSI and European Public Service Unions (EPSU) are completely independent, while the IUF is more involved in its European counterpart. Nonetheless, solidarity is very difficult in this context.
Climate Change, Energy and the Union Movement – Very few unions take climate change very seriously, although as climate change begins to hit this is starting to change. ‘When the lights start going off, you’ll start knowing there’s a serious problem’. In Pakistan garment factories are moving elsewhere, not because of industrial disputes, but due to power cuts.
The Future of Public Services – what do we think that public services should be? What’s our alternative – simply demanding more money funding and winding the clock back? Or democratic control?
The Rise of Precarious Work – Work is changing under ‘new capitalism’. Spooner notes his father had a job for life, yet ‘my kids won’t have that future’. All jobs are becoming precarious. ‘My kids may have period of unemployment, self-employment, agency work, etc. etc.’ Work is thus cut up and insecure. What do unions do about it?
On the other hand, most people in the world don’t even have precarious work – they have informal work, with people doing whatever they can, including selling their labour on the streets.
Rebuilding Unions from Below – Many unions are facing a crisis, with membership declining, facing huge attacks while maintaining structures which were created in a period of industrial peace. Yet there are few national collective bargaining agreements now. We need to rethink unions and rebuild from below. Unite Community Membership, StreetNet International – an international TU federation of people who make their living on the street – home based workers organising (your hand-stitched shoes are likely to have been made by home-based workers in Bulgaria, with 35k members in their union – they have strikes and do collective bargaining!), factory occupations in Greece and so on. All positive examples of new organising techniques.
Where are the politics? – Meanwhile, social democratic parties globally are declining, and relationships between unions and them are collapsing, particularly in Europe. The onward march of neoliberalism and austerity continues – ‘government policies are carrying on as they were’. ‘The crisis is permanent’, as they say. We need to think about political strategies to counter this.
The Resurgence of the WFTU – what does this mean? Why are the structures being revitalised a little? The RMT union in the UK has just affiliated to WFTU. In South Africa, NUMSA is considering it too. Does it stem from frustration with ITUC? Perhaps – the ‘ITUC hasn’t realised there’s a crisis happening for workers!’
Do we have a democratic socialist alternative? Here, we are clear in saying we are democratic socialists.
Sharan Burrow says ‘we are in a labour war across Europe, the US, [and] emerging democracies’. That’s from the head of the ITUC. The situation is serious.
All of these themes will be discussed over the course of the week, so look out for blogs of all the other main sessions!
Gallin, Dan. 2003. The International Labour Movement: History and Ideologies, GLI Geneva.
Gallin, Dan. 2013. The WFTU – Hydroponic Stalinism, Global Labour Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1.
Mather, Celia. 2010. Organising in the Global Workplace, Unite the Union.
Mustill, Edd (Ed). 2013. The Global Labour Movement: An Introduction, LabourStart 2013.
Oswald, Ron. 2006 Global Unions, Global Companies, Global Research, Global Campaigns, GLI New York, 2006.