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What's going on in the world of the unions?

22 February 2005 - 8:10am

The world has never needed trade unions as much as it does today, but it needs an international trade union structure fit for purpose. Find out more here...

Owen Tudor, Head of the TUC's European Union & International Department, writes:

The world has never needed trade unions as much as it does today, but it needs an international trade union structure fit for purpose.

The only sustainable route out of poverty in Africa is through employment. But without workers' rights, decent pay and skills, jobs won't be sustainable. Without democracy, and a vibrant civil society of which unions are an essential part, Africa's governments won't be able to attract or properly use the aid and debt relief that they are being offered. Even a health disaster like HIV/AIDS won't be conquered without union involvement in addressing the employment issues: and if a third of your workforce are HIV positive and another third are the widows or orphans of HIV/AIDS sufferers, those employment issues are pretty big.

In Asia, the big issue is China. Stepping out onto the global economic stage for the first time, China faces a choice between adopting the American business model - low wages, a poor welfare safety net and weak unions - or the European social model of strong unions, good wages and social protection. China could wreak havoc with the world economy and face enormous internal unrest if it doesn't accept the role of free trade unions - and workers all over the world will suffer.

And in South America and Europe, unions are pressing a number of left-wing governments to adopt positive macro-economic policies to create more and better jobs, equality and social justice rather than join in the race for the bottom.

But are unions up to all this? Defeating poverty, establishing equal rights and defending workers against the economic storm of globalisation?

Around the world, unions are losing members or just holding their own (in Britain, we're doing better than average - which isn't saying much). In some countries like Colombia and Iraq, trade unionists are being shot, bombed or kidnapped for doing what we take for granted in Britain. And we're spending too much of our limited resources competing with each other for members, arguing in committees or preaching to the converted.

This year has to be different.

Last December, the global trade union confederation to which the TUC (and therefore all Britain's trade unionists) belongs, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), held its conference in Japan, with the slogan "Globalising Solidarity".

Hundreds of trade unionists from around the world (including nine from the TUC) adopted policies on recruitment and organising, on HIV/AIDS, on core labour standards and union rights, on equality, on trade, aid and debt. We agreed what needs to be done to make solidarity a real, living thing.

But more important than all the resolutions and debates, all the meetings we held with trade unionists who want our help from Bulgaria to the Ukraine, and Brazil to Zimbabwe, the fringe meetings we sponsored on asbestos and lesbian and gay rights, was the decision we made to merge the ICFTU with the other main trade union organisation, the formerly Christian-dominated WCL.

The global trade union movement has been split ever since the beginning of the cold war, but its end did not create unity overnight. In Europe, the TUC and others battled to create a single European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) - and we succeeded. Communist, socialist and Christian trade unions have found no difficulty in working together, just as adherents of each philosophy (and of none) have always been able to unite in the TUC.

That has provided the rest of the world with a model and a goal, and now that goal - a united global trade union movement - could be achieved in little more than a year. May Day 2006 is already pencilled in as the date for the formation of a new world trade union movement.

As well as the ICFTU and the WCL, it is likely that former-communist confederations like the CGT in France, Muslim confederations from the Arab world and others will join in too.

The people leading the ICFTU into the unity discussions will be former TUC official Guy Ryder, now General Secretary of the ICFTU, and Australian Sharan Burrow, the newly-elected President, and the first woman ever to hold that post. That's an example of the changes, some of them long overdue, that we need to see if trade unionism is going to meet the challenge of the 21st century - to make globalisation work for everyone, not just the rich.

That objective, along with a united trade union movement focused on growth and campaigning rather than competition and argument, is particularly relevant to British workers and our unions.

There ain't no such thing as 'abroad'.

The economics of the firms where our members work - and the restrictions within which our governments operate - are determined by what's going on in the global economy and the multinational system: the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

British trade unions can't win better wages, jobs security or defend the welfare state without an effective international trade union movement fighting our corner at the WTO, in the International Labour Organisation or the G8 group of the richest nations.

If decisions that affect our jobs and our livelihoods are being made in Washington, Brussels or Hong Kong, we need trade unionists to be lobbying, campaigning and fighting for our interests there - not squabbling among themselves or sitting in an office thousands of miles away.

The TUC's delegation to the ICFTU World Congress last December came back tired but enthused by a really positive conference. Although the conditions in which it met were grim (and have got worse since with the Asian tsunami and the murder of one of the Iraqi colleagues we met in Japan, Hadi Saleh), the Congress did what Congresses should do.

We've taken the right decision. Now we've got to put it into effect.

Details of the debates and decisions taken at the Congress are on the ICFTU website at


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