Report back from the GLI summer school

Edd attended the Global Labour Institute’s (GLI) International Summer School at Northern College, UK, last week. Here’s a short report back and some thoughts from a LabourStart point of view.


The theme of the school was ‘the political agenda of the international trade union movement’, and most sessions were bound together by the idea that we need to put socialism back at the heart of the labour movement. Among the 100+ participants, 21 countries were represented and there was a good mix of ages and experience – most, but not all, of the younger trade unionists came from here in the UK. In this country, the sort of labour-internationalism pushed by the GLI is a very necessary counterweight to the prevailing internationalism in the unions, which too often goes no further than whether or not your branch is affiliated to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign…

One of the recurrent themes of the school was the increasing prevalence of ‘precarious’ work across all sectors of the global economy, which is making the establishment (or re-establishment) of collective bargaining more difficult. Some unions are beginning to rethink and reshape their structures to deal with this, aiming to bring these workers into the movement. Comrades from the global south made the point that what we call precarious and informal work has been the norm in their countries for decades or longer. It struck me throughout the week that unions in the ‘West’ probably now have more to learn from these comrades than to teach them.

The school was marked by a genuine atmosphere of open debate – on issues like the re-emergence (or not) of the WFTU, for example. A South African comrade whose union is not affiliated to the WFTU nevertheless said he could understand why other unions were attracted to it, given the lack of political lead from the ITUC. A live video Q&A session with Sharan Burrow from the ITUC on the Thursday showed a fair amount of dissatisfaction with the organisation, particularly from young people. There were also differences of opinion, for example, on how the All-China Federation of Trade Unions should be approached (if at all) – a comrade from Hong Kong was fairly optimistic about the chances of workers democratising it by mass pressure from below, even if this takes several years.

There was a really interesting session with a critical assessment of the ‘organizing model’ of trade unionism. This is being questioned in the US now, not long after it has started to really take root in other countries. The gist of the discussion was that the practice of setting up organiser training academies has its advantages, but is in danger of creating an insular group of professional organisers within the union, rather than equipping, for example, shop stewards, to take on organising work themselves (although this is made difficult by a lack of facility time, etc).

There was only one significant potential contradiction I saw in the politics of the event: everyone wants a strong independent union movement with explicitly socialist politics, but also a ‘broad alliance’ of unions and civil society groups against the effects of neo-liberal capitalism. My worry is that, at least in this country, the ‘broad alliance’ language is often cover for the further watering down of the unions’ politics. This is an issue which I don’t think is being adequately addressed yet in debates within the movement – can we place unions at the head of such an alliance and keep good politics? If so, how?


Obviously there’s a lot of crossover between LabourStart and the GLI in terms of the people involved. Quite a few LabourStart correspondents were there, particularly from the IUF millieu, and the British trade unionists present had generally heard of us and were in many cases on the mailing list. We made a new contact from IUF India who may be able to help us out finding volunteer translators for Indian languages, which would fill a huge gap in our global campaigns. Gisela, who has been helping out organising the Berlin 2014 conference, and I also had a discussion with Dan Gallin who gave us some ideas about what sort of sessions we could run in Berlin next year, particularly with regard to the Eurozone crisis and the union response to it. I also gave 15 copies of each of our books to people who had expressed an interest in us and the work we do.

I think we should make a big effort to involve some comrades from the global south in the Berlin conference, as well as trying for a balance of male/female speakers. There are a couple of speakers from the GLI event that Gisela has already talked to about Berlin 2014, or will shortly.

There’s a lot more I could mention – feel free to ask anything in the comments below or email me at <eddmustill@labourstart.org>


Written by admin in: Events |


  • Thanks for sharing this, Edd, and very interesting it is too. Difficult to discuss online though.

    It seems to me that this is something like the “chicken and the egg” debate. Which came first, socialist “labour” parties or unions?

    Here in France as in most countries, it is clearly “unions”. But, over here, in our days, it’s best not to associate unions with socialism (CFDT) or communisme for that matter (CGT), to name just the 2 major unions.

    Media pressure over recent years is such that they’ve both more or less dissociated themselves from their spawn.

    But they are still a major source of social and economic ideas and their members are at least four-fold those of political parties.

    In the “Arab spring” countries, free (and I insist on the word “free”) unions are the only source of believable political opposition, liked by the population. Even established and tolerated (corrupt) labour parties are losing credibility.

    Free union figurehead members could be destined to become opposition leaders, but they, themselves, doubt their capacity to assume “power”.

    No doubt the pattern is the same in many other countries explaining the repression that exists there (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia…°

    Is there a reason to believe that this was ever different by the past?

    If unions could replace political parties, would the working man be truly represented? Yes, but amongst our members we would need (in no precise order) women, men, old, young, all colours, all races, all religions, gays, lesbians, trans, introverts, extraverts, handicapped, valid… But we already have them, much more than political parties!

    When we get governments representing half of the population (and not 1%) we’ll be half-way to our (union) objectives.

    This, I believe, and not a return to an outdated socialism, should be the short-term objective of the international labour movement.

    We have the ideas, they only have the money.

    Comment | July 16, 2013
  • Many thanks for this Edd.

    Comment | July 17, 2013

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