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From the Old Trade Union Internationals to the New

Commentary on ICFTU/ITUC congresses, Vienna, 31.10 – 3.11.06

Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Birkbeck College, University of London

The final congresses of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and of the World Congress of Labour (WCL) took place in Vienna in 31 October, followed by the inaugural congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which includes almost all members of the two former internationals as well as a number of non-aligned national centres. I attended the ICFTU and ITUC congresses as a visitor – an academic observer who has studied the international trade union movement for many years. This is my own personal and independent report. I do not claim that it is objective or complete – I did not attend every single session or hear every speaker, nor did I have all the documentation the official delegates had. No doubt other readers will correct and complete this report, and perhaps start up a useful discussion of the future of trade union internationalism.

Why the new international confederation matters

The average trade union activist may well ask ‘why didn’t I hear about this before?’ or ‘why does it matter?’ As to the first question, the founding of the new international – an event I and many other observers never really expected to see – was in general not well promoted or publicized in advance to the broader membership. Some writers, such as Peter Waterman (see Peter Waterman’s “The Invisible International Union Merger 2006”) seem to find this surprising and wonder to what extent it may have been deliberate. I was not surprised for the simple reason that most trade union activists in most countries most of the time are not familiar with international trade unionism and are not particularly interested (or are not perceived to be particularly interested) in it. There are a number of important exceptions: some national centres have traditionally devoted a great deal of attention and resources to internationalism (the Nordic countries, the Netherlands); some national centres or national unions that are not otherwise interested become very much so at the time of an important conflict that requires or receives international support (the Australian dockers, Rio Tinto, and other more recent disputes); some world events are so significant that large numbers of trade unionists who are not otherwise active on international issues become so (apartheid in South Africa, the coup in Chile, oppression and violence against trade unionists in Colombia, China, and elsewhere). On this occasion, there was considerably more press coverage from countries where one or more national centres were playing a particularly important role in the founding of the new confederation (the French CGT, the Belgian CSC/ACV, our hosts the Austrian ÖGB) than from others (the British press seems to have been largely absent).

As to the second question, why does it matter, the answer will perhaps only become clear with time. But it is in itself extraordinary, that after nearly a century of division, two of the three major ideological currents within the world labour movement are uniting in a single international organization. This has been tried, and failed, several times before, as I document in my chapter on the years 1972 to the present in the first and so far only comprehensive history of the movement (“Facing New Challenges: The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions 1972 – 1990s”, in The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, by A Carew, M Dreyfus, G Van Goethem, R Gumbrell-McCormick and M van der Linden (ed.), 2000, Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 341 – 517.) The last time a united world confederation was created, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), in 1945, it included both communist- and social democratic-leaning unions, but not (or not very many) of the christian unions, who maintained their separate organization, the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (IFCTU). This united world confederation lasted only until 1949, when major social democratic national centres in Western Europe and the United States broke away to form the ICFTU (thus the significance of the word ‘free’). Much has been written about this split (see the chapter by Tony Carew in the book cited above) but relatively little about the continued division between social democratic and christian unions, which has proved as if not more intractable than the division between social democrats and communists. There are a number of reasons for this: a tradition of animosity at the national level in Europe, where the division between secular and religious parties and unions goes back at least two centuries, and where christian unions, at least in their early days, were perceived as an attempt to woo workers away from militant, independent trade unionism; fierce competition in Asia, Africa and Latin America during the Cold War, in which christian unions maneuvered for a position between the main antagonists, WFTU and ICFTU, thus earning the distrust of both sides, and competition for representation among all three internationals within world bodies such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations.

In addition to the unification of the forces of the ICFTU and WCL unions, more important in terms of creating the potential for a more powerful voice for labour at the international level than strictly in terms of numbers (the WCL’s membership is a tiny proportion of that of the ICFTU), the formation of the new international is significant in bringing in a number of national centres that were either independent or had left the remnants of the WFTU: the French CGT, Polish OPZZ, Argentinean CTA and Colombian CUT, among others. These are some of the largest and most influential unions in their respective countries, and have long played an important independent role in terms of policy proposals and solidarity actions at the international level, particularly within the informal networks within the southern hemisphere. Clearly, the formation of the ITUC was a ‘top down’ enterprise, but equally clearly, it removes major obstacles to the cooperation of unions at the national and international levels and creates new opportunities for the trade union movement at all levels to pursue new ideas and new directions.

The last day of the old internationals and the first days of the new

On 31 October, both the WCL and ICFTU held their final congresses; for the ICFTU it was the 19th, for the WCL the 27th. Each took only half a day and had the main business of voting to dissolve the existing confederations and to endorse the new one. But they were not wholly ceremonial occasions. The ICFTU congress, with its impressive tribune dominated by women of colour, demonstrated its success in achieving gender parity and a more equitable representation of the developing countries. Delegates sang the Internationale at the end, accompanied by a mournful Viennese string quartet. However much it resembled a dirge, this was nonetheless their last chance to sing this song together.

There was genuine disquiet over joining forces with the WCL, expressed mainly in private, but publicly by General Secretary Guy Ryder. In his overview of plans for the ITUC regional organizations ITUC, he stated frankly that the WCL’s Latin American regional organization CLAT was blocking an agreement for the new body representing the Americas. To anyone familiar with the history of the ICFTU, Latin America was always going to be a stumbling bloc, as the greatest rivalry and antagonism has existed historically between CLAT and the ICFTU’s regional organization for the Americas, ORIT. There is an important structural reason for this: CLAT represents Central and Latin American unions only, while ORIT includes those from North America. In the end, the agreement presented to congress on Friday 3 November only committed the regional organizations to hold joint meetings and to continue efforts to form a single organization. This is a matter to continue to watch, and it is not at all clear how ultimately it will be resolved. Although much less controversial, the new structure for the European level still has to be worked out in practice, in cooperation with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which is expect to remain formally independent.

Another matter where there was some open disagreement was the status of the Global Union Federations (GUFs, formerly International Trade Secretariats or ITSs) within the new confederation. One of the causes of the split within the WFTU which led to the creation of the ICFTU in 1949 was over the role of these bodies, which represent workers by industry, in relation to an international representing them through their national centres. WFTU had sought to integrate the ITSs, which were for the most part older, stronger and more established than the world body, while the national centres that formed the ICFTU were willing to continue their tradition of autonomy. This autonomy was formalised in the Milan Agreement of 1951. From the remarks by Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International and chair of Global Union Federations Conference, it was apparent that there was some concern within them over their role with respect to the new confederation, saying only partly in jest that they had always tended to be ‘pains in the neck’ in protecting their independence and making unpopular observations. Here, too, there is a structural problem, as while the Global Union Federations or International Trade Secretariats kept their autonomy after the foundation of the ICFTU, the different industries were instead represented through industrial departments within the WCL (WFTU had a similar pattern). While some GUFs, such as the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers (IUF), have for some time been admitting affiliates from the WCL, many others have not, and it remains to be seen how WCL and ICFTU industrial unions will be integrated into the same organizations.

Finally, while the ICFTU voted for its own dissolution by acclamation, this was not the case at the WCL’s congress, where at least 14 affiliates voted against. A number of former WCL affiliates, such as the German christian union Christlicher Gewerkschaftsbund Deutschlands (CGB), have chosen to remain outside, and among the great majority who have joined the new international, there was evident disquiet over a number of points – especially the allocation of seats to the ITUC’s General Council and the distribution of its top posts. Guy Ryder was the sole candidate for general secretary, and Sharon Burrow, president of the ICFTU, will be the ITUC President. It is only at the level of deputy general secretaries and presidents that there will be two each from the former internationals: Luc Cortebeeck (WCL) and Michael Sommer (ICFTU) will be deputy presidents, and Jaap Wienen (WCL) and Mamounata Cissé (ICFTU) deputy general secretaries. In addition, a number of leaders of the non-affiliated national centres will serve as vice presidents.

It is important to note here that the genuine, that is to say dues-paying membership of the WCL is probably much smaller than the declared membership of 26 million in relation to the ICFTU’s 150 million. (Note: while all of these pay membership fees, some pay only a nominal amount.) The two largest affiliates, the Belgian Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens (CSC, or ACV in Dutch), and NSZZ Solidarnosc of Poland (which had dual affiliation with the ICFTU), come to close to three million; it is highly unlikely that there are more than a million or so dues-paying members in the rest of the world. Indeed, for many years the CSC/ACV have carried the burden of subsidizing the entire world body, and it is their inability or unwillingness to continue in this role that may finally have brought the rest of the WCL around to the idea of joining forces with the ICFTU. Bearing in mind the relative weakness in strength and numbers of the WCL, it is in fact over-represented within the ITUC, a point emphasized by Agnès Jongerius, president of the Dutch ICFTU affiliate FNV (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging). She reminded delegates that this was a transitional arrangement for the next four years only, after which posts and seats would be allocated on the basis of numbers. She went on to differentiate between the right to trade union pluralism, which all affiliates would accept, and a duty to promote it, which most would not, and expressed the hope that the creation of the Coalition for Social Development, an umbrella body for former WCL unions, would ‘soon fade away’. Her words were carefully phrased but nonetheless made a big impact, no doubt because she dared to raise a genuine political point in the midst of a congress regarded more as a ceremonial occasion by many of the delegates.

Indeed there was very little controversy and debate at this founding congress, making Jongerius’ directness very refreshing. Van Leeuven again spoke about the autonomy of the GUFs, but otherwise most speeches were combinations of greetings to fellow delegates, congratulations to the ICFTU and WCL on their merger, and vague warnings of the dangers of globalization. The most revolutionary speech was oddly enough that by Juan Somavia, Director General of the International Labour Organisation, who challenged the ideological hegemony of the ‘free market’ in an amusing and convincing way. Probably the best speaker was Willy Thys, general secretary of WCL, who combined grace and warmth in what must have been for him a poignant moment. A number of delegates expressed themselves with genuine passion, in particular many from the formerly non-affiliated organizations in Latin America, and others from the more established affiliates, especially Brendan Barber, president of the British TUC, who reminded delegates of the number of trade unionists attacked and assassinated while we were meeting in comfort in Vienna. A large number of the speakers were women, and there was an interesting resolution on gender equality in the ITUC from four Mexican affiliates. Almost all speakers from former WCL unions referred to the need for ‘tolerance’ and/or ‘pluralism’ within the new organization. Whether this means general good will on both sides or continued special representation or the promotion of multiple trade union centres at the national level remains to be seen, but the latter is unlikely to be accepted by the FNV, the Belgian ICFTU affiliate FGTB/ABVV, and many others.

In the midst of the ceremonial speeches there were strong contributions addressing important issues of policy and proposals for the future. One of the most interesting was the discussion of the informal sector and the difficulties in organising its workers, and the more general problem of the increase in contingent or precarious work. Another timely theme was that of the position of migrant and ethnic minority workers, with an emotional appeal from Wanja Lundby-Wedin, of the Swedish LO. In this context, it is interesting that while there was considerable attention to the number of women delegates (at least one-third from each of the regions), there was little discussion of the issue of the representation of ethnic minorities and migrants within union delegations from the industrialized countries. The US AFL-CIO and British TUC were as far as I could tell the only delegations from the industrialized countries with black or ethnic minority delegates.

Where do we go from here?

It would be unfair to expect a detailed programme for the future from this opening congress of the ITUC. The programme voted on by delegates was general but focused appropriately on the response to globalization and the need to improve international coordination in the fight against Multinationals and against violations of trade union rights. The general mood was one of optimism, and I see no reason not to share it. There are serious problems that remain to be solved - the structure and composition of the regional organizations, especially in the Americas, the relationship with the ETUC and with the Global Union Federations – and most importantly, a legacy of distrust and differences of culture between former WCL and ICFTU affiliates. They will all have to learn to work together and trust each other. Yet the new international creates new possibilities, new openings, both within the international labour movement and in its relations with world bodies such as the ILO and UN, and with the leading non governmental organizations. The new blood may bring new ideas. Only time will tell, and the real work begins now, within the national centres, the global union federations, the regional organizations, and most importantly within the unions themselves, to use this opportunity to recruit new members and find a way to make international trade union action appealing and pertinent to a new generation of workers.

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