Friday, December 10, 2004

Workers of the world are uniting

This from the FT

By Brendan Barber,
General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (UK)

The world trade union movement is poised to follow the lead of transnational companies, by extending its reachand throwing off the shackles of national boundaries. Unions are about to go global.

It will come as news to some employers - and a shock to some of the anti-globalisers - but trade unions are in favour of globalisation. Most of the world's trade union movements are meeting this week in Japan to discuss an epoch-making strategy called "Globalising Solidarity". By the end of this week, we may well have
ended 50 years of division in world trade unionism, abandoned a creativity-stifling global bureaucracy and refocused our core business on campaigning and recruitment.

In recent years, trade unions have sometimes looked, and felt, outdated and sluggish, unable to respond as business "delocalises" and the free movement of capital and jobs makes it possible for companies to race for the bottom in terms of wages, employment conditions and questions of health and safety. Some have called this the "Wal-Mart-isation" of the workplace.

Unions have made academic statements and sent symbolic deputations to address global institutions such as the World Bank, the International Labour Organisation and the World Trade Organisation. Bureaucrat has spoken unto bureaucrat while transnational corporations have spread around the globe, revolutionising world trade.

Some of this is overstated. Despite comparatively little progress in the US, Wal-Mart has been dragged to negotiating tables from Canada to China by UNI, the
global union federation for private service sector unions.

Global union campaigns to encourage ethical sourcing for goods have been linked to this year's Athens Olympics, with the purpose of spreading decent labour standards right along the global supply chain. The campaign will be resurrected for the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, the soccer World Cups in Germany and South Africa, and the Olympics in China. The Trades Union Congress is already discussing the issue with the 2012 London Olympics bid.

The global trade union movement has learnt from the tactics of non- governmental organisations and is working more closely with them on corporate social
responsibility. We increasingly recognise the power of consumers, shareholders and pension funds.

This week's world congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) could take the bold next step. The ICFTU is the largest trade union confederation in the world, with 250 affiliates in 152 countries representing 148m trade union members. It was created in 1949 at the start of the cold war but has been split since then. The breakaway communist- backed confederation formed at the time is fading. This week's congress may decide to merge the two remaining global organisations - the ICFTU itself and the World Confederation of Labour, originally a Christian body.

Such a merger would create a single free trade union movement around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe, united by a common vision of social globalisation that
works for people rather than the other way around.

But, as so many companies have found out, mergers are not enough. The new global union federation would need to refocus on its core function. Its unique selling proposition would be the ability to mobilise a total of 174m members and attract more. In this way, global businesses, world institutions and governments would
take the organisation seriously and would have to negotiate and reach agreements.

Old committee structures, conferences and paperwork must go. In their place must come the ability to target key companies, sectors and campaigns. Guy Ryder, the
ICFTU's popular and thoughtful general secretary, has had his work cut out securing agreement from often- embattled unions to give up the security of their
bureaucracy. But he has the support of the TUC, the DGB in Germany, the AFL-CIO in the US, Cosatu in South Africa and many more.

Each of these bodies, with their proud traditions, knows it cannot continue to champion the interests of its members if it does not operate internationally.

Trade unions in every developed country face the challenge of delocalisation. We must not re-erect the barriers of protectionism but we must protect the
livelihoods of workers at both ends of the delocalisation equation.

British unions have done a lot in the financial services sector to ensure retraining at home and better wages in places such as India. We could do a lot more
if our international organisations were focused on helping unions address the organising and bargaining challenges that delocalisation presents. But how much more could we achieve if employers faced the same union when they arrived in Mumbai as they did when they deserted Macclesfield or Milwaukee?

That is a huge challenge for a trade union movement that has admirable internationalist credentials yet sticks rigidly to 20th -century borders. This week trade unionism will try to show it up to that challenge.


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