A Busy Unionist's Guide
A hundred years ago people could have gone through their whole working
lives without worrying about what was happening in other countries. No more. National
economies are being increasingly interlinked. International bodies which didn't even exist
10 years ago are making decisions which affect workers all over the world.
Communication systems are making it easy for people on opposite sides of the earth to
communicate as if they lived in adjoining villages. Goods are shipped from here to there,
and there to here, faster than ever before. And meanwhile trillions (that's billions of
billions) of dollars are bouncing around the world's money markets daily, and at ever
increasing speeds. Nobody – from the tech worker in America to the farmer in Zimbabwe
– is unaffected.
In the later part of the 19th century working people decided that they needed
to protect themselves from the effects of industrialization. They knew if they waited for
governments and employers to pass health and safety laws, minimum wage regulations,
and other protections they would wait . . . forever. So they created unions. These unions,
mostly national unions, fought for collective bargaining rights and lobbied for new pieces
of legislation as well as new forms of political representation. All while being attacked as
greedy, self-serving, irrelevant organizations.
The same is happening today - except that today the primary issue is not
industrialization but globalization. Working people are struggling to understand the new
phenomena affecting them and how to react to it. Through their national unions and
federations they are building new global labour organizations (or re-vitalizing old ones),
fighting for international labour rights and demanding new forms of political
representation that are more appropriate to the 21st than the 19th century. All while being
attacked as greedy, self-serving, irrelevant organizations. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately though, much of the discussion concerning how working
people are reacting to globalization is not familiar to many unionists. Read this sentence:
What is the WTO and why does the ICFTU work with GUFs to
bargain framework agreements with MNCs while being concerned about EPZs and
If you understood that sentence then this article may not be for you. It's
addressed to busy unionists who want a quick guide to the international labour
movement. Of course an article this size cannot cover all the subject. But it can provide
an entry point.
It all starts where the most serious labour issues are always sparked: at the
workplace. The employer has just demanded wage cuts because the firm's product is
being produced more cheaply by a company thousands of kilometres away. Or a farmer is
told her produce isn't wanted because she's asking too much for it (despite trying to sell it
at a loss just to get some money for her children's medicine). Or a worker dies because the
chemicals the plant uses are deadly.
Of course, the employer doesn't say that the workers in the far away plant
earn only a few dollars a day. The farmer isn't told that the reason her produce is
considered too expensive is that rich countries subsidize their agricultural corporations
with billions of dollars. And the worker who died was never told that the reason the
company moved to his country was so it could use chemicals that were banned in
None of these issues – and many more like them – can be addressed solely at
the national level. They need to be tackled at the global level as well by organizations
fighting for basic labour rights for all workers and new, international, forms of political
National Unions and Federations
The basic building block of the labour movement is the local union or
chapter. The members of the local union may represent themselves at the bargaining
table, but usually they rely on help from the national union to which they belong. This
help can come in the form of assistance by trained union negotiators, or research
produced by the national union, or by being covered by agreements negotiated by the
national union either by sector (all textile workers for instance) or employer (all
subsidiaries of a particular company). The local union helps control the national union by
sending delegates to its conventions and voting, along with other local unions, for its
officers and policies.
National unions have the same sort of problems as those experienced by
their local unions. They may need research to help them face a particular issue or
employer. They may need help negotiating country-wide, multiple-employer agreements
so groups of workers are not played off each other. Or they may want to work with other
national unions in confronting issues. And so they affiliate to national centres which are
organizations of national unions working together, The national unions control these
federations by sending representatives to the conventions which decide the policies and
elect the officers.
But it doesn't end there. Increasingly, because of globalization, the issues
being dealt with by national unions and centres are international ones. And so they turn to
the international labour organizations. National centres affiliate to international
confederations. And national unions can affiliate directly to global union federations
which work in particular employment sectors such as chemical, agricultural, metal,
manufacturing or public services. The next section of this article discusses the
international federations. The one after that looks at the global union federations.
The International Confederations
It's a long and complicated story, but here's a rough summary: In 1920
Christian-oriented unions (mainly) in Europe created the International Federation of
Christian Trade Unions. In 1945 a larger number of unions from all around the world
created the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). But because of the tensions
caused by the cold war this federation soon split between unions in countries aligned with
the Soviet Union and those in the rest of the world. In 1949 a new centre was created:
the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The ICFTU was
composed of unions outside of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence (hence the name
Free trade unions.)
During the 1950s all three centres struggled to organize workers into unions
while maintaining impolite relations between each other. Soon the International
Federation of Christian Trade Unions began to lose ground in its birthplace Europe and
began concentrating its organizing efforts in the Third World. In 1968 it changed its name
to the World Confederation of Labour (WCL).
Meanwhile, both the WFTU and the ICFTU were to undergo major changes
after the collapse of the Soviet Union started in 1989. The WFTU which had been
primarily based in the countries aligned with the Soviet Union began losing members
dramatically. At the same time the ICFTU began picking up a number of existing and
newly created unions in these countries. For example, in November 2000 it affiliated the
three national trade union centres in Russia: the Federation of Independent Trade Unions
of Russia (FNPR), the All-Russian Confederation of Labour (VKT) and the
Confederation of Labour of Russia (KTR). In the 1990s the ICFTU also affiliated many
unions from Africa which was further democratizing after its period of national
independence movements and the end of the cold war.
Today the ICFTU is by far the largest and most influential international
labour federation with a world-wide membership of 158 million. The WCL is primarily
based in Latin America but with some concentrations of members in Asia and Africa. It
has some 26 million members. The WFTU struggles on despite huge losses in members,
but accurate figures for its current membership are difficult to obtain.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
The ICFTU is a organization consisting of most of the major national union
federations in the world. It has 231 affiliated organizations in 150 countries and territories
on all five continents. The membership of the affiliated organizations adds up to 158
million working men and women.
The ICFTU's headquarters is in Brussels with other offices in Geneva,
Moscow, New York, Washington, Vienna, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Vilnius, Hong Kong, Rome
and Jordan. At the Brussels headquarters it has departments for Employment and
International Labour Standards; Equality; Multinationals, Organizing and Recruitment;
Trade Union Rights; and Campaigns and Communications; plus committees or units on
topics such as education.
The President of the ICFTU is elected by representatives of the affiliated
national federations meeting at the organization's Congresses. The General-Secretary is
appointed by the ICFTU's Executive Board and is responsible for the day-to-day
operations of the organization. Two assistant general secretaries are also chosen by the
Executive Board from the affiliated federations.
The Executive Board consists of 100 representatives of the affiliated
federations. They are chosen at the organization's Congresses and meet once a year. An
executive committee of the Board – called the Steering Committee – has 20 members and
is responsible for guiding the organization between meetings of the Executive Board and
The ICFTU holds a Congress with representatives of all its affiliated
organizations every four years. The number of representatives is determined
proportionally according to the membership of the affiliated organizations: more for
bigger federations, less for smaller ones. The national federations have their own
methods of choosing the delegates they will send to the Congresses. The last ICFTU
Congress was held in Durban, South Africa in 2000. The next will be held in Japan in
An ICFTU Women's World Conference is held every four years between
Congresses. The most recent conference was in Australia in 2002.
The ICFTU organizes and directs campaigns on issues such as:
the respect and defence of trade union and workers' rights,
the eradication of forced and child labour,
the promotion of equal rights for working women,
education programmes for trade unionists all over the world,
encouraging the organization of young workers,
At its 16th World Congress in Brussels in 1996, the ICFTU established five priorities
employment and international labour standards,
confronting the multinationals,
trade union rights,
equality, women, race and migrants,
trade union organization and recruitment.
ICFTU Regional Organizations
The ICFTU has three major regional organizations, AFRO for Africa, APRO
for Asia and the Pacific, and ORIT for North and South America. Each regional
organization has considerable independence to conduct its operations.
The ICFTU's African Regional Organization (AFRO) has 13 million
members and 53 affiliated organizations in 44 countries. During the 1990s the
organization's membership increased spectacularly: Between 1993 and 1996 the
membership doubled from three to six million. Then it more than doubled again from '96
to 2000. This meteoric rise was mainly due to two factors: the end of the cold war as
more unions decided to join the ICFTU and the continent's increasingly democratic
pluralism as the national independence movements matured.
The AFRO Executive Board is elected by representatives of the affiliated
organizations. An Executive Committee guides the organizations between Congresses.
The Committee consists of members from the board, the President, the General Secretary
and members of the ICFTU Executive Board from Africa. The General Secretary is
responsible for supervising the day to day operations of the organization.
ICFTU AFRO's headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya. It has seven units:
Human and Trade Union Rights; Economic and Social Policy; Education; Gender and
Equality; Press and Information; Finance and Administration; and Organizing and
Informal Sector. The organization also has a youth officer and specialized committees
such as Education.
The main issues ICFTU AFRO concerns itself with include AIDS,
repression and violations of trade union rights, child labour, debt loads, globalization,
international labour standards and social protection. It has also been involved in helping
to mediate relations between warring parties on the continent. As well, it helps coordinate
the activities of donors on the continent. Most of its operating revenue comes from
The ICFTU's regional organization for North and South America is called La
Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores (ORIT). It consists of 33 labour
centrals and federations in 29 countries and represents 45 million workers.
Geographically, it covers all Latin America plus the Caribbean, Canada and the US.
ORIT's headquarters are in Caracas, Venezuela. The headquarters includes
two major departments, each with specialized sub-units. The Union Activity and
Education department includes units for young workers, women, the informal sector,
negotiations, and the informal sector. The Social and Economic department has units for
child labour, globalization, labour rights, social security, conditions of work and
Representatives of ORIT's affiliated organizations meet in a Congress held
every four years to pass policies and elect an Executive, including a president. The
secretary-general is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the
The ICFTU's Asia and Pacific Regional Organization is known as APRO. It
has 40 affiliated organizations in 28 countries and a membership of 30 million workers.
At its Singapore headquarters APRO has departments or units for human
and trade union rights, education and projects, economic and social policy, institutional
and external relations, women, information, youth, finance and administration.
The World Congress of Labour
Another international labour federation is the World Congress of Labour
(WCL). It has 26 million members.
Created at first as a confederation of Christian unions it developed into a
more secularly-oriented organization. In 1968, when it adopted the name WCL, it
proclaimed a Declaration of Principles which stipulated that it was guided by "either a
spiritual concept based on the conviction that man and universe are created by God, or
other concepts that lead together with it to a common effort to build a human community
united in freedom, dignity, justice and brotherhood".
The WCL has 144 affiliated organizations in 166 countries. Despite having
started in Europe it no longer has a significant presence there. Its few European
organizations are affiliated to the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC). It has a few
affiliates in Africa (which it gained when the independence movements began to come
into power) and in Asia (especially Indonesia and the Philippines) A large part of its
membership is based in Latin America, but the major union federations in Argentina,
Brazil, Chile, and Mexico are affiliated to the ICFTU.
The WCL's head offices are Brussels but it also has offices in Geneva,
Washington, Rome, Paris and Bucharest. At the headquarters there are four departments:
Human Rights and International Labour Standards; Women and Work; Information; and
Finance. The organization also has a number of working committees such as the World
Committee for Women Workers.
A confederal board of 38 members is elected by a Congress which is held
every four years. The board elects an executive committee which consists of the
president, two deputy vice-presidents, the secretary-general, two deputy secretaries-
general, seven vice-presidents, six deputy vice presidents and the treasurer.
The WCL has four regional organizations:
Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores. CLAT is headquarted in Caracas
and has sub-regional organizations in the Southern Zone (CTCS), Central
America (CCT) Caribbean (CTC) and Andes (CSTA) It operates the Workers'
University of Latin America (UTAL) in Caracas.
The Brotherhood of Asian Trade Unionists (BATU) based in Manilla
L’Organisation Démocratique Syndicale des travailleurs Africains (ODSTA)
which has it head office in Lomé, Togo
North America: The National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees
The WCL also has a number of international trade federations for. public
services; teaching; transport; wood working and building; textile and clothing; industry;
agriculture, food, hotel and tourism; clerical work; and professional sports. It also has two
sector-based organizations: FLATEC (Federacion Latinoamericana de Trabajadores de la
Educación y la Cultura) and Eurofedop (European Federation of Employees in Public
Services - which is part of the WCL's International Federation of Employees in Public
The World Federation of Labour
The WFTU was created as the world's international labour federation after
the Second World War. However in 1949 unions in countries not under the influence of
the Soviet Union broke away to form the ICFTU. Still, up to 1989 the WFTU was
numerically bigger because all workers in countries such as Russia were automatically
considered union members. Today accurate membership figures for the WFTU are
difficult to come by. Its web site reports that at the WFTU 2000 convention in New
Delhi: “Four hundred and twenty one delegates and observers from 74 countries
representing a membership of 407 million from throughout the world participated”
The WFTU has its headquarters in Prague, and offices in Geneva, New
Delhi, Dakar, Cuba and Damascus.
The organization held a congress in 1994 and one in 2000. A General
Council representing all its affiliated organizations elects a Presidential Council which
consists of the President, the General Secretary and 20 Vice-Presidents. The secretariat is
made up of the General Secretary and six Deputy General Secretaries.
The Global Union Federations (GUFs)
Very closely aligned with the ICFTU are 10 Global Union Federations
(GUFs) which represent workers in particular employment sectors. They were formerly
known as International Trade Secretariats (ITSs), but towards the end of the 1990s they
adopted the new name in recognition of their increasing reponsibilties to negotiate with
multinationals corporations (MNCs) and present the case for workers' rights to
international bodies such as the World Bank.
The GUFs focus on activities such as:
negotiating and monitoring global agreements with multinational companies
networking trade union representatives within global corporations
coordinating solidarity and support for member unions during disputes
union-building in countries where unions are weak or non-existent
providing information and expertise on topics ranging from collective bargaining to
health and safety standards
representing workers' interests within the UN, its agencies and other
skills training and development work with trade union officers and rank-and-file union
developing campaigns and publicizing the campaigns of member unions
The member unions of the GUFs are also members of national federations
which are affiliated to the ICFTU. Roughly in order of size, the GUFs are:
EI - Education International
IMF - International Metal Workers’ Federation
ICEM - International Federation of Chemical, Energy and Mine workers
PSI - Public Services International
UNI - Union Network International
ITGLWF - International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation
IFBWW - International Federation of Building, Wood Workers
IUF - International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering,
Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations
ITF - International Transport Federation
IFJ - The International Federation of Journalists
EI - Education International
Education International is a world-wide trade union organization of
education personnel, whose 26 million members represent all sectors of education from
pre-school to university. It includes 310 national unions and associations in 159 countries
EI's headquarters are Brussels. Regional offices are based in Africa (Lomé,
Togo), Asia-Pacific (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Fiji), Latin America (San José, Costa
Rica) and North America and the Caribbean (St. Lucia).
IMF - International Metal Workers’ Federation
Founded in 1893, the IMF is one of the oldest international sector-based
union organizations. Today it has more than 25 million members and 200 unions in 100
Its headquarters are in Geneva. There are regional offices in New Delhi
Selangor Darul Ehsan (Malaysia), Santiago (Mexico), Johannesburg and Moscow.
The IMF has been a leader in the creation of World Company Councils
which bring together unions organizing workers in particular multinational corporations
such as General Motors, Siemens and Caterpillar . It has also been active in the
negotiation of International Framework Agreements (IFAs) which are used by the
IMF and other Global Union Federations to lay down the operating rules for
Affiliated to the IMF are other centres which bring together unions working
in the metal industry. They include the European Metalworkers' Federation (EMF),
Nordiska MetallsNordic Metal Workers' Unions and IMF-JC - Japan Council of
Metalworkers Unions .
ICEM - International Federation of Chemical, Energy and Mine Workers
The ICEM has 20 million workers who are members of 399 industrial trade
unions in 108 countries. It has members working in the energy industry, mining and
quarrying, chemicals and bioscience, pulp and paper, rubber, diamond and jewelery
production, glass, ceramic and cement industries, and environmental services such as
waster disposal and recycling.
The ICEM is also a leader in negotiating framework agreements. By 2003 it
had negotiated agreements with six multinationals. ICEM communication networks for
representatives of the workers operate in each of these multinationals.
The organization's headquarters are in Brussels.
PSI - Public Services International
The PSI unites 20 million public sector workers in more than 600 trade
unions in over 140 countries. It has members in all public sector areas (except teaching),
including administration, utilities, public works, health and social services, police, law,
leisure and taxation.
The PSI concentrates on developing campaigns for its members. These can
be long term, such as its campaign on trade union rights, or short term such as campaigns
to improve particular sections of the conventions of the International Labour Organization
UNI- Union Network International
UNI is a skills and services global union federation with more than 900
affiliated unions in 140 countries around the world. It represents more than 15 million
UNI was formed in January 2000 by a merger of four international
federations: FIET (International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and
Technical Employees), CI (Communications International), the International Graphical
Federation and MEI (Media and Entertainment International).
UNI's members work in many sectors including commerce; finance;
telecoms; electricity; postal services; industry; information technology; graphics; media
and entertainment; electricity; social insurance and private health care; hair and beauty;
casinos; property services (cleaning and security); and tourism.
The federation has negotiated framework agreements with four multinational
TELEFONICA - global telecommunications
CARREFOUR - commerce
OTE - telecoms, mobile and Internet
ISS - property services group (cleaning, maintenance, etc)
UNI has four regional organizations: UNI-Africa, UNI-Americas, UNI-
Europa and UNI-Asia & Pacific. It's headquarters is in Nyon, Switzerland (near Geneva).
ITGLWF - International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation
The ITGLWF has 217 affiliated unions working in 106 countries with a
combined membership of over 10 million.
The federation has been, for a long time, particularly active in negotiating
Codes of Conducts. These are documents negotiated with a company which outlines
principles that the company agrees to work under. For example, the Code of Conduct
with Adidas, a multinational garment and shoe making entreprise, specifies how the
company, its subsidiaries and subcontractors will conduct themselves when it comes to
employment standards, health and safety, the environment and community involvement.
The issues covered in the employment standards section include forced labour, child
labour, discrimination, wages and benefits, hours of work, disciplinary practices, freedom
of association and collective bargaining. Codes of Conduct have been negotiated with
companies such as Bata, Benetton, Fruit of the Loom, the Gap, Levi Strauss, Nike,
Walmart and Reebok. Unlike Framework Agreements though Codes of Conduct are more
like guidelines which the company agrees to work under. Many are written by the
IFBWW - International Federation of Building, Wood Workers
The IFBWW has more than 10 million members in 287 trade unions in 124
countries around the world. The members work in the building, building materials, wood,
forestry and allied industries.
Sectorial Industrial Committees focus on areas of specific interest to the
organization's affiliated unions: Building; Wood and Forestry; and Occupational Health
and Safety. There are also committees for the Asia-Pacific, Africa, Latin American and
Caribbean and European regions. An International Women's Committee provides advice
on policies, implementation and practical measures to promote effective women
participation and affirmative action programmes.
The headquarters of the Federation are in Geneva.
IUF - International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering,
Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations
The IUF is composed of 336 trade unions in 120 countries representing a
combined membership of over 12 million workers.
The Federation represents unions in:
agriculture and plantations
the preparation and manufacture of food and beverages
hotels, restaurants and catering services and
all stages of tobacco processing
The companies it monitors and negotiates with include multinationals such
as Coca-Cola, Del Monte, Nestlé, Pepsi Cola, Sodexho and Unilever.
The IUF has been particularly active in negotiating framework agreements.
To date it has negotiated framework agreements with:
Accor (one of the largest global hotel and tourism groups)
Danone (dairy products, bottled water, biscuits and other products)
Chiquita (the largest employer of unionized banana workers in Latin America)
Fonterra, New Zealand, (the fourth largest global dairy company).
The federation has offices in Nairobi, Sydney, Bridgetown, Montevideo
Uruguay. Tokyo and Moscow. Its headquarters are in Geneva (?)
ITF - International Transport Federation
The ITF is a federation of 621 transport unions in 137 countries. It represents
around five million members in ships, ports, railways, road freight and passenger
transport, inland waterways, fisheries, tourism and civil aviation.
Recent ITF international campaigns included worldwide actions by rail
workers on safety, aviation workers against 'air rage', road transport workers against
excessive working hours and workers fighting union-busting in ports. The ITF's oldest
and most famous campaign is against Flag of Convenience shipping (A flag of
convenience ship is one that flies the flag of a country other than the country of
The organization's headquarters are in London and there are nine regional
IFJ - The International Federation of Journalists
The IFJ is a federation of unions of journalists. It has about 500,000
members in 100,000 countries.
The federation is concerned about issues such as authors' rights, the safety of
journalists, freedom of the press, human rights and the rights of journalists working for
global media companies. It also campaigns for establishing International Standards within
companies at a national level, with international codes of conduct and conventions on
social and trade union rights
IFJ policy is decided by its Congress which meets every three years.
Between Congresses work is carried out by the Secretariat under the direction of an
elected Executive Committee. The last Congress was held in Seoul on 11-15 June, 2001.
Its has its headquarters in Brussels and regional offices in Dakar, Sydney,
Besides international confederations such as the ICFTU and the Global
Union Federations the labour movement also has organizations which work within
particular international regions such as Europe, Africa or Asia-Pacific. They include:
ETUC – The European Trade Union Confederation
ETUC was established in 1973 to provide a union counterbalance to the
economic forces stemming from European integration into the Common Market. It has
recently been growing substantially because of new affiliates from Central and Eastern
Europe. At present, ETUC includes 77 national federations from a total of 35 European
countries, as well as 11 European industry federations. Its total membership is 60 million.
Many of its national unions are also affiliated to the ICFTU or the WCL. Other union
structures such as Eurocadres (the Council of European Professional and Managerial
Staff) and EFREP (European Federation of Retired and Elderly Persons) operate under
the auspices of the ETUC. In addition, ETUC coordinates the activities of 39
Interregional Trade Union Councils (ITUCs), which organize union cooperation between
geographically adjacent countries.
ETUC has established three specialized institutes which are operated
independently by their own management committees. The institutes are:
European Trade Union Institute. ETUI is ETUC's study and research
centre specializing in socio-economics and industrial relations.
European Trade Union College. ETUCO provides union training and
labour education to ETUC affiliates.
The Trade Union Technical Bureau. TUTB is responsible for issues such
as safety, hygiene and health protection at work .
ETUC's General Secretary is the organization's head and spokesperson. The
President chairs ETUC’s governing bodies.
The Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATTU)
OATTU was established in September 1973 to coordinate the activities of
African national trade unions as regional economic integration on the continent increased.
It was formed under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (now known as the
African Union), a trade organization established by the continent's governments.
However, the two major African union confederations which joined to form OATTU
differed on whether to allow affiliates to also join international confederations such as the
ICFTU or the WCL. In 1986 OATUU suffered a split with different countries backing
opposing sides, but later a reconciliation was arranged and today, many of OATTU's
national federations are also affiliated to the ICFTU or the WCL.
OATTU currently has 73 affiliates in 50 countries. Its regional organizations
are: the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA), the Organization of
Trade Unions of Central Africa (OTUCA), the Southern Africa Trade Union
Coordinating Council (SATUCC) and the Organization of Trade Unions of Arab
Maghreb (OTUAM). It also has a series of specialized agencies for each industrial sector.
OATUU's headquarters are in Ghana.
South Pacific Oceania Council of Trade Unions - SPOCTU
SPOCTU is the umbrella body for national union centres in the South
Pacific region covering 14 countries: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia,
Kiribati, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga,
Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Wallis and Futana and Western Samoa
SPOCTU was established in 1990 by the ICFTU. Up to 1998 the
organization had its main office in Brisbane, Australia, but in 2002 the regional co-
coordinator for the PSI was appointed to manage the affairs of the organization from
Wellington, New Zealand.
There are many other organizations who work as part of the international
labour movement or are allied with it. Some are organizations of unions with a common
past such as the Commonwealth Trade Union Organization (CTUC) which has 30 million
members around the world.
Others are related to particular international bodies. For example there is the
Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) of the OECD – the Organization for
Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD is a group of 30 of the more
economically advanced countries in the world. TUAC's affiliates consist of 56 national
union federations which together represent some 70 million workers. The national
federations finance TUAC activities, decide priorities and policy and elect TUAC's
A similar labor organization is the Asia Pacific Labour Network (APLN). It
was founded by the ICFTU in 1995 to give unions a voice in the activities of APEC - a
trade and investment liberalization and economic co-operation organization that brings
together the countries around the Pacific Rim, ranging from Singapore to the United
There are also foundations which have been set up by national labour
federations or governments to work with unions internationally, particularly in
developing and emerging market countries.
For example the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) is a German foundation
dedicated to furthering political and social education, facilitating access to university
education and contributing to international cooperation. One of its aims is reinforcing
free trade unions. About 50 per cent of its annual budget of 110 million euro is spent
internationally. FES has 70 offices around the world.
The Japan International Labour Foundation (JILAF) also works to help
unions around the world. It was established by RENGO (the Japanese Trade Union
Confederation) in 1989 as an organization for promoting international exchange and
cooperation in the labour movement. It does this by providing training opportunities for
unionists in Japan; supporting educational and social development activities in
developing countries; sponsoring young unionists to travel to other countries for training;
and conducting research on labour issues.
The AFL-CIO - the national labour federation in the United States -
established the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in 1997. The
Solidarity Center helps workers around the world who are trying to build democratic and
independent trade unions by providing education, training, research, legal support,
organizing assistance, and other resources. The Center's education programs includes
training in basic human and worker rights, union skills, advocacy, occupational safety and
health, economic literacy, and civic and voter education. Its programs are designed for
workers, unions, and community organizations in developing societies, particularly those
promoting democracy in their countries. The Solidarity Centre works in 60 countries
through a network of 26 field offices.
Other national labour federations have international foundations or programs
to support unions around the world. They include the Danish LO/FTF trade union council
for international development co-operation. The Swedish national federation, LO, works
through its solidarity centres, the LO-TCO Secretariat for Trade Union Development and
the Olof Palme International Centre.
The International Labour Organization
The ILO is not part of the international labour movement, but it provides a
vital arena in which unions can fight for and protect labour rights around the world. It is
the United Nation's specialized agency which legally declares the basic labour rights
countries must respect. The ICFTU campaigns for the ILO to be considered “an essential
pillar of the social global economy”.
The ILO's mandate extends to the wider issue of work in the world (hence
the word “Labour” in its title). It's concerned with issues such as protecting fundamental
rights and principles at work, creating conditions for decent employment, enhancing
social protections such as pension plans, and strengthening dialogue between the “social
partners” - governments, employer associations and unions.
The Organization is rare among international bodies because it gives unions
a substantial role in determining its policies and operations. All the international labour
confederations and most of the world's national union federations are represented, in
some way or another, in the ILO's operations.
The ILO is made up of 174 member states and operates in a “tripartite”
manner, which means that its control is shared by the three social partners. This control
is exercised at the organization's International Labour Conference which is held every
June in Geneva. The Conference is the ultimate decision-making body of the
Organization. Each country sends four delegates (and sometimes substitutes) to the
Conference: two from the government, one from the employers and one from the unions.
The employer and union delegates can express themselves and vote independently of their
governments and often do.
Between Conferences the ILO is guided by its Governing Body which is
made up of 28 government members, 14 employer delegates and 14 union
representatives. Acting as as sort of executive committee the Governing Body, which
meets three times a year, takes decisions on actions to implement ILO policies, prepares a
draft programme and budget to submit to the Conference for adoption, and elects the
Organization's Director-General. The worker representatives in the Governing Body are
elected by the whole Convention from a joint list put forward by the ICFTU, the WCL
The union delegates at the Convention together form the Worker's Group
which serves as a forum for them to debate ILO policies, present the union position to the
Conference and guide the union-related work of the Organization. The Group elects a
President from amongst its ranks and chooses a Secretary who represent the Workers'
Group between meetings of the Conference and Governing Body and liaises with the
This secretariat is called the International Labour Office. (Which
occasionally causes confusion because its English acronym – ILO – is the same as the
Organization's). The secretariat includes the elected officials and 2,500 staff which work
at the Organization's headquarters in Geneva and in more than 40 field offices around the
world. It is lead by a Director-General who is elected for a five-year renewable term.
Organized within the Social Dialogue section of the secretariat is the ILO's
Bureau for Workers' Activities which most often works under its French acronym -
ACTRAV. The Bureau is responsible for coordinating all the ILO activities related to
workers' organizations. It concentrates on:
developing and strengthening representative, independent and democratic
building the capacity of union organizations to participate in political,
economic and social decision-making and negotiations and
promoting the active participation of unions in ILO activities.
The Bureau is headed by a Director and has 37 professional staff (18 in
Geneva; 19 in the ILO's regional offices) plus support staff.
ACTRAV's educational wing is the Workers' Activities Programme at the
ILO's International Training Centre in Turin, Italy. The Programme conducts month-long
residential courses, provides distance education via computer communications and
organizes workshops in various regions almost exclusively for labour organizations
working in developing and emerging-market countries.
With “Decent Work” as its primary operating principle, the ILO is involved
in researching employment-related issues, inspecting working conditions, creating
employment strategies, developing skills, reconstructing economies, improving the
conditions of women, enhancing social protection schemes, promoting dialogue between
the social partners and more. But its original and most vital activity is the defining and
policing of international labour standards (ILS) which take the form of Conventions
and Recommendations. Conventions are international treaties subject to ratification by
ILO members states. Once ratified they become part of the legal structure of the country
and create binding obligations. Recommendations are non-binding instruments – often
dealing with the same subjects as Conventions – which set out guidelines for national
policy and action. Both Conventions and Recommendations are intended to have concrete
impacts on working conditions and practices in every country of the world.
Since its creation in 1919 the ILO has adopted more than 180 Conventions
and 190 Recommendations. Eight Conventions have been identified by the ILO's
Governing Body as being fundamental rights of human beings. They are applicable
irregardless of the country's level of development. When the ICFTU and other labour
organizations refer to basic labour rights in the world they are usually referring to the
ILO's eight Fundamental (or “core”) Conventions. The Conventions, organized according
to primary themes, are:
Freedom of association
# 87: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948
# 98: Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949
The abolition of forced labour
# 29 Forced Labour, 1930
# 105 Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957
# 100 Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951
# 111 Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), 1958
The elimination of child labour
# 138 Minimum Age Convention, 1973
# 182 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999
These eight Conventions are considered the base upon which the working
conditions of people around the world can be improved. However, not all the ILO's
members have ratified these conventions (which would make them legally binding). The
United States, for example, has ratified only two (105 and 182). China hasn't ratified the
Forced Labour and Freedom of Association Conventions. And then there are the countries
which have ratified Conventions but have no intention of applying them in practice. For
instance, Myanmar (Burma), which is notorious for using forced labour and suppressing
independent unions, has adopted the forced labour and freedom of association
The ILO constantly supervises the application of the standards. Each member
country is required to present periodic reports on the measures it has taken to apply, in
law and in practice, every Convention it has adopted. These reports are reviewed by the
IL0's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and
Recommendations which submits an annual report to the International Labour
Conference. As well, employer organization and unions can initiate proceedings (called
“representations”) against member states for non-compliance with a convention it has
There is also a special procedure related directly to freedom of association. Labour
organizations can complain that a member state is not allowing freedom of association
even if that state has not ratified the relevant Conventions. This is possible because, by
becoming a member of the ILO, a state has to comply with the principle of freedom of
association laid down in the constitution of the Organization. Two ILO committees are
responsible for monitoring freedom of association matters. One is the Fact-finding and
Conciliation Commission which requires the consent of the government concerned. The
second is the Committee on Freedom of Association, a tripartite committee appointed
by the ILO's Governing Body. The Committee has dealt with more than 2,200 cases
covering a wide range of matters, including: Arrest and disappearance of unionists,
legislation contrary to freedom of association principles and interference in union
Towards the end of the 1990s the ILO redoubled its efforts to have countries and
international bodies recognize that globalization and trade liberalization were having
serious, adverse, effects on workers. It increased its activities aimed at building support
for internationally recognized labour standards. Most notably, in 1998, the ILO adopted
the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work which reaffirmed the
commitment of the Organization's states to respect, promote and put into effect the
principles underlying fundamental rights at work in four categories.
freedom of association and collective bargaining
the elimination of forced labour
abolition of child labour and
the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation
The Declaration underscored the fact that all member states of the ILO have an
obligation to respect the fundamental principles related to rights at work whether or not
they have ratified the relevant ILO Conventions.
Later the ILO produced a Follow-up to the Declaration which was aimed at
supporting the Declaration's goals in two ways: First it established an annual review of
countries which have not ratified one or more of the four categories related to
fundamental rights. Secondly, it began a series of annual reports outlining the state of
affairs related to the four categories in all countries.
As the pace and effects of globalization increase the ILO is becoming even more
important as an organization through which the international labour movement can assert
its demands for fundamental labour rights while pushing for a linkage between economic
advance and social progress.
The International Labour Movement
There has been a lot of talk about the decline of the labour movement in recent
years. And it's true, the numbers are down. But this is not due simply to the de-
industrialization of economically- advanced countries as they convert themselves into
electronic countries. Much of the decline can be attributed to sustained and vicious
attacks lead by Reagonites and Thatcherites, aided by a compliant media, who have
pursued a right-wing agenda which asserts that working people need no representatives
other than their bosses. More can be blamed on corporations, and their allies such as the
International Monetary Fund (IMF), who are taking advantage of the powerful
economic changes caused by globalization to re-work the world economy in their view
(which doesn't include pesky unions). Some of it can be attributed to the rise of unelected
nongovernmental organization (NGOs) which have taken on some of the issues which
only the labour movement and its allied political parties used to address. And, it has to be
said, some blame has to be put on labour organizations which grew complacent and
forgot the need for the basics such as member-contact and labour education.
Despite all this though, the labour movement remains a vibrant, powerful, social
and economic phenomena. It has almost 200 million members world-wide. Its
organizations range from international bodies tackling undemocratic global institutions to
shop steward committees discussing grievances in local workplaces. The link between de-
industrialization and union decline is proven false by the existence of societies such as the
Nordic countries which are economically, technologically and socially advanced and
have unionization rates of over 90 per cent.. The irrelevance of unions in economically
advanced countries is disproved every time some huge corporation goes bankrupt and
fires its white-collar employees with little compensation and no pensions. And the need
for unions to fight the worse effects of industrialization has never been more relevant as
industrialization is shifted to the developing countries, where the vast majority of
humankind lives and tries to find decent work.
National labour movements forced governments and companies to accept a social
dimension to national capitalist economies. It may well be that it is the international
labour movement and its allies which forces them to accept a social dimension to the
Workers' Activities Programme (ACTRAV)
ILO International Training Centre, Turin