|I would like to thank
the team of historians that put together this history of the international
trade union movement they have produced an important book that is, in itself,
historic. This major achievement reminds us, however, of the frustration
for those who toil to make sense out of available documents.
But this project has made
me think of how difficult it must be to write our history based on, for
example, the minutes, or even the verbatim transcripts of our Executive
Board meetings or our Congresses.
We held our Congress in
Durban, South Africa last month. Important discussions on issues of great
importance to the future of our movement took place in connection with
One example from Durban
is the question of the relationship with NGO’s. This was seriously debated.
Most of those discussions, however, did not take place in the Congress
itself, where a detailed record will be available, but in Congress working
parties in the months before the Congress, in the Committee on Resolutions
at the Congress and, more informally, among affiliated organisations and
international trade secretariats.
You will find in the resolutions
adopted at Congress, a resolution that represents a consensus position
on NGOs, but because a consensus emerged, you will not find the strongly
held and radically differing views on the way in which such co-operation
That is why it is important
for those researching history, where they can, to draw on the memories
of those who were part of that history, to get a flavour of the passion
of events that minutes cannot capture.
This is but one issue
from our recent Congress. Most, if not all, of the important issues related
to our Congress will become even more difficult to analyse and understand
for historians examining the records of Congress in 50 or 100 years time.
This is one assembly that
does not have to be convinced of the importance of history nor of the lessons
The ICFTU at its recent
Congress was reflecting on its past in a millennium discussion on the way
forward for trade unionism.
The lessons of history
were being readily recalled to strengthen arguments.
One lesson was that the
value and effectiveness of the international trade union movement is only
as good as its relevance to what is happening at the national and even
The foundation of the
ITF was inspired, in part, by an act of solidarity by British workers with
striking workers in Rotterdam more than 100 years ago.
This is not fundamentally
different from the global solidarity demonstrated much more recently with
the Australian dockers.
A fact of life about globalisation
is that organisations increasingly find common problems at national level.
Most, delegates to our Congress who spoke talked about the challenges faced
by their organisations at home.
What was compelling was
the number of similar concerns across regional lines and regardless of
levels of economic development.
Because many of those
common problems are related to global forces and institutions, it makes
sense to seek global ways to help solve those problems.
A growing understanding
of the connection between developments at the national level and global
developments should, logically, lead to growing engagement by national
unions and national centres in international trade union work.
Global solidarity will
be increasingly seen not as irrelevant to the national struggle, but as
part of it.
The relentless growth
of the "Informal Sector" in all countries is being described as a new challenge
to the trade union movement. If we are going to meet that challenge we
should revisit the lessons of our own history.
Many early unions were
built out of what would now be called the "informal sector," although that
term would have been as inaccurate and misleading then as it is now.
Individual craft workers
or artisans were important parts of the evolution of economy in what are
now considered developed countries.
The approach of the early
trade union movement was not to seek the elimination of such work, but,
instead to build protection in various ways and on many fronts. They did
it through trade union organising, the creation of co-operatives, campaigning
to force governments to assume responsibility for regulating work and the
employment relationship, to develop and enforce labour standards, and to
build and extend social protection. This was not easy then and it will
not be easy now !
Another lesson from history
is that in periods of revolutionary change, and we are in one now, we must
be able to think and act outside the straight-jacket of our traditions.
The craft unions thought
for a long time that it would be improper and inappropriate to organise
unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
This was followed in succession
by the assumption that white-collar workers couldn’t or wouldn’t organise
and that workers in the public sector couldn’t or didn’t need to organise.
The trade union movement,
once again, needs new ideas for the needs of new workers, new occupations,
new forms of work organisation, new employment relationships.
Adapting does not necessarily
mean accepting new situations and insecurities. Trade unions in heavy industry
took dangerous, insecure, and poverty level employment and transformed
it into good jobs.
is growing throughout most of the world and it is possible that a greater
mobility may be become permanent in many occupations. Perhaps, the trade
union itself, in some situations, could become the anchor for workers as
they move from job to job, providing security and benefits that would be
otherwise difficult to organise. As we did in the early days of trade unionism.
There is no demographic
change in the work force as spectacular as the entry of women into paid
work and almost universally it is on poor pay with poor conditions.
Our fight to remove barriers
and encourage women to join forces to liberate themselves using the trade
union movement as their instrument is currently the best organising campaign
Much of what passes for
globalisation is not, in fact, some sort of natural and unstoppable development.
But, it has been given an air of inevitability.
The rule of "market forces"
cannot become the unquestioned agenda of the world, any more than laissez-faire
capitalism was beyond challenge generations ago.
and others enjoying the privileges of globalisation will have to engage
in social dialogue.
It may be necessary for
us to combine the force of our argument with the argument of our force
if that is to take place sooner rather than later.
The final lesson of history
that I want to mention is an obvious one and one related directly to the
very existence of the ICFTU. Trade union legitimacy comes from workers
and from workers alone.
A free trade union with
100 members is more representative and has an inner strength, more powerful
than an organisation with 1 million members that has no mandate from its
Some may consider that
in a post-Cold War world, this compelling definition of trade unionism
no longer matters, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The central notion of
free trade unionism preceded the emergence of 20th century totalitarianism
and lives and thrives in this new century.
That fundamental principle
is the essential difference between what new-age human resource managers
call "empowerment" and what trade unionists call "power".
It is trade union solidarity
that gives an ordinary worker the power to look the boss in the eye and
demand fairness and adequate pay and conditions.
That principle of trade
unions of, by and for workers, remains the basis for dignity, decency and
justice for working people.