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The Past and Future of International Trade Unionism

Remarks of Bill Jordan, ICFTU General Secretary, at the Reception of the International Conference

This speech, received by email, 23.5.00, was made at a conference that launched the book by Marcel v.d. Linden et. al. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Bern: Peter Lang. 624 pp

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 that Congress. 

One example from Durban is the question of the relationship with NGOís. 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 should develop. 

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 of history. 

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 local levels. 

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 couldnít or wouldnít organise and that workers in the public sector couldnít or didnít 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. 

Precarious employment 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 we have.

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. 

Eventually, corporations 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 members. 

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.

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