Back to homepage...

An Open Letter to the General Secretary of the International Confederation of
Free Trade Unions, on the Occasion of its Millennial Congress in Durban,
South Africa, April 2000

Time for the ICFTU to move from anti-social (inter)national partnerships to a real global social partnership? 

Peter Waterman

Dear Bill Jordan: 

I write to you as one lifelong member of the British and international labour movement to another. Did I also read somewhere that you, like me, were born in 1936?. I am aware of writing as a marginal intellectual member of such to the leader of the predominant international trade union organisation; and as a retired academic to an organiser; and as someone always associated with the Left (Communism and the World Federation of Trade Unions in the past, with 'the new social unionism' and 'the new labour internationalism' today) to someone I understand has been long-associated with the Centre or Right. 

All this is, however, just to be explicit about where I am coming from and what my assumptions are. Because what I want to deal with is the future of the ICFTU, by far the biggest international organisation of organised labour - a matter which goes beyond these occupations, ideologies or identities. The tens of millions of workers already affiliated to the ICFTU represent the largest organised mass resource for a new internationalism and a global civil society. Its future should therefore be of concern also to all labour activists, to ordinary working people (waged or not), and to the growing number of radical-democratic social movements active internationally - women's, ecological, human rights, consumer, cultural / communicational, indigenous peoples, etc. 

I do not want to go into the history of the ICFTU and international labour since this has been often commented on and discussed through the years, in the South African Labour Bulletin and elsewhere (Waterman 1999). We can, in any case, expect a discussion of the historical role of the ICFTU to follow publication of the first substantial history of the organisation, due out shortly. 

What I want to raise here are questions concerning the relationship of the ICFTU to globalisation, as raised by yourself for public discussion worldwide - or at least on the worldwide web. I am referring to your opening address (Jordan 1999) to the electronic conference on `Organised Labour in the 21st Century' (OL21), co-sponsored by the ICFTU and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which began in 1999 and continues at the time of writing. Your paper is, I feel, an eminently clear, wide-ranging and innovative document, revealing the extent of the ICFTU's response to a globalised and informatised world capitalist (dis)order. I am not aware of any full and direct response to this on the OL21 Website and, in any case, your paper deserves much wider circulation and discussion than it could
possibly receive there. 

What I want to comment on is the relationship of the ICFTU with: capital, state, with the unions, with working people generally, and with civil society globally. 

Capital. At a time in which capitalism is dynamic and triumphant, both geographically and ideologically, and an increasing threat to unions, workers - and even the ecological basis of human life - this word only appears in your paper dressed up, or cut down, as 'the economy', 'employers', 'multinationals', 'corporations'. Whilst you condemn the destruction wrought by globalisation, what I call capitalism is still therefore presented by you as something unions do or could not only civilise, but as an actual or potential 'social partner'. The terms you employ, the 'social partnership' you promote, relate to the passing era of national, industrial capitalism. This 'partnership' did not prevent the brutal attack on labour by a globalised neo-liberal capitalism. I do not see how it could, today, do more
than create a more-civilised but equally powerful and unpredictable capitalism, benefiting at best temporarily, at most a minority of workers and unionists, in a minority of countries. Using the words capital, capitalism, capitalists enables
us to recognise a global social structure, a historical process, ideology and values, a class - beyond which labour must surely go, in the interests of itself, of democracy, of humankind and of nature. Even the neo-liberals call capitalism by
its name. Why not the ICFTU? 

State. Another (past? future? someplace? sometime?) 'social partner' in your discourse - called in all cases but one `government'. You denounce the role governments have played in globalisation, and recognise the way the intergovernmental financial institutions and accords (like the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), the World Bank and World Trade Organisation(WTO)) serve the multinationals. Yet your core strategy is that of
appealing to or lobbying states and interstate organisations to be nicer to labour. This, again, is based on the past experience (or myth) of unionised labour, primarily in industrially-developed capitalist welfare states. It is significant
that, disarmed by this understanding and strategy, the ICFTU was invisible in the international and internationalist struggles against the MAI in Geneva 1998 and the WTO in Seattle 1999. These successful mass protest actions represented an implicit or explicit critique of the symbiotic relation between the liberal-democratic state and big capital (national and global). The ICFTU surely needs to learn from those who organised and won the Battle of Seattle if it is to impact today on (inter)state organisations in the interests of labouring people worldwide. 

Unions. Here you argue that unions (in distinction from non-governmental organisations - NGOs) are popular organisations, with a mass base, are (always? everywhere?) a force for democracy and wielders of a 'certain economic
power'. You suggest that they need to retain their traditional values whilst adopting contemporary means: 

Values are constant and central to our very existence and survival. They are not subject to the whims of the market nor the will of tyrants, public or private. They have been proven and hardened in the fire of battle.  They respond to and nurture that spark of human solidarity that is found in all of us. I doubt whether in this respect the 21st century will be very different from the 20th century. The big difference is that we will have to change our structures and methods to get results from the local to the international levels.

Whilst your treatment of national and international unionism recognises the necessity for increased union participation, communication, democracy and protest activity, the above quote is more in the rhetorical than the analytical or
strategic mode. Trade union values have customarily been both varied and problematic, even when the unions were most internationalist! `Solidarity' has been - and still often is - expressed against workers of a different category,
company, colour, ideology, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, as well as against pacifists, environmentalists or feminists. So we really need a more critical approach to past union values and a re-specification of 'solidarity' in the light of globalisation. 

As for the change in structures and methods, your argument here hardly confronts the problem of either the representative-democratic union or the national one in the era of a globalised networked capitalism: nor does it address those many ICFTU member unions that may be neither the one nor the other!. Even if we assume,
uncritically, that these were effective under traditional capitalism, the scale, scope and speed of change today - particularly when seen in relation to widespread privatisation, informalisation, subcontracting and individualisation worldwide - raises fundamental questions about the 'principle of articulation' (both connection and expression) for a labour movement that must, today, go way beyond the unionised or unionisable. In so far as the capitalist industrial revolution required a transformation from the craft and local guild to the national industrial union, is not a parallel transformation necessary to what could be called 'the global, electronic and networked unionism' of the future? 

The transformation of capitalism also raises fundamental questions about the nation-state basis (identity and address) of labour organisation. Such challenges are being raised by the International Trade Secretariats, which suggest that
the industry or company identity is the relevant one today. But the ITSs, which have been increasingly merging to form conglomerates across any single distinct industry, are also based on national industrial unions. I am not suggesting
that such literally international organisations as the ICFTU or ITSs will or should disappear. But I do suggest they will have to recognise the power of the network over the organisation if they are to be effective as an international and internationalist force. 

Working people. You do raise the problem of the increasing number of working people outside the traditional employment relationship on which unions have been based. The `thirdworldisation' or 'housewifisation' of the global labour force is one increasingly effecting 'first world' labour and men. This is not only due to evil employers or complicit/complacent governments. Computerisation/informatisation creates the technical possibility for the reduction, individualisation, feminisation and exportation of work. Even the mighty German (national-industrial) unions are
apparently unable to prevent this transformation, or to propose a convincing, attractive and progressive alternative to such. This suggests to me the necessity to either (re)convert the trade unions into a labour movement (another concept you do not mention), and to develop a democratic, co-operative, egalitarian and solidarity relationship with bodies that are working with non-unionised / non-unionisable labour (i.e. the majority of the world's working people). 

Civil society. I am happy to see this term in your paper, though you nowhere say what you mean by it or who it includes/excludes. So we have to assume that, as elsewhere in your argument, you endorse the dominant liberal idea: civil society as democratic and self-organised citizen organisations and movements independent of the state. In so far as you are proposing a positive relationship between (inter)national unions and other radical-democratic and pluralistic forces, I won't argue (though we surely need to increasingly see civil society posed also against the power of capital). When you move from orientation to political relations, however, you refer rather to 'NGOs'. Whilst you are here generally positive, you also - as nowhere else - problematise them, suggesting that unions are uniquely democratic and popular organisations (based on a dues-paying membership and some kind of economic power), and that relations with NGOs can be either 'very good' or 'very bad'. Whilst this is a step forward from past dismissal of these
bodies, I am not sure whether it is wise to either set up some kind of opposition, or to problematise the NGOs whilst assuming that (inter)national unions are unproblematic. You may be either interested or amused to know that some
feminists tend to reverse the argument, assuming that the women's movement is 'autonomous' whilst the unions are 'incorporated'. 

It is true that NGOs have an ambiguous relationship with capital and state. But so do trade unions! Yours, for example, still believes in the fundamental value to workers and society of a `social partnership' with both of these! It is, in this
context, significant, that it was international/ist 'NGOs', not the ICFTU (or its US affiliate), that stopped both the MAI and the WTO. So perhaps we should rather talk of the relationship between both types of institution on the one hand, and
mass, popular and effective movements against a globalised networked capitalism on the other. After all, the ICFTU, like many NGOs, is dependent for almost half of its income (I stand to be corrected) not on workers or on civil society but on funding from nation-states like Germany that are supporting a neo-liberal globalisation. Amnesty International rejects all state funding. My guess (an interesting subject for ICFTU-supported research?) is that Amnesty may be
better known, or more appreciated, amongst working people worldwide than the ICFTU. Amnesty, moreover, does not either assume or claim that it is the human rights movement. It is part of a network of international human rights organisations. Just as Seattle was the achievement of a complex and contradictory network of movements (including labour) critical of, or opposed to, globalisation. The question that arises here, in relationship to labour and civil society, may not, therefore, be one of representativity, a problematic quality of unions everywhere, but of responsibility,in the sense of a democratic, open, egalitarian, empowering, effective relationship with the community addressed. 

I do not see the ICFTU as some representative of evil, any more than I see myself as possessed of virtue. Under a neo-liberalised global capitalism, it seems to me, labour radicalism and labour reformism provide the conditions for each other's existence. This is as true of labour as for the ecological or women's movement. 

My challenge, therefore, is not so much to the ICFTU for wanting to civilise capitalism rather than overthrow it, since the only way to surpass capitalism is by constantly exposing its limitations, pushing at its limits, proposing attractive
alternatives to such: it is to make it an effective force for meaningful reform under conditions of globalisation. This means, I suspect, recognising a 'division of labour' within and around labour internationally. This would be between the force for innovating and advancing internationalism (the international labour, pro-labour or labour-allied network), the organisation for representing unions internationally (a radically reformed and democratised ICFTU, set of ITSs and regional organisations), and the institution for negotiating and enforcing international labour standards (an equally reformed or reinvented International Labour Organisation). 

Such an understanding of the ICFTU's position and possibilities has implications. 

Its orientation toward the ILO would not be one of dependency, as it comes out of your argument, but of contesting an inter-state terrain, in which the ICFTU/ITSs press for a reinvention of the ILO to make it appropriate for a globalised networked capitalism. The ICFTU orientation toward the networks would be one of open encouragement and mutual dialogue. Indeed, it occurs to me that a relationship between trade unions and other radical-democratic social movements, aimed at developing civil society nationally and globally, would be a real 'social partnership', based on equality, rather than the old one, articulating dependent labour with dominant capital and/or state. 

I want to add two points which are hardly raised in your paper. One has to do with the West and the Rest within the international trade union movement. The other with the increasing centrality of communication to labour internationalism. 

The West and the Rest. The ICFTU and ITSs originate in the West, have their headquarters in the West, are dominated by Western funding and officers, and have had - with exceptions - a paternalistic attitude towards the 'underdeveloped' unions in the 'developing' world (as revealed by ICFTU dependence on 'development funding'). Yet the overwhelming majority of the world's workers are in contemporary capitalism's two peripheries, the old South, plus Russia and China. This would seem to face the ICFTU with two alternatives. The first is to reproduce the socio-geographic relationship of the Vatican with its overwhelmingly Third World membership. The second would be to radically democratise and redistribute power towards the periphery. As with a number of feminist and ecological
NGOs, this might imply not only regional autonomy but diversifying its leadership (what percentage of top international union leaders are female, non-white and Third World?), and even moving headquarters to non-Western locations! All this is made possible by computer communication, of which more below. 

International Labour and Communication. The ICFTU resisted open-access international labour computer communication when offered by a top social-democratic specialist and supporter some 15 years ago. It has been late,
slow and awkward in entering this new world - which really has more promise for radical-democratic internationalist forces than for the capitalists who profit from it or the states that try to control it. In so far as the most valuable function of the ICFTU and ITSs is precisely that of information, co-ordination and communication, trade union internationalism needs to be re-thought in terms of international communication for the creation of an internationalist culture. This is how the international women's movement works. It is how the Battle of Seattle was first co-ordinated and then projected globally - by both the dominant and the alternative media. 

And let me, finally, return to where I started, which is on myself as a marginal member of the labour movement. In your last paragraph you welcome the ICFTU/ILO electronic conference as a forum for academics as well as unionists. Yet it is my experience (also with the WFTU, the Dutch trade unions and even with the OL21 Conference!) that intellectuals are welcomed rather as supporters of an institution, a policy or an orientation than as partners in a dialogue. This belongs to a logic of organisational self-interest and self-perpetuation rather than to one of movement and transformation. It belongs to the capitalism of yesterday rather than that of today and tomorrow. 

If labour is ever to recapture the social, cultural, political and intellectual high ground it occupied during the early period of capitalist and nation-state development, it is, I believe, really going to have to dialogue not only with its base but also with its periphery, institutional, socio-geographical and intellectual. Power rests, but also stagnates, at the centre of the labour movement, innovation comes from the periphery - the organisational margins, the social, geographic and
cultural fringes. 

Much of the new thinking about unionism internationally first appeared not in the publications of the ICFTU but in those like the South African Labour Bulletin in South Africa and Labor Notes in the USA. I recall only one recent case in
which the ICFTU has entered into a public dialogue with those outside its ranks, and that was with radical-nationalist (not necessarily pro-labour or socialist) intellectuals from the Third World who are opposed to linking worker rights with
trading privileges. I welcome this debate - or at least this response. But when are we going to see you personally, or the ICFTU leadership more generally, or its media of communication, open up to similarly serious public dialogue with
socialists, ecologists, feminists, labour leaders, and activists internationally (e.g. with the American journalist Bacon (2000) or the Brazilian union leader Jakobsen (1998)? A leadership equipped primarily with administrative or diplomatic skills is not going to lead a new international labour movement: it increasingly has to demonstrate intellectual and media/communicational ones. A social partnership relevant to labour internationally in the era of globalisation requires these things too. 

I await with great interest the results of your Millennial Congress - though with no expectation of a millennial self-transformation. I will, however, continue to hope for either the publication of this item in or on an ICFTU periodical or website, or your response in the present place of publication.   

Peter Waterman 

Bacon, David. 2000. `World Labour Needs Independence and Solidarity', March 6. March 4. 

Jakobsen, Kjeld Aagaard. 1998. 'New Challenges in the ORIT [ICFTU regional organisation for the Americas]' in Maria Portella de Castro and Achim Wachendorfter (eds), Trade Unions and Globalisation: The Painful Insertion into an Uncertain World (in Spanish). Caracas: Editorial Nueva Sociedad. Pp. 307-19. 

Jordan, Bill. 1999. 'Subject: Trade Unions in the 21st Century. Response by ICFTU General Secretary to Keynote by Juan Somavia [Director General of the ILO]', 17 September. 

Waterman, Peter. 1999. 'International Labour's Y2K Problem: A Debate, A Discussion and a Dialogue (A Contribution to the ILO/ICFTU Conference on Organised Labour in the 21st Century)'. Working Paper Series, No. 306. The Hague: Institute of Social Studies. 64 pp. Email:

[Peter Waterman authored Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms (Cassell, London, 1998) and co-edited Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order
(Macmillan, London, 1999). E-dresses:,] .

Back to the top