The International Union Merger of November 2006:

Top-Down, Eurocentric and…



[A revised and extended version of a contribution to International Union Rights,, Autumn 2006]


Peter Waterman



At a conference in Vienna, early November, 2006, there will take place the unification of most of the major international and of certain national trade unions in a new organisation. Unlike previous such launchings, however, this is occurring without any general global upsurge of union protest or expressions of labour self-confidence, and without public knowledge. Although the parties involved talk about the creation of a new union international, the word ‘merger’ seems rather more appropriate. This for two reasons.


Firstly, what is taking place here represents a largely administrative unification between two Western European-based international trade union centres of the social-reformist tradition. These are the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions/Global Unions (ICFTU/GU) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL).


Given the serious effects on them of neo-liberalism and globalisation – in both membership and financial terms – this makes managerial sense. The ICFTU (1949), inheritor of the international Social-Democratic tradition, is here the major partner, claiming some 150 million members. The WCL (1968) descends from the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (1920), is of Social-Catholic inspiration, and claims some 26 million – largely in Latin America. (The WCL wildly exaggerates its own membership figures. It has one or two major West European affiliates, but in the South is to a large extent a development project of West-European Christian Democracy, without whose funding it would collapse).


Other international organisations involved, such as the European Trade Union Confederation (1974) and the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (TUAC 1948). are similarly social-reformist and based in Western Europe. The unification also involves the trade-specific internationals (e.g. public service or agriculture) of the ICFTU and WCL. Some of these have already merged. However, these further complicate the merger. The Global Union Federations associated with the ICFTU in the Global Unions network, are much older than, and autonomous from, the ICFTU. Those of the WCL are merely departments. The WCL, moreover, seems reluctant to have the global or regional merger reaching down to national level. The role of the ETUC in the whole process needs emphasis for two reasons. Firstly, it provides an explicit or implicit model of a unified union body, being formally autonomous from the existing international centres and having long included national unions of both the Communist and Catholic tradition (Moreno 2005). Secondly, however, it is itself self-subordinated to the European Union and thus to an elite social accord of problematic value. This has been extensively argued by veteran left labour specialist, Richard Hyman:


With the advent of labour diplomacy, a distinctive model of international trade union bureaucratisation became the line of least resistance. We may note, in this context, that the double-edged certification of labour as a 'social partner' within the institutions of the European Union has had analogous effects: providing recognition and material resources, but incorporating the ETUC within an elite policy community largely detached from those it claims to represent. (Hyman 2002)




All too often, official trade union practice seems implicitly to accept that internationalism is an elite concern, that it is safer if the membership does not learn too much of policies which they might perhaps oppose. In some unions, certainly, international issues are given reasonable prominence in internal communications and education; I fear that this is far from typical, though openness may be increasing as unions struggle to find a response to ‘globalization’. In any event, since effective international solidarity is impossible without a ‘willingness to act’ on the part of grassroots trade unionists, it is unattainable without an active strategy by union leaders and activists to enhance knowledge, understanding and identification of common interests cross-nationally. This means engaging in what might be termed an ‘internal social dialogue’. (Hyman 2005)


Given that there is no international, or even Southern, union criticism of the ETUC model, it seems likely that the new organisation will reproduce this model. There is, further, a rumour that the new international will move to Geneva, the city that also hosts the International Labour Organisation. Whether it does or not, there is plentiful evidence of the increasing dependency of the international unions on this global-level ‘partner’. The ILO is an inter-state body in which the unions have only a 25 percent vote but are treated as representing also that majority of the world’s labour force that un-unionised or un-unionisable.


The word ‘merger’ seems appropriate, secondly, in analogy with the contemporary corporate world, in which it is the boards of directors who are involved, whilst those lower down the hierarchy are either uninformed, passively observe or – where more actively concerned and involved – may at best express some opinions or hope that ‘unity means strength’. In this union case the merger has been virtually invisible to the 176 million or so of union members claimed, to world public opinion in general - and even to that progressive part of such in the new ‘global justice and solidarity movement’ (GJ&SM). Information denial here goes to the point at which a relevant article by the ICFTU’s Joint General Secretary was published not on the ICFTU website, but in Medellin, Colombia (Oliveira 2006).


This virtual invisibility has also been true of ‘virtual reality’. Bearing in mind the increasing number and professional quality of international union or labour websites, and the ease of publication on them, this invisibility is puzzling, at the very least. Neither on the site of the ICFTU, the Global Unions or the WCL has it been possible to find more than a few meagre messages on something supposedly of significance to tens of millions! (This invisibility extends even to the otherwise innovative and autonomous site, LabourStart).  Indeed, an inquiry about this lack, addressed to the Press Office of the ICFTU, produced only a reference back two years to a resolution of its 2004 Congress! One can only speculate about this virtual silence. Perhaps the leaderships are themselves ambiguous about the project, or worried about its success, or simply aware that this represents a new form without a new content.


I would have considered taking the two-hour train journey from The Hague to try to solve this puzzle. But I was apparently fortunate in being thousands of air miles from Brussels, base of both major centres involved, whilst writing this piece. For it is in Latin America that there has been most interest in the merger – at least at regional level. This may be because of a recent rise in labour and other social protest in Latin America. Or because it is here that the WCL has a certain presence. It is in the sub-continent, in any case, that there has been expressed most concern about the political content of the merger, the autonomy it will allow at regional level and its implications at the national one. This I found in a slim collection produced by a regional consultative labour council (Consejo Consultivo Laboral Andino 2005) and published by the Peruvian labour NGO, PLADES. It consists of 13 short contributions, from union leaders and specialists, national, regional and international, and from a wide range of tendencies, including the Communist. It is available in both print and digital form, and provides a model which regrettably does not exist at the international level or in languages other than Spanish.


The most obvious challenge in Latin America has been the competition between the regional organisations of the ICFTU and the WCL. The regional body of the ICFTU, the ORIT (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores, 1951), is actually a hemispheric organisation, including the major national union centres of the USA and Canada. That of the WCL, the CLAT (Confederación Latinamericana de Trabajadores), is restricted to Latin America. In the past the ORIT was widely associated with what was then called the ‘AFL-CIO-CIA’, in other words, with the use of the US unions as a channel for US corporate or state manipulation of Latin American unions (Agee 1975).  In the past, the CLAT has struck radical notes, in favour of worker self-management, or the organisation of the self-employed. But neither the one thing nor the other means that today the CLAT is more radical than the ORIT. Its credentials have in the past been also seriously challenged (Stichting Imperialisme en Onderontwikkeling 1984). The ORIT has recently itself been rather more assertive than its mother organisation in Brussels. So much so that its mother organisation, the ICFTU, has ignored its Labour Platform for the Americas (2006), despite its hardly revolutionary orientation. The relative radicalism of ICFTU affiliates in the region is suggested in concerns about the composition of the new international and its relationship with the broader social movements:


[T]here has to be a more balanced relationship between numerical and occupational representation in the new leadership, as also with gender and ethnicity. A union centre cannot be truly global if it is controlled solely by white men from industrialised countries.


[…] One of the great victories we have achieved in the continent was the non-implementation of the [Free Trade Area of the Americas]. This agreement, nefarious for all workers, particularly those of Latin America and the Caribbean, was only possible thanks to the united struggle of union centres of all the countries, from Canada to Argentina, through the mediation of the ORIT and the Continental Social Alliance (CSA). This alliance, in addition to being of the North with the South – even if for different motives – also incorporated a series of social movements and NGOs, and was a great victory we cannot lose. (Jakobsen 2005:66-7)


One should not, finally, discount the influence in Latin America of the World Social Forum and its regional spin-offs, most of which have taken place in the sub-continent. The WSF has provided not only a site at which some of the (closed-door) union negotiations have taken place, but have also suggested more holistic alternatives to globalisation than have been traditionally offered by the major union internationals. Involvement in general social protest may have itself stimulated Latin American union concern about the content or ideology of a unification that is likely to continue a model forged in Western Europe during the years of both the Welfare State and the Cold War - both of which have pretty much disappeared.


The Cold War requires mention because this unification excludes the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), an organisation that became increasingly Communist because of the Cold War and then reproduced the misfortunes of its sponsoring bloc. A shell of its former self, it still has some following. This is largely sentimental insofar as WFTU is not demonstrably to the left of the ICFTU/WCL. For evidence of this consider the Beijing Consensus (2004), in which the WFTU was involved. In so far as WFTU still has affiliates that are extensions of the state in Communist (and certain Middle Eastern?) countries, it can hardly complain at its non-invitation to the party.


Within Latin America, the WFTU is largely dependent on the Cuban state and its unions. There is may even still exist its regional affiliate from the 1960s-80s, the Congreso Permanente de Unidad de los Sindicatos de America Latina (CPUSTAL), but this has only a skeletal web existence in Wikipedia. However, the WFTU has national affiliates elsewhere in the region, and these are predictably critical of a unification which excludes their tradition (Pacho 2005). Such concerns have emerged from Communist-oriented unions elsewhere (Majumdar 2000). But these complaints are either iterations of traditional Communist ideology, or simply objections without any new ideological elements or strategic proposals. Neither the presence nor the absence of the (ex-) Communist unions seems likely to make much difference to the new organisation.


Questioned about the coming merger, a North American international labour-rights specialist, based in Vienna itself, said he knew nothing about it though he was interested in attending the event.


When I asked a Latin American with 10-15 years experience in international unionism, for a sentence or two on whether the event would be significant for the labour movement internationally, he replied with one word, ‘No’.


A veteran South-Asian labour organiser, currently engaged in labour and social movement solidarity internationally, was certainly aware of the coming merger. He suggested it would have no positive effect at either regional or national level. He considered it a Western and top-down initiative, with any unifying prospects locally being obstructed by self-interested national leadership concerns ‘to keep hold of their assets, such as buildings, and their foreign project funding’. Moreover, he argued that exclusion of the WFTU meant the exclusion of major national union centres in the region.


And a highly-experienced and qualified European observer commented:


[W]hat is the politics of the new International supposed to be? No one knows...but I fear it might be a divorce from any sort of explicit ideology, although I guess they won't be able to escape from the subliminal, immanent ideology of the trade union movement which is obliged to wage the class struggle whether it wants it or not, or even knows it or not. It will probably be couched in human  rights terms.


I eventually found the proposed politics of the new international, along with its proposed name, in a document buried on the website of the World Confederation of Labour (2006). I would characterise this policy as somewhat broader, though hardly more radical, than a human rights policy. I characterise it as a ‘global neo-Keynesianism’. By this I mean the promotion at global level of the old West-European model of national welfare capitalism. Two immediate and obvious challenges to this are: 1) In so far as Keynesianism was successful within nation states, what argument or evidence (as contrasted with a hope or dream) is there for its possible success at global level? and 2) given that even powerful unions were unable to prevent the destruction of this model at national level, what evidence or argument is there that a dramatically weakened international movement could establish it at global level? The answer that its promoters might provide lie, perhaps, in an even greater dependency on the ILO (itself seriously marginalised by neo-liberal globalisation) than I had previously thought. Reference to the global justice movement, on the other hand, is both brief and obscure. This new international, in other words, appears to be appealing less to the world’s workers, major new social movements and global civil society than to hypothetical patrons above.


It is significant – if hardly promising – that the only extensive analysis I have been able to find of the unification is on the website of a self-isolated Trotskyist international labour initiative. It is written by a former leader of the French Force Ouvrière. He concludes:

This proposed merger has turned its back on the great founding principles of proletarian internationalism, based on the understanding that society is divided into social classes with opposed and contradictory interests - that is, on the one hand, the exploiters of wage labour and, on the other hand, the exploited who are forced to sell their labour to survive [] All the sectors involved in this trade union unification project would be well[] advised to reflect before heading down a road that could lead to a dead-end with totalitarian implications. (Sandri 2005)

The French CGT (ex-WFTU), however, has been playing an active part in the unification process (Confédération Générale du Travail 2006, Schwartz 2006).


Given the extent to which the international unions have been themselves infected, if not significantly affected, by the global justice movement, a totalitarian outcome seems the least imaginable of scenarios. A reformist orientation seems more likely – though one opted for without the information and debate demonstrated by the newest social movements. The founding event will tell us more. I am aware of a number of independent observers who will be present and from whom we can hope for commentary. But further stagnation, disorientation and ambiguity seems likely until and unless an open global dialogue about the merger takes place.


But such a dialogue will have to go beyond the diplomatic mode, in which the different parties who have spoken (including sceptics and opponents) are operating under a gentlemen’s agreement not to mention painful truths, for example about the problematically democratic credentials of many of their own national affiliates, about financial shenanigans, and about past subordination to states and blocs at every level.


A serious dialogue might be sparked by the translation and distribution, even after the unification, of the Latin American compilation I have both referred to and made use of. Without this kind of institutional initiative, we will have to look elsewhere for sources of a meaningful renewal and unification (definitely in this order) of the international labour movement. But it seems to me that this is likely to come, if at all, from new sectors of the working class, out of their increasingly common militancy, and to be inspired less by the new union organisation than by the global justice and solidarity movement (Waterman and Timms 2004-5, Waterman 2006). It is likely to also take the form less of a new union institution based on a 19th century model, more of effective global networks.


Note: Thanks must be expressed to Dan Gallin for comments on drafts of this paper. He cannot, of course, be held responsible for what I have done with them.


Peter Waterman (London 1936) worked for the WFTU in Prague, 1966-9. As an academic (1972-98) he specialised on labour and other internationalisms. His latest book, in Spanish, is The New Nervous System of Internationalism and Solidarity (2006). Much of his other work can be found by a web search on <peter waterman hague>. He is currently writing his ‘internationalist autobiography’.




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