What should be the political vision and strategy of the international trade union movement?

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“The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step”

7th July, 2016 / Ben Sellers / USi Blogger

The plenary discussion on Thursday the 7th of July, entitled ‘What should be the political vision and strategy of the international trade union movement?’ was one of the most lively and interesting debates all week. Introduced by Dan Gallin, of the Global Labour Institute (GLI) Geneva, it featured Stuart Howard of the International Transportworkers Federation (ITF), Angelo Gavrielatos of Education International (EI) and Josua Mata of the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) / Sentro.

The invisible international

Dan Gallin began by outlining some of the context for the debate, stressing that it is important that the international labour movement has spaces to think – and that GLI and the summer school in particular, offers that space. Part of the GLI’s mission was to critically assess where the international trade union movement is – and, importantly, what it should be and could be.

Dan Gallin [Image: Khalid Mahmood]

Dan Gallin
[Image: Khalid Mahmood]

The aim, said Dan, was to build an independent politics for the trade union movement: we have to see the international labour movement as the liberation movement of humanity, and to do that, we have to build powerful alliances, because we can’t do it alone. So the task, is to reconstitute a broad, popular movement, developing a sense of “Do-It-Yourself internationalism”.

Stuart Howard followed on from that cue to discuss how the formal structures of the international trade union movement do not equal the international movement in its totality. He agreed with Dan Gallin’s description of an “invisible international” beyond the formal structures. However, he argued that we should also recognise that the formal structures in of themselves are also potentially powerful.

On Brexit

Stuart then turned his attention to the situation we’re in. In recent weeks we’ve seen in the UK a breakdown of political structures. The governing classes made a colossal error – in asking for consent to continue the status quo in the context of this crisis, of this breakdown of the traditional political certainties and structures.

In this situation, where material inequality has led to such a political dislocation, it was almost inevitable that people would reject that status quo – and take the risk of walking into the unknown. The challenge, now, is how we, as a movement, stop the right from advancing and claiming the spoils.

Stuart said, however, that in his view, we are left with a shattered political system, which will never quite be put back together. There’s a broader political context for all this. Post 1989, there has been no restraint on capital. As Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation, says: “When global GDP has trebled since 1980 yet wages have slumped and inequality is now at historic levels, the economic model is broken”.

Sharan Burrow [Image: ITUC]

Sharan Burrow
[Image: ITUC]

It is broken on the back of systemic inequality. The 1 per cent stand on an island of wealth, with no capacity for a long term strategy, driven as they are by short term profit alone. The thing that has really changed, and which makes this crisis more serious than previous ones, is that there are no longer mechanisms to give concessions. Capital has fought to massively reduce the power of organised labour and its ability to provide alternatives.

Even Trump in the US represents change – which shows how vulnerable the situation is to far right populism and hijacking. As an international trade union movement, we must be far more strategic than before. That means being more accountable to wider society. In Stuart’s view, the big challenge is to renew ourselves in a very difficult circumstances. How do we regain power? How do we react to geographic shifts? By working with unions opening up, receiving energies from those outside official movement.

“The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step”

Angelo Gavrielatos began his contribution by quoting the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals: “The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step”. Angelo described how we are living in an ever increasingly fractured world. 62 people now have wealth of half of the world’s population. In this environment, the work of organising the unorganised becomes a vital project. The vision needs to be ambitious, aspirational, loud and proud, Angelo said.

The neoliberal experiment was aimed at destroying collectivism – and with it comes isolationism. The worry, in terms of that isolation, are in the results we are already witnessing: the rise of fascist parties all over the world, bringing with it a politics of racism and xenophobia. As a movement, we have singularly failed to grasp the severity of it.

Angelo Gavrielatos [Image: Khalid Mahmood]

Angelo Gavrielatos
[Image: Khalid Mahmood]

The signs were there with the global financial crisis. When people feel isolated – they tend towards a horizontal logic rather than a vertical. They look to blame those around them. To counter this, we need to be loud and proud in terms of union values. Too many unions, Angelo said, are working in an economistic fashion. Only by challenging that and gaining trust of members can we create a social movement trade unionism, where participation and deep engagement is foregrounded, as part of a growing membership.

Capital & Collective Power

Josua Mata rounded off the speeches from the platform. We know what the power of capital has unleashed on us, he said. Workers have started to retreat from class consciousness. The whole ideology of competition has decimated us. When workers compete against each other, we drop our solidarity. In much of the world, the relationship between union movements and the parties which previously represented them has collapsed.

Josua Mata [Image: Khalid Mahmood]

Josua Mata
[Image: Khalid Mahmood]


The International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) has taken a lead on how to take on financialisation and the big corporations. But what does that mean, in reality? It means moving beyond formal agreements, to campaigning and leveraging your collective power against the might of capital.

In addition, we need to rehabilitate the idea of public investment. As part of the crisis of social democracy, we often reregulated, but allowed corporations to keep their profits. The biggest challenge was to build strong, democratic unions at ground level, Josua said.

At times, the will to fight had atrophied into legalism. That was a cul-de-sac. What we need to do is to do is surmount the feeling that big change is simply impossible: that means organising domestic workers – in fact, helping them organise themselves. In addition, there is a need to revive the left in the trade unions. We do need a party, but not vanguardist one, nor parties that pursue electoralist strategies, but ones that genuinely represent workers.

Learning from Sanders & Corbyn

In the ensuing discussion from the floor, many people mentioned the optimism that had sprung from the campaigns to elect Bernie Sanders in the States and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Those movements could be a real resource for the global union movement. However, a number of contributions focused on the need to adapt as a labour movement.

We should be recognising global shifts and changes, while offering answers and solutions to changed situations. The bread and butter of the shifts around the Sanders and Corbyn, of these new movements, have been broad alliances. The union needs to learn from this.

A number of other people talked about the need for political training and education in our movements. In order to ensure that we moved on from ‘business unionism’, we need a groundswell of awareness raising and education, about capitalism and our own movement.

Unions must not be politically neutral, even within capitalism. It is important to learn lessons from the Sanders / Corbyn movements: that the ability to articulate values and principles, which has been lost to some extent in the union movement, is the key to our recovery.