Writing on the death of former WCL secretary general Jan Kulakowski it came up to me to write this blog on the role Solidarnosc played in Central and Eastern European regarding trade union policy of the WCL and the ICFTU in the nineties of the last century until the merger of the WCL and the ICFTU in 2006.
In May 1992 a WCL mission visited Moscow, where it had a meeting with dissidents and intellectuals who under the name of CMOT had struggled for trade union freedom, for the first time. The conversation took place in an apartment of one of the members of CMOT. On the right-hand-side of the photo sits WCL Vice President Kristoff Dowgiallo.
Thanks to its Polish Belgian general secretary Jan Kulakowski, the World Confederation of Labour – WCL, developed excellent relations with the Polish trade union Solidarnosc and its famous president Lech Walesa. Because of these good relations it was believed that the WCL, as a social Christian oriented World Confederation, would have a future in Central and Eastern Europe, and therefore perhaps in all of Europe. Solidarnosc had, however, not only become an affiliate of the WCL, but also of the competing International Confederation of Free Trade Unions – ICFTU. Within the ICFTU, Solidarnosc had special relations with and support of the North American trade union federation AFL-CIO, which together with the US Government had supported it from the start of its rebellion against the Communist dictatorship
The highlight of this friendship between Solidarnosc and the WCL was the visit of Solidarnosc President Lech Walesa to the World Congress in Caracas, Venezuela in 1989. As to confirm the good relations Kristoff Dowgiallo of Solidarnosc was elected vice-president of the WCL. As vice-president he led several missions to Central and Eastern European countries as well as Russia. I was one of the delegates joining him on these missions. During these mission we met a lot of leaders of newly-established democratic and independent unions. The result was that after a while a number of unions in countries such as Lithuania, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the WCL.
In September 1993 a delegation, led by WCL Secretary General Carlos Custer, visited Polish President Lech Walesa, former President of Solidarnosc. (At the head of the table President Lech Walesa. Beside him an official translator. At her left WCL Secretary General Carlos Custer. Next to him an interpreter of Solidarnosc and myself. On its back Kristoff Dowgiallo and to his left Teresa Szabza of Solidarnosc).
Despite these good relations slowly but surely tensions emerged on the WCL policy in Central and Eastern Europe. Those were caused by the fact that the WCL succeeded in affiliating some new democratic and independent unions which were courted also by the AFL-CIO. One example is the affiliation to the WCL of the Hungarian trade union confederation Munkastanascok. This union was highly sought after for by the AFL-CIO as I later learned from the leadership of Munkastanascok as well as from some AFL-CIO officials who told me this during a lunch in Washington. Another example was the affiliation to the WCL of the Ukrainian confederation VOST.
In March 1993 the WCL organized a seminar in Budapest for some new democratic, independent unions in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. (Second from left Bogdan Hossu, president of the Romanian trade union confederation Cartel Alfa. Next to him on the right Imre Palkovics, president of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation Munkastanascok. Second next to him on the right Bob Fielding, North American and Polish from the AFL-CIO and working at the International Department of Solidarnosc).
Another example were the confrontations with regards to the Baltic States. The Scandinavian unions affiliated to the ICFTU, considered the WCL activities in the Baltic countries, where the WCL developed friendly relations with different new democratic and independent unions, as inappropriate. A high ranked official of the Swedish LO told me that the Baltic countries belong to the Scandinavian trade unions and not to the WCL. At the same time an AFL-CIO official regularly visited the Lithuanian trade unions.
The struggle for the international affiliation of Central and Eastern European trade unions, as well as Russian unions, became more severe and foul with the years. During a joint WCL/ICFTU mission to Belarus in order to support democratic independent unions in their struggle for trade union freedom and the right to strike against the authoritarian President Lukashenko, ICFTU delegates gave much more money than was agreed upon.
At the end of nineties, and more and more openly, Solidarnosc started to support the idea of a merger between the WCL en the ICFTU. During a WCL Confederal Board Meeting in Paraguay, Solidarnosc openly advocated a merger while many WCL unions were against this. It became also clear that the Belgian Christian Trade Union ACV supported the idea of a merger between the WCL and the ICFTU into a new international confederation. In 2006 (Vienna) the WCL as well as the ICFTU decided with vast majorities to disband themselves and to found the new international confederation ITUC.