Friday, October 25, 2013


The photograph was made in Ibagué, Colombia where we visited local organizations of the CGT (1987). On the right Emiel Vervliet, on the left Julio Roberto Gomez, Secretary General of the Colombian trade union confederation CGT.

It will have been no coincidence that around the same time that Lucien Stragier wrote his letter about the LBC-NKV leaving the WFCW, Emiel Vervliet wrote an article in the prestigious journal 'De Gids op Maatschappelijk Gebied' (The Guide on Social Affairs), a publication of the Belgian Christian Workers Movement ACW, in which he also questioned the future of the WCL. Emiel was at that time confederal secretary in the WCL and Executive Secretary of the WFCW and as such he worked closely with Lucien Stragier. WCL General Secretary Carlos Custer told me that the article prompted him to ask the ACV to remove Emiel from the WCL. When I started working at the WCL, I took over the portfolio for Central and Eastern Europe and as I already wrote, I became also the Executive Secretary of WFCW.

I had already met Emiel in 1987, when he still worked at the WCL. He and I were together with Novib staff member and later politician Ad Melkert member of an evaluation committee set up by the Dutch NGO Novib and CLAT. For many years Novib supported financially training projects of the Colombian trade union confederation CGT (member of CLAT). Our task was to investigate the results of these years of support. The discussion focused on the support of the trade union trainingcentre INES in Bogota. As part of the investigation, we visited Colombia. Our conclusion was that INES had contributed to strengthen the CGT.

The photo is a copy of the one published in the weekly 'Volksmacht' (power of the people) from the Belgian ACW  on the death of ACV President Jef Houthuys ( 22 March 1991). On the left Jef Houthuys. On the right his successor Willy Peirens, also President of WCL. Peirens called Houthuys a man of the people. As far as I've experienced, Jef Houthuys was indeed a man of the people: jovial, friendly and a staunch trade unionist. I recognized in Jef Houthuys my father who was also a trade unionist, former CNV President Henk Hofstede and trade union President Ton Bastiaansen, also member of the board of CLAT Netherlands.

At that time, I did not hear great criticism from Emiel on the WCL. However, I knew that a debate was going on in the ACV on the position of the CLAT unions in Central America and especially in Sandinista Nicaragua. In the mid 80s, I was invited by Maurice Walraet of ACV to speak at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee ACV. As international trade unionist and former election observer on behalf of the Dutch government in the presidential elections in El Salvador and Nicaragua, I was considered an expert on the subject. *

Within the ACV like in the rest of Western Europe, opinions were divided on the course to follow in Central America. Opposition to the Sandinistas and the guerrillas in El Salvador was considered te be a betrayal of the global social(istic) revolution, the liberation movement, the theology of liberation and worst of all as support to the aggressive policy of U.S. President Reagan. At the end of my speech, which was in line with the views of the trade unions in Nicaragua and El Salvado affiliated to CLAT, President Jef Houthuys spoke the encouraging words that Jesus Christ had also started but with a small group of 12 apostles. I concluded from this that the majority of the committee did not share the views of the CLAT unions in Central America.

Because of these and other experiences, I realized that within the ACV, the WCL was no longer considered as self evident. It was increasingly doubted the WCL had a future. Could there be something done about it? I thought so, even if it is difficult. To convince the doubters within the largest funder of the WCL, success should be fast. As a former UNDP and ILO staff member I knew that international work is always hard and slow. There are simply to many different parties and also different interests involved.

The WFCW did not give up despite the departure of LBC-NVK and the Union BLHP. Congress and Board were determined to go on despite limited financial resources both at European level and internationally. A lot had to be done: winning new members in Central and Eastern Europe, if it is possible also in Western Europe, improve the sections and the regional organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, the most important was to insist on EURO-FIET to respect the established European rules and to admit our members freely to EURO-FIET, without linking it to a membership of FIET.

About the European trade union rules the following was written by Willy Buschak (German historian and trade unionist) in 'The European Trade Union Confederation and the European Industry Federations'.

When the European Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ECFTU) was founded in 1969, the European sectoral committees acquired an advisory voice within its organs. When the ETUC was founded, the matter of relations between European trade unions and the ETUC needed to be redefined. In June 1973 the ETUC’s executive committee defined the conditions under which these sectoral committees would be officially recognised by the ETUC. They had to organise throughout the European Community, they had to be open to all unions in their industrial sector that were members of an umbrella organisation affiliated to the ETUC, and they had to be independent bodies with a number of permanent structures.

ETUC Secretary General Bernadette Ségol (left) was Secretary General of EURO-FIET at that time.This photo has been made during a protest meeting organized by the ETUC in January 2012.

The first of these industry federations to be recognised by the ETUC were: the EMF, EFA, EURO-FIET, EGAKU, the Coal & Steel Committee and the IPTT’s European committee. By the end of the seventies these had been joined by the Gewerkschaftliche Verkehrsausschuss in the EC, EPSU and EC NGG/ECF-IUF. In 1983 the EFBWW followed, then in 1988 the ETUF- TCL and EFCG. Conflicts have repeatedly taken place between the ETUC and some of its industry federations on the matter of membership – according to the ETUC statutes, all European industry federations must accept any union that is a member of an ETUC affiliate. However, this rule has not always been respected in practice
( European Trade Union Organisations Inventory of the Archive of SocialDemocracy and the Library of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, published on behalf of the Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung by Uwe Optenhögel, Michael Schneider, Rüdiger Zimmermann. Bonn, 2003, pp 9 – 19) 

About Euro-FIET:

EURO-FIET was founded in 1972 as the European regional organisation of the international white-collar federation FIET (the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees). It was the only FIET regional organisation to levy its own fees, but still received subsidies from its international parent body. EURO-FIET and its successor UNI-Europa are less independent of FIET and the international trade secretariat UNI than their European counterparts in other structures. In 1975 EURO-FIET received early ETUC recognition as an industry federation. (page. 9)

* I was an official election observer on behalf of the Dutch government in the presidential elections in El Salvador in 1984, also in Nicaragua in 1984 and Suriname in 1987. In 1990 I was part of the Dutch delegation to the UN Mission for the elections in Nicaragua. The presidential elections in El Salvador were the first elections in modern history where election observers were used to verify that the elections would be democratic.

To be continued.

The above story is a personal testimony and not a historical record of what happened at the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium in the international trade union movement, in particular in the WCL and CLAT.

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