Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE DOWNFALL OF THE WCL 38 (trade union action paper)

One of the dinner tables with guests from the International Trade Federations and some Asian participants.  Second from left: Louis van Beneden (Belgium), President of the World Confederation of Teachers. Fourth from left: Roel Rotshuizen, President of the World federation of Clerical Workers (Netherlands). Second from right: Gerrit Pruim, secretary general of the CNV foundation for international development Aktie Kom Over. First from left: Paul Buekenhout, international affairs ACV/CSC.

In his paper “The Trade Union Action of the WCL” , Secretary General Willy Thys made controversial observations on the WCL International Trade Union Federations (ITF's). His remark that the ITF's are building structures in the continents based on a European model and that these European structures are causing problems, sounds like an accusation of what sometimes is called “Eurocentrism”. Needless to say that the word “Eurocentrism” resembles the word “egocentrism”. The structures of the International Trade Federations are based on the trade action of the European trade unions. Therefore too much is invested in the institutional action at the expense of the real trade union work. The tendency exists to build up these structures in the continents what causes a lot of problems.”

The paper gives no example of Eurocentrism by the ITF's nor indicates what model instead should be followed. No wonder, there is not one European model. On the contrary there are many European trade union models. That makes the work of international organizations at the same time fascinating and difficult, inspiring and challenging. 

Basically is for all trade unions world wide that they are in one or another way involved in the organization of workers at their work place in a private enterprise (national or multinational), in the public sector at different administrative levels in different kinds of public, semi-public or private enterprises like telephone companies, water supply, railway companies and others, in national or private education centres, in the retail sectors, in banks (private or public), the agricultural sector (the small farmers and the large crop producers on national or multinational level) and then of course at last but not at least, the informal sectors.

Sometimes, the differences in economic and social realities between the continents led to large debates about who are to be considered as workers and what kind of trade unions can become a member of the international federation. I remember very well my first World Congress ever as an executive secretary of the World Federation of Clerical Workers WFCW in 1992. On the initiative of the Latin American Federation of Workers in the Commercial Sector (FETRALCOS) (so not Europe) a proposal was extensively debated, to consider organizations of informal workers as trade unions, for example associations of street and market sellers. Some European trade unions opposed the idea that these trade unions could become a member of the WFCW. At the end it was agreed that the informal sectors make part of the trade union world as soon as they are organized in a kind of trade union, cooperative or another kind of association with the aim to improve their conditions of living. Some years later the same kind of problem was debated in a miners seminar in La Paz, Bolivia organized by the World Federation of Industrial Workers WFIW, with the financial support of the European Foundation of Christian Miners and the Latin American Federation of Industrial Workers (FLATI). A Bolivian delegation of wage workers in a mining company did not agree with the presence of the representatives of a cooperative of independent miners. (See "The downfall of the WCL",  part 28 and part 29). So, even in the same continent it was not always immediately clear which trade union model was the most appropriate for the workers to be organized.

The African Trade Action Committee of ODSTA had a meeting in Casablanca in the month of March 2001. The photograph has been taken during a visit to the Great Mosque of Casablanca. Maroc. 

There are more examples at hand showing that the ITF's were not eurocentric in their policy or structures. However, this does not mean that there were no problems at all. One of the main problems was the financing of international activities, actions and structures. It may be clear that trade unions in the continents had much less money than the average European trade unions for the financing of international activities and/or actions (seminars, board meetings, working groups) and structures, like for example a continental office with a full time paid executive secretary. Therefore one was always looking for affordable and practical solutions, if necessary with the help of European solidarity coming from the trade unions itself or other trade union oriented non governmental institutions.

An example of a practical solutions was to establish a continental office in a country with a trade union with an already well developed membership, a more or less stable financial situation and a well equipped office. With the help of the continental federation and the ITF the local office was converted in a multi-purpose office. Budgets for these offices were debated on the continental level itself as well as at the yearly world board meetings of the ITF concerned. Activities and meetings at continental level were financed by the continental members themselves, whereby the local union in the country paid for the accommodation and food while the participants paid their own travel costs. Sometimes it was agreed that an activity, like a mission of a delegation of a continental federation onto potential new members, would be subsidized (partly) by the ITF. Another example is that newly affiliated trade unions from low income countries needed not to pay full membership fees for the first 5 years or it was agreed that the fees were invested in national seminars of the new affiliate, with the aim to help the trade union to develop its structures and capacities.

However, in his paper Willy Thys mentions one example of “problems caused by the tendency to create structures in the continents” because “these structures do not always follow the priorities of the trade union work in these countries (for example FEMTAA).” Indeed FEMTAA (Agriculture and Food) had problems to maintain even its basic structures. The reason was that financial powerful European trade unions abandoned FEMTAA and decided to affiliate to the ICFTU oriented Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers Worldwide IUF/UITA, leaving behind FEMTAA without enough financial means to maintain at least a minimum of an international structure and activities. Indeed, this you could call an act of Euro-egoism. The result was that the farmers, especially the small farmers (campesinos in Latin America), already the poorest working group in the world, were left on their own. Because of the international development in the Agricultural and Food sectors, the international lack of agricultural credits, the growing international environmental problems and more other problems, these farmers needed more than ever an international network and structure. I have already described this problem with FEMTAA in part 31 of these series of blogs. Therefore it is not surprising that the Latin American Confederation CLAT, supported by the African and Asian organizations ODSTA and BATU, insisted in the restructuring of the FEMTAA. Their main argument for the restructuring was that the majority of workers worldwide is still working in the agricultural sector and that moreover most of the poor people in the world work in this sector.

FETRALCOS organized together with the Latin American Workers University UTAL (CLAT) and the WFCW  a seminar-working group "Horacio Mujica-Pedro Marquez" on the "new dimensions and renovation of the workers in the commercial sector, offices and private companies in the services sector." On the right side of the photo you see WFCW President Roel Rotshuizen standing next to FETRALCOS President Maritza Chireno (Dominican Republic-Venezuela).

The remark of Thys in his paper that the continents accept “these structural priorities set by the European trade unions for the sake of solidarity. This explains the development of structures in Latin America.” is one-sided and without any sensitivity to what really happened. European countries, United Nation institutions, the EU and also trade unions gave money to Third World countries and organizations for different reasons: to steal the show, out of guilt, paternalistic interference, to buy political influence (this was especially true during the Cold War) and of course to support real and sustainable development. Some part of the money went to so-called white elephants: prestige projects without roots in the local or national economy or the concerned organization and therefore without a future. This kind of bad financing should be considered as payment for learning.

But most of the financial assistance of the ITF's went to activities and projects for the development of practical trade union capacities and sustainable trade unions: leadership training at company level, collective negotiations on different levels, to learn safety and health problems in their sector, the adaption of ILO conventions in the sector, how to organize financial solidarity, how to make budgets for your own structures, how to organize finances and so on. In fact the ITF's functioned as a very useful instrument for international trade union development on all levels: company, enterprise, region, national and continental level. And also very important, ITF's learned trade union leaders all over the world in a practical way to handle democratic structures from company level unto world level.

The third remark in the paper is also doubtful: “In the developing countries (especially in Africa) there are no sectors as such, there it relates to companies. The build of sector trade unions creates rivalry what the young organizations makes weak.” What is meant here? Rivalry between different trade unions within one company or internal rivalry within one confederation? However, after the one party system disappeared in most African countries and democracy became oficially the main ideal, the African trade union scene changed rapidly. New trade unions, confederations and federations were created. Rivalry became normal and why not? Rivalry is the positive side of pluralism which is basic for the development of democracy.

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