Wednesday, November 12, 2014


IFTC Board meeting with USOC Board in Barcelona with the ail to prepare the IFTC World Congress,
February 1999.
Under the leadership of Secretary General Willy Thys, the WCL Secretariat was reorganized in such a way that the planned combination of two functions was no longer possible, the function of European Confederal Secretary and Executive Secretary of several international trade union federations. In the absence of adequate secretarial support, it was impossible to fulfill both tasks. For unknown reasons the European liaison office in Bucarest in the headquarters of Cartel Alfa was terminated. The only employee at that office was brought to Brussels, but not at the European secretariat. Despite many conversations, there was no solution. In the absence of strategic coordination and a concerted policy at European level the WCL was becoming weaker.

Despite the lack of support from the WCL Secretariat, the governing bodies of the international federations continued to work on European and World level. Because of a lack of resources, both in manpower and financially, they had to limit themselves to certain priorities. That was not always easy because each international federation had its own preferences, beliefs and networks. Moreover, the lack of a global vision, necessary for a long term policy, resulted many times in a kind of anecdotal relations and a policy based primarily on personal preferences usually for one or more persons (trade union friends), sometimes for an organization or even a country (for example ex colonies). Unfortunately, even within the WCL secretariat itself there was not developed such a long-term vision with an associated practical and workable policy based on the overall objectives set at the world congress.

FMTI-FLATI seminar in Mexico City. From left to right:
WFIW President Jaap Wienen, FLATI President and WFIW Vice President Carlos Gaitan
and José Merced Gonzalez, ex WCL Confederal Secretary and CLAT Board Member. October 1999.

The executive Secretariat must spend a lot of time on the regular executive board meetings of each international trade union federation and once a year a world board that was almost always combined with a world seminar. There were also regional seminars in Europe and in the continents, special events and of course every four or five years a world congress. The Secretariat had its hands full with just these statutory meetings which are essential for the maintenance of an international network.
International trade union movement is above all networking and exchange of experience in many areas: collective bargaining, labor conditions, trade union and human rights, the behavior of multinational corporations, the application of ILO conventions, developing a vision on (international) economics, labour market, society and politics. All these areas are very complex and require a long-term approach.

The trade union with its democratic structures and decision making, based on defined responsibilities regulated by the statutes, ensure that slowly arises a democratic culture worldwide between workers and employees. That is of paramount importance for the future, at least if one believes that the world order should be based on the principles of democracy. Experiences with the United Nations teach us how important are the development of a democratic attitude and culture for world peace and the prevention of violent conflicts.

WFIW Congress particpants in Doorn, Netherlands, March 2000.

Besides this each international trade union federation had its own internal dynamics such as rapid changes in the composition of the boards. For example, Doekle Terpstra resigned as chair of the WFIW in January 1999, just after one year of presidency. Terpstra was the successor of Anton Westerlaken as chairman of the Dutch trade union confederation CNV and therefore also as treasurer of the Executive Board of the WCL. The WFIW presidency was provisionally transferred until the next World Congress to Jaap Wienen, who had worked together with Doekle Terpstra in the CNV industrial trade union. Jaap Wienen had already some experience on international level as a board member of the FIOST, the international federation for transport and communications affiliated to the WCL.

To give an idea of the many different activities of the international federations below is given a summary of some important activities.
- In January 1999 a meeting took place of the WFIW with the Danish Trade Union Confederation DKF in Denmark.
- In the context of the preparation of its World Congress the IFTC executive board visited the Catalan USOC organization of the Spanish trade union confederation USO in February 1999. In June of the same year the IFTC World Congress was held in Barcelona.
- In early March 1999 a seminar was held for miners unions from Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest, organized by the Christian Miners Foundation and in cooperation with the WFIW.
- Mid-March, the European Council of WFCW gathered in Mulhouse, France.
- At the end of April 1999 the Pan African Federation of Workers in the Building and Wood sector was founded in the education and training institute Fopadesh of the African organization DOAWTU.
- In September of the same year, the WFIW held its World Board meeting in Madrid.
- In October 1999 in Mexico City, a seminar is held by FLATIC , the regional Latin American federation for industrial and construction workers. A delegation of the WFIW participated in the meetings.
- In March 2000, the WFIW held its World Congress in Doorn, Netherlands. Jaap Wienen is elected chairman. During the congress a text is drawn up for a code of conduct for multinationals. The code of conduct should include the five basic rights of workers: a ban on child labor, forced labor and discrimination, respect for freedom of trade unions and negotiating collective agreements. In addition, reference is made to decent work: the right to a fair wage, safe and healthy working conditions and collective insurances against sickness and disability.

The WFBWW (Building and Woodworkers) World Congress was held in Windhoek, Namibia.
From left to right: Secretary General Dick van de Kamp (CNV Netherlands),
President Jacky Jackers (ACV_CSC Belgium), Namibian Minister of Labour and Borad Member Aloyisius Yon. May 2000.

- In May 2000 the WFBWW held its world congress in Windhoek, Namibia. Main topics were the development of the WFFBWW in the world, the support of the continental federations such as the newly established Panafrican Federation of Building and Wood Workers, a world seminar every year, and according to the financial possibilities seminars in the continents.

It is clear that despite the limited financial and human resources, the international trade union federations functioned at an acceptable level. Each international federation had an international network of affiliated members. They tried as much as possible to support their members in the Third World countries. In addition, the federations functioned as a network of exchange of experiences and also as a school where leaders could experience democratic governance and decision making. As mentioned earlier, this is not only important for the development of international trade unions but also for the development of a democratic world order. 

Friday, November 7, 2014


Strike picket at the gate of the Volkswagen plant in Brussels, November 2006. Volkswagen was planning to close the whole plant.
A few days ago I heard for the first time a TV interviewer ask president Marc Leemans of the Belgium trade union confederation ACV if the trade union was not what old-fashioned? Of course the President did not agree. The trade union represents the interests of the workers and he knows what this means. As he himself explained, he is from a workers family with seven children. His mother did not have an easy life. Those times must not come back, he said. The interests of workers are therefore in good hands with him. However, this was was not an answer to the question.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, already some time the trade unions are accused of being old-fashioned. Not by everyone, of course, but still disturbingly often. In short, the criticism is that trade unions are against any change, that they are only interested to represent their members, mostly older workers with a permanent contract and that they have no interest in the problems of youth. Meanwhile, young people are unemployed or have a low paid job without a permanent contract, lower social benefits, have to work longer and probably will have a lower pension. A gap threatens to grow between the older workers and young people. The older generation thinks only of himself, that is the allegation. In stead of solidarity, there is a generational conflict growing.

Meeting of workers of Volkswagen in front of the plant in Brussels, november 2006
The trade unions do not agree with this. They see themselves as progressive, modern, solidary, useful and important for country and people. They still have the status of official national representatives of all workers in the nation. They are the social partners of employers and politics. Their social dialogue led to social peace and political stability, the basis on which the postwar welfare state was built. The welfare state as organized solidarity.

But there were changes, partly due to the success of the welfare state itself. As a result of the welfare state people live longer, this threatens to make pensions based on the pay-as-you-go system priceless. As a result of the on going globalization, traditional industries disappeared like mining, steel, shipbuilding, textile industry etc., precisely those industries on which the sociopolitical power and collectivist solidarity model of trade unionism was based. The demise of traditional smokestack industry was followed by new industries with a growing individualization. Higher and better educated workers, also the result of the welfare state, are less charmed of the collectivistic solidarity model. They want to have part time work, have personal responsibility, if possible they want to change jobs etc. In the meantime the labor market asks for more flexible working hours and contracts, outsourcing, self-employed (millions of self-employed enter the labor market ) followed by privatization, liberalization etc. Globalization brought much turmoil on the labor market.

One of the strikers at the Volkswagen plant in Brussels, november 2006
The trade unions are since then facing two big problems: loss of thousands of members and a rapidly changing labor market as a result of individualization, globalization, liberalization and privatization. You can then try to stop this but then chances are great that you are going to miss the economic link with the world market and before you know you are losing the revenues on which the welfare state is built. More distribution of wealth will probably ease the pain, but not more than that. Economies built only on distribution of wealth, at the end bring poverty. Cuba and North Korea are extreme examples of this phenomenon. Investments are needed, preferably in the private and public sectors. Investments that also create new jobs.

The public debate in the Netherlands in recent years resulted into reforms such as raising the retirement age (within a period of approximately 2 years the pension age will be raised until 67) , a tighter and shorter unemployment insurance more focused on piloting the unemployed into a new job than financial assistance, stricter supervision of social services, limited subsidies for job creation for the disabled and stricter monitoring of care. On top of this, Governments call for more responsibility for a job, own income, health care and so on.

Meeting of the strikers at the Volkswagen plant in Brussels, november 2006
Slowly but surely, the image of the worker in the Netherlands changes from victim into an individual that is responsable for its own life. The welfare state is still there to support the workers when things go wrong but not anymore to take care from the cradle to the grave. For many unions this is like swearing in church, but their traditional power base has been undermined.

No wonder the unions are busy with themselves, looking for an answer to the lost social and political influence. Mergers of trade unions from various sectors is the answer to the loss of members. For example already a few years, the Dutch trade union confederation FNV is reorganizing its structures to bring all unions together under one roof. This means more centralism to give more socio-political body to the social dialogue. But centralism is at odds with individualization. Workers want like consumers more customized services and less imposed collectivist schemes. The mergers are therefore only the beginning of a response to the crises.

Two workers at the trade union meeting of workers of Volkswagen, november 2006
To make matters worse the new century began with an economic disaster of a magnitude that has not been seen since the crisis in the twenties and thirties of the last century. The consequences are now widely reported, but the answer is not yet found. Economists are fighting among themselves about what to do but nobody really knows. Unions are trying to save from the burning socioeconomic house what can be saved with classical solutions for example more money from the Government for all kind of investments which means also making more debts.

The trade unions do not need to be ashamed that they have no ready answers and great difficulty with the reforms, but they may be more open to suggestions. It is not constructive if trade unions do not want to talk about proposals of employers to look for ways the millions of self-employed to integrate in the social security system. The trade unions should also start a dialogue about the possibility for retired workers to continue working after they have reached the age of pensioning. Trade unions that are putting their heels in the sand, give indeed the impression of being old-fashioned.

Man at the solidarity bus is writing a message that begins with "We are not alone"