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The global trade union movement: Stepping up to the plate?

An International Summer School brought union activists and leaders together to discuss the big questions facing the trade union movement. Celia Mather reports

September 24, 2015
7 min read

How many people, even those who are union members, know anything much about what the trade unions do internationally? Dipping into union branch pockets to donate a few pounds to a solidarity campaign is one thing. But are the unions – here in the UK and across the world – doing enough to respond to and mobilise the energy of the working class, particularly the young who are fearful of the decades ahead and agitating to create something vastly better for themselves and everyone?

For the past four years the Global Labour Institute (GLI) has been running an International Summer School to stimulate greater discussion and interaction among trade unionists internationally. Held at the workers’ education venue Northern College in South Yorkshire, it brings together young trade union activists from across the world with a number of highly experienced trade union leaders, along with representatives from other types of workers’ organisations and a smattering of labour educators and researchers. Over five days they get to discuss the key issues of our times and how the trade union movement is – or should be – responding.

Democracy at work

The first International Summer School was held in 2012, and there have been three more each July since then. At each one, some 100 participants from more than 30 countries attend. As the word has spread, more are keen to be there, but the GLI keeps the number limited so that real, lively interactions can take place. They also restrict the number of British participants, so the school stays truly international. From among the global unions, the 2015 school had leaders and activists from the food workers’ IUF, building and woodworkers’ BWI, transport workers’ ITF, service workers’ UNI, public sector workers’ PSI, and domestic workers’ IDWF.

For those who are not in the room, there is live video streaming, blog posts, and a Twitter feed. Each year, the GLI has been extending the social media reach of the school, working closely with Union Solidarity International. For 2015, it was estimated to be over 200,000.

There’s no big financial backing. This does mean that the school can only run in one language, English. Meanwhile, Unite in the UK pays for the accommodation and meals at the college. Some other unions let their officers contribute in-kind help with organising the event. The school could not happen without voluntary support from friends and colleagues too.

One important thing is how the week is run. While each day there are presentations and panel discussions by people with experience on particular subjects, there is no way that those higher up the hierarchy are there to tell the others what to think, say or do. Rather, a key aim is to put the younger activists at the heart of the week. It is a chance for them to gain confidence in the issues, learn more about the international activities in which their unions are involved, and put forward their ideas for what needs to be done better to union leaders who come because they are prepared to listen. All through each day, the meeting breaks off into dynamic discussion groups on each subject. And, to give them some form of ‘final say’, the younger activists form a commission which meets every evening and on the final day presents their recommendations in the form of a ‘Living Manifesto’.

This year’s discussions and conclusions

The latest developments in global neoliberal capitalism are at the heart of the discussions. Previous schools have discussed the way that capitalism bounced back after the financial crash of 2007-8, and the changing nature of corporations such as their ‘financialisation’. Now activists around the world are abuzz about the trade deals being negotiated in secret, such as the TTIP, all intended to strengthen even further the dominance of big capital by allowing it to operate without hindrance from social, labour or environmental constraints. So where are the unions in this development?

In the opening session, Asbjorn Wahl, a Norwegian trade unionist who also holds prominent positions in the international transport workers’ ITF, voiced his concerns, shared by many, that the labour movement needs a radical shift, to regain control over the political narrative of the economic crisis, and proactively use it to disarm the proponents of neoliberalism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the manifesto agreed with him.

Unions have also come to distance themselves from the wider working class by prioritising their own members, largely those in formal employment. Globally, however, those with ‘jobs’ have never been the majority of the working poor. Far more depend on the informal economy for their livelihoods. In recent years, such informal workers have been increasingly organising themselves. At the school this year were, for example, representatives of organisations of domestic workers in South Africa, home-based workers in Pakistan, and sex workers in France. Even standard union members – those with ‘jobs’ – are more and more being employed on precarious terms: short-term, part-time, zero hours, ‘apprentices’, seasonal, etc. The ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ are merging. The manifesto reflects this with a call on unions to reform their constitutions and structures so that they can represent and organise all workers including the informal, precarious, unemployed and migrant ones.

A return to politics may well be needed. But what does this mean, for example, for unions’ relationships to political parties? The answer is not simple, as unions around the world have very different political histories and relationships, and organisational structures. Many union members tend to assume that their model of trade unionism is pretty much universal, which is not the case. Whatever structures exist, the school participants were clear they want their unions to have financial and political autonomy, and exercise far greater transparency and accountability to their members.

The manifesto also reflects the participants’ desire for the trade unions to rebuild themselves from below, and do more to ‘build truly global solidarity movements using horizontal strategies, and engage with broader social justice movements, community groups and campaigns’. As an example of such possible alliances, among the guests giving an evening presentation were representatives of the Housing Assembly in South Africa which campaigns against housing poverty there, on a UK tour hosted by War On Want. Also, being at best ‘blanked’ by the mainstream media, unions must take advantage of social media to ‘animate the invisible’, as Unite organiser Ewa Jasiewicz put it.

As for climate change, as the manifesto notes, this ‘remains on the margins of the union agenda’. In fact, the 2015 school met at a seminal moment for the British union movement. The GMB had just signed a ‘charter’ with the gas industry body UKOOG, while others such as PCS, Unite and UCU have issued statements opposing fracking and encouraging members to join in ‘Frack Free’ demonstrations. The GLI body in the USA – Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) – promotes these issues in the international labour movement. As TUED’s Sean Sweeney said, simply integrating renewable energy into the neoliberal framework is not the solution. We need much more discussion within unions here and across the world on how to bring about a just and fair transition to renewable energy, putting workers’ interests at the heart of the debate and bringing energy generation into public ownership.

The issues and debates are huge. This is a small snapshot of what happened across five days at Northern College. Videos, presentations and guest blogs from the sessions are available here.

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