How will current ructions in Middle East and Northern Africa affect World Federation of Trade Unions?

How will the current ructions in the Middle East and Northern Africa affect the World Federation of Trade Unions? The who, you say? The WFTU — the international union body “…fighting to overthrow capitalism, fighting for the abolition of exploitation of man by man, fighting for socialism.” Depending on your union politics, that might sound either staunch and militant or, well, a bit auld lang syney Brezhnev. Which is it to be? And who are these people,  really?

Normally one would look to the membership details for an answer. However, the WFTU won’t provide this (we really tried). Nor will they explain why it is such a sensitive subject. What we do know is that they claim to represent about 80 million workers. In fact: “All major militant and revolutionary trade unions belong to our great family.” (1) This would make them the world’s second largest international union body, after the International Trade Union Confederation (176 million). If that is true, they certainly deserve a lot more attention than they are getting. Let’s have a look…

We can deduce from meeting records etc that the list of  “members and participants” from which the WFTU draws it 80 million members includes the national union federations of Libya, Egypt, North Korea, Yemen, Syria, Kuwait, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Morocco. The Chinese ACFTU crops up a fair bit as well. And the Workers’ House of the Islamic Republic of Iran (more), and Sadam Hussein’s (now defunct?) General Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq.

You may have spotted a bit of a pattern there. By and large (though not exclusively), these bodies are/were very closely allied to their respective governments.

By way of illustration, here is what the ruling party in North Korea had to say on their national union federation’s 60th anniversary (GFTUK is a confirmed WFTU affiliate):

“..the GFTUK has successfully discharged its honorable mission and duty of educating the workers and union members in a revolutionary manner to rally them close around the Party and powerfully mobilizing them in the revolutionary struggle and construction, while traversing the road of the worthwhile struggle shining with victory and glory under the leadership of the Party and the leader… the trade unions and union members will single-mindedly rally around leader Kim Jong Il to successfully carry out their revolutionary duty in the struggle for the victory of the cause of the Songun revolution, thus repaying great expectation of the Party with loyalty.” (more)

Most people will have probably started reading that, then juddered and skipped the rest. The last nine words are the critical ones. Tension between the rhetorics of obedience and rebellion must present a huge dilemma within the WFTU at times. And now is certainly such a time. It is intriguing to watch their official line dodge and weave as struggles rage across the Middle East and North Africa. See: For instance, their recent  take on Libya was that popular forces were demanding change because: “the regime of Gaddafi… was allied with USA and Great Britain” (2). When these two countries (and others) launched an attack on Gadaffi’s troops, in support of the rebels, the WFTU “condemn(ed) the military aggression of the imperialists.” (3) But: “A struggle against the dictatorship regime of Gaddafi is a struggle against its policy, against the brutal exploitation, against the lack of democratic freedoms, against the imperialist intervention and the scheme of the bourgeoisie.” (4) Following a request from the Arab League for a no-fly zone: “We demand the immediate ceasing of the military aggression against Libya. We express our internationalist solidarity to the people of Libya.”(5)

Most of us can’t keep up, but the believers will always find new grounds for belief. Among those who kept the faith: “We… express our sorrow for the death of Slobodan Milosevic, who resisted until the end against the Americans and their plans.” (6)

But what about the WFTU’s own family — those “friends and members” who are so closely allied to these “puppet governments”? Perhaps they left the WFTU recently, or were only ever gatecrashers, or fell behind with their dues.

The WFTU was established in 1945 to bring the world’s unions together — irrespective of ideology — in an organisation rather like the United Nations. A number of Western unions left in 1949, and soon the WFTU was made up primarily of unions affiliated with or sympathetic to communist parties. Then China and Yugoslavia pulled out, following differences over the Soviet Union. When Italy’s CGIL pulled out in the 1970s, it described the WFTU as “incurably outdated. . . more a center of propaganda than of possible action.” The ongoing Cold War eroded membership further, as did the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Then the formation of the ITUC in 2006 saw others transferring their allegiance. In one final piece of irony, it seems that national revolutions may prove their final demise.

Whoever “they” are, the WFTU’s 80 million members are all that remain out of 407 million in 2000 (7). If the latter figure seems suspicious, try 125,000,000 “affiliates and associates” in 2003 (8). In fairness, we should also note that in other places they claim to be growing.

Important though numbers are, let’s set them aside for a moment. The concept ofrepresentation is a critical one for the union movement. How many of the WFTU’s members, whoever they are, are aware that the organisation is speaking for them in international forums such as the UN, ILO, UNESCO and FAO? More to the point, how many of them have had a voice in developing that message?

Democracy is another critical concept in unionism. In their own words: “The WFTU is constantly struggling, from the first day of its foundation, in favor of free and independent trade union action, and for the trade union and democratic freedoms for all workers.” In relation to this, John Sutton, former National Secretary of Australia’s CMFEU and a long-time supporter of the WFTU, recently shared this discouraging experience:

The following “Trade Unions Internationals” (TUIs) are constituted within the WFTU:* Agriculture, Food, Commerce, Textile, and Allied Industries;
* Public and Allied Employees
* Energy, Metal, Chemical, Oil and Allied Industries;
* Transport Workers;
* Building, Wood and Building Materials Industries;
* Teachers.According to recent WFTU Congress material:THE RELATION BETWEEN TUIS AND THE WFTU:
The TUI’s are members of the WFTU…
The TUIs are organizing tools of WFTU…
the TUIs must efortlessly and efficiently take on, among others, the implementation of WFTU’s plans worldwide…
…of course the TUIs must improve their relations withWFTU.
…they will be positive in their participation within our organization.And just in case you sense some residual tension in these pronouncements:“WFTU is opposed to undemocratic forms of trade unions at all levels”.(10)more…

“I and Jose Dinis recently travelled to Athens, to meet WFTU leader George Mavrikos, where a sharp argument took place about who should determine the leadership of the UITBB (WFTU’s “Trades Union International” — or TUI —  of workers in the building, wood, building materials and allied industries).When we arrived at the WFTU we were immediately given a piece of paper that contained the WFTU’s recommendations on who should make up our leadership. Myself and Jose did not accept this approach towards the internal democracy of our organisation.  …I believe the aggression stems from some small criticisms we made of the WFTU at one of our Secretariat meetings.” (9)

Such stories are rife among those who have walked away. There are clearly deep flaws in representation and democracy within the WFTU. Even their own internal documents admit this. So can the WFTU be regarded as a legitimate part of the labour movement? Is it what it says it is? Peter Waterman, a lifelong union activist and commentator who once worked for the WFTU, puts it bluntly: “…long before cyberspace, the WFTU had already invented the virtual organisation. Its continued existence proves conclusively that there is life after death.” (11)

Ideally we would have given the WFTU a chance to speak for themselves, rather than quoting from former associates and meeting documents. But about three years ago we tried to interview George Mavrikos (the General Secretary) by email. Although our initial questions were answered (in fairly dense bureaucode), the exchange was abruptly discontinued when we asked him who the WFTU affiliates were. It had seemed a pretty innocuous question at the time.

More recently, in preparing this article, we asked Mr Mavrikos the same question again. This time we added: “If this is sensitive information, I would appreciate knowing why this is the case, so that we can explain the position in our article.”

There has been no reply. We have also sent the WFTU an earlier draft of this article, so that they could correct any errors or misguided thinking prior to publication. Still nought. In a last ditch effort to encourage a “live” response, we hereby offer them the Comments section beneath this article.

After some discussion among New Unionism Network members, we decided to publish a list of those unions cited in public sources as “members and participants”. In doing so, we are also seeking verification from these unions directly. We hope to have a more authoratative list within a month, and it will then become part of the Younionize global unions database (, along with a list of ITUC affiliates.

Many trade unionists believe there is a vital space in the political spectrum for a left/socialist workers’ international. The ITUC does not want such a role, and rightly so. They are a representative body; their affiliates are national union federations, not individual unions. For this reason it would be simply opportunistic and anti-democractic for them to describe themselves as “…fighting to overthrow capitalism, fighting for the abolition of exploitation of man by man, fighting for socialism.” Such a position must come from their members first. It doesn’t.

Some believe the WFTU fulfills this need. Others believe it might do so, given sufficient reforms. What do the WFTU leadership themselves think? Oddly, they seem to think that it isunions who are holding them back. From the documents for their forthcoming Congress:

  • “These trade unionists are ultimately tools in the hands of capital and multinational interests. They are really dangerous for our cause and deserve our firm combat.”
  • (At the International Trade Union Confederation’s Congress in Vancouver)… the IMF and World Bank had the first saying, that is the mechanism that cuts the worker’s wages, operates their firing, demands privatization, repeals the collective agreements, closes hospitals and public schools, etc.” (12)

And from a recent speech to NEHAWU in South Africa:

  • “…(the ITUC) believes in class cooperation and in the policies of the IMF.” (more)

Rightho. So union leaders will be first against the wall, then. Except the WFTU ones.

Dammit — it is difficult not lapsing into cynicism. Here’s some more from the same documents:

  • “It is unacceptable that the ITUC gives orders and commands to the ILO…” (pardon?!)
  • “(The WFTU must) organize a decisive front against reformism in all corners of earth”.

This is an unreconstructed echo of “third period” Stalinism, and a direct descendant of the Comintern’s 21 Conditions (13). This is the thinking that split the union movement back in 1920. Would Hitler have been able to take power if social democrats and communists had not been so badly divided? Even Stalin came to acknowledge this mistake.

To their credit, the ITUC does not bother replying to attacks from the WFTU. However, this leaves the latter fairly free to make whatever claims it likes, in the course of its anti-imperialist drive for militant meetings, workshops, conferences and seminars.

On that note I think we should leave them. However, if you would like to find out more, their 16th Congress is being held in Athens in April 2011. You are invited. (14)

Let’s try and end on a more positive note. Returning to our earlier point, many unionists are convinced that there is a need for a global union body on the left. Not an alternative to the ITUC, but a co-operative group which works close to the ground, within or in partnership with unions, building representation, voice and democracy at workplace level. But how do we move this agenda along without falling victim to the mistakes of the past (and the present)?

Dan Gallin, a member of the New Unionism Network chair of the Global Labour Institute and former General Secretary of the IUF, recently put it rather niftily:

“Many of us come from a tradition which encourages one to think that one can provide the spark all by oneself, if one has the correct policy (which is the brownish residue left at the bottom of the pan after many splits have boiled the water away) and if one works hard enough… I have finally come to the conclusion that this is nonsense.  The spark we want cannot come from any one of us, it can only come from a combination/interaction of many of us. In other words, forget the vanguard party, the network is the vanguard.” (15)

What has been happening in the Middle East and Northern Africa strongly suggests the WFTU is stuck somewhere between irrelevant and wrong. The initial role played by contributors to Wikileaks, and the subsequent organizing flurries on blogs, FaceBook, Avaaz, Twitter and YouTube suggest that Gallin is right. In fact he may well have come up with a rather good slogan for the new unionism… (cue clarions)…


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