Editorial: The Past, Present, and Future of Trade Union Internationalism

The ITUC may – or may not – be in crisis. At the very least, it has had a crisis. A crisis of leadership, that is, after electing a General Secretary who – within weeks of taking office – was embroiled in a major scandal known as “Qatargate”, in which he admitted accepting dubious cash payments. After an underwhelming initial response of silence and halfhearted denials, the ITUC machine eventually got its act together, and Visentini was forced out. A stand-in leader was appointed. Is it enough to solve ITUC’s crisis of identity? What does ITUC stand for? Is it Liberal? Centrist? Socialist?

But does any of this matter? The Visentini episode was a mess, but ITUC now has an interim leader, a new election is scheduled, and we are apparently back to business as usual. And despite trouble with some affiliates, ITUC’s overall membership is larger than ever before. So, maybe its problems are all over? With all these questions in play, and in a constantly evolving world, IUR thought it an appropriate time to invite reflections on the past, present, and future of the international trade union movement.

Imperialism. No-one was asked to mention it, yet almost everyone did. From Sindhu Menon’s reflections on the “destruction of Indian manufacturing and handicraft industries” at the hands of the British, to Kim Scipes’ argument about the terminology we use to describe “imperial” and “formerly colonised” countries, themes of empire and colonialism abound. Greg Thompson of SIGTUR writes of a Global South caught “within the imperialist economic networks of the United States”, while imperialism is central to Yıldırım Koç’s account of the co-option of the working class and workers’ organisations. The ITUC, Koç states, is “under the control of the trade union centres of the imperialist countries, and their policies are formulated in line with the national interests of these countries”. Scipes agrees, “It has been the imperial countries’ labour movements that have controlled and developed the international trade union movement”.

The theme continues, ITUC “gets huge funds from governments” and “runs more like a corporate”, argues Tapan-Sen from India’s (communist-affiliated) union centre CITU. But criticism also comes from its own members, including INTUC, who almost left because ITUC’s affiliation fee “was exorbitantly high”. An alternative, according to AICCTU, is WFTU, “a class orientated, anti-imperialist organisation”. But, is that the modern politics we need in 2023? Mavis Koogotsitse situates Southern African trade unions in “the struggle against colonisation”, but her concerns are how unions “remain relevant, significant, and effective”, not a preoccupation with imperialism. Keisuke Fuse suggests that WFTU’s concern with antiimperialism is “overemphasised”. Koç goes further, WFTU, he says, “can be ignored in practice”. Despite all this, we see encouraging cooperation between unions from different traditions.

What really emerges in this edition of IUR is a sense that trade unionists need an internationalism that will be effective for a deeply uncertain and troubling future. Scipes is focused on the future, arguing that “the dynamic of the global labour movement has shifted to the Global South” which must become a “labour” rather than a “trade union” movement, “embracing … allies for the good of all”. Andreas Bieler urges a similar conclusion, “It is no longer sufficient for the ITUC […] to continue focusing on the world of … formal contracts with social rights”, their future engagement “must go beyond the workplace”. Koogotsitse also calls on unions to “look beyond the traditional workplace”. And Greg Thompson of SIGTUR calls for greater links with social and environmental groups so that in the “race to secure the future resources to drive green capitalism … unions and workers in the Global South” can develop strategies for building fairer industrial futures for their communities”. Whatever crises labour might face, with real understanding of the past – and real concern for the future – there may yet be a forward-looking labour internationalism for the 21st Century.

Daniel Blackburn, Editor

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IUR journal brings together the latest news, views and information on trade union rights worldwide, covering key issues from varied perspectives. IUR has an accessible format that is appreciated around the world by an audience of trade unionists, legal practitioners and academics. The journal is available in print and digital formats, with an online archive dating back to 1993.

Previous editions:

IUR 224 ChinaIUR 221 South KoreaIUR 212 Minimum WageIUR 223 Right to Strike

Reflections on the International
Trade Union Movement
Yıldırım Koç

The International Trade Union Movement: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going
Kim Scipes

Workers of the World, Unite! Finding
Solidarity in Trade Union Affiliation
Sindhu Menon

Zenroren’s Efforts to Increase
International Activities
Keisuke Fuse

Confronting exploitation: What labour
movement for the 21st century?
Andreas Bieler

The Race for Rare Earths in the Renewables Age: Can Global Labour Take Control of Global Supply Chains?
Glenn Thompson

The Past, Present, and Future of
Trade Unions in Southern Africa
Mavis A. Koogotsitse

Mapping the World of Labour
Daniel Blackburn

Worldwide labour news

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The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation
based in London, promoting international trade
union rights through research and advocacy services.

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London, SE1 4YR, UK
Email: ictur@ictur.org / Web: www.ictur.org