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Peter Waterman: The Second Coming of the WFTU (Updated)

WFTU2ndComing4Into                  Words: 3,030                                     Updated: 090312



The Second Coming of the World Federation of Trade Unions.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem?


Peter Waterman




Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


[‘The Second Coming’, W.B. Yeats.]



t is a decade or more ago that I wrote a piece about the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions. This was entitled, in one version, ‘A Spectre is Haunting Labour Internationalism, The Spectre of Commu...’. I worked in Communist Prague for the WFTU, doing educational work with African trade unions, during the Prague Spring of 1968 but left it after the Soviet Winter (which lasted some two decades).

I wondered then if this trade union international had been fatally damaged by a couple of self-inflicted wounds. The first was when it abandoned its own Secretariat’s original condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The second was when, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the mass exit of its state-controlled union members/funders, the WFTU failed to reinvent itself as, for example, a Third World- or Southern-based union international. But, then, even around 1994 in Lima, Peru, in Liverpool, UK and in Durban, South Africa one could still find evidence of unions identifying with this ghost of the spectre that had once haunted Europe.

The Second Coming

Today, however, the WFTU is, I think, no longer to be laughed at or written off. Around 2006, it moved from Prague, where the major Czech union centre had, of course, abandoned it as profoundly tainted, to Athens, where a Communist union centre, PAME, was happy to welcome it. Under the leadership of its dynamic Greek General Secretary, George Mavrikos, and considerable funding of unspecified origin, it has been reviving itself, promoting the unexamined myth of a revolutionary WFTU, and making a major play for Southern union centres either un- or dis-enchanted with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The ITUC: a Jester on the World Stage

Now, the ITUC is not only Europe-based and Eurocentric but is dependent for ideas and support on the UN’s equally Eurocentric labour body, the social-liberal International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ITUC invites top representatives of the international financial institutions (IFIs) - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation - to address plenary sessions of its Congresses. In so far as the IFIs are co-responsible for the literal de-structuring of waged work and unions internationally, this smacks of a slavelike self-subordination to those very global hegemons responsible for the impoverishment of workers and the literal de-structuring of the unions.

And, to add to this, the ITUC retains an old Eurocentric and imperial identification with the Zionist Histadrut in Israel, of which the leader, Ofer Eini, was (re-)elected as a leading officer at the last ITUC Congress. This despite the severely shrunken size and influence of this union centre within Israel and its increasing condemnation by national and sectoral unions, also in Europe and North America. (The latter is because of Histadrut’s identification with Israel’s apartheid strategies with respect to Palestininian workers).

Despite the worldwide spread of its ‘Decent Work’ slogan (an ILO notion, swallowed hook, line and sinker) the ITUC has proven so ineffective against the neo-liberal class war that a longtime leader of the ITUC-allied International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF), Dan Gallin, has called the ITUC ‘a jester’ on the world stage. (Now retired, he has been pre-occupied with international campaigns linking unions with women workers in general and domestic workers in particular).

Cosatu: an Ambiguous Internationalism?

Disenchantment with the ITUC and re-enchantment with the WFTU has been most dramatically demonstrated in South Africa. The Cosatu has not once but twice sent open letters to the ITUC, one being about the bureaucratic way in which it manipulated the Israel-Palestine issue off the agenda at the last ITUC Congress. This is all the more striking given that the Cosatu, along with other radical Southern unions – the South Korean KCTU and the Brazilian CUT – had, some years after the collapse of Communism, all joined the ITUC. So had the major West European Communist unions, the French CGT and the Italian CGIL (both previously stalwarts of the WFTU). Such affiliations have, however, had no visible impact on the ITUC’s social-liberalism and Eurocentrism. Indeed, the ITUC does not even bother to publicly respond to Cosatu’s public criticism. And Cosatu’s Leftist and Southern union friends remain – so far - silently within the ICFTU, suggesting continued dependence on what remains, admittedly, by far the largest international union body.

Actually, the South African unions had never been publicly disenchanted with the WFTU, even if it they had historically had more practically-useful relations with the ITUC’s forerunner, the ICFTU, with its members in major Western capitalist countries. The banned and exiled South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) had, during apartheid times, been informally affiliated with the WFTU and had a representative resident at its HQ in Prague. This was veteran SACTU leader, Mark Shope (who I only much later discovered was rather more heavily involved with the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, than with the WFTU).

The South African unions, post-1989 or post-1994, were involved in various attempts to create Leftist or Southern trade union alliances, but these have been without significant effect on the world union or social movement stage. So it should not be too surprising that, at least for some major South African union affiliates, the hot-and-cold relationship of Cosatu with the ITUC should lead them to look for an alternative international affiliation.

There are other Southern unions affiliated to the WFTU. They include the General Federation of Trade Unions of (North) Korea and others subordinate to authoritarian regimes of the Left. The Communist CUTP of Peru has retained its affiliation. For many years, indeed, a former leader of the CUTP, Valentin Pacho, has been also a top leader of the WFTU leader. But if the CUTP retains this affiliation for ideological reasons, it has also been receiving support from the Dutch and from the state-funded Solidarity Centre of the American AFL-CIO (this agency being itself 90 percent dependent on US government grants). More significantly, the CITU of India apparently affiliated to the WFTU in 2011. The CITU was formed by a split from the Moscow-aligned and WFTU-affiliated AITUC at the height of Maoist radicalism internationally.

The Disorientation of the Union Left Internationally

What we seem to be confronted with today is considerable disorientation amongst Left unions internationally. Cosatu itself has a working relationship with the AFL-CIO’s Solidar.... This has been criticised in the USA by activists working to expose the AFL-CIO’s ‘labour imperialism’. Given the breakdown of distinct understandings of internationalism, of international affiliations and identities, the question that has to be posed is whether, or in what possible sense, the WFTU is an ‘alternative’ to the ITUC.

It was such during the Cold War, when it was the ‘Eastern’ alternative to the ‘Western’ predecessor of the ITUC, the ICFTU. At that time it exercised a considerable attraction to Third World trade unions either under colonial/white domination, or allied with (or subordinate to) radical-nationalist/socialist regimes or parties, often of authoritarian tendency. This self-identification of international confederations with warring states or blocs was only part of a deeper, if not immediately-visible, identity. This is that each of them, then and now, assumes, explicity or implicitly, that the unionised/unionisable working class has a vanguard position in either reforming capitalism (the ICFTU/ITUC) or in a state-socialist alternative to such. The WFTU, in so far as it favours a socialist alternative has never distanced itself from Communist state/ism.  

Now, the traditionally-defined working class is only some 15% of the world’s working people. Previously this ‘other’ 85% have been given a capitalist liberal economic identification, the ‘informal sector’. Today they are increasingly given a class-like name, the ‘precariat’. The traditional union internationals were created under and/or against the old national, industrial(ising), colonial/anticolonial order. This has been surpassed by a globalised, computerised, outsourced and aggressive neo-liberal order. In 1945-9 when the united WFTU was created, it had the expectation of being seated at the United Nations General Assembly. Unions were a force for capital and state to at worst repress, at best to bargain with. Under contemporary conditions they simply circumvent or toy with the ITUC on a global stage,  out of sight of most unions and union members.

South African interest in WFTU: Primarily ideological/rhetorical?

The growing South African union interest in the WFTU seems to be primarily ideological. What I mean by this is that it is based on the anti-imperialist and/or anti-capitalist rhetoric of that organisation, although the WFTU website shows it to be also promoting an incremental social-reform strategy. Thus in a call for a day of protest, 2011, it stated that

The main slogans for the International Action Day that will be heard and projected in all action all over the world are: Social Security for all, Collective Bargaining - Collective Agreements, Trade Union and Democratic Freedoms, Working Week of 7 Hours a Day, 5 Days a Week, 35 Hours per Week, Better Salaries, Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Freedom to the Five Cubans.

Of these slogans only the last two might be problematic for the ITUC. But whilst the WFTU repeatedly reveals and even exclaims its Communist identity, one can find nowhere on its website that it is even socialist! Rather does it disguise such under the strange device:

Class Oriented, Uniting, Democratic, Modern, Independent

How the WFTU can be simultaneously identified with Communism and claim to be ‘uniting, democratic, modern and independent’ is a total mystery. The Communism rules it out for influence amongst the mass of workers who suffered for generations under such regimes. Whilst the WFTU might claim to identify with the autonomous Occupy movements, the WFTU General Secretary even expresses his hostility to ‘forums’ (which can only mean the World Social Forum, of which Cosatu has been an International Committee member).

So the WFTU retains a profound ambiguity, which goes back to its very founding, when the Soviet Russian unions made concessions (for Soviet state reasons) to the British and the American ones. Actually, WFTU has always spoken with two distinct tongues, depending on the purpose or audience. In so far as South African motives for joining WFTU are primarily ideological, the question arises of which part of WFTU’s contradictory ideology is here being identified with, the Communist or the Uniting. And even if positively favouring the Communist identity, of which Communists or Communisms? In 1945 there was only one. By the mid-1960s there were at least two – Soviet and Chinese. After 1968 and then again after 1989, Communism fractured into numerous competing tendencies. In South Africa the Communist Party is linked with unions formally independent from the state, and often in conflict with it. In Belarus, a WFTU member, the official union federation continues the Soviet model of self-subordination to the authoritarian State.

The South African desire for affiliation, is based, at best, on a very partial historical account, that minimises or dismisses decades of WFTU identification with anti-popular and anti-worker regimes in the Communist world.More revealing, the WFTU does not even have on its website a list of its members!, far less any financial report. One can only imagine that this is because the members are few in comparison with the ITUC. Or because of possible embarrassment when Southern workers rise up – as in the Arab world – against state-subordinated unions that had previously been members of, and even possibly funded, the WFTU! Nor does there seem to have been any public consideration in South Africa of the implications of such a WFTU affiliation for those major leftist and/or Southern unions still affiliated to the ITUC.

A 20th or 21st Century Form for Labour Internationalism?

But an even more serious question must be asked by those concerned with the international relations of trade unions and an effective labour internationalism. This is what  sense it today makes to have international union confederations on the ITUC/WFTU model. Such organisations are shaped like states, churches…and traditional capitalist corporations! They are pyramidal in form and – despite representative-democratic pretensions or aspirations - operate like states in relation to United Nations agencies and conferences. They have permanent headquarters (both in Europe). And they are marked by all the bureaucracy, conflict and competition inter-state diplomacy implies. Does effective action against the rapid, multi-faceted and radical onslaughts of capital-state-patriarchy-empire on working people worldwide require such behemoths?

Or does the 21st Century rather require effective, flexible and egalitarian labour networking on the increasingly serious and fundamental issues that effect not only the unionised/unionisable 15 percent but the other 85 percent of working people…and those whose primary identification might be as ‘farmers’, ‘peasants’, ‘housewives’, ‘petty-producers and traders’, the ‘precariat’, the ‘un- and underemployed’ or simply ‘citizens’ (or at least as would-be citizens)?

Learning from ‘Labour’s Others’?

Most of the newest international social movements operate as networks, or as ‘networked organisations’. The newest major international organisation of working people is one of small-scale farmers, indigenous people and landless workers. It is called Via Campesina (Peasant Way). It deals with the immediate daily needs of rural people. But it also takes up, centrally, the much broader and more fundamental questions now confronting these (and the rest of humanity) - of agricultural ownership and production, healthy food and the struggle against climate change. It has launched a global campaign on ‘food sovereignity’ and has won a significant role in global negotiations within the relevant UN bodies. It has no fixed international office, its coordinating secretariat moving periodically amongst the regions. VC is a crucial element in the new ‘global solidarity and justice movement’ and has an increasing presence in the World Social Forum. Rather than being politically dependent on the relevant UN bodies, it is in considerable confrontation with such, particularly over the latest pro-capitalist ‘Green Economy’ project.

Via Campesina was born under and against the latest phase of capitalism. It was, moreover, created largely on Southern initiative and whilst including significant Northern farmer movements, it seems to have so far resisted the fatal attraction of Northern power or the seductive effects of Northern funding.

Before leaping from an old frying pan (the ITUC) into an old fire (the WFTU), should not radical unions and unionists consider what they might learn from Via Campesina? The reality principle suggests that such a radical alternative to the tried and (un-)trusted internationals is unlikely. For social movements, or the institutions based on such, Marx’s phrase applies: ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. Whilst veteran Marxist labour specialist, Richard Hyman, might look forward to the ‘virtual union’ of the future, and Dan Gallin might say ‘the network is the vanguard’, it seems more likely that any such international labour network will be that of union minorities, of pro-labour writers, educators, communicators and academics, or of newly self-recognised international labour movements such as that of the South Africa-based StreetNet International (which seems to occupy some halfway position between a union and a network).

Another possibility is provided by conferences or campaigns such as the growing global one against climate change. This took some shape in South Africa itself, at the ‘Conference of Polluters’, Durban, late 2011. A campaign for one million climate jobs was supported by a number of major South African unions and apparently attracted the attention of Sustain Labour (the ITUC’s ecology NGO), as well as unions/social movements from Latin America and elsewhere. It also received major coverage in the South African Labour Bulletin, Vol 35 Number 5 Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012. This does not necessarily mean that such a global campaign provides a virtuous new alternative to ineffective old union internationals. Even such new international labour campaigns are disputed terrains between unions campaigning for ‘climate change’ within capitalism and those arguing the necessity .... However, such campaigns provide new, more equal and open terrains than those of international union conferences. And given the severe limitations on or failure of previous ‘Southern’ international union projects, it may be through such international solidarity campaigns that a new kind of labour internationalism will be born – a ‘global solidarity unionism’ relevant to working people worldwide in the 21st century.


As I was completing this piece, early-February 2012, I received news of another international solidarity initiative, this time from people involved in the Occupy movement in the USA.. This was for a joint labour and social movement protest, May 1, 2012. It is calling for

  • Im/migrant Rights
  • Economic, Social & Environmental Justice And Labor Rights
  • Peace With Justice
  • Civil Liberties — End The Police State
  • Housing, Education And Health Care As Human Rights
  • Women’s Rights & Gender Equity

In so far as the Occupy and related movements (in Europe and the Arab World) are internationally linked through the web, this is an international call. Will the traditional trade union internationals endorse it? Will they energetically promote it? Will the Cosatu? This call could represent a significant step toward the merging of the old trade union with the new global solidarity and justice ones. And again suggest a substantial alternative for a new global labour solidarity movement. The significance of the Occupy and Real Democracy movements for the future of the international Left are beginning to come under serious discussion. The ITUC and WFTU are reminiscent of the two political-economic dinosaurs in the old Cold War, about whom the anti-nuclear demonstrators of the 1960s said, ‘Too much armour, too little brain. Now extinct’. Whilst these two major union bodies are clearly far from extinct, we can expect little more from them than that they will continue to slouch toward a Bethlehem increasingly irrelevant to and distant from working people worldwide.

Peter Waterman (London, 1936) worked for the WFTU in Prague 1966-9. He later taught university in Nigeria and did a PhD on unions in Lagos Port. He has written extensively on ‘social movement unionism’, the ‘new internationalisms’ and the relationship between international unionism and the World Social Forum. He has proposed a campaign for a Global Labour Charter. He is currently co-editing a special issue of the e-journal Interface on New Worker Movements due for publication late-2012.





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