The Second Coming of the World Federation of Trade Unions:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem?
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 of 1968 (brought by tanks, August, and lasting some two decades).
I wondered then if this trade union international had not 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 in 1968. The second was when, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the mass exit of its state-controlled union members/funders, and its major West-European Communist affiliates, 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 I still found evidence of workers or unions identifying with this ghost of the spectre that had once haunted Europe.
The Second Coming
Today, however, the WFTU is no longer to be laughed at or written off. After a Congress in Communist Cuba, 2005, it moved from Prague, where the major Czech union centre had, of course, abandoned it, to Athens, where a Communist union centre, PAME, was happy to host 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 unions, such as the South African COSATU, centres either un- or dis-enchanted with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). This requires, first, a note on both the latter and the former.
The Western Union International: ‘No Principles…Programme…Vision…Traction’.
Now, the ITUC is not only Europe-based and Eurocentric but is dependent for ideas and support on the UN’s equally Eurocentric labour agency, 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-struction of waged work and unions internationally, this smacks of a masochistic self-subordination to those very global hegemons responsible for the impoverishment of workers and the downsizing of the unions.
And, to add to this, the ITUC retains a Eurocentric and imperial identification with the Zionist Histadrut in Israel, of which the General Secretary, 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 even within Israel and its increasing condemnation by national and sectoral unions, also in Europe and North America. (The latter because of Histadrut’s identification with Israel’s apartheid strategies with respect to Palestininian workers).
Despite the worldwide spread of its ‘Decent Work’ slogan (a United Nations/International Labour Organisation/Liberal-Capitalist 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-linked International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF), Dan Gallin, dismisses as being
in the best of cases, like an international human rights NGO with an emphasis on labour issues. Unlike all its predecessors…it has no principles, no programme, no vision and, consequently, no traction. The role of the largest international labour organization the world has ever seen remains marginal.
(Now retired, Gallin 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.
As for Cosatu itself, its positions at two significant events in 2012 suggest its continuing ambiguity concerning its international affiliations.
The first was a WFTU Council Meeting held in South Africa, February 12, organised to celebrate the affiliations of a number of major Cosatu affiliates to the WFTU. Here the Cosatu representative declared that it shared ‘similar ideological perspectives on what should be the solution to almost all the political and economic challenges confronting the world today’. At the same time he expressed the hope that WFTU and the ITUC would somehow get together. Some Western Communists have been praying for this since the major WFTU-Shocks of 1968 and 1989! (For an example, see here).
The second event was the COSATU International Policy Conference, May 16. The initial statement to the event produced a socialist analysis of and attack on capitalist globalisation and neo-liberalism, but produced a mixed bag of ILO/ITUC social-liberal and WFTU-type state-socialist policy proposals, at one point endorsing the proposal of Hugo Chavez for a Fifth International – a proposal that had actually been abandoned three years earlier by Chavez, soon after launching it in 2009! Whilst the Cosatu statement was frankly self-critical about the international work of Cosatu and its member unions, it was stated that
COSATU stands for the unity of the working class. How best should we use the space we occupy and the moral high ground we are standing on to advance that objective more effectively? It would be a fatal mistake to leave the ranks of majority of workers and isolate ourselves purely on
the basis of shared ideological foundations and common history.
This somewhat oracular formulation suggests the difficulties Cosatu is having in opting for the Old West (social-liberal), Old East (state-socialist) or a New Southern internationalism (Chavezian?). A well-informed South African tells me that the conference considered four possible scenarios: 1) continued affiliation to the ITUC; 2) abandoning the ITUC for the WFTU; 3) joint membership of both the ITUC and WFTU, and 4) autonomy from both. Apparently Option 3 was the best favoured one. In the somewhat unlikely event of the coming Cosatu Congress endorsing - and both internationals accepting - this - it would be the kind of ‘peaceful coexistence’ proposal proposal favoured by Communist during the Cold War. (As far as the Western unions are concerned, this cold war actually began with the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the creation of violently opposed Communist and Social-Democratic union internationals). Whether, however, an option cast as a choice between two 20th century behemoths would be relevant to a globalised, neo-liberalised, complex and computerised capitalist (dis)order is another matter.
There are, of course, major 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 CGTP of Peru has retained its affiliation. For many years, indeed, a former leader of the CGTP, Valentin Pacho, has been a top leader of the WFTU. But if the CGTP retains this affiliation for ideological reasons, it has also been receiving support from the Dutch and from the state-funded Solidarity Centre of the 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, interestingly, was originally formed by a split from the Moscow-aligned and WFTU-affiliated AITUC at the height of Maoist radicalism internationally. (It is, of course, also true that the ITUC has also picked up some ex-Soviet union affiliates with Soviet-type relations to local autocrats. And there can be little doubt that both the WFTU and the ITUC would be highly interested to have a Chinese affiliation despite the traditional ‘transmission-belt’ role played by its national trade union centre).
The Global Disorientation of the Union Left
What we therefore 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 vehemently attacked 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 or could be an ‘alternative’ to the ITUC.
It was such during the Cold War, when it was the Eastern and Communist alternative to the Western and Social-Democratic predecessor of the ITUC, the ICFTU. At that time the WFTU 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 competing 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 or restoring Welfare Capitalism Past (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 no more than 15% of the world’s working people. Previously this ‘other’ 85% have been given a capitalist liberal economic designation, 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 capitalism has been, as suggested, surpassed by a globalised, computerised, rapidly-moving, outsourced and aggressive neo-liberal order.
In 1945-9 when the united WFTU was created, it lobbied for seating - as if it were a state - within the United Nations General Assembly! Unions were a force to at best bargain with, at worst repress. Under contemporary conditions inter-state agencies 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 Rhetorical?
The growing South African union interest in the WFTU seems to be primarily ideological. This does not necessarily mean that the most Communist-identified unions in Cosatu are necessarily the most pro-WFTU (disorientation within or amongst Left unions operates also nationally). What I mean is that such pro-WFTU orientation as exists is based on the anti-imperialist and/or anti-capitalist rhetoric of that organisation. Examination of the WFTU website, however, 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 mystery. The Communism rules it out for influence amongst the mass of workers who suffered for generations under such regimes (and in Communist-Capitalist China continue to do so). Whilst the WFTU might claim to identify with the autonomous Occupy movements, the WFTU General Secretary expresses his hostility to ‘forums’ (which can only mean the World Social Forum, of which Cosatu is a prominent and sometimes vociferous International Committee member!). The ‘democratic’ element seems to still allow for the WFTU to enforce decisions on its nominally independent Trade Union Internationals (TUIs), as revealed by the Australian union leader of one of them when he had orders imposed on him by Mavrikos.
So the WFTU retains a profound ambiguity, which goes back to its very founding in 1945 when the Soviet unions made concessions (for Soviet state reasons) to the British and the American ones. It is one of those ironies of history beloved by Marxists that both the past and the future of the WFTU was revealed by an article in the US State Department’s anti-Communist Problems of Communism, more than 50 years ago! Already at that time it was noted that
the WFTU’s argument that it is best fitted to represent the interests of the working classes of the [Third World] cannot stand up to the evidence of its record in other parts of the world. This claim could only be considered if the WFTU were to...concern itself as much with the conditions of workers in the Communist world [today Syria, Belarus, Cuba - PW]…as with the lot of the proletariat outside [this] orbit.
WFTU has anyway 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 must arise 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, of which Communisms? In 1945 there was only one. By the mid-1960s there were at least three – Soviet, Yugoslav and Chinese. After 1968 and then again after 1989, Communism fractured into numerous competing tendencies. In South Africa the Communist Party is linked with the Cosatu and therefore 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, moreover, on a highly selective historical account, that minimises or dismisses decades of WFTU identification with anti-popular and anti-worker regimes in the Communist world. The South African unions that favour WFTU affiliation, have not remarked upon the fact that the WFTU does not even make public a list of its members far less any financial report! One can only speculate 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. Cosatu must have consulted with its old ITUC allies, the Brazilian CUT and the South Korean KCTU. But, if so, this has been behind closed doors, something that has more to do with state-diplomatic lobbying and politicking than with the openness that international union solidarity requires in the age of Occupy, Real Democracy, The Indignants and Wikileaks.
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 that inter-state diplomacy implies. Does effective action against the rapid, multi-faceted and radical onslaughts of capital-state-patriarchy-racism-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? 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 UK Marxist labour specialist, Richard Hyman, might look forward to the ‘virtual union’ of the future, and socialist international union veteran Dan Gallin might say ‘the network is the vanguard’, it seems more likely that any such international labour network will initially 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 see itself in a halfway position between a union and a network). More recently I note the existence of a European Network of Alternative Trade Unions! Not yet equipped with a website, nor operating in English, this is strongly opposed to paying for the capitalist crisis in Europe and as strongly supporting of the indigenous/peasant/ecological anti-mining struggl.... There are a growing number of such autonomous and radically-democratic international labour sites and networks.
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 International or ‘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.
Early-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 was 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 was an international call. It could have represented a significant step toward the merging of the old trade union with the new global solidarity and justice ones. And, again, to suggest a substantial alternative for a new global labour solidarity movement. In the event, such a dramatic transformation did not occur, the call thus remaining only a sign of possible things to come. No one can promise internationalist labour initiatives a rose garden. But the significance of the Occupy and Real Democracy movements for the future of the international Left are beginning to at least come under discussion.
The ITUC and WFTU are reminiscent of the two political-economic dinosaurs in the old Cold War, about whom we 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 that remains distant from and invisible to the majority of union members and other working people worldwide.
Peter Waterman (London, 1936) worked for the WFTU in Prague 1966-9. He later taught university in Nigeria and did his PhD on unions in Lagos Port. He was an early supporter of the new unionism in South Africa and published in the South African Labour Bulletin. He taught on international social movements at the University of Durban Westville, 1994. 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.
 Acknowledgements to Dan Gallin, a forceful commentator on an earlier draft (email received July 26, 2012). Given my mixed feelings about these, and my only partial adjustment to some of his points, he can hardly be held responsible for the result. It is to be hoped that he will develop his comments into a substantial piece on the present condition of the international labour movement.