Global Policy Forum

International Labor Organizations


By Sumner M. Rosen

CU Labor Seminar
September 18, 2000


1. Introduction

2. Brief Historical Background

3. The First Secretariats

4. Between the Wars

5. The ILO Between the Wars

6. World War II and the Cold War Era

7. The Cold War and the Crisis of International Labor

8. The ILO in the Post-Philadelphia Era

9. The ILO, the ICFTU and the Changing Global Economy

10. International Unions and the Global Economy

11. Conclusion

"You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needed and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt."

1. Introduction

The end of the cold war and the rapid pace of globalization are the two key developments marking the modern era of international labor work. The International Labor Organization (ILO) in its eightieth year in 1999 undertook an ambitious effort under new leadership to embed its commitment to social justice and the rights of workers into the architecture of the global economy. The International Confederation of Trade Unions, founded in 1949, raised the level of effort to strengthen and guide the efforts of its affiliated national union bodies to more effective coordination of their engagegment with the large multinational corporations that play a disproportionate role in world trade and investment. Regional union bodies, in particular the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) were able to help shape the labor policies of the European Economic Community (EEC). The international trade secretariats (ITS) moved more effectively under new, more aggressive and informed leadership. But these institutions still play a subordinate role in the work of most major national labor organizations. The power and effects of globalization will help to change this imbalance, helped as the fault lines of the global economy and the longer-term burdens it generates become factors in national and international political life.

2. Brief Historical Background

Modern institutions seeking social justice for workers had their origins in the early years, and then the rapid development of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. England, where this process first took hold, often was the site for activities that were later adapted elsewhere in Europe, then in the United States and ultimately to most of the world's economies. These institutions sought effective means for promoting fair treatment for workers, a theme found in biblical texts and often voiced during the pre-industrial era on behalf of exploited groups. Communitarian aspirations voiced by Robert Owen and reformist fervor of the Chartist movements revealed the depths of concern, anger and determination to create alternatives to the exploitation of the industrialist class. In London in the early 1840s exiled German and French socialists with their English colleagues founded "The Democratic Friends of All Nations", with the goal of cultivating a brotherly feeling among the people of all countries, and of advancing their social and political rights...and for adopting all legal means to create a public opinion in favour of the great principle of human brotherhood.

This activity was succeeded by others articulating the problems and needs of workers as a class, and the stressing the principle of international solidarity. More explicitly class-based socialist and trade union bodies culminated in the International Workingmen's Association, the "First International" in which Karl Marx played a central role between its founding in London in 1864 and its demise in the mid-1870s. Strike frequency grew in the 1860s and with it increased efforts to strengthen international ties in order to counter the threat by employers to import "blackleg" workers from elsewhere in Europe. Revolutionary ideology was accompanied by appeals for solidarity among workers. The 1866 Geneva Congress of the IWMA endorsed both the importance of international trade union solidarity and the mobilization of the working class in the struggle for socialism. Mutual support for strikes in England France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany in the 1860s advanced the international trade union consciousness in Europe; it also stimulated the organization of employers in opposition.

2.1 National Labor Bodies

National union bodies developed in tandem with and, especially in continental Europe, as subordinate to national movements advocating socialism or social democracy; the major exception was Britain where the Trades Union Congress (TUC) preceded and then created its political arm, the Parliamentary Labour Party. International communication helped to strengthen international linkages; dramatic events, like the 1886 Haymarket bomb in Chicago and the subsequent prosecution of anarchists accused of responsibility, stimulated international campaigns and solidarity.

As unions developed, their need to address concrete issues of wages, hours and fair treatment led to separate institutions with their own structures, leaders and priorities, leaving to socialist organizations the question of revolutionary strategy on the one hand, or the struggle to build nationally effective political and parliamentary organizations on the other. The Second International, stimulated by Haymarket, was largely dominated by the socialist parties of Germany, Austria, and Sweden, already developing a wide range of activities, newspapers and programs for workers and the larger public. Like most other efforts it failed to survive World War I.

3. The First Secretariats

The first of the international secretariats, linking unions of shared skills and occupations across national lines was the International Federation of Boot and Shoe Operatives, founded in 1889 in Paris concurrently with the first congress of the new socialist international. Others followed in the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century; by 1914 there were almost thirty, including the International Transport Federation, the first secretariat that included less skilled workers, founded by the London dockworkers in 1896. Others were established after World War I . At the beginning of the twenty-first century mergers and closures had reduced this number to fourteen. Originally subordinate to the socialist institutions they later focused more directly on trade union issues. Except for the U.S. Mineworkers these were almost completely European before World War

3.1. International Union Cooperation

A Copenhagen labor congress in 1901 was convened by union bodies in Scandinavia, joined by delegates from Germany, Belgium and Britain, separate from the Second International to discuss international union cooperation. The next year, in Stuttgart, they organized an international trade union secretariat with headquarters in Berlin. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) affiliated in 1909, the first affiliate outside Europe; this body in 1913 became the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). World War I largely ended these activities, and brought sobering lessons to the advocates of international class solidarity. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, "For socialist leaders the outbreak of war and the collapse of their International in August 1914 were utterly traumatic...The same Welsh miners who both followed revolutionary syndicalist leaders and also poured into the army as volunteers in 1914, brought their coalfield out in a solid strike in 1915, deaf to the accusation that they were being unpatriotic in doing so."

3.2 International Labor Legislation

The International Association for Labor Legislation, proposed in 1897 and formed in 1901, "can be considered a direct forerunner of the I.L.O." It developed model laws to guide lawmakers in the area of labor regulation and social insurance and proposed creation of an international body to assist and guide national legislative bodies. Counterparts included the International Association on Unemployment and the International Association for Social Progress. Two further conferences met in Switzerland in 1905 and 1906 and in 1914 a draft international agreement was drawn up that envisaged an international organization devoted to these activities. The first world war put and end to this work, though during the war years union bodies met several times to discuss the need for social protection provisions in the post-war era.

4. Between the Wars

By 1917 Samuel Gompers had solidified the AFL as the dominant labor organization in the U.S. It was a loose confederation predominantly of craft unions. Efforts to organize the millions of semiskilled and unskilled workers, including many immigrants and increasing numbers of black workers, had largely failed in the face of fierce, often violent employer resistance that was unchallenged or actively supported by governments at all levels. The AFL fought against the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for the role as the legitimate body of unionized workers.

Initially resistant to U.S. involvement , the AFL joined forces with government and employers in the economic effort to mobilize for the first world war, a decision that solidified its national dominance and international recognition; its adversaries continued to oppose the war and were decimated by the anti-radical policies of the Wilson administration. President Woodrow Wilson was invited to speak at the AFL's 1917 convention, the first president to do so. Gompers enjoyed a close relationship with Wilson, who supported his position that the question of labor rights should be included in the creation of the post-war international system that later became the League of Nations. In September, 1918, before the war ended Gompers participated actively in the Inter-Allied Labor Conference convened in London by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), where he successfully opposed a motion to characterize the war as a "war among capitalist nations" against the interests of the working class, and sucessfully pushed a position calling for total surrender of the Central Powers. He was appointed to the fifteen-man international labor commission appointed to study and recommend provisions to meet labor needs in the treaty and was elected chair.

4.1 AFL and Versailles

Gompers' experience in the international sphere confirmed his long-standing opposition, from his U.S. experience, to the idea that labor movements were the legitimate vehicle for the furthering of socialist goals. A socialist in his early years, Gompers later came to oppose socialists who saw labor unions as vehicles for the advancement of socialist ideas and goals. He once said, "I have no quarrel with Socialists, but I have no use for their proposals". In the preparations for the conference on international labor issues that would take place parallel to the peace negotiations he insisted that the conference take place in Paris, opposing the TUC's choice of Berne or Lausanne, not only to be close to the main event but because, as he said, such a conference "should not be held any place except Paris if we wanted to protect our deliberations from a Bolshevik Stampede."

The establishment of a new international institution that would focus on labor and social policy issues was a principal outcome of this conference. Its products included a proposed structure and governance for the new institution, and a clause on labor rights to be included in the peace treaty itself.

Efforts to renew the IFTU were less successful. The new Soviet unions insisted on their own international union structure, and the union bodies affiliated with both Catholic and Protestant denominations each proceeded to organize their own international body; the Soviet-affiliated unions were active in creating or affiliated union bodies that accepted Soviet control.

Gompers withdrew the AFL from participation because he saw no way to coexist with "revolutionary Socialists" who controlled the executive machinery of the IFTU and because he insisted on the principle of total autonomy for each national union federation. These two principles, of autonomy and a separation of trade unions from social movements with what Gompers called a "revolutionary principle" , were the foundations of the AFL's posture in international labor matters. Though he worked with European unions he always insisted on the unique situation and character of American unions as exclusively focused on the improvement of wages, benefits, working conditions and fair treatment in the workplace with no involvment in political parties or social movements, which had no place in his definition of the American system of industrial relations.

5. The International Labor Organization Between the Wars

The ILO's governance was designed as tri-partite, with representation from governments, employers and unions, at the initiative of British delegates impressed by "the mobilization of labor and capital for the war effort in all the major industrial powers during World War I". Gompers unsuccessfully opposed this idea "on the ground that there are really only two groups in society - the employed and the employing", an echo of his younger views. Gompers presided over the founding conference in Washington. Though it served to open new vistas in the areas of labor legislation and international cooperation, the failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty made it impossible, or impolitic, for the U.S. to affiliate with this new institution. Republican presidents in the 1920s shunned both the League of Nations and the ILO to which it was linked.

5.1 ILO's early history

Even without the U.S., the ILO was able to establish itself on a stable basis in its early years and developed into a durable, effective and adaptable institution. During its first three international conferences it adopted sixteen conventions and eighteen recommendations that dealt with the eight hour day and the forty-eight hour week, maternity protection, womens' and young peoples' night work, and protection of maritime and agricultural workers. By 1939 the number had increased to sixty-seven Conventions and sixty-six Recommendations covering an expanding scope of sectors and problems.

It brought cases to the International Court of Justice in reponse to the objection of governments to its proposed standards and rights; the court affirmed the ILO's jurisdiction and competence in cases heard between 1922 and 1926. It developed a program of research that acquired authority because of the quality of experts who were commissioned to design and carry out studies and develop a data base, and because it sent its experts into the field to study problems first-hand. The pace of legislative activity slowed as governments began to resist the effects of its work; membership expanded beyond the core of advanced economies to include countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

5.2 U.S. Affiliation

The AFL, reversing earlier policies, adopted resolutions supporting U.S. membership at its 1932 and 1933 conventions. In 1934, in the Roosevelt administration, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins took the initiative in persuading the president to submit the necessary legislation to Congress and helped mobilize the support needed to secure passage in Congress making the argument that ILO standards would help support New Deal measures for economic recovery and better worker protection.; the ILO provided technical help in the design of Social Security legislation.

Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had affiliated with the ILO in 1934; the Soviets ceased to send delegations after 1937 and resumed participation only in 1954 but the U.S. continued to participate and John G. Winant served as Assistant Director between 1935 and 1938 and as the third Director General and the first American, between 1939 and 1941.

6. World War II and the Cold War Era - The Philadelphia Declaration

The ILO had been exiled to Canada during the war years. It met in Philadelphia in 1944 to plan its post-war life. The US played a leading role in the conference President Roosevelt delivered a warm greeting and held a reception for the delegates after the conclusion of the meeting. The Philadelphia Declaration charted an ambitious post-war course, including revisions of the 1919 constitution. It reaffirmed the constitutional language from the ILO's origin that

(1) "labour is not a commodity",

(2) "freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress",

(3) "poverty anywhere constitutes a threat to prosperity everywhere".

It affirmed the continued importance of tri-partism both within nations and internationally, and the principle that "lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice". It redefined the international agenda to integrate social with economic development including a "just share of the fruits of economic progress" and an adequate minimum wage; it stressed the importance of full employment and rising standards of living; it specified the right to collective bargaining, management-labor cooperation, and provision of key social welfare measures, including social security and access to medical care, safe and healthy occupational conditions, child welfare and maternity protection, and adequate nutrition and housing for workers as central to the direction and management of the world's economies.

It placed human rights at the forefront of the post-war international agenda, anticipating and foreshadowing the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. IIt was an expansive reformulation in global terms. Ever since its leaders have emphasized the fact that the ILO is the only international agency which provides a seat at the decision-making table to the representatives of workers and employers under its tripartite structure.

6.1 Post-War Growth

Between 1948 and 1968 the number of member nations grew from 55 to 118; the budget was increased fivefold, and the organization moved much closer to universality of membership. Its role in support and assistance to developing economies grew, as did its collaboration with the United Nations Development Agency (UNDP). It launched a program focused on the priority of increasing employment through its World Employment Program, adopted in 1968. Its pressure on the apartheid regime in South Africa led to that country's withdrawal in 1966. It acquired a reputation as "the world's centre of excellence for research and understanding of labour-related issues."

David Morse served as Director-General from 1948 to 1970, a period of steady increase in the effectiveness and visibility of the ILO, especially in the US. In the period that followed leadership shifted back to Europe and the ILO's effectiveness lessened. Changes in the international political and economic arena exerted major influence.

7. The Cold War and the Crisis of International Labor

A crisis of confidence led to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the ILO in 1977; it had been building since the beginning of the cold war, even before World War II ended. The mass organization of industrial workers by the CIO from the mid-1930s through World War II, and the prominent role played by CIO leaders in the war effort, set the stage for an all-out contest for influence in the shaping of post-war labor movements. By 1945 the CIO had acquired major influence in the Roosevelt administration and in the political life of the nation. The CIO had moved to establish its own international labor contacts with unions in Europe and in the ILO, but met strong AFL resistance. It built alliances with union movements in France and Italy that were anathema to the AFL because of their communist allegiances. Gompers had actively supported anti-Bolshevik forces during and after the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power. The AFL opposed left-leaning movements not only in Europe but also in Latin America; this was consistent with the position of the U.S. government and led to a close alliance in the early post-war years with William Green and George Meany, Gompers's successors in the AFL leadership.

7.1 The AFL in the Cold War

This alliance led to active and well-funded intervention by the AFL in the rebirth and reshaping of post-war European unionism, often in opposition to the views of those movements that had survived the war, notably the British TUC, and in intense competition with the CIO's program of building relationships with a broad cross-section of union bodies including those in the Soviet Union and its satellites, as well as national bodies, especially in France in Italy, that were allied with the Soviet Union's international labor apparatus , some since well before the onset of the war.

Controversy over the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe heightened the drama as the Soviets and their political and labor allies denounced and sought to derail this effort. The resulting polarization and intense rivalry abated only after the CIO, at the height of domestic cold war pressure in the late 1940s, had expelled several unions charged with communist domination, and then gave up its autonomy in the 1955 merger with the AFL. Its scope became worldwide as the AFL and then the AFL-CIO focused its energies and its ample resources, with generous assistance from the OSS, then the CIA and other government agencies, on the effort to build and sustain anti-communist unions everywhere in the world.

The post-war effort to renew the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was one of the CIO's principal instruments in its effort to acquire a seat at the table of world labor had had been exclusively occupied by the AFL. CIO support was important in sustaining a WFTU claim to representation outside the Soviet bloc. This support was tactical, not ideological; like many others in leadership positions, Philip Murrary, president of the CIO was Catholic; Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and a principal in labor's role in the war effort was a New Deal social democrat. 20 Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, had purged the communists in his own union. When the CIO decided in 1947 that supporting the Marshall Plan and President Truman's reelection campaign in 1948 was central to its domestic political standing, the WFTU's opposition led to the CIO's withdrawal and the virtual collapse of the WFTU outside the Soviet sphere of influence.

7.2 The Founding of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)

In 1949 both the AFL and the CIO had agreed to participate in the founding of a new international, the ICFTU. It established headquarters in Brussels. The presidents of the AFL and the CIO were elected to two of the seven vice-presidencies; European unionists occupied the other leadership posts. The WFTU thereafter spoke only for the Soviet bloc and Chinese communist union bodies.

From the outset the ICFTU was the focus of AFL, and then AFL-CIO efforts to advance its own ideological agenda, both in Europe and in the areas of the world where new nations were being built in place of pre-war colonial empires. Unions in Britain, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany had all devoted time and resources to develop unions in their colonies; they did not welcome the unilateral, well-funded and narrowly ideological efforts of the American labor movement through its various arms - the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) in Latin America, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) in Asia, and the African-American LaborCenter (AALC) in Africa. All of these activities were coordinated closely with U.S. government agencies through the Labor Advisory Committee on Foreign Assistance, which George Meany chaired until his death. They competed directly with ICFTU's regional support organizations. This tension persisted throughout the cold war period; it only began to change after new leadership of the AFL-CIO was elected in 1995.

7.3 ITS Autonomy

A second important factor in the practical demise of the WFTU was Soviet-directed effort to subordinate national and international union autonomy in the name of the global struggles of the working class. The issue came to a head after World War II when the unions in Europe and Britain saw the Marshall Plan as the necessary key to the restoration and renewal of their economies' depleted capacity to produce and recognized that the U.S. war-time economy's achievement of full employment represented an attractive alternative to that represented by the Soviet Union. Even in France, where communist influence was strongest, the unions had been divided before World War II on the issue of communist versus socialist ideology, and these divisions resurfaced when the war ended. The communist opposition to the Marshall Plan's potential for restoring the economy's productive capacity was the central factor in the division of French labor in 1945-47. As MacShane states, "Force Ouvrií¨re is a child of France, not of the United States".

The roots of this distrust of Soviet hegemony went back to the early years of the 1920s and was central to the struggles of the post-war period when the WFTU proposed that the international trade secretariats be subsumed in the larger structure with advisory roles but no real autonomy. By the time the crisis around the Marshall Plan was reaching its peak Konrad Ilg, the long-time secretary International Metal Workers Federation (IMF) had already raised the question of the "iron curtain...behind which developments are taking place about which we know hardly anything."

Ilg and other ITS officials had long experience with international Soviet efforts to split and weaken western socialist and social democratic unions. When the WFTU in 1945 proposed subordination and loss of independence for the ITSs their response was a clear rejection. By 1946 the ILO had organized industrial committees which provided useful forums for the renewal of international consultation on the urgent issues facing the war-torn economies Europe. By the end of 1946 events had made it clear that the most important trade secretariats - metalworkers and transport workers - would not accept integration into the WFTU structure. By the time the Marshall Plan issue had driven a wedge into the WFTU, the secretariats had already rejected WFTU membership. The basis for rejection had been laid in the pre-war decades; post-war European structures of national unions and international relationships largely renewed pre-war patterns. The trade secretariats, which had played subordinate roles in the pre-war decades emerged at this moment in history as central to this outcome. MacShane describes them as the "submerged rock that ripped out one of the sides of the WFTU" and the Marshall Plan as "the more visible reef" on which Soviet efforts to establish hegemony came to grief. "Harold Laski's anti-communism was more influential in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe) than George Meany's."

8. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) In the Post-Philadelphia Era

Adoption and widespread ratification of convention 87 - freedom of association and the right to organize, adopted in 1948, and convention 98 - right to organize and bargain collectively (1949) are the foundations of the ILO's advocacy of workers rights in the modern era. By the mid-1970s they had acquired quasi-constitutional status, an obligation on states whether or not they had ratified them; later additions to this basic list of conventions include the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination in employment or in choice of occupation.

In 1969 - the organization's fiftieth anniversary and the occasion of its being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - the ILO addressed the global problem of unemployment by launching a World Employment Program as a long-run effort, both studying and reporting the extent, effects and basic causes of global unemployment and proposing remedies that would deal with the immediate policy issues and the deeper structural causes of widespread and sustained unemployment. A World Unemployment Conference in 1971 reaffirmed these objectives and set out a decade-long program of analysis and action for the world's economic policy makers.

8.1 U.S Withdrawal, and Reaffiliation

The withdrawal of the U.S. in 1977 and its reaffiliation in 1980 mark an important crisis period. One event that preceded the decision to withdraw was the appointment in 1970 of a Soviet official as Assistant Director-General; the US objected on the ground that he could not serve with the necessary degree of independence from his Soviet sponsors. The US suspended its ILO payments for a year. A second, more serious question for the US was the admission of the PLO to observer status, and the steady stream of proposed resolutions condemning Israel on political grounds that had nothing to do with the ILO's work or mission. This helped to feed long-standing anti-UN and by extension anti-ILO sentiments in the Senate, fed by disapproval in US business circles of the adoption of conventions 87 and 98.28.

American employers had historically objected to the presence in the employers group of Soviet members who could not, by definition, act independently of their governments. The issue reached a climax at the 1977 annual conference when the debate over a report sharply criticized the Soviet application of the ILO conventions on forced labor. The US lost the vote to endorse these criticisms; "the U.S. had asked for a vote of confidence, and none was forthcoming."

The tension between this principle and the ILO's commitment to universality remained for many years. Two special commissions examined the question between 1956 and 1959. Their resolution of the dilemma was the argument that function was more important than the question of independence from government, and that universality was of central importance; ultimately the private sector employers were able to accomodate to this principle.

Withdrawal notice was sent by the Secretary of State on November 5, 1975. effective in 1977. The effects were substantial in both financial and political terms and by 1980 both the AFL-CIO and the State Department had decided that reaffiliation was appropriate. Since 1960 the only other withdrawal of consequence was that of South Africa in 1966 in response to sharp criticism of apartheid, shortly after several newly independent African states had joined and added their voices to the anti-apartheid sentiment.

The decision to rejoin in 1980 reflected the view of a new U.S. president, James Carter, that US interests were better served by membership. The AFL-CIO had softened its position after Meany's retirement. Though attacks on Israel continued and conformity to ILO standards remained in doubt, any further progress from continued withdrawal was judged unlikely.

9. The ILO, the ICFTU and the Changing Global Economy

The twenty years that followed the U.S. return to the ILO witnessed major transformations in the world economy, involving virtually every place in a pace and scale of change unmatched in many decades; "globalization" is the most widely used word for this process. Serious discussion developed in the ILO after 1994, culminating in the adoption by the 1998 International Labor Conference of the "ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-Up". It followed the 1995 World Summit for Social Development" at Copenhagen; its prime mover and convener, Juan Somavia of Chile, took office in 1999, the first ILO Director-General not from an advanced industrial state.

The declaration affirms the priority of basic labor rights in the global economy and commits its resources to the most widespread possible adoption and ratification of these fundamental rights, and the preparation each year of a Global Report on progress and problems in integrating these rights into the global economy and its institutions.

Beginning in 2000 the annual conference would receive and respond to a report, "Your Voice At Work", dealing with each of the four basic rights:

* 2000 - ensuring the right of all workers to form and join unions without fear of intimidation or reprisal; similar rights to employers;

* 2001 - the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;

* 2002 - the elimination of child labor;

* 2003 - the elimination of discrimination in employment and choice of occupation.

9.1 1999 -New ILO Leadership

In his first year the newly elected Director-General (DG) restructured the International Labor Office internal operations, redefined organizational goals and criteria for professional performance, and vigorously promoted an activist image and presence including speeches in the US, Asia, Africa and Europe. "Decent Work", his central theme, shaped this restructuring around five priority areas:

* Rights at work

* Employment

* Social protection

* Social dialogue (tripartism)

* Regions and technical cooperation

The Director-General anounced plans for a further restructuring over the 2002-2005 period, when his first term would conclude, with two objectives: the need to strengthen the ILO's institutional capacities, and the formulation of a strategy intended "to make the ILO a leading organization of the 21st century." Promotion and dissemination of the concept of "decent work" in the context of a new global economy are primary goals of this action the poles around which this restructuring is organized.

The Director-General undertook an ambitious schedule of formal and informal talks in many places and before a wide range of audience, among them major trade union assemblies including the world congress in Durban of the ICFTU, the AFL-CIO annual convention, the Congress of the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC) and the TUC annual conference, as well as the May Day jubilee for workers in Rome, the third WTO ministerial conference, the UN General Assembly, the Organization for African Unity, the professional staff of the IBRD, and the follow-up conference to the Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development. The schedule dwarfed that of previous incumbents.

A major objective has been to strengthen ties with national and international labor bodies, through participation in major conventions and conferences and in more structured and regular liaison with the ICFTU and the trade secretariats. In January, 2000 The ILO helped to broker discussions involving the Secretary-General of the UN and leaders of international labor bodies intended to strengthen the integration of labor rights in international forums outside the ILO, where business leaders can hear and respond to labor's concerns. The concept of a "Global Compact" that specifies principles that should guide ethical business practices, based on the Copenhagen Social Summit and the ILO constitution was the theme of discussions involving the Secretary-General of the UN and leaders of international union bodies, and in the Secretary-General's talk at the Davos economic summit on January, 2000.

Key to the ILO's effectiveness will be its ability to play an active part in the governance of the global economy. The ILO seeks a voice in the decision-making of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Director-General has participated in discussions with each of these; the ILO has acquired consultative status with both the IBRD and the IMF, less formal relationships with the WTO. The ILO Director-General spoke to the IBRD professional staff on March 2, 2000. He argued that it is wrong to subordinate social to economic policies and self-defeating to concentrate attention primarily on efficiency and productivity as the criteria of central agencies of economic development like the IBRD, and urged collaborative efforts to define the goals and provide the means for economic development. He pointed to the uniquely tri-partite structure of the ILO, the sole international institution where workers and employers have a forum. These themes recur in his public statements before a wide range of audiences.

10. International Unions and the Global Economy

The international union bodies analysed here face other difficulties, some rooted in their early history. Industrial and economic development occurred unevenly, and in widely different political and cultural settings. Many national union bodies were the offspring of national political movements, generally socialist or social democratic. Capitalists differed in their willingness to accept or to resist efforts to organize unions, and the results of these struggles ranged widely, from a relatively peaceful corporatism in Scandinavia to continued ideological struggle in France and Italy. Labor unity was the pattern in some places, rivalry and competition - whether on ideological, denominational or other grounds - was the rule elsewhere. Some national labor bodies vested power at the top, others were more decentralized. Some focused on workplace governance, others on political power for the working class as a whole. By the beginning of the twentieth century these patterns had been established in all of the advanced economies of Europe and North America. In Europe, where unions share more of a common history and a similar level of economic development the ETUC has established counterparts to the international secretariats in some sectors, and has effectively mobilized to deal with the onset of a common currency and deregulation of national labor markets and immigration controls. It works to enlist the statutory works councils into continent-wide collective bargaining and consultation agreements with employers across national borders in furtherance of social dialogue. Like the ICFTU and the ITSs it has strengthened its interaction with the ILO.

Some of the ITSs, including the metal workers, transport workers, postal telegraph and telephone workers, and the International Confederation of Chemical, Energy and Mine Workers, have taken up with new energy earlier coordinating and consultative work; this is a renewal and redefinition of efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to coordinate negotiations through corporation committees. Others have merged,some because of weakness, others in response to the changing contours of contemporary corporate strcutures and activities.

While wages remain beyond the purview of coordinated work, health and safety, protection of union rights, equal access to promotion and other matters are part of this agenda. The level of cooperation among affiliated unions in support of specific struggles has also increased. The ICFTU under new and energetic leadership, and without the burden of controversy that immobilized its work in the cold war era, has strengthened its links to the ILO and to the AFL-CIO since 1995. Though these institutions remain underfunded and national divisions remain strong, the balance had begun to shift in favor of stronger international union ties and cooperation.

Even the largest and strongest multinational corporations operate in national settings where labor, environmental and other laws apply. If domestic political forces take up the issues raised by or on behalf of workers exploited or maltreated, or unions whose rights are violated, national legislation backed by political pressure can require even powerful employers to change their behavior. Consumer pressure in the advanced economies can be mobilized to embarrass firms that exploit vulnerable workers in less developed places. Some of this has already been seen; it has not changed the balance of economic forces but it indicates what might develop in the future.

11. Conclusion

In the final analysis the level of importance to be assigned to the values that the ILO and the international labor bodies advocate reflects the balance of political forces in the world. The ILO has demonstrated that it can survive and operate effectively in a world where the issues that connect or deeply divide nations and interest groups have exerted strong influence over the eight decades of its existence. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the central question shifted from ideological competiition between the west and the Soviet bloc to the spectre of a "north-south" global economy driven by corporations that operating in the still ungoverned international sphere, where nations and their institutions have less power to regulate and control economic structures and processes that were the focus on national governments and their labor movements from the middle of the nineteenth century.

An international institution, the ILO, that is governed by nationally based delegations representing government, employers and workers will not adapt smoothly to this new configuration; the same is true, even more strongly, for the ICFTU and the ITSs that are organized on the basis of national union bodies. On the other hand the era is ending in which the values of the market and the virtues of business decisions unburdened by government policies were widely celebrated and uncritically seen as virtual laws of eonomics. Large scale and continued unemployment, increasing and deeply rooted poverty and inequality of income, rising illiteracy and malnourishment, growing number of refugees were some of the realities that began to shift the intellectual and political balance in the direction of greater attention to lessening the burdens of the global economy on those most vulnerable, including workers and those seeking work, with renewed emphasis on the importance of greater accountability on the part of the multinational corporations and the key international institutions that provide financial and technical support.

Nationally based unions historically focused their energies on dealing with their employers and mobilizing the national political power to protect and advance the rightrs and interests. International concerns were inevitably subordinate and remained so throughout the twentieth century. Capital has been able to adapt to the new global realities while labor has moved more slowly.

Whether this will change cannot be predicted. Necessity appears to work in that direction, but institutional identities, habits and modes of thinking change only slowly and with difficulty. New leaders were doing their best to bring these institutions into effective positions and to promote cooperative work, with some successes. In the last analysis the outcomes will reflect that balance of political forces in both the advanced economies and in the areas of the world where economic modernization connects workers with the forces that will continue to reconfigure the global division of labor and open their consciousness to the enduring realities of the struggle for decency, dignity and human rights.


Basic information on The International Labour Organization in the year 2000:

Member nations - 175

Total budget - US$ 481.8 million


Total Staff
Geneva Headquarters
General Service

Number of Conventions adopted (*)                   183

Number of Recommendations adopted (*)          191


Conventions Ratified 1995-2000
Forced Labour (no. 29, 1930)
Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (no. 87, 1948)
Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (no. 98, 1948)
Equal Renumeration (no. 100, 1951)
Abolition of Forced Labour (no. 105, 1957)
Discrimination in Employment (no. 111, 1958)
Minimum Age (no. 138, 1973)
Worst Forms of Child Labour (no. 182, 1999)

* Conventions are debated in two successive years prior to adoption when ratified they acquire the status of international law. Recommendations carry less legal weight and are not binding


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The ILO, the ICFTU and many of the international trade secretariats maintain active websites.

Bibliographical note: The voluminous contemporary literature on globalization is deficient in serious attention to the labor dimensions of this phenomenon.



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