This paper was prepared for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) as part of a global enquiry carried out by UNRISD in 1999 on the enabling environment for social development.
It seeks to explore issues arising in the relations between trade unions and NGOs. These relations have a long history and they are complex, ranging from close co-operation to more problematic relationships. When unions and NGOs co-operate, their joint impact on social and political events can be quite powerful. When such co-operation fails, it can set back significantly the agenda of both. Consequently, success or failure in union/NGO co-operation will affect both the direction and the pace of social development or, in general terms, what world society will look like in the coming decades.
Unions and NGOs are both actors in civil society. What they have in common is that they have specific agendas for the improvement of society. Trade unions have always held that a consistent defense of the interests of their members over the long term required them to work for the well-being of people and of society as a whole (including elements such as political and social democracy, civil and democratic rights, the elimination of poverty, equality, the rule of law). In that respect, they would legitimately claim to be serving the interests of society generally, as would NGOs acting on the desire to advance and improve the human condition.
Almost twenty years ago, this writer suggested that alliances between unions and NGOs had to be an essential element in an international labour strategy to balance the growing power of transnational corporations at world scale. He argued that the broader social agenda of the labour movement could only be advanced through “the building of broad popular coalitions, with the trade union movement at their center, but bringing together many civic groups, issue-oriented movements and other popular groups that perceive, each in its own way, the social threat that corporate power represents and whose areas of concern overlap, in different degrees, with that of the labour movement.” (1)
In the twenty years that have elapsed, the power of transnational corporations has grown enormously. Through the globalization process, transnationalized capital is now in a position to escape the demands of political society, in particular of the labour movement and of the political Left. Capital is therefore no longer interested, as it had to be in the three decades following the war, in contributing financially and politically to a social compromise, but instead seeks hegemony. It has declared its own goals to be the general goals of society, has surrounded itself by an ideological bodyguard in universities and in the media, makes increasing demands on public resources to advance its own interests and meets all opposition with unrelenting hostility.
It is clear that this context has influenced union/NGO relations, in quite contradictory ways: both positively and negatively. One of the effects has been to sharpen divisions in the NGO community, between those who have developed a sense of urgency about forming alliances with trade unions around a common alternative agenda and those who are tempted to accommodate to what has been called the New Policy Agenda (2).
The same polarization between resistance and accommodation can be observed in the trade union movement, although unions, by the nature of the constituency to which they are immediately accountable, i.e. their membership, have more limited choices so far as their strategy is concerned.
It is therefore of some importance to identify the areas and the issues where unions and NGOs can co-operate, the conditions under which such co-operation is possible, the obstacles to co-operation, the areas where conflicts of interest arise and the significance of such conflicts in a perspective of social development.
Organized Labour: From Post-War Reconstruction to Globalization
To understand the present situation a flashback is needed to the point where it originated, the end of the last war, when the organized labour movement reconstituted itself in formerly Nazi occupied Europe and in Japan.
Superficially, the conditions of its re-emergence looked promising. Organized business was politically in a weak position. It carried the guilt of having supported fascism, first in Italy, Germany and Austria, then in all of occupied Europe, with a few honorable exceptions. The political mood of the time was therefore anticapitalist. In France, there were punitive nationalizations. The German Christian-Democrats, at their first congress (Aalen) adopted what amounted to a socialist program. The USSR, at the peak of its prestige and with half of Europe under its control, may not have been socialist but it was in any event anticapitalist. In Japan, organized business had supported the military dictatorship and the war, and the occupation authorities, as in Germany, tried to bust the trusts. In the US, the dominant power of the post-war world, the government was still New Deal Democrat and pro-labour and in the UK Attlee led a reforming Labour government.
Whatever else fascism may have been, it was certainly a gigantic union-busting exercise, and the unions, allied to the re-emerging Left, were riding the crest of the Allied victory, whereas business, at any rate in continental Europe and Japan, had lost the war. Therefore trade union rights, in their most extensive form, were taken for granted and incorporated in all post-war legislation.
But the labor movement that re-emerged under these conditions was not the pre-war labor movement. It had been bled of its leadership: at least two political generations had disappeared in concentration camps and in the war, or in exile, with few returning. The survivors were quickly exhausted and their successors lacked their training, experience and political vision.
In Eastern Europe where (with the exception of Czechoslovakia) the trade union movement was never strong in the first place, the social-democratic, socialist, dissident communist and other independent cadres who survived the war disappeared in the jails and labor camps of the KGB. Trade unions were forcibly dissolved and replaced by repressive State institutions of labour administration by the same name.
In Japan, two types of unions emerged under American occupation: the successor organizations of the “patriotic” labour organizations of the dictatorship, in general enterprise-based and management controlled, and genuine unions (often also enterprise-based) led by socialists and communists coming out of jail.
Social reconstruction, financed in large part by the US (in Europe through the Marshall plan), therefore took place on the ideological base of social partnership, meaning roughly a trade-off between social peace and the recognition of labour rights, as well as the consent of organized business to participate politically and financially (through taxes) in building an egalitarian welfare State. Once the opposition (the communist unions in France and Italy and, marginally, the radical Left) had been disarmed, this was the pattern that would prevail for the next thirty years.
This social reconstruction, however, also took place in the context of the Cold War. Contrary to what is often assumed, the Cold War was not the only or even the principal reason for the split in 1947 in the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) which emerged at the end of the war. The radical opposition between democratic socialist and communist social and political objectives, which became irreconcilable since the emergence of Stalinism in the middle 1920s, would have sufficed to split the movement. The object lesson of the on-going repression against socialist trade unionists and any other independent trade unionists in the countries under the control of the USSR confirmed and deepened this split. Of course, as is well documented, the CIA made its own destructive contribution, but its effects have often been overstated, both by its supporters and opponents. We need not subscribe to the police theory of history which holds that history is shaped by conspiracies rather than by the movement of social forces.
The fact remains that for the next forty years or more the political life of the labour movement was dominated by a false debate: whether capitalism (partially managed by social-democracy) or communism (in its Stalinist form) was best suited to workers’ interests and that the huge propaganda machinery mobilized to line up the labour movement on either side of the vertical line of cleavage separating the two blocs largely succeeded in concealing the much more important horizontal line of cleavage separating classes within both blocs.
The end of the Cold War coincided, broadly speaking, with the end of the post-war economic boom. Mass unemployment started appearing in the industrialized countries with the first “oil shock” of 1974. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the USSR was dissolved in 1991. In that decade, between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, the labour movement in the industrialized countries, behind an impressive façade, continued its decline, with a diluted and trivialized ideological and political heritage; priorities distorted through the Cold War; still powerful trade union organizations but with leaderships geared to administering gains of earlier struggles rather than to organizing and engaging in new struggles, generally unquestioning in their acceptance of the ideology of social partnership and bereft of political imagination; a rank-and-file educated to bureaucratic routine and to passivity.
The complacency and de-politicisation of the labour movement in the post-war period had an important side-effect: the decline of the labour NGOs (3). The pre-war labour movement was built on the assumption that all major social issues were its responsibility, and that it was its duty to develop an adequate response to all of them. Specific aspects of the general struggle for a better world were normally taken up by a well-structured socialist mass movement which conceived of itself not only as a political party, but as a counter-culture to the existing society and which created in its midst whatever organs or institutions were needed to take charge of any major social issue (4).
Typically this would include, alongside labour parties and trade unions, organizations to advocate and develop gender equality, consumers’ interests (the co-operative movement), popular health and welfare, housing, culture in all its aspects, education, leisure activities, human rights (including anti-colonial movements).
In the post-war world, most of these institutions declined. In many countries they either disappeared or survived by narrowing down their agenda and scaling down their level of ambition. Ultimately, this was a consequence of the loss of a whole strata of ideologically committed and educated cadres which contributed to the decline of the socialist mass parties into electoral machines and to the loss of any broad political dimension in the trade unions. But underlying this decline was also an assumption that dealing with many of the broader social issues, seen earlier as an obligation of the labour movement, had become, in the context of the post-war world, a responsibility of the State, which the labour movement had helped to build and in which it was an active participant, and in which it had therefore had developed a sense of ownership.
This assumption, of dubious value at the best of times, became obviously untenable as the State itself came under challenge, as from the 1980s, in its role as the keeper of social justice and welfare and started itself to “downsize” its own commitments, under both Left and Right governments. Thus the withdrawal of the trade unions from a wide range of social concerns had actually prepared the ground for the emergence of issue-oriented groups without traditional ties to labour, which gradually filled the vacuum left. In this sense, the contemporary NGO movement may be regarded, at least in many of its parts, as the illegitimate child of the historical labour movement.
The globalization process of the world economy which picked up momentum in the 1980s found the trade union movement, at national and international level, largely unprepared. The main features of globalization (revolutionary changes in communications and transport technologies, vastly increased mobility of capital and in particular of finance capital) need not be described here – they are familiar to all observers. So is the increase in number, size and power of the transnational corporations, which have been, at the same time, the spearheads and the chief beneficiaries of the technological changes underpinning globalization. As important as the geographical spread of transnational corporations has been the change in their structure through outsourcing, which has led to the shrinkage of the “core” labour force in manufacturing and services and the growing casualization of production through a cascade of subcontractors often ending with individual homeworkers (5).
In summary, we have a situation where the TNCs have immensely increased their power within two decades and where mobility of capital is practically uncontrolled. Few TNCs today depend any longer on the domestic market of the country where they originated and therefore no longer depend on consensual arrangements with the social and political forces that are themselves rooted in the domestic market.
One political consequence, with major social implications, is the decline of the national State, in the first place as an economic actor.
The national State has declined as an employer through privatizations, which have not only increased the power of the transnationals, as they buy up public assets, but which have also deprived the State of economic leverage and have therefore weakened its ability to influence economic policy and, in its role as an employer, labour policy.
The national State has also declined in its role of regulator of economic policy as a result of recent international trade arrangements which narrow the scope of democratic control over social and economic policies, transferring authority from democratically accountable governments and institutions to TNCs which are accountable only to their shareholders.
Finally, the growing inability of the State to control international flows of capital has reduced its ability to tax capital (6) and has thus reduced, sometimes drastically, its fiscal income which provides the basis for public services and social programs, thereby further undermining the social consensus which depends on its ability to protect the weak through the redistribution of the social product.
Even more dangerously, the inability to control capital within national borders (through legislation or other political measures) carries with it a commensurate loss of influence of all institutions operating within the confines of national borders: national legislatures, political parties, national trade union centers: in other words, all instruments of democratic control where they existed in the first place.
The ideological reflection of these developments is what has been described as the New Policy Agenda or the Washington Consensus: “an expression of faith, that markets are efficient, that states are unnecessary, that the poor and rich have no conflicting interests, that things turn out for the best when left alone. It held that privatization and deregulation and open capital markets promote economic development, that governments should balance budgets and fight inflation and do almost nothing else” (7)
Since most social-democratic governments subscribe, to a varying extent, to this position (8) the trade unions have been left with diminishing support from their traditional political allies and from the State. The unraveling of the alliance between social-democratic and labour parties and the trade union movement has meant that the unions have lost many of their traditional contact points and anchors in civil society and the increased influence of organized business on the State (whatever the government in office) has meant that the State has become an increasingly weak and unreliable bulwark to defend the social rights, welfare and security achieved through labour struggles in earlier decades.
This is happening as the trade union movement is facing new and major challenges as a result of the emergence of a global labour market, the most important social consequence of globalization. The global labour market means that, because of the mobility of capital and the fluidity of communications, workers of all countries, regardless of their degree of industrial development or their social system, are competitively underbidding each other, with huge wage spreads between countries and regions, in all areas of the economy.
This underbidding on a global scale has set in motion a relentless downward spiral of deteriorating wages and conditions through competitive deregulation and informalization of work. But, as the traditional “core” labour force shrinks in industrialized countries, there is no quid pro quo in terms of a balanced social and economic development for the industrially underdeveloped countries of the “South” or the transition countries of the “East”, where unemployment remains a massive and growing problem and where wages remain in most cases below poverty level. One of the reasons has been the ability of transnational capital to impose its own conditions on national States by the threat to move elsewhere if its conditions are not met; another related and often underrated reason is State repression, which keeps in place the near slave-labour conditions that prevail at the bottom of the scale (for example in many of the Export Processing Zones or in countries like China, Vietnam or Indonesia).
The main point to be kept in mind here is that the global labour market is not a “market” at all: it is ultimately not regulated by economic laws but by political laws. The Washington Consensus, which calls on the State to reduce its functions to the minimum, has nothing to say about massive State intervention in the form of military and police repression when it serves the interests of organized business (9).
The decline in world-wide union density has been noted by many observers (10), although it also has been overstated. For example, most statistics on union membership before 1989 include the membership of the self-described unions of the Soviet bloc, which were in fact State institutions administering the labour force. Their collapse is no loss to the labour movement: it is a gain insofar as it opened the way for the emergence of genuine trade unions, however weak they may still be at this time. Also, it is a trend with many exceptions: in countries where the political context has been favourable to the labour movement, unions either held their own or increased their membership (for example in Northern Europe, Spain, the Philippines, South Korea, South Africa).
In the leading industrial countries, however, union density has eroded, sometimes dramatically so. This is the case, for example, in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Japan and it is largely the by-product of globalization and its consequences described above: the shrinkage of the traditional “core” labour force through production transfers, outsourcing and the casualization of work, i.e. the transfer of employment to an expanding unorganized informal sector, together with the growth of a service sector with weak trade union tradition.
The fact that the structure of the trade union movement has remained based territorially on the national State has not helped it in meeting these challenges. It accounts for the relative weakness of its international organizations, which are loose federations of national bodies, accustomed to thinking and acting in national terms in a global context where the national framework is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Some of the larger international NGOs acting on environmental issues (such as Greenpeace) or human rights issues (such as Amnesty International) have been much quicker to respond and adjust to the conditions of a globalized world society.
At the end of the 1990s, the trade union movement remains the only universal and democratically organized movement at world level (11) defending, explicitly or implicitly, the vision of a society organized to serve the common welfare and based on the values of social justice, equality and co-operation. Its attachment to these values, as well as its resiliency in the face of adversity, derives from its membership. In recent decades, it has become politically isolated and weakened in its substance. To regain the lost ground it needs to globalize itself to be able to meet the transnational corporations on their own ground, to organize the informal sector and to multiply and deepen its roots in civil society to advance the vision of an alternative social order as part of a broad popular movement for progressive change (or, indeed, as the driving force in such a movement). These are the three main areas where the trade union movement must progress in order to be able to credibly put forward an effective alternative to the Washington Consensus. In each of these areas, it cannot advance without co-operating with the appropriate NGOs.
The World of NGOs
All literature on NGOs stresses their great number and diversity. According to the Yearbook of International Organizations, the total number of internationally recognized NGOs is now well over 16,000 (12). In Britain there are estimated to be over 500,000 NGOs of which 175,000 are registered charities under British law. In Canada, the Canadian Environmental Network of NGOs has 2,000 groups in membership. Zimbabwe has an estimated 800 NGOs. In Bangladesh there are at least 12,000 local groups receiving local and central government financial support. In India, one estimate refers to 100,000 NGOs, while another claims 25,000 registered grass-roots organizations in one state alone (Tamil Nadu). Kenya has 23,000 women’s organizations. Uganda has over 1000 local NGOs and over 20 foreign-based ones. In Australia more than half of all the country’s welfare services are supplied by an estimated 11,000 not-for-profit charitable organizations (13).
In 1997, there were 1,356 organizations with consultative status at the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (14) and in 1998, 892 “development NGOs” were members of the national platforms in the 15 EU countries (15).
The difficulty of coming to grips with the complexity of the NGO world is illustrated by the different attempts to establish categories. A study by the Commonwealth Foundation lists 31 different organizational forms of NGOs, not an exhaustive list (16). NGOs can also be categorized by their degree of independence or, on the contrary, of control by outside bodies which are not NGOs (governments, business, political groups or funders); or by their function (typically: development and humanitarian aid, human rights, education, women’s issues, environmental issues); or by their geographical location: “North” and “South”. Finally, there are international NGO networks and federations, as well as large NGOs operating on a global scale with national sections in different countries (typically: Amnesty International). A study on behalf of the General Conference of International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) (17), summarizing ITS experiences with NGOs, establishes 12 categories and remarks that “inevitably, there are overlaps” (18).
The possibilities of co-operation between trade unions and NGOs, and the obstacles to such co-operation, do not in fact depend on either size, structure or organizational form of the NGO, nor even on its function: some NGOs will work on several issues at once, and many issues are connected (it is difficult to promote sustainable development without at the same time seeking to advance human rights, education, equality or environment issues).
They depend far more on whether the unions and NGOs concerned share common objectives and on issues relating to the way of operating of NGOs and trade unions (legitimacy, transparency, accountability, management). In any event, general statements about union and NGO relations are difficult because of their diversity. Even though unions share basic common features far more than NGOs do, they are themselves by no means a homogenous whole: there are obvious differences due, for example, to political tradition or organizational culture. Co-operation therefore always depends on a specific convergence of objectives and on a compatibility of approach and modus operandi between specific partners.
Shared Objectives and Co-operation
Trade unions, although primarily concerned with conditions of employment and the workplace, have always had broader social and political concerns which they have expressed through political commitments, views and programs over a wide range of national and international issues. These include in particular: human rights, development, education, women’s rights and equality, protection of the environment. It is on these issues, in particular, that co-operation between unions and NGOs has developed. Instances of such co-operation are described in this chapter.
On some of these issues, unions have allowed a gap to develop between theory and practice by withdrawing into what they regarded as their “core business” and neglecting broader issues perceived as side-issues or as someone else’s business. This has happened partly because of a decline in political capacity and competence, partly because of their perception that a division of tasks existed in the labour movement where other specialized agencies would take care of single issues. But, as we have seen above, these specialized agencies themselves had lost much of their capacity for advocacy in the post-war period.
At the same time, changes in society under the impact of globalization have led to an explosive growth of the NGO sector and has brought NGOs “more and more into the arena of societal governance and advancement.” (19). All social and political issues which have been traditionally the areas of concern of the labour movement, not excluding “core” trade union issues like employment, working conditions and wage levels, are now also areas of concern of a multitude of local and international NGOs.
Human Rights and Workers’ Rights
Because of their roots in the democratic revolutions of the last century, trade unions have always identified with the struggle for human rights. Apart from historical reasons of principle, trade unions (in contrast with other important social actors, such as churches or business) cannot function in an environment where human and democratic rights are not safeguarded, for example in highly repressive military dictatorships or in police states (except in the form of illegal cadre groups, or proto-unions). Trade unions, as clandestine organizations when necessary and publicly whenever possible, have been in the forefront of most of the critical battles for democracy, also in recent history (for example in Spain, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Brazil, Korea, China).
In addition, practically all basic trade union concerns are in fact human rights issues, starting with the most elementary: the right to exist. Restrictions on the right to organize and on the right to strike, which is included in the right to bargain collectively, are infringements of fundamental human rights specified in several UN human rights instruments and in international labour standards (20).
Consequently, there has been extensive co-operation between unions and human rights NGOs, particularly at international level. For example, most ITSs and the ICFTU are working with Amnesty International (AI), either on a sporadic, case-by-case basis or in a continuous relationship, in the defense of workers’ rights against State or para-State repression. The main form of co-operation is exchange of information on specific cases of violation of human and trade union rights. AI conducts thorough research to verify claims of human rights violations. This is an important basis for the credibility of its campaigns and ITSs can have access to the results of that research. Reciprocally, information provided by the ITSs is fed into the AI verification process and specific cases affecting trade unionists can become AI campaigns.
AI played a key supportive role, from 1979 to 1985, in a campaign by the IUF (21) to protect a union representing the workers at a Coca-Cola bottling franchise in Guatemala from extinction through terror, including the assassination of its leadership. (22) This campaign took place in two stages (1979/81 and 1984/5) and, in his report to IUF affiliates on the first stage in 1981, the IUF general secretary commented: “Extremely important for the success of the campaign was that the IUF worked in coalition with other organizations, such as church groups (ICCR (23), the American Friends Service Committee) and Amnesty International. It was this co-ordinated action and communication which added to the pressure against the company and also provided quick communication on events within Guatemala. These groups provided most of the contacts within the country and to the (Coca-Cola) workers themselves. The IUF was often able to mobilize affiliates quickly after an event because of this direct communication of information.” (24)
Co-operation between ITSs and human rights NGOs also takes place on specific issues or human rights violations. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) co-operates with Amnesty International and other human rights organizations on freedom of the press and the defense of journalists. The IUF and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) are working with NGOs such as ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism) in the tourist industry. The ITGLWF(25) has co-operated with the Anti-Slavery Society on bonded labour and with various NGOs on child labour. The Education International (EI) and its national affiliates (teachers’ unions co-operated with NGOs on the global march against child labour, and on preparations for the global women’s march in 2000.
In dictatorships, where trade unions face high levels of State repression or where unions have been forced underground, it has frequently been the NGOs, often church-based, that have provided a basis for workers’ organization and workers’ defense. There are examples from Indonesia (to the present day), Korea (to the late 1980s), the Philippines (under Marcos), Poland (the Workers’ Defense Committee KOR from 1976 to 1981), South Africa (early 1970s). On Nigeria, under the recent military dictatorship, ICEM (26) worked with human rights NGOs to campaign for the release of imprisoned trade unionists.
In most of these instances, the NGOs and the workers seeking to establish free trade unions had to face not only a repressive State, but national trade union organizations subservient to that State and controlled by it. When such organizations had become members of international federations, they succeeded in some cases (Indonesia, Korea, Philippines) in weakening or delaying solidarity action by the international trade union movement.
NGO/union alliances have also played an important role in organizing workers in sectors of employment or in regions with traditionally low levels of trade union organization. Most importantly, this includes rural and agricultural workers and subsistence farmers (the majority of the global labour force). For example the IUF is a member of EUROBAN, a coalition of unions and NGOs working on the banana trade issue.
The ITGLWF participates in the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a coalition started in the Netherlands in 1990 with the objective of improving working conditions in the garment industry world-wide. It includes trade unions, consumer organisations, women’s groups, solidarity organisations, development organisations, world shops and other NGOs. Since 1995, CCC has expanded to other European countries. Similar campaigns, working with CCC, also exist in Australia, Canada and the US.
CCC initially focused on Asia and has more recently become active in Africa and in Central and Eastern Europe. The organizations involved in the different national CCCs are trade unions and NGOs who have their own partner organizations in the producing countries. CCC organizes support for workers in a conflict situation, and also has a small strike fund. The campaign also aims to improve the position of home workers and people working in sweatshops in Western Europe, often through lobbying governments on improving legislation. (27)
Because of their perceived obligation to advance a broader social and political agenda, trade unions in industrialized countries have engaged in development activities, at national and international level. In most cases these activities focus on trade union development through educational and organizing programs.
They are conducted through international trade union organizations (such as ITSs), and are in general supported by public development funds where national trade union federations (or centers) have access to such funds (most countries in Western Europe, Canada, the United States and Japan). Some national centers conduct this activity directly through their international departments (for example LO Norway or FNV Netherlands), others have created specialized agencies for this purpose (for example the LO/TCO Council for International Co-operation in Sweden, the LO/FTF Council in Denmark, SASK in Finland, ISCOD in Spain (UGT), the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (AFL-CIO) or the Japan International Labour Foundation (JILAF)).
Some of the larger national trade union organizations (for example UNISON in Britain, the Danish General Workers’ Union SiD, Bondgenoten FNV in the Netherlands) conduct similar programs on a bi-lateral basis.
In some EU countries trade union organizations are members of the national development NGO platforms (for example SiD and the LO/FTF Council in Denmark, the Metal Workers’ Union and the Municipal Workers’ Union in Finland, the Commonwealth Trade Union Council in the UK) (28).
In Canada, four unions have created their own NGOs in support of their development work (ranging from humanitarian to trade union solidarity and human rights activities). They are the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Social Justice Fund, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union (CEP) Humanity Fund, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Union Aid and the Steelworkers’ Humanities Fund.
In addition to trade unions, development activities are also conducted by labour movement NGOs, some of which have become more active at international level and perceive it as a priority to assist the trade union movement in dealing with the challenges of globalization. The development and social welfare NGOs linked to social-democratic parties and the trade union movement, for example, are internationally organized within the SOLIDAR network (21 organizations in 15 countries and one affiliated international organization).
On the theme “workers’ rights are human rights”, SOLIDAR is conducting a joint lobbying campaign with the ICFTU at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the inclusion of core labour standards in international trade agreements (so-called “social clauses”).
Campaigning work around the WTO has also, however, proven a major point of conflict between the labour movement and some NGO coalitions, such as the Third World Network, illustrating some of the broader political and cultural hurdles yet to be overcome.
The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) has been established in Geneva to bring together the main environmental and development NGOs working to influence the WTO. Funding has been provided by Oxfam and NOVIB, Christian Aid, German and US church groups, US foundations (Ford, MacArthur), the EU and aid agencies in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. It is open to co-operation with trade unions and it is likely that such co-operation will develop with ITSs in particular.
The German political foundations are a special case insofar as they are entitled to public funding in proportion to the percentage of votes in national legislative elections obtained by the parties to which they are connected. The social-democratic Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has the closest links with the trade union movement and conducts an extensive trade union development program at international level, both bilaterally and through ITSs, as well as programs supporting co-operatives, political groups and local NGOs. Its Christian-democratic counterpart, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, also sponsors trade union programs, as do some of the smaller foundations.
In Sweden, the Olof Palme International Center (OPIC) is a labour NGO founded in 1992 by the Social-Democratic Party, the national trade union center LO and the Co-operative Movement to “co-ordinate, develop and strengthen the labour movements’ interest and involvement in international issues.” Thirty four political, cultural, co-operative and union and organizations in Sweden are now affiliated to OPIC.
In summary, the trade union movement, especially in the more advanced industrialized countries, conducts extensive development activities, both on a bi-lateral basis and through its international organizations, concentrating mostly on institution building: trade union development and assistance to people’s organizations in the so-called developing countries. Despite their considerable scope, these activities do not in general constitute contact points with non-labour NGOs. In this field, unions have in general either acted directly on their own behalf or they have worked with labour NGOs, partly created for that purpose.
Discussions on development policies and strategies have taken place mostly within the labour movement. They have focused on issues such as bi-lateralism and multilateralism (with the attendant issue of accountability) and on the choice of priorities (assistance in the spirit of humanitarian aid or concentrating on institution building aimed at changing power relationships in society).
There are, however, also some instances of co-operation with non-labour NGOs. For example, a number of ITSs co-operate with Oxfam International (OI), a recently formed coalition of major national development NGOs. Several ITSs have co-operated in the past with national affiliates such as Oxfam UK and NOVIB Netherlands. The Education International (EI) and OI have worked together in pushing for debt relief for education during the G-8 summit in Cologne in June 1999. At the next World Bank/IMF annual meeting to be held in Washington in autumn 1999, EI and OI will focus on the impact of adjustment policies on education. EI also works with ActionAid, a British-based development NGO, on an international campaign to improve public education. In twenty-one Southern countries and in four European countries, this campaign is supported by religious groups, human rights organizations, teachers’ unions, women’s associations and a range of national and international NGOs (29).
It is rare that NGOs have engaged in organizing activities in partnership with trade unions. One successful instance was the creation of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), the independent trade union center in Hong Kong, which originates in a joint trade union organizing project between the IUF and the HK Christian Industrial Committee (HKCIC). The project, which was funded by the development agency of the Swedish trade unions, the LO/TCO Council for International Co-operation, started in 1983 and led to the creation, in 1984, of the IUF Hong Kong Education Office, later to become the Hong Kong Trade Union Education Centre (HKTUEC), a joint operation of the HKCIC and several ITSs. This in turn led to the establishment of the HKCTU in August 1990. The HKCTU has now approximately 140,000 members and is the second-largest trade union center in Hong Kong.
Also in the field of education trade unions have in general preferred to work either on their own account or through labour NGOs. The international organization of the educational labour NGOs is the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA) (100 organizations in 62 countries and 7 affiliated international organizations) founded in 1947. Its national affiliates include specialized education NGOs linked to the labour movement, trade unions (often through their education departments), educational institutions of social-democratic parties, think tanks and research institutes. The international affiliates are SOLIDAR (a reciprocal affiliation: IFWEA is also a member of SOLIDAR), four ITSs and a Latin American regional adult education body.
In 1993, the IFWEA revised its Charter (or mission statement) to stress its common purpose with other labour movement organizations (30). Following a policy decision of its 1996 General Conference to “strengthen the global organizing capacity of the labour movement” the IFWEA developed the International Study Circle (ISC) project, which is aimed at facilitating a global education program on issues concerning globalization. An ISC consists in bringing together groups of participants (local study circles) based in several countries, connected by Internet, who work simultaneously according to a common curriculum, set of materials and education method. Each local study circle has a facilitator. Between meetings, each group has access to materials on the Internet including the results of discussions and work completed in previous sessions by other countries.
Two pilot courses, focusing on transnational corporations and involving twelve countries, were conducted in 1997 and 1998. In 1999, the IFWEA is conducting two ISCs in partnership with the IUF and the International Metalworkers’ Federation, both on specific transnational companies. The objective of the ITSs and of the IFWEA is that the network created within companies through the ISC, linking local unions in different countries, will remain as a permanent international union structure after the ISC has run its course. In this way, ISCs help “strengthen the global organizing capacity of the labour movement” as applied to transnational corporations. Of course, ISCs as a method can be used by almost any group seeking to establish international networks and, indeed, the IFWEA has started a third ISC for women from trade unions, community organizations and NGOs on the global food industry (31).
At national level, there is regular co-operation between most non-union IFWEA members (independent but labour-linked education institutions) and trade unions. This can take the form of provision of services (for example LEARN in the Philippines conducts training courses for the Alliance of Progressive Labour (APL) and some of its member unions) or of joint education and organizing programs (for example local organization of the ABF and of trade unions in Sweden conduct joint programs in the Baltic States and in Central and Eastern Europe).
In some instances non-labour funding agencies have supported labour service and education NGOs (including members of the IFWEA) who have been or still are in opposition to the official trade union movement of their countries. This has often been the case when the trade union movement has been State dominated and the NGOs were vehicles for promoting an alternative labour movement. The cases of Indonesia, Korea and the Philippines have already been mentioned. A current case is the support given by NOVIB (Netherlands) to the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services in Egypt (an IFWEA affiliate). This kind of situation could in theory lead to friction between the funding NGO and the trade union movement. In practice it hardly ever does (except at local level in the country concerned) because most international trade union organizations and unions in democratic countries look askance at State dominated trade unions and are sympathetic to supporting alternatives.
There does not appear to be extensive co-operation between unions and non-labour NGOs in the field of education. Such co-operation exists, however, in several countries, between unions and academic institutions running labour training programs. In the United States, such programs at Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Rutgers, Michigan or UCLA, among others, are well established and supported by the trade union movement. These programs have a national umbrella organization, the University and College Labor Education Association (UCLEA), which is an affiliate of the IFWEA. Comparable relations between academic institutions and the trade union movement exist in some Western European countries.
Women’s Rights and Equality Issues
The relationship between trade unions and the women’s movement have been complex and contradictory. Trade unions, since their inception, have championed women’s rights and many women have been charismatic leaders throughout the history of the labour movement (Flora Tristan Moscoso, active in France and in Peru, was the author of L’Union Ouvrière, a pioneering plea for a general international workers’ union; Louise Michel was a leader of the Paris Commune; Clara Eissner Zetkin had been a leader of the German socialist women’s movement as well as the first general secretary of the ITGLWF; Maria Jones (“Mother Jones”) was a legendary organizer of American mine workers and a founder of the IWW (32); Federica Montseny was a leader of the CNT (33) in the Spanish Civil War and in exile; Marie Nielsen was a teacher and a leader of the Danish Left before WWII; Margarethe Faas was a secretary and organizer of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions, and an editor of “L’Exploitée/Die Vorkämpferin” in the first decade of the century – to name only a few).
At the same time, the trade union movement has been dominated since its origins by the culture of the industrial worker, where men generally predominated – with the exception of the textile and garment industry. This was not a culture friendly to women. In several countries women had to create their own unions because they were not welcome in the existing trade union movement. The only union of this type still existing, the Danish Women Workers’ Union (KAD), was established early in the century because the General Workers’ Union at that time refused to admit women into membership.
Faced with increasing pressure from the women’s movement over the last three decades and with the fact that women are representing a growing share of the labour force, unions have undertaken serious efforts in many countries to open trade unions to women. This has meant introducing affirmative action programs within the union structures, moving women’s demands to the top of the bargaining agenda and changing the prevailing culture, customs and practices of the organization to make it friendlier to women. Despite significant and continuing, albeit slow, progress, much of the trade union movement still remains male-dominated and a legitimate target for criticism by women’s rights groups.
In the last ten years or so the explosive growth of the informal sector has underscored the necessity for the trade union movement not only to organize women workers, but women workers who are for the most part not in regular, permanent employment. The informal sector has grown for two principal reasons: the world-wide economic crisis, and the changes in the organization of work.
The debt crisis of the developing countries (34), the dismantling of the public sector and the deregulation of the labour market under the structural adjustment programs of the IMF and the World Bank and the global crisis which started in Asia in 1997, continued in Russia in 1998 and hit Brazil at the beginning of this year have pushed millions out of formal employment into the informal sector. According to an ILO report (35), this current crisis destroyed 24m. jobs in East Asia alone, mostly in the “modern industrial sector”. In Russia and the NIS, in addition to the millions of unemployed, there are millions of workers still in formal employment who are not getting paid for several months at a time. For all of these, in the absence of any serious social safety nets, the informal sector provides the only possibility of survival.
The other factor that has contributed to the growth of the informal sector in the last twenty years or so has been the changing structure of transnational enterprise. The modern enterprise is essentially an organizer of production carried out on its behalf by others. Its core will include the management and the employees at corporate headquarters and possibly a core labour force of highly skilled technicians. This core directs production and sales, controls subcontracting, decides at short notice what will be produced where, when, how and by whom and where certain markets will be supplied from. The production of the goods it sells, and in any case all labour-intensive operations, will be subcontracted, also internationally. This type of company will be the co-ordinator of cascading subcontracting operations which will not be part of its formal structure but will nevertheless be wholly dependent on it, with wages and conditions deteriorating as one moves from the center of operations to its periphery.
The decline of trade union density in most industrialized countries in the 1980s and 1990s is less due to transfers of production and relocations to the South and to the East than has been often assumed: more important has been the deconstruction of the formal sector and the deregulation of the labour market in the heartlands of industrial trade unionism. With the informal sector representing a great majority of the labour force the so-called developing countries, and a significant and growing proportion in industrialized countries, it is impossible to conceive today of organizing a majority of workers at world scale without serious organizing in the informal sector.
Informal sector workers are, in their very great majority, women workers. A majority of workers expelled from the formal sector by the global economic crisis are women. As the ICFTU has reported (36), women are the principal victims of the casualization of labour and the pauperization created by the crisis and have therefore massively entered the informal sector in the last two years. According to a survey by the Friends of Women Foundation in Thailand (37), the mass lay-offs in 1998 mostly took place in the textiles and electronics industries where 90% of workers are women. In Moscow, two-thirds of the jobless are women.
Even before the crisis women constituted most of the informal labour force (child labour is also strongly represented). The very great majority of home workers are women (and home work represents as much as 40 to 50% of labour in certain key export sectors, such as garments, footwear or electronics, in Latin America and Asia); women are also the great majority of street vendors in informal markets (which in certain African countries represent up to 30% of the urban labour force).
Also 90% of labour in the 850 or so Export Processing Zones (EPZs) around the world are women and in the majority of cases workers’ rights and social protection are non-existent also in EPZs. Although they work in factories, what EPZ workers have in common with informal sector workers is that they are in both cases unprotected, largely unorganized, female labour.
In this context, unions have increasingly entered partnerships with women’s NGOs in organizing drives and in alliances to represent informal workers’ interests.
At European Union level, the European Homeworking Group is a coalition of unions, NGOs, church organizations and researchers involved with homeworkers. The work of this group was one factor in influencing the majority of European governments to support the ILO Home Workers’ Convention until its successful passage in 1996.
In the UK, there are a number of local projects involving NGOs or local authorities and a national campaigning organization, the National Group on Homeworking. This group has led the campaign for homeworkers to be included in the national minimum wage and has been a major influence on government policy, public awareness and trade union policy on homework.
In the Central American EPZs and the Mexican maquilas, organizing women workers has come about mainly as a result of work by women NGOs that have always supported unionization of women workers, sometimes, as in Mexico, against the established unions (38). In the Dominican Republic, Fenatrazona, the EPZ union, created neighbourhood women’s committees uniting female union members with non members for the purpose of awareness raising, mutual support and organizing. In Guatemala, a union successfully worked with women’s groups to submit a Bill on sexual harassment to the national legislature. In Peru, unions have worked with a socialist feminist NGO, Flora Tristan, in developing educational and organizing programs for their female members. In Ghana, there has been a joint union-NGO initiative on the intestate succession law, so as to protect women’s rights and guarantee them a share in the husband’s estate. There are other examples of such co-operation (39).
Informal sector workers, in particular women, have also organized into new trade unions specifically created for that purpose. An early case, and an example to many, has been the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, which started twenty-five years ago with a few hundred members and now numbers 210,000 members in four Indian federal states. SEWA organizes homeworkers, street vendors, paper pickers and refuse collectors, harvesters of forest products, etc. It has created an infrastructure of flanking services: a bank providing microcredit, a vocational and trade union training program at different levels, producers’ co-operatives (artisans, agricultural producers), service co-operatives (health, housing). In South Africa, the Self Employed Women’s Union (SEWU), a COSATU affiliate, has been organized along the same lines and attempts to establish similar organizations have been reported from other countries.
Homeworkers’ and street vendor’s organizations have formed international networks. One is the International Alliance of Street Vendors, or StreetNet, which includes organizations or support groups in eleven countries. It was founded in 1995 and adopted, the same year, the “Declaration of Bellagio” on the rights of street vendors. The second one is HomeNet, a network of unions, such as SEWA, SEWU and the Embroiderer’s Union of Madeira (SIBTTA), which represents homeworkers, as well as other associations of homeworkers (in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand).
HomeNet and StreetNet, together with SEWA, certain other unions and support groups at universities and in international organizations, have formed another international network: WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing), which seeks to work at different levels: research, policy proposals, coalition building.
Organizing unprotected women workers in the informal sector and in the EPZs takes place at an intersection of trade union and NGO concerns where many opportunities for co-operation exist and where such co-operation is likely to considerably advance the agenda of all parties involved, not least that of the main beneficiaries of such co-operation: the exploited women workers on the margins of the global economy.
The cultural and social concerns of the early labour movement included a strong element of revolt against the degrading living conditions imposed on the urban working class by capitalist industrialization. Urban slums were breeding grounds of disease and a variety of social evils and the labour movement made it a priority to instill into its constituency a capacity to protect its own moral and physical integrity through organization. The workers’ temperance movement, labour health services, socialist urbanism with its emphasis on access to light and air, reflected such concerns.
Organizations such as the Friends of Nature were formed to enable workers to spend their leisure time in a healthy natural environment. The International Friends of Nature, founded in 1895 in Vienna, where its secretariat is still located, now has 20 national affiliated or associated organizations with a total membership of 600,000, mostly in Europe (nearly half in Austria and Germany) but also in the US (California), Mexico, Israel, Nepal and Australia. One of its aims is to “protect nature and the countryside and contribute to the protection of the natural living area” (40). It is one of the labour NGOs showing renewed signs of activity. In Germany, the Friends of Nature look at themselves as a “bridge between trade unions, social organizations and the environmental movement” and have joint environment protection projects with unions such as IG Medien and IG BAU (41).
Following WWII, post-war reconstruction was regarded as an overriding priority in Europe and productivist attitudes prevailed over environmental concerns, also in the social-democratic labour movement. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the industrial development of the Soviet Union and the countries under its control, as well as that of China and North Korea, uncontrolled by public opinion and driven by the need of the ruling bureaucracy for self-aggrandizement and power, provided an extreme example of productivism with catastrophic environmental consequences.
When the modern movement for environmental protection arose in the 1960s, its relations with the labour movement were ambivalent as the concerns of trade unions had shifted to protecting jobs and, in the short term, ecological movements were seen by many unions as threatening employment. In some instances, conflicts developed between unions and conservationist organizations (as in the forest industry in the Pacific Northwest of the US or in the case of the Norwegian whaling industry, or in the tobacco industry, where unions supported companies for many years in their resistance to anti-smoking campaigns).
In recent years, an awareness of the need for long-term sustainable development has spread in the labour movement, as it has in the general population, and this has led to new forms of co-operation between unions and environmental NGOs. Unions have also observed the capacity of environmental NGOs to bring powerful transnational corporations to the bargaining table by their ability to mobilize public opinion and have begun to look at them as potential allies.
There are several recent examples of co-operation at international level, between ITSs and environmental organizations.
In June 1999, the IFBWW (42) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) agreed to co-operate on forest issues, notably eco-labelling guidelines (43). Both organizations agreed that environmental and social aspects of forestry were inextricably linked and that co-operation was needed to combat the rapid deforestation and forest degradation that is occurring in many parts of the world. The eco-labelling guidelines, to be worked out jointly, will require that all timber and non-timber forest products originate from certified, well-managed forests which consider the ecological, economic and social aspects of management. Central to the agreement is the principle that forest certification should be independent, transparent and that it should be the result of a “multi-stakeholder process”, truly representing ecological, economic and social interests, in contrast to other eco-labelling schemes led primarily by private forest owners.
In another example, the ITF and IMF are supporting a Greenpeace campaign against the scrapping of contaminated ships in Asia, particularly in India. Some ships are contaminated with high levels of toxic and hazardous materials, including heavy metals and asbestos. The two ITSs point out that offshore scrapping pollutes the environment and endangers the health of the workers involved; ships scrapped in Asia should be free of substances such as asbestos, lead, other heavy metal compounds, oily wastes and polychlorinated biphenyls. Shipowners should be responsible for rendering ships non-hazardous before breaking them up. There must be adequate safeguards for the environment and nearby communities. Shipbreaking workers should enjoy significantly improved health and safety conditions (44).
The IUF works with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) and its regional bodies as well as with the Brazil-based Grupo Interdisciplinario de Pesquiza e Acção em Agricultura e Saúde (GIAS) on pesticides. In response to the current situation relating to genetically modified food, problems caused by the use of pesticides and concerns about sustainable agriculture, its Latin American Regional Organization initiated, in September 1998, a joint project, named BioMater, involving trade unions, peasant organizations and NGOs aimed at preserving, producing and distributing seeds. BioMater has established a seed bank for organic production of seeds that will be registered in most Latin American countries. (45)
ICEM has worked with Greenpeace on an agreement with the chemical industry on chlorine and Greenpeace, as well as other NGOs and indigenous defense groups have supported ICEM’s campaign against Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ), a leading mining company accused of conducting its operations in socially and environmentally unacceptable conditions.
At the Commission on Sustainable Development (46) in New York, the ICFTU has developed a leading role in securing recognition for trade union views, in co-operation with several ITSs (ICEM, ITF, IUF, PSI), the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD and union representatives from Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ghana, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the US. The union position on joint participatory approaches to target-setting and monitoring and the role of eco-audits was supported by the NGOs present (47).
Co-operation has developed between trade union organizations, at national and international level, and environmental NGOs on a broad front, and is likely to grow. Whether it will develop faster, and in greater depth, than the co-operation between NGOs and organized business and with individual companies, remains to be seen.
The effects of globalization have made it often difficult for trade unions to achieve their objectives through the traditional methods of industrial action. In that context, the ability to mobilize public opinion has proved more than ever an effective means of putting pressure on companies and NGOs, more than trade unions, have demonstrated an ability to act on public opinion. Consequently, both companies and NGOs themselves have been led to overestimate the role of NGOs.
Apologists for organized business have rung the alarm bells and advised against extending any recognition to NGOs to represent civil society (48). Other writers advising management advocate co-optation: they see a “dynamic of the future” where “NGOs will play the following succession of roles as an issue develops: (1) an activist NGO floats an issue as a problem; (2) NGOs, usually in coalition, initiate a campaign to which public opinion responds either strongly (e.g. baby formula) or weakly (e.g. Disney); (3) with enough public response, governmental or intergovernmental bodies become involved, and NGOs participate in drafting new laws, regulations or codes; (4) NGOs become active monitors of legal/regulatory/code compliance; (5) NGOs become resources to corporations in future policy decisions.” (49) There is no better description of the process of which former Dutch Minister Jan Pronk observed in 1982: “The corruption of the NGOs will be the political game in the years ahead” (50).
Against this background, it may appear less paradoxical that such tensions as have developed between unions and NGOs have arisen where the defense of workers’ rights are involved. This has happened particularly when it comes to workers’ rights in specific transnational corporations or in sectors of industry.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in connection with the code of conduct movement which many companies have embraced as a protection against the pressures of public opinion (in essence, the consumers). Some NGOs have accepted that developing and monitoring codes of conduct constitutes a defense of workers’ rights (for example in terms of salaries, working conditions, health and safety, etc.) even when there is no provision for the recognition and mechanisms for the enforcement of trade union rights. In such cases, unions have viewed the NGOs as accomplices in the companies’ attempts to use codes as a means to avoid unionization.
In 1990, 85 percent of the top 100 US corporations were found to have a code; in the UK, this figure was 42 percent, in the Netherlands 22 percent (51). However, most codes of conduct that address social issues are limited in their coverage and do not address basic labour rights. In 1998, the ILO analyzed 215 codes and found that only 15 percent included a positive reference to union rights (freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining), whereas 25 percent referred to forced labour, 40 percent to wage levels, 45 percent to child labour, 66 percent to discrimination and 75 percent to health and safety issues (52)
This comes as no surprise since in some cases companies adopted codes as part of a union-avoidance strategy by pre-emption, preferring to unilaterally offer a paternalistic package than have a recognized negotiating body to deal with. As the ICFTU has pointed out, “many of the US-based companies that were the first to adopt codes were, in both principle and practice, opposed to trade unions” (53). For example, the Caterpillar code states that the company seeks to “operate the business in such a way that employees don’t feel a need for representation by unions or other third parties” and the Sara Lee Knit Products code states that the company “believes in a union-free environment except where law and cultures require (SKP) to do otherwise.” The DuPont code reads: “employees shall be encouraged by lawful expression of management opinion to continue an existing no-union status, but where employees have chosen to be represented by a union, management shall deal with the union in good faith.” (54)
A second problem has been monitoring of compliance. Most codes do not provide for a credible independent monitoring procedure, or for strong enforcement and complaints mechanisms. Unions have argued that the existence of independent trade unions throughout the operations of transnational corporations are the most efficient monitoring system (55). Many companies have gone to great length – and expense – to resort to other monitoring systems (creating their own, contracting out to commercial monitoring enterprises or to compliant NGOs) with dubious results.
These unresolved issues were at the bottom of the implosion of the White House Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) in November 1998. The AIP, also known as the “anti-sweatshop taskforce”, was set up in 1996 on the initiative of the US President after embarrassing revelations that garments produced under the Kathie Lee Gifford label were being made in sweatshops in New York and Central America. Its task was to draw up a code of conduct eliminating such conditions. Companies signing up to the code would be able to label their products certifying that they were made in humane conditions. After the task force’s eighteen members, drawn from companies, unions and NGOs, remained stalemated for months, nine companies and NGOs began negotiating among themselves and produced a “preliminary agreement” on November 2, 1998 (including the creation of a new entity, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) for monitoring purposes) which they then presented to the other members of the task force for endorsement. Four other companies signed on to this agreement, but the unions, together with one NGO (the Interfaith Council for Corporate Responsibility – ICCR), refused to endorse it and withdrew from the task force.(56)
The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) stated: “This agreement … takes no meaningful step towards a living wage; it does not effectively address the problem of protecting the right to organize in countries where that right is systematically denied; it allows companies to pick the factories that will be inspected by monitors chosen and paid by the company and excludes up to 95 percent of a company’s production facilities from inspection; and it creates multiple barriers to public access to information. These are fatal flaws in a code already diluted by previous compromises. We are also concerned that this agreement will reinforce the tendency to view voluntary corporate codes of conduct as a substitute for the enforcement of existing laws and the adoption of legislation and trade agreements designed to protect the rights of workers in the global economy” (57)
ICCR spokespersons stated that “key principles, such as payment of a sustainable living wage to employees and credible independent monitoring are not sufficiently addressed” and that the agreement did not “spell out what companies need to do in countries where this internationally recognized right (of workers to freely associate and bargain collectively) is denied. Independent unions, controlled by workers, are an important element in the struggle to eliminate sweatshops.” (58)
Subsequent events showed that the misgivings of the unions and the ICCR were amply justified. (59) But a major implicit issue underlying this discussion is whether some of the more recent industry codes do not deliberately side-step focused and explicit rules on labour rights in order to enable companies to conduct business in China: the largest country in the world where internationally recognized workers’ rights are denied (60).
China has proven irresistibly attractive for transnational business. Whilst some consumer goods companies withdrew from China following the revulsion in world opinion against the repression of the democracy movement and the independent labour movement in June 1989, many stayed, some returned after pulling out and very many invested in the subsequent decade. Organized business has been in general accommodating, if not subservient, to the regime (61) and calls on business to put human rights on its agenda have remained without response (62). In such a situation, codes like SA8000 provide a way out (63).
The criticism leveled by Labour Rights in China (LARIC) (64) against SA8000 is in essence similar to the union/ICCR criticism of the AIP/FLA code. For LARIC, SA8000 is an “escape route for corporate accountability”. LARIC denounces the lack of training of monitors and the inadequacy of monitoring procedures in general. It points out that the right of assessing workers’ rights is taken away from the workers and put in the hands of auditors answerable to companies. SA8000 also undermines the authority of States to use labour laws to change labour practices, thus “privatizing labour rights” and labour inspection: “SA8000, like other codes, can be a powerful distraction to what is recognized as possibly the most effective and democratic instrument of protection: a directly negotiated collective bargaining agreement.” (65)
Earlier, we pointed out that the great diversity of NGOs made general statements about NGOs difficult. The controversies about codes of conduct have confirmed this: we find NGOs on both sides of the argument. From the trade union point of view codes cannot be substitutes to negotiated international agreements between unions and companies. Such agreements (for example between IUF and Danone or Accor, between ICEM and Statoil, or between IFBWW and IKEA) are fundamentally different from codes of conduct, although they are sometimes misleadingly lumped together with codes in some of the literature. They imply negotiated reciprocal rights and duties and, in this respect, they are in fact collective agreements. NGOs that support unions in securing such international collective agreements are allies of the trade union movement. NGOs that support companies in sidestepping such agreements through codes of conduct are objective allies of organized business.
Union/NGO Co-operation: Premises and Potentials
Trade unions and NGOs have in common not only that they are both part of civil society, but that they have specific agendas for the improvement of society, and that they can both legitimately claim to be serving the interests of society in general. It does not therefore come as a surprise that co-operation has developed between organized labour and NGOs over a wide variety of issues. However, union/NGO co-operation depends in specific cases on shared objectives and also on their respective situation: the source of their legitimacy; whether their operations are transparent or not; to whom they are accountable; whether they are democratically managed or not.
Where difficulties have arisen, the latter factor has been at the root of the problem. For this reason, it is also necessary to understand in what way trade unions and NGOs are different.
All trade unions have a clearly defined constituency: the membership, to whom the leadership is accountable. Their leadership is elected at regular intervals by representative governing bodies, such as a congress. This leadership may lose the next election, and is sometimes subject to recall. Union accounts are in the usual case public, audited and subject to the scrutiny of the membership and of the general public. The consequences of union policy are immediately felt by the membership (for example in the form of good or bad collective bargaining results).
Consequently, monitoring and evaluation of trade union performance takes place constantly: to start with at the workplace by the members, and more formally in elected governing bodies meeting frequently. Union leaders are obliged to sustain a permanent discussion with the membership about the merits of any given policy; they have to relate short-term goals to long-term objectives in a way that is understandable to the membership and ensures its support, whilst constantly checking that the policies they propose in fact reflect the membership’s needs and its collective political will. A typical trade union is a democratic organization where the members have a sense of citizenship and ownership (66).
NGOs, like trade unions, are voluntary organizations, but they are not subject to the same rules. Some NGOs are membership organizations and have given themselves democratic structures. This is the case, in principle, for the labour NGOs, but also for a number of others. But not all NGOs necessarily have a membership that has a sense of citizenship and of ownership of their organization. In many cases, NGOs have a self-appointed and co-opted leadership, are not accountable to any constituency other than public opinion and their funders, do not provide public financial information, have no clear monitoring and evaluation procedures. This gives them greater flexibility and mobility, including a capacity to respond rapidly in emergencies, but it raises questions of legitimacy, transparency and accountability.
Cultural differences, which are class-based, have played their part. Many NGOs (other than the labour NGOs) originate in the 19th century culture of charity and philanthropy. This has not necessarily been an obstacle of collaboration in the past. Charitable or welfare organizations, initiated and led by the middle and upper class reformers, co-operated with the labour movement on political issues such as the abolition of slavery and of child labour, or universal adult suffrage, and even industrial issues (well-known examples are Annie Besant, a British reformer, taking up the cause of the London matchgirls’ strike of 1888, and of Cardinal Manning supporting the British dockers in their strike the following year).
But a culture of charity is fundamentally different from a culture of solidarity. Whereas charity is a basically authoritarian, top-down relationship between unequal partners, solidarity is a reciprocal relationship where equal partners accept mutual rights and obligations. The culture of the labour movement is a culture of solidarity in a struggle for social change, whereas many NGOs have a welfare and basic needs agenda rather than a social change agenda.
In recent decades, de-colonization and the emergence of the concept of the “Third World”, the rise of transnational companies and the beginnings of globalization, the radicalization of part of the middle classes (in the students’ movement, in the women’s movement, in the churches under the impact of liberation theology, etc.) led much of the NGO community to also adopt a radical agenda of fundamental social change.
This new political agenda, however, did not necessarily lead to a closer relationship with the trade unions, nor did it fundamentally change the NGO culture. On the contrary, trade unions were now perceived by many of their middle class radical critics as conservative, bureaucratic institutions unable or even unwilling to advance their members’ and society’s true interests. The line of attack against social-democracy by the radical Left of different tendencies was echoed in the attacks of some NGOs against the (overwhelmingly social-democratic) trade unions. A few politically radical NGOs became interested in organizing workers outside of the trade union framework, in supposedly more democratic forms, thus deliberately entering into direct conflict with the trade unions.
The pressures generated by the globalization of the world economy and by its social consequences is again changing the relationship between unions and NGOs and their mutual perception. The threat of the neo-liberal agenda, endorsed by a majority of leading governments, against the prospects of a just, egalitarian and democratic society, shared by unions and most NGOs, has powerfully strengthened the case for co-operation. In an increasingly hostile environment, pressures are mounting within the trade union movement against everything that has been holding it back from fulfilling its mission: bureaucratism, conservatism, turf battles which only serve the interests of entrenched leaderships and damage the general interest, the proletarian macho culture hostile to women, etc., in other words, those features many NGOs seized upon to draw general conclusions and dismiss the movement as a whole. The leadership and policy change in the AFL-CIO in 1995 which, it is to be hoped, is only the beginning of a process, is a symptom of these pressures. Where “new union movements” have emerged (in Korea with the KCTU, in Brazil with the CUT and the MST, and in South Africa with COSATU), they are trade union movements which have taken responsibility for the problems of society in general. They have forged strong links with other elements of civil society, in particular communities, and have political programs for reform. On the NGO side, the resilience of the trade union movement under conditions of adversity and its capacity for self-renewal (also of some of the labour NGOs) has not gone unperceived. These are conditions which are favourable to increased union/NGO co-operation. Let us look at the premises for this co-operation.
The issues which hold the greatest potential of union/NGO co-operation are those where an overriding shared principle is involved and, in practice, it is on this kind of issue where co-operation is most often already taking place (as we have seen, co-operation between agricultural workers’ unions and NGOs in combating the use of hazardous pesticides in the interest of public health, co-operation between chemical workers’ unions and NGOs in combating pollution hazards in the interest of protecting the environment, co-operation between unions and women’s NGOs in providing education and in organizing women workers, in the interest of advancing women’s rights). The objective of such co-operation is generally to influence the conduct of other actors in society (for example public authorities or business).
A basic overarching principle is the defense of human rights and that issue does constitute a key point of contact for NGOs and unions. This requires acceptance on the part of the NGOs involved that, firstly, the rights of workers as workers are a human rights issue and that, secondly, workers’ rights are a union rights issue because workers have no other way to express their collective interests except though independent and democratic trade unions.
Not all NGOs accept this position: some development NGOs have challenged the universal applicability of union rights as a form of disguised protectionism, driven by the unions in industrialized countries. Against this view, unions and other NGOs have argued that the absence of union rights, as well as inhuman working conditions and extreme exploitation which is the consequence of the absence of such rights, cannot be accepted as a comparative advantage in development. Most NGOs and certainly all human rights NGOs would support the position that the core labour standards included in the Social Charter adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1998 (including the right of workers to freely organize, to negotiate collectively and to take industrial action in support of their demands) represent basic human rights applicable in all countries.
A commonality of objectives is, of course, the first and most basic condition for successful co-operation. But further conditions are reciprocal transparency, accountability and mutual respect. These are indeed rules of good conduct basic to any constructive partnership between organizations and in social relations in general.
Mutual respect means that each partner must be prepared to respect and endorse the objectives of the other. NGOs should recognize that they have different responsibilities from unions and, consequently, they should not seek to substitute themselves to unions unless there are overriding reasons for doing so. (67)
In a globalizing economy and society, trade unions face three main tasks: organizing in transnational corporations, organizing the informal sector and connecting with other actors in civil society at large to advance their broader social and political agenda. In all of these areas, they have formed partnerships with NGOs and this trend is likely to continue because it is mutually beneficial. NGOs wishing to act in the public interest are finding in trade unions the social sheet anchor and reality check that neither their own constituency nor relationships with other social actors (such as business or governments) can provide.
In an earlier section, we have already described the ways trade unions and NGOs are different. These differences – in constituency, governance and culture – have an underlying root cause: trade unions are, by definition and not by choice, in a continuing power struggle with organized business and governments that defend business interests. The way society develops depends on the shift in global power relations resulting from this struggle. In this context, NGOs may seek different roles: they may see themselves as partisans, or mediators, or sidestep the issue entirely in denial. Another way of putting it could be that NGOs are about intentions, whereas unions are about results. Therefore the responsibility of building a broadly based peoples’ movement for social progress and ultimately determining the direction it will take rests largely with the trade union movement. It will share this responsibility with those NGOs that clearly define themselves, in word and deed, as allies of organized labour.
A common starting point should be to define the legitimate purpose of any form of social organization, whether local or world-wide, in other words, to affirm that enterprises, or an economic system, have legitimacy only to the extent that they serve human welfare in the widest sense of the term (the satisfaction of basic needs which also include justice, equality, freedom, access to culture, the rule of law). These values and basic principles, which of course need elaboration, together constitute a program of radical democracy diametrically opposed to the currently hegemonic neo-liberalism, and this should become the basic program which the labour movement and all NGOs which have the objective of improving society should defend at all levels with all appropriate means. At issue is the kind of world we will live in tomorrow, in 10, 20 or more years time.