Trade Union Internationalism – by Tom Sibley (2002)

The history of trade union internationalism is blessed neither with great achievement nor with an extensive bibliography. However, a recent publication is Juan Moreno’s Trade Unions Without Frontiers1 which deals with the relatively short history of the European TUC (ETUC). The study of the history of trade union internationalism is no abstract or academic exercise. For we live today in a highly integrated world increasingly dominated by giant transnational firms and with an international trade union movement which has failed as yet to develop the strength and unity which would enable it to present a significant countervailing power to that of international capital. This failure has been exacerbated by the partial abdication in many countries of the national state in the face of what are often incorrectly described as irresistible market forces. What does the history of the international movement tell us about the way to approach such problems?
The growing internationalisation of the world economy impacts on trade union structures. It suggests that international organisation both at the level of the firm and across nation states is becoming more necessary and important. These processes are hardly new – Marx had much to say about them in the Communist Manifesto published in 1848. Writing on economic developments he said: “All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from remotest zones.”
There are barriers to the development of effective international trade union organisation. These are partly ideological concerning issues like national chauvinism and anti-Communism and partly economic where some short-term economic interests of workers in different countries appear to collide. This can also occur within different branches of international firms as companies seek to rationalise production facilities and between workers in supply industries and those engaged in final production.
Moreno’s view
Moreno’s book provides us with the first detailed analysis of the struggles, extending over 20 years, to establish and shape the ETUC as a representative, non-sectarian and inclusive organisation with the potential to speak for all of Europe’s organised workers. Moreno’s central concern is to trace the history of relations between the ETUC, formed in 1973, and those representative and democratic national federations which were for many years excluded from affiliation because of their Communist orientation. These were the CCOO Comisiones Obreras of Spain, the CGT (Intersindical) of Portugal and the CGT of France. All three remain the main industrial federations in their respective countries. Moreno is a former shop steward who became International Relations Officer of the CCOO.
The book has three parts. It begins with a useful historical review of the international trade union movement. Part two, the core, deals with the founding of the ETUC and the CCOO`s application for membership which was finally accepted in 1990, 17 years after it was submitted. The final part is a more discursive consideration of “Social Europe”, its limitations and challenges for the trade union movement. Moreno reminds us of the greatest single achievement of the international trade union movement, the formation of the World Federation of Trade Unions2 (WFTU) in 1945. He goes on to show how the unity established in 1945, when the WFTU brought together every significant trade union federation apart from the viscerally anti-Communist American Federation of Labour, was destroyed by the exigencies of US foreign policy during the early years of the Cold War. Moreno explains how CIA agent Irving Brown3, the AFL’s representative in Europe, was able to exploit and widen existing differences between the Communist, Socialist and Catholic wings of the international movement to help provoke splits in the CGT of France, the CGIL of Italy and the WFTU itself. He goes on to argue that this had its mirror image in the approach of the AUCCTUC of the Soviet Union which he claims attempted to shape WFTU policies to meet the needs of Soviet foreign policy. As Moreno puts it: “It can be said that the Soviets and their allies acted within the WFTU according to the same kind of logic followed by the AFL outside the WFTU” (2001:105). He fails to provide one example of Soviet sectarianism while he is able to devote pages to the splitting and divisive activities of Irving Brown, the AFL and finally the TUC and CIO.
Views from the Soviets
In essence, Soviet foreign policy objectives required that the WFTU be a success as a united organisation enjoying considerable status and authority particularly within the United Nations. On a recent study trip to Moscow I explored some of these questions with two leading trade union veterans4. They confirmed that the Soviet trade unions and their representatives saw the WFTU essentially as a United Nations-type organisation in which conflicting interests were reconciled to establish consensus positions. But the WFTU was also a class organisation representing working class interests, broadly defined, in a world of competing social systems and where millions of working people were subjected to colonial oppression. Thus the search for consensus was often difficult, particularly since the US and British unions worked so closely with “their” governments on the major foreign policy issues of the day5. The evidence suggests that the Soviets put the need to maintain unity within the WFTU before everything else up to and including the divisive issue of deciding attitudes to the Marshall Plan. It was only when it became crystal clear that the British TUC and Congress of Industrial Organisations in the United States were bent on destroying the WFTU that the Soviet search for consensus was abandoned.
The history of the WFTU illustrates both the possibilities for trade union unity and the problems of maintaining a united class approach across national borders and between unions operating in disparate social systems and at different levels of economic development. The Cold War has ended but in the campaign to universalise labour standards by linking workers’ rights to trade liberalisation we see clear differences emerging between trade unions in advanced industrial countries and those in third world countries. In essence, the choice is between a trade union movement with a transnational outlook based on common class interests or one which limits itself to the United Nations model of seeking compromise between the various national policies advanced by member organisations where the biggest dues payers emerge as the policy leaders.
The European TUC
In the years leading up to the formation of the ETUC there was a fierce debate, confined it must be said to the top echelons of the movement, about the structure and role of a European-wide trade union body. Some argued for a regional body of the ICFTU thus guaranteeing ideological purity and continuing AFL-CIO influence. When the intensely anti-Communist US trade union federation left the ICFTU in the late 1960s protesting at the international body’s growing support for detente and peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union, then it became possible to win the argument for a more inclusive approach to European trade union organisation. This approach eventually won the day and the ETUC came into being as an autonomous project. But although the CGIL of Italy (a Communist-led organisation) was accepted into membership, the main federations of France, Spain and Portugal were excluded. Various pretexts for exclusion were found. It was said that the organisations were antiEuropean integration, they remained associated with the WFTU, they were not independent of a political party. In fact, as Moreno clearly shows, the case against was purely ideological and based on crude anti-Communist realpolitic. Force Ouvrière in France, influenced as it was for much of its history by the AFL-CIO, was simply not prepared to countenance the possibility of a strong Communist presence within the ETUC. Neither, in terms of trade union competition within national borders, did the non-Communist unions in France, Spain and Portugal want to see their rivals gain the influence, power and prestige which ETUC membership brings. Italy was a special case only because the non-Communist ETUC affiliates strongly backed the CGIL’s membership application.
With the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the “progress” of neo-liberal globalisation, there has been a rethink not least of basic ideological positions. As a result the Portuguese Intersindical was admitted to ETUC membership in 1995, and the French CGT in 1999.
As Moreno recognises, the world has moved on since the ETUC founding Congress in 1973. Some decision making, at state and employer level, has shifted towards the EU and other international centres of power. Trade unions have to find the appropriate levels of organisation to build an effective counterforce not least at European level. And the European social model, which includes a central role for trade unionism, should be seen as an essential response to the problems of globalisation.
Moreno’s book addresses fundamental issues concerning trade union unity in the modern world. He makes an irresistible case for inclusiveness and for discarding the blood and urine tests inspired by the Cold War apologists for ideological purity.
The ICFTU now adopts a much more inclusive approach to organisation and has recently accepted into membership COSATU despite that organisation’s close association with the Communist Party. It also now works closely with the FNPR of Russia which is the heir of the Russian section of the AUCCTUC. The ICFTU is no longer distracted by the relatively small number of so called independent unions which have turned out to be unrepresentative and therefore without influence.
Where does all this leave us? Care is still required, but provided that trade union organisations are representative surely it is incumbent on all in the movement to find ways of cooperating across political and other barriers. The acid test will be China. Can and should a way be found to engage with the Chinese unions despite their shortcomings as genuine workers’ representatives? History suggests that pragmatism through constructive but critical engagement may serve the interests of the international working class, including the Chinese workers, rather better than standing on principles distorted by the exigencies of the Cold War.
1 Moreno, J (2001) Trade unions Without Frontiers, Brussels: ETUI
2 Weiler, P (1988) British Labour and the Cold War Stamford University Press
3 For one account of Brown’s close links with the CIA and involvement with gangsterism and drug running see Reuther, V (1976) The Brothers Reuther, Boston
4 Vsevolod Mojahev was for several years International Secretary of the AUCCTUC before becoming a leading official of the WFTU. Georgi Kanayev was an official of the Soviet teachers’ union and worked for several years during the 1950s in WFTU General Secretary Louis Saillant’s Department
5 For an excellent account of the relationship between the British TUC and the Attlee Government and the US unions and the US Government in the early Cold War years see Weiler