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Brothers in Arms

How do trade unions worldwide reflect on the global economy?

April 25, 2001

How do trade unions worldwide reflect on the global economy?

With the advent of industrialization in the late 18th century, workers began organizing trade unions to protect themselves against exploitation and abuse from their employers. Since then, trade unions have had to adapt to enormous economic changes. Today, the dynamic integration of the global economy presents unions with perhaps their most significant challenge. Our new Read My Lips feature explores how union leaders are positioning their organizations in the global economy.

What is the role of the unions in the global economy?

“Our task is not to make societies safe for globalization, but to make the global system safe for decent societies.”
(John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, January 1999)

At the core, what do you worry about?

“We are in a struggle against a globalization that has no place for principles, values and standards.”
(Bill Jordan, Brussels-based ICFTU general secretary, September 2000)

What kind of values would that be?

“From the suites of Davos to the streets of Seattle, there is a growing consensus that globalization must now be reshaped to reflect values broader than simply the freedom of capital.”
(John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, September 2000)

Can “globalization” bring benefits to workers?

“Globalization could be the answer to many of the world’s seemingly intractable problems. But this requires strong democratic foundations based on a political will to ensure equity and justice”.
(Sharan Burrow, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, September 2000)

Is “equity” a more important objective than economic growth in general?

“One rich man, plus six poor people, equals seven poor people.”
(Hassan A Sunmonu, Secretary General of the OATUU, September 1997)

How has the global economy weakened governments in the eyes of trade unions?

“States are now being forced to join an international beauty contest to compete for foreign investment.”
(Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of South Africa’s COSATU, April 2001)

How can the negative effects of the global economy be checked?

“What we need is political leadership which can give guidance to the development of global governance. We need business leadership which goes beyond shareholder value to understand the needs and fears of other stakeholders and their communities.”
(Juan Somavia, Chilean ILO director general, October 2000)

But don’t we all have to share the burden?

“The workers no longer have any sacrifices to make.”
(Suleyman Celebi, leader of the Turkish Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Unions, refusing to accept a pay freeze, April 2001)

Do employers continue to have respect for the power of trade unions?

“I see among the winners of globalization an enormous lack of sensitivity for the losers.”
(Juan Somavia, Chilean ILO director general, on the need for a global dialogue, October 2000)

Has the globalized economy left the union movement powerless, then?

“The world’s trade union movement is now in the greatest fight for its life.”
(Bill Jordan, General Secretary of the Brussels-based ICFTU, September 2000)

On the other hand, can unions adapt to the new circumstances of a global economy?

“Unions are back. In fact, we never disappeared and we have been, in many ways strengthened and transformed by the rugged experiences of the past nine years.”
(Ross Wilson, President of New Zealand’s Council of Trade Unions, March 2000)