One of the keystones of trade unionism is the idea of internationalism. The idea that organised workers should supporter each other not just within their nation state, but globally.
In the era of globalisation, the importance of having global labour standards becomes paramount. This is why along with the United Nations; the International Labour Organisation was established to ensure workers’ rights were upheld globally.
International Trade Union Organisations sit alongside the ILO. These have existed in some form or another for nearly as long as the current trade union movement has existed. There are now several international trade union organisations. The more high-profile ones include the International Transport Federation or ITF, Education International and Public Service International, the latter one I was lucky enough to serve as an Asia-Pacific youth rep on from 2013 to 2017. Then there is the main international union peak body the International Trade Union Confederation or ITUC, an organisation I was also to have some involvement with.
It was early on after starting at the NZ PSA that I was put forward as the New Zealand youth representative. NZ PSA had one of the stronger union youth branches of any union in the region, and the PSA was eager to form links with other public service unions doing similar work. The hope was to run international campaigns and form solid connections between young workers in the Asia Pacific region.
The blunt assessment of my 4 years in active involvement in global unions was that these organisations had good ideas, and several good people involved. But frankly, they do not deliver to the extent that they should.
Part of this is a structural challenge. Firstly, we live in a global economy where capital moves relatively freely but labour does not. Yet global governance organisations like the ILO are toothless. In 2015 I attended a global governance training workshop in Chiang Mai. Here I learnt about the various ILO Conventions that had been passed since this body was established in 1919. Depressingly, I also then learnt about the number of countries which refused to ratify these conventions or did ratify them but then made no attempt to uphold them in their own country. For example, the ILO passed Convention 105 banning slavery in 1926. Nearly a century later there is still slavery in many parts of the world, including in nations that have ratified C105.
While serving as a member of PSI and working full time as a PSA Organiser in New Zealand, I was also writing my university dissertation. One of the chapters on this looked at the ILO conventions on equal pay which I earlier posted to this blog. The ILO passed Convention 100 which called for “equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value.” Despite this, many of the countries that ratified the ILO equal pay convention took decades to take any action on it. To this day the gender pay gap remains a significant problem globally. Seven decades after Convention 100 was ratified, few countries are even close to realising the goal of this Convention.
And this is the problem. Generally, the issue with global governance structures like the UN, the WHO, the WTO or the ILO lack teeth. Or if they do have power, it is usually due to them having the backing of a major power like the US or China. For the ILO, the Conventions end up being little more than a list of well-meaning guidelines, which are ignored and breached on a daily basis.
In this context global trade union organisations also struggle to be relevant or to be the force for good they hope to be. When they run international union campaigns, they rely significantly on being able to get buy in from their affiliate unions. These unions are generally focused on their domestic politics and work and see little relevance or leverage from running campaigns through international unions.
There are of course several good exceptions to this. The International Transport Federation (ITF) do lots of good work representing their members. Unions organising in transport need an international focus due to the nature of their work. The ITF run several effective health and safety and workers’ rights campaigns in their sector.
Often people regard international union conferences like the ones I attended for PSI to be nothing more than a talk fest. My experience of attending these meetings was that it gave union leaders and opportunity to exchange ideas and build global networks. This in turn did improve the quality of some of the work being done by domestic unions. Also, it allowed some of the unions from poorer nations to ask for support from larger international unions which had more money and resource.
There were also opportunities to build international campaigns that have started to get some traction. One example is the long running campaign for a global financial tax, which PSI called the Robin Hood tax. This tax works by taking a small percent on every global transaction. The funds raised from this could be used to fund public services and end austerity politics. PSI and other global unions and NGO’s have played an important role in promoting debate on this issue.
Above: Nick addressing the Quality Public Services conference in Bangkok, Thailand, October 2013. The presentation notes can be viewed here
Another issue with global unions, is that their structures and practices heavily mirror that of their affiliates. This can often include things like gate keeping and leaders who push their own agenda rather than that of the wider membership. Like most domestic unions, the level of democracy in the international union movement can vary. And there have been some instances of people being encouraged to move to international unions as a way of side-lining or ejecting them from national union leadership roles.
Above: PSI Youth meeting in Sydney, March 2014. The meeting endorsed the PSI’s Robin-hood tax campaign.
When I talked to people in the NZ union movement about global unions, they often could not see the point. The response would be something like “well what do they even do, they are just a talk fest. The real work is done here organising locally.” In a world where capital moves globally with relative ease, ignoring international unionism is not only an error, it is very damaging. In recent decades so much production has moved to countries where wages are lower and labour standards are cheaper.
Unions need an international response to this, and they need international structures to take up this challenge.
My experience of helping to build the international PSI youth section in the Asia-Pacific region showed me that building strong international unions was not going to be an easy task. Getting buy-in and a clear direction across such a vast and diverse region is a struggle. But where we were able to get things happening and we got member buy-in, we had something that could potentially grow to be enormously powerful.
Many unionists and their leaders may still struggle to see the relevance of their international organisations. But for unions to remain or gain relevance over the coming century, having a global focus will be crucial.
Link to the PSI Oceania Young Workers meeting report. The meeting was held in Sydney, March 2014.
Earlier posts in this series:
“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving
Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months
Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008
Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety
Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity
Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport
NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot
Earlier Blog posts about Nick:
School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly
University and Student Politics
Blogs and the Political Establishment
VUWSA President – the realities of leadership