ILO is a specialized agency of the United Nations

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Trade Unions in the 21st Century

(Keynote speech by Mr. Juan Somavia, Director General, International Labour Organization)

The Conference. First, let me state how pleased I am to open this on-line conference on the theme: "Trade Unions in the 21st Century". The current debate is the first in a series of joint initiatives by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Labour Organization to explore promising future approaches for trade unions in civil society and the global economy. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome all participants of this debate, in particular Mr. Bill Jordan, General Secretary of the ICFTU, who has kindly agreed to join the opening round of discussions.

Labour movements and trade unions. In my opinion, unions have grown out of labour movements and in the process have emerged as the most organized actors and the most articulate voices in society. Unions are built on values, ideals, and a vision of society in which workers' rights are recognized, and where there is stability, equilibrium and justice for everyone. Unions have been important institutions of industrial society. The mobilizing capacity of unions has been a unique asset; it is the backbone of their political influence which has helped deliver successful outcomes in terms of equity and justice to workers all over the world.

Main focus of the debate. In recent times, there has been a setback to this capacity for mobilization. It is not my intention to go into the reasons for this setback. On a positive note, I would like the debate to focus on the resurgence of trade unions. In particular, there are two aspects which require attention. Firstly, it should try to establish a solid case for unions playing a bigger and more dynamic role in society. Secondly, it should deliberate on a practical course of action towards reaching the above goal. To open the debate, let me try to list the reasons - the politically important reasons - for their resurgence. These reasons are compelling, both at the national and global levels.

Union values under threat. First and foremost, the values espoused by unions - equity, justice and social cohesion - are under threat. Globalization and market forces are transforming the social and economic environment of labour and questioning the relevance of established methods of income distribution. The rise of income inequalities both within and across countries - manifested through segmented markets and polarized labour force - is beginning to threaten the very stability of our societies. The voice of an anguished majority, either excluded or marginalized from the global markets, remains to be heard. It is time new global campaigns were launched for putting redistribution back into the agenda of national governments and international agencies. A new message for consideration by all is : "Yes to the market economy and no to the market society."

Leadership by trade unions. The intellectual and political leadership for the new campaign should come from the trade unions. They are organized entities with significant social capital and shared values. They have developed the right agenda: poverty eradication, full employment with workers' rights and social cohesion. They have impeccable credentials in analysing and in dealing with crisis situations. They have adopted the right method: empowerment of people, particularly women. Unions are at the heart of empowerment: empowerment is capacity building, training, and organization. The ICFTU is the biggest empowerment institution in the world - 125 million people empowered by the fact that they have the capacity to organize to defend themselves.

Time beckons unions. The environment is ideal for unions to play a bigger role. There are market failures with devastating consequences clearly on the horizon. The so-called "Washington Consensus", which stemmed out of the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, is objectively dead. That consensus died in the turmoil of the Asian crisis. It was too ideological, too simplistic and too detached from the real life of people. The pendulum is swinging back. The challenge for us is to have very practical solutions, very value-orientated solutions, and to understand the complexity of the problems in which we find ourselves.

A human face for the global economy. Unions can contribute to putting a human face on the global economy through influencing social policy which can strike a balance between efficiency of the markets and equity for the people. The global economy needs balance, and our societies need balance, and we need to find a balance between the regulatory function of the State, the wealth-creating capacity of the market and the social needs of people. A regulatory decision, a market decision or a social policy decision cannot be viewed in isolation. Striking the balance between these decisions requires collective inputs from all social actors. No individual actor alone is going to guide the course of events. In this setting, the trade unions can become valuable partners for steering things in the right direction.

Some prerequisites for revival. In my opinion there are important preconditions to be met before unions become major players influencing social policy outcomes at the national and global levels. Firstly, unions have to equip themselves to be seen as spokespersons of the broader concerns of society. Secondly, they need to build the necessary organizational base and political support for influencing outcomes both at the national and international levels. These are major challenges and it is important that unions have clear perspectives on their implications. I trust this debate will give us an opportunity to go deep into the political implications and the practical aspects of a bigger role for the unions. Here I would like to list some issues for further consideration by the participants in this forum.

Broader concerns of society. The changing environment implies that the unions ought to take on a bigger role in an integrated world. Unions are no longer the spokespersons of mere sectoral groups. In fact, there are no sectoral solutions to integrated problems. Unions need to transcend the bounds of sectors and industries, embrace the broader concerns of the society and perform new roles that go beyond their traditional functions within enterprises. What are these concerns? I will be brief and stick to the main issues.

Social cohesion. Perhaps the most important concern is the traditional mandate of unions to maintain social cohesion. It is a lesson from history that social cohesion can be sustained only in an environment which guarantees secure income for all concerned under conditions of freedom and dignity. Unions have strived for that mandate through developing an agenda based on workers' rights, employment creation and social protection. The union initiatives for ensuring income security, safe working conditions, and skill mobility for workers, especially for those at the lower end of the skill hierarchy, will remain important for many years to come. Strategies for realizing those goals will continue to figure prominently in the agenda of unions.

Partnership in development. Trade unions also need to reestablish their credentials as partners in development. Trade unions, as the largest organized group in civil society, can bring a unique contribution to the development community. They are directly involved with economic systems of production and distribution; they can influence the course and content of employment, social and economic policies; they are representative and accountable; they have considerable experience in organizing the more vulnerable sections of society; and, they have the experience and standing required to access national legal systems and public facilities. They can contribute through their long- standing relationships with such development institutions as consumer cooperatives, housing societies, health funds and social security organizations. There is much scope for collaboration in this field with national and international development agencies, including global financial institutions.

Promoting human rights and democracy. Thirdly, trade unions need to project their role as critical catalysts for the promotion of human rights and democratic institutions. This again is an historically important mandate of labour unions. Right through the 20th century, unions have decisively influenced the struggles either to establish or to revive democratic institutions. There is an important lesson arising from the experience of unions which needs repetition. Civil and political rights are an essential precondition for access to labour rights and only liberal democracy can provide the right institutional background for the fulfilment of labour rights as human rights. In any society, the evolution of liberal democracy is an endogenous process which can never be short circuited. Unions can, however, accelerate the pace of this evolution through their sustained support and solidarity with the struggle for liberal democracy.

Challenges at the global level. There is considerable scope for action by unions at the international level. Unions can become influential partners at the global level only when their basic concerns - the labour standards which they campaigned for right through the 20th century - are recognized and accepted universally. Core labour standards are embodied in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Declaration represents a mutual commitment, by all ILO member States, to respect, realize and promote freedom of association and collective bargaining, and elimination of forced labour, child labour and discrimination, and by the ILO to support their efforts to ensure such respect. There is work to be done on the promotion of the Declaration as a development tool embraced throughout the international community.

A political process. The above task can be accomplished only through a political process. Building support for an agenda based on workers' rights, employment creation, social protection and social dialogue means a political struggle for which leadership ought to come from the trade unions. The political mandate for that agenda should come from the Heads of States, Prime Ministers and Finance Ministers of individual countries, down to the UN system and to the multilateral institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. In short, the unions should position themselves to put political power behind the universal labour standards, and thereby influence the policies and programmes of multilateral institutions.

Empowerment of unions. A bigger role based on the broader concerns outlined above necessarily implies that unions ought to emerge strong enough to influence outcomes at the national and global levels. They need to empower themselves through organizing. Still more important, unions should build their organizations on a strong knowledge base. Knowledge concerning their strengths and capabilities, their potential contributions to improvement of markets, products and processes, shared values and social capital, and their experience with partnership in development and institution building should become part of the repertoire of trade unions for dissemination across the world.

Organizing for empowerment. There is no substitute for organizing, which is the most crucial requirement for building the political base of unions. In fact unions are comfortably placed to handle this job. They are the biggest single instrument of organization of citizens in the world today. They have the capacity and the organizational structure to build on. That also implies moving into new terrain, identifying new constituents, addressing the needs of the new target groups and developing new structures and strategies in search of solutions. In particular, unions need to stretch their arms towards those who are excluded from traditional forms of work - the unskilled, the unemployed, the migrants, and the minorities.

Partnerships and alliances. This is another new terrain for unions. It is time the unions in pursuit of common interests and shared values got into partnerships or strategic alliances with other actors in civil society, including: gender groups; cooperatives; community associations; and human rights bodies, consumers and environmental groups. Often they require trade unions to transcend the boundaries of the work place and to address concerns embedded in communities, minority groups, religious organizations and neighbourhood associations. I trust this debate will highlight the potential for action in this field and bring fresh insights into methodology for building partnerships and alliances.

Thank you for your attention.

Updated by RS/BB. Approved by MT. Last update: 20 October 1999.