ITUC 4th World Congress

Organized labour the best defence against intolerance

In a speech to the 4th World Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation in Copenhagen, ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, stresses the importance of the international trade union movement for a future of work that benefits all.

Statement | 03 December 2018
President - Dear Joao,
General Secretary - Dear Sharan,
Prime Minister, Lord Mayor,
Delegates and Guests, Sisters and Brothers,

I bring you all the fraternal greetings of the International Labour Organization, with warm thanks to our Danish hosts. It is wonderful to be here in Copenhagen and in Denmark, with so much to enjoy here and also to learn from.


The Founding Programme of the ITUC describes the ILO as its “Global Reference Point” and in the same way, the ITUC has been, from its beginning an indispensable actor in the International Labour Organization.

So it is really not surprising, is it, that the Report on Activities that the General Secretary has presented to this Congress refers to the ILO, literally, on every page, nor that the draft Congress statement highlights priorities shared by the ILO, not least when it comes to the future of work.

So what can we say about the achievements and challenges that we have shared and that we continue to share?

The ITUC Constitution is a commitment to change the world, nothing less – and the Prime Minister has encouraged us to be equal to that commitment. To bring in fair distribution of wealth and income, decent work for all, universal respect for fundamental rights, equality, and to safeguard peace. And this is no idle dream. Because it is backed by the strength of the world’s democratic and independent trade unions, united as never before in history.

And then within months of the ITUC’s founding, back in 2006, the world did indeed change - but not in line with those ambitions and not through trade union action. It was the excesses of global finance that triggered the global crash and turned upside down the lives of millions of working people who were made to pay the price of a crisis they had not caused and to bail out those who had.

And, frankly, the world has not been the same since. It is growing more slowly, it is not able to generate jobs as it previously did, and alarmingly the growth of real wages around the world last year at 0.8% was the lowest since 2008. That means that globally we are still on a path to greater inequality and social injustice, with everything that implies.

And the consequence of long-standing discontent with this prolonged failure to provide real answers to people’s basic hopes and fears is that we have entered into a period of growing anger and resentment in popular opinion, and of brutalism in policy-making around the world.

If there is a single task – just one – that we should set ourselves today and this week, it is to channel this anger to catalyze the progressive changes that the ITUC exists to promote. There is surely great opportunity for that. But the fact is that right now, the direction of change is in the opposite direction. Righteous anger, including and particularly that of working people, is being appropriated by political forces which are diametrically opposed to the values and the objectives of this Confederation and this Congress. It is being directed to fuel nationalism, xenophobia, isolationism, climate change denial and against migrants and refugees; to close down spaces of dialogue and dissent, and to erode toleration of those who are different or think differently.


History shows that organized labour is inevitably a victim of this type of politics; but more than this, organized labour is the very best defence against it.

Transformative and disruptive change is upon us – it will not be stopped, but it can and must be guided and shaped so that it brings us what we want – decent work for all, equality, social justice"

Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General
The dangers of this moment of anger and of a sleepwalk to creeping authoritarianism and intolerance are real. From an ILO perspective, we feel it particularly in the rising threat to international cooperation and the multilateral system. The ITUC, let’s remember, is constitutionally committed to unwavering support of the United Nations system. And that support has never been so sorely needed. International and regional cooperation is under attack. It is accused of being ineffective, or worse a space run by and for unaccountable elites, or worse still of being an illegitimate interference in the exercise of national sovereignty – an “enemy of the people”.

This Congress has given itself the task to “Change the Rules”, and with good reason, because today they do not deliver for working people.

But let’s be clear. Changing the rules is not the same as getting rid of the rules. Just imagine the consequences of total dismantling of the rules-based system of international cooperation – particularly when that system includes the international labour standards that we need to operate effectively as the definition of workers’ rights and the rules of the game of the global economy. Without the rule of law – nationally and internationally – it is the law of the jungle that prevails. And in that case inevitably, working people will be easy prey for stronger, and unscrupulous predators in the economic food chain.

With our own Centenary just one month away, the ILO is placing the challenges of the future of work to the fore. It is doing so with the conviction that the future of work is not already decided for us – it is what we are determined and capable of making it. Transformative and disruptive change is upon us – it will not be stopped, but it can and must be guided and shaped so that it brings us what we want – decent work for all, equality, social justice.

This is not impossible, nor is it automatic. And I trust that when the report of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work, co-chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden, is published next month it will help point us all in the right direction.

In the light of what I and others have said this afternoon, it is surely crucial that together we offer working people a credible prospect of a future in which they and their families can grow and prosper in freedom and dignity. If we fail in that then we have real reason to fear that others peddling false hopes and simple solutions, in which trade unions have no part, are likely to prevail.

The ILO, with its unique assets – labour standards and tripartism – stands ready to meet its responsibilities, and they are heavy. But I am under no illusion. Our influence and chances of success depend enormously on the strength of the international trade union movement – on you. And that is why this Congress here in Copenhagen is so important.

The creation 100 years ago of the ILO, a world organization to negotiate and supervise international labour law was described later by Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a wild dream”, a dream “wilder still” for doing this through the combined participation of workers and employers with governments.

The creation of the ITUC, by contrast, was no wild dream – rather the right and logical thing to do. But uniting the global forces of independent and democratic trade unionism was, and is, no small endeavour.

Because we know that such unity has never been the natural default position of world trade unionism. When tried in the past it didn’t last. So that unity has to be cared for, nourished, and jealously preserved, by all of you.

And that is why, amongst all of the many calls on the solidarity of ITUC affiliates today, I believe that your first duty of solidarity is to one another, to ensure that this unitary, pluralist organization continues to speak as one.

You have important debates ahead and difficult decisions to take. But perhaps the most important decision can be taken already right now. And that is that whatever else happens, the ITUC will come out of this Copenhagen Congress stronger, more united, and more determined than ever before. Many people depend on that.

I wish you good luck, and I thank you for your attention.