Trade unions and globalisation
Basic workers' rights are protected under national laws in many countries. They are also clearly stated in important international instruments, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed by the United Nations in 1948. Article 23 of the Declaration says:
"Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests".
These laws and international instruments were fought for by generations of workers and their trade unions, working together locally, nationally and internationally. Some would say that it was really the trade union movement, working through the International Labour Organisation, that invented the modern human rights system.
But free market globalisation is deliberately undermining this protection. Millions of workers are seeing their hard-won rights under attack. They are experiencing a decline in their working terms and conditions. They are finding the public services that they and their communities rely on weakened through privatisation.
This crisis facing workers can sometimes result in a retreat into protectionism and even racism. But a doctrine of 'us first' cannot succeed. In a global economy where workers across the world are pitted against each other, there are always other workers in an even worse situation - particularly where they cannot freely organise their own trade unions. They can be exploited by transnational enterprises in what has been called a 'race to the bottom'.
A more effective way of sustaining livelihoods is for workers to strengthen their international solidarity. Workers' rights and conditions in one place can be better protected if they are not undermined elsewhere.
Workers are increasingly linked together across borders by virtue of being employed by the same multinational employer or by working in the same global production or distribution chain. The trade union movement is one of the most dynamic movements that organises internationally to tackle the problems of free market globalisation.
The ICTU is encouraging trade unionists on the island of Ireland to play a stronger role in this international movement - through education, campaigning, and linking up with workers in other parts of the world.
All trade unions have international connections and activities. The ICTU is affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation. This is an international body which brings together national union centres. At present 311 organisations in 155 countries and territories are affiliated to the ICTU, representing 168 million trade unionists around the world.
The individual trade unions in the ICTU also have their own international affiliations to Global Union Federations. These bodies represent workers in particular industries or sectors, such as food and agriculture workers (IUF), metal and electronics workers (IMF), public sector workers (PSI), and transport workers (ITF). There are ten such bodies.
The ICTU and Global Union Federations represent the trade union movement in international bodies where they negotiate with governments and employers to ensure that workers' rights are respected. Foremost among these is the International Labour Organisation. They also lobby the World Trade Organisation and the international financial institutions to keep workers' rights high on the agenda.
On the ground, the Global Unions stimulate education programmes and international campaigning among affiliated unions worldwide to raise awareness about the rights of workers. One example is the International Transport Workers' Federation Global Days of Action in which over a quarter of a million bus, truck and taxi drivers in 60 countries take part each year. Rallying around the slogan 'Fatigue Kills', they are demanding reasonable and safe working hours. As well as building union solidarity, such activities reach out to other sectors of society who are also campaigning for a fairer world.
Another example is the first ever World Day for Decent Work on October 7 in 2008. Millions of people took part in rallies, marches, public events, seminars, cultural and media events and other activities in countries across the globe. The international trade union movement's demand for fundamental transformation of globalisation was heard loud and clear around the world. For many of those who took part it was their first ever direct involvement in a coordinated international trade union action. Events took place in 130 countries and 216 ITUC affiliates carried out activities.
- Global Unions: http://www.global-unions.org
- Global Financial Crisis Unions' Watch http://www.ituc-csi.org/financialcrisis
- Labornet: http://www.labornet.org
- Laborstart: http://www.labourstart.org/
- International Committee for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR): http://www.ictur.labournet.org/
- The Cyber Picket Line: http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/union