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Trade Union Perspective

Saturday 5 April 2008, by International Trade Union Confederation

At a moment when many are questioning the future of the Forum, the time has come to discuss the issue and we welcome the International Council’s decision to open the debate. We would hereby like to make our contribution based on our own experience within the WSF.

Trade unions and the WSF :

The year 2006 was a landmark in the history of the trade union movement, with the unification of two world confederations, the ICFTU and the WCL, and several hitherto independent unions, to form the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Similar regional unification processes have since taken place in Asia and Africa, and the regional organisations of the Americas, ORIT and CLAT as well as other independent organisations, are soon to be unified within the CSA (Trade Union Confederation of Workers in the Americas). Today the ITUC is made of 311 trade union organizations having their own history, evolution and processes. One of the directives of the ITUC founding Congress is precisely a call for cooperation with the civil society organizations sharing our values.

The trade union movement has been involved in the WSF since the very outset but its involvement has been gradual. The ITUC, like its ancestors the ICFTU and the WCL, shares in the rejection of the neoliberal model and recognises the Forum’s contribution to the creation of a global awareness that another world is possible, as well as the visibility the Forum has given to certain struggles.

We should recall that the trade union movement as a whole has suffered heavy losses under the neoliberal order, from public sector reform programmes, the privatisation of public services (often the most organised sectors) cuts in social spending, removal of subsidies on essential goods and services, massive currency devaluation, imposition of restrictive and repressive labour laws, and the liberalisation of international trade with often devastating impact on low-skilled jobs, to the repression of unions by ultraliberal governments in both the North and South.

Whilst the participation of trade union organisations in the WSF events varies from one organisation and one country to the next, it is by no means unanimous, the Forum’s marginal impact being a factor often underlined by trade union organisations.

We should note, finally, that the trade union movement has learnt from WSFs. The process allowed the development of new and original forms of organising, networking and mobilising. It has also permitted to make new allies, with which we are still pursuing joint actions today.

Analysis of the global context

If the neoliberal dominance of globalisation has changed since the creation of the first Forum in 2001, it has changed for the worse.

One of the results is the increasingly unstable and precarious employment situation around the world. As wealth is increasingly concentrated within the hands of a few, growing numbers of workers are being pushed into a legal vacuum where the employment relationship is no longer recognised. Self-employment, casual or day labour, piecework, subcontracting work and other informal economy activities are proliferating. At the same time, the economic and social inequalities within countries and between them are forever growing.

Although certain victories have been won, by a number of progressist governments at the national level, these victories have not (yet ?) brought about any fundamental change in the international agenda or in the global governance. Whilst it is true to say that the International Financial Institutions have lost credibility or that even the most conservative governments shudder at the abuses on the financial markets, the responses brought to date go little beyond simple declarations of intent. The deadlock in the WTO negotiations is more an illustration of the so-called emerging economies’ determination not to give in to the egotism of the Western powers than the rise of new and fairer trade rules.

We should also note that, although well founded, the criticisms of the current mode of governance run the risk of weakening the multilateral edifice, which, if managed differently, could be a guarantor of peace, stability and social justice.

However on the global stage, the questioning of the traditional hegemony is gaining ground. Large countries outside the Western world are becoming increasingly assertive on the international scene. The centres of influence and decision are no longer the reserve of the North. The world of today is more multipolar than it was when the WSF was founded in 2001, and it is likely that this trend will continue. Whether this multipolarity will lead to a change in the global agenda is another matter. Asia, given its demographic weight and economic power, would seem to be the region best placed to change the world politico-economic agenda. But, whilst the pressure brought to bear by key Asian countries undoubtedly holds great sway on the international stage, this pressure is not, however, anti-neoliberal. The most influential Asian countries would seem to have perfectly assimilated the workings of the capitalist system, becoming its most fervent advocates, both at home and abroad. Indian multinationals are no more sensitive to social, environmental or labour-related issues than their Western counterparts. China, which is financing the US budget deficit, is one of the greatest advocates of neoliberal globalisation, from which it profits greatly at the expenses of the abundant supply of extensively suppressed and exploited cheap labour.

Another relatively new development since 2001 is the speeding up of regional integration processes, often inspired by the economic policies established at global level. Neoliberal globalisation is thus more easily propagated among the regions. We have also seen a proliferation of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, with many going much further than required by the multilateral rules of the WTO. Such is the case, for example, with DR-CAFTA (the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States) or proposed the Economic Partnership Agreements between Europe and the ACP countries.

Another extremely worrying factor is the failure of political, social or cultural dialogue to take precedence over confrontation, and the prevalence, in the post cold war era, of recourse to armed violence on every continent.

The scale of the current environmental crisis has undoubtedly become a key new variable in the equation since the creation of the Forum. This issue, coupled with the rest, clearly highlights the limitations of the current development model.

Another significant factor to be taken into account in our reflections on the Forum’s future is the repression of individual and collective rights and freedoms, particularly the freedom of association, which constitutes a major obstacle to the emergence of a global civil society. In this respect, the “war on terror” undermines individual rights & freedoms and hurts civil society organization around the world. It should also be noted that the spread of the neoliberal model is accompanied by an erosion of trade union rights across the globe. It is important, therefore, to be fully aware that a large number of those suffering the ravages of the global economic system are not represented in the Forums, as they are denied the right to organise.

The future of the Forum

The Charter of Principles :
One of the implications of the increasingly multipolar world is the need for the Forum to pursue the drive to expand its reach, raising participation levels by widening both its geographical scope and the breath of the issues covered. Several reach-out attempts have already been made and others are currently underway. The question has been raised whether the drive to expand the Forum requires a change in the Charter of Principles. In our view, it does not. The Charter represents the consensus on which the WSF is built. The Forum’s expansion can and must take place within the framework of the Charter, which intents to gather all those fighting against “neo-liberalism, world capital hegemony, imperialism in all its forms” and who are looking for alternatives.

Open space and political positioning
In conformity with its Charter of Principles, the Forum has never taken a political stance in relation to a particular event, campaign or struggle, in the interest of respecting the diversity and plurality of those taking part in it. Some now consider that the Forum has no future unless it positions itself more politically so as to act as a political counterforce which would allow it to radically change the global agenda.

The concept of an open space (i.e. a space open to all those who share the principles of the Charter) is the very essence of the Forum. It is not only a strategic response (bringing together civil society as a whole and in all its diversity) but also a political response (rejection of la pensée unique, of a single value system). The Forum in fact counters the single and exclusive agenda with diverse and inclusive responses. Renouncing the principle of an open space would sound the death bell of the Forum and betray its anti-hegemonic ideals. Whilst it is essential that the Forum remains an open space, it must not, however, be a neutral space. It is vital that the Forum be capable of producing a real impact on the global agenda. We therefore believe that the Forum’s future depends on its capacity to evolve in both directions : maintaining an open space, as conceived in the Charter of Principles, and daring to assume political positions. The challenge is not to make our diversity a source of dispersion but a force that places us in a position to influence the current political agenda. The challenge is how to move these two processes forward at the time and in a coherent manner. We consider the notion of convergence experienced (although all-too modestly for our liking) in Nairobi to be a first step in the response to these two requirements.

How to move forward ?

Any progress in the simultaneous drive to strengthen the open space and political positioning will require mutual respect and understanding between those taking part in the Forum. We are resolutely opposed to the idea that the WSF be controlled by anyone, including the unions, as the very concept of centralism is foreign to the Forum.

Recent years have shown those of us taking part in the Forum that we will never be in total agreement. There is no use, therefore, in trying to seek a consensus where it does not exist. We can only move forward on the basis of what unites us.

In our view, the pursuit of these two objectives hinges on the search for joint actions under which we can come together, whilst respecting our plurality, and on which we can agree without threatening the identity or views of those involved.

These joint actions could, for example, take the form of Thematic World Forums. The choice of theme could correspond to a political position established by consensus. Each group, movement or organisation would be free to organise its own actions, present its own points of view and proposals regarding the theme chosen. No one would be forced to assume another’s positions. It would also be essential to consider the centrality of Decent Work in those discussions about “another world possible”.

Identifying the common denominators shared by all, and using them as the grounds on which to organise joint actions bringing our plurality to the fore, is our proposal on how the Forum could best progress toward this other world we all want.