Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE DOWNFALL OF THE WCL 38 (trade union action paper)

One of the dinner tables with guests from the International Trade Federations and some Asian participants.  Second from left: Louis van Beneden (Belgium), President of the World Confederation of Teachers. Fourth from left: Roel Rotshuizen, President of the World federation of Clerical Workers (Netherlands). Second from right: Gerrit Pruim, secretary general of the CNV foundation for international development Aktie Kom Over. First from left: Paul Buekenhout, international affairs ACV/CSC.

In his paper “The Trade Union Action of the WCL” , Secretary General Willy Thys made controversial observations on the WCL International Trade Union Federations (ITF's). His remark that the ITF's are building structures in the continents based on a European model and that these European structures are causing problems, sounds like an accusation of what sometimes is called “Eurocentrism”. Needless to say that the word “Eurocentrism” resembles the word “egocentrism”. The structures of the International Trade Federations are based on the trade action of the European trade unions. Therefore too much is invested in the institutional action at the expense of the real trade union work. The tendency exists to build up these structures in the continents what causes a lot of problems.”

The paper gives no example of Eurocentrism by the ITF's nor indicates what model instead should be followed. No wonder, there is not one European model. On the contrary there are many European trade union models. That makes the work of international organizations at the same time fascinating and difficult, inspiring and challenging. 

Basically is for all trade unions world wide that they are in one or another way involved in the organization of workers at their work place in a private enterprise (national or multinational), in the public sector at different administrative levels in different kinds of public, semi-public or private enterprises like telephone companies, water supply, railway companies and others, in national or private education centres, in the retail sectors, in banks (private or public), the agricultural sector (the small farmers and the large crop producers on national or multinational level) and then of course at last but not at least, the informal sectors.

Sometimes, the differences in economic and social realities between the continents led to large debates about who are to be considered as workers and what kind of trade unions can become a member of the international federation. I remember very well my first World Congress ever as an executive secretary of the World Federation of Clerical Workers WFCW in 1992. On the initiative of the Latin American Federation of Workers in the Commercial Sector (FETRALCOS) (so not Europe) a proposal was extensively debated, to consider organizations of informal workers as trade unions, for example associations of street and market sellers. Some European trade unions opposed the idea that these trade unions could become a member of the WFCW. At the end it was agreed that the informal sectors make part of the trade union world as soon as they are organized in a kind of trade union, cooperative or another kind of association with the aim to improve their conditions of living. Some years later the same kind of problem was debated in a miners seminar in La Paz, Bolivia organized by the World Federation of Industrial Workers WFIW, with the financial support of the European Foundation of Christian Miners and the Latin American Federation of Industrial Workers (FLATI). A Bolivian delegation of wage workers in a mining company did not agree with the presence of the representatives of a cooperative of independent miners. (See "The downfall of the WCL",  part 28 and part 29). So, even in the same continent it was not always immediately clear which trade union model was the most appropriate for the workers to be organized.

The African Trade Action Committee of ODSTA had a meeting in Casablanca in the month of March 2001. The photograph has been taken during a visit to the Great Mosque of Casablanca. Maroc. 

There are more examples at hand showing that the ITF's were not eurocentric in their policy or structures. However, this does not mean that there were no problems at all. One of the main problems was the financing of international activities, actions and structures. It may be clear that trade unions in the continents had much less money than the average European trade unions for the financing of international activities and/or actions (seminars, board meetings, working groups) and structures, like for example a continental office with a full time paid executive secretary. Therefore one was always looking for affordable and practical solutions, if necessary with the help of European solidarity coming from the trade unions itself or other trade union oriented non governmental institutions.

An example of a practical solutions was to establish a continental office in a country with a trade union with an already well developed membership, a more or less stable financial situation and a well equipped office. With the help of the continental federation and the ITF the local office was converted in a multi-purpose office. Budgets for these offices were debated on the continental level itself as well as at the yearly world board meetings of the ITF concerned. Activities and meetings at continental level were financed by the continental members themselves, whereby the local union in the country paid for the accommodation and food while the participants paid their own travel costs. Sometimes it was agreed that an activity, like a mission of a delegation of a continental federation onto potential new members, would be subsidized (partly) by the ITF. Another example is that newly affiliated trade unions from low income countries needed not to pay full membership fees for the first 5 years or it was agreed that the fees were invested in national seminars of the new affiliate, with the aim to help the trade union to develop its structures and capacities.

However, in his paper Willy Thys mentions one example of “problems caused by the tendency to create structures in the continents” because “these structures do not always follow the priorities of the trade union work in these countries (for example FEMTAA).” Indeed FEMTAA (Agriculture and Food) had problems to maintain even its basic structures. The reason was that financial powerful European trade unions abandoned FEMTAA and decided to affiliate to the ICFTU oriented Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers Worldwide IUF/UITA, leaving behind FEMTAA without enough financial means to maintain at least a minimum of an international structure and activities. Indeed, this you could call an act of Euro-egoism. The result was that the farmers, especially the small farmers (campesinos in Latin America), already the poorest working group in the world, were left on their own. Because of the international development in the Agricultural and Food sectors, the international lack of agricultural credits, the growing international environmental problems and more other problems, these farmers needed more than ever an international network and structure. I have already described this problem with FEMTAA in part 31 of these series of blogs. Therefore it is not surprising that the Latin American Confederation CLAT, supported by the African and Asian organizations ODSTA and BATU, insisted in the restructuring of the FEMTAA. Their main argument for the restructuring was that the majority of workers worldwide is still working in the agricultural sector and that moreover most of the poor people in the world work in this sector.

FETRALCOS organized together with the Latin American Workers University UTAL (CLAT) and the WFCW  a seminar-working group "Horacio Mujica-Pedro Marquez" on the "new dimensions and renovation of the workers in the commercial sector, offices and private companies in the services sector." On the right side of the photo you see WFCW President Roel Rotshuizen standing next to FETRALCOS President Maritza Chireno (Dominican Republic-Venezuela).

The remark of Thys in his paper that the continents accept “these structural priorities set by the European trade unions for the sake of solidarity. This explains the development of structures in Latin America.” is one-sided and without any sensitivity to what really happened. European countries, United Nation institutions, the EU and also trade unions gave money to Third World countries and organizations for different reasons: to steal the show, out of guilt, paternalistic interference, to buy political influence (this was especially true during the Cold War) and of course to support real and sustainable development. Some part of the money went to so-called white elephants: prestige projects without roots in the local or national economy or the concerned organization and therefore without a future. This kind of bad financing should be considered as payment for learning.

But most of the financial assistance of the ITF's went to activities and projects for the development of practical trade union capacities and sustainable trade unions: leadership training at company level, collective negotiations on different levels, to learn safety and health problems in their sector, the adaption of ILO conventions in the sector, how to organize financial solidarity, how to make budgets for your own structures, how to organize finances and so on. In fact the ITF's functioned as a very useful instrument for international trade union development on all levels: company, enterprise, region, national and continental level. And also very important, ITF's learned trade union leaders all over the world in a practical way to handle democratic structures from company level unto world level.

The third remark in the paper is also doubtful: “In the developing countries (especially in Africa) there are no sectors as such, there it relates to companies. The build of sector trade unions creates rivalry what the young organizations makes weak.” What is meant here? Rivalry between different trade unions within one company or internal rivalry within one confederation? However, after the one party system disappeared in most African countries and democracy became oficially the main ideal, the African trade union scene changed rapidly. New trade unions, confederations and federations were created. Rivalry became normal and why not? Rivalry is the positive side of pluralism which is basic for the development of democracy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Troops of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) activated tear gas against workers of Orinoco Steel "Alfredo Maneiro" who marched to the headquarters of caravan CORE 8 in Bolivar state.

Statement of the United Trade Unions for Action UAS.
Solidarity with the workers of the steel company Sidor
and repudiation of the package of measures.

1. First was there the disqualification of the Sidor workers who struggle for the renewal of the collective agreement, by the member of parliament Cabello, accompanied by Rangel Gomez and even the President of the government oriented trade union confederation; and then came the brutal repression of the military against the legitimate right of the steel workers to protest.

2. There were several wounded comrades caused by firearms during the peaceful protest of workers, which shows that the government addresses labor unrest with military repression instead of negotiations and dialogue.

3. UAS deplores such reprehensible actions of the employer-State and expresses at the same time our unconditional solidarity with the steel workers, with their trade union SUTISS and the united actions taken by the movement of Guyanese workers. This government is not at all for the working man, on the contrary, its actions in Sidor as well against the labor protests in general, show a most rancid militarism, a contempt for human rights, democracy, and in particular autonomy, freedom of trade union association and the rights to collective bargaining and to strike.

Sidor workers burn tires to require discussion of collective agreement

 The repression against the iron and steel workers intends to terrorize the workers and the trade union before the implementation of the package of adjustments by the Government for all Venezuelans.

1. The government's economic policy has been a complete failure. With the highest oil revenues ever in its history, the country is in ruins. Inflation, shortages of basic food, medicines and inputs essential to the provision of households and for the operation of industry and commerce have become chronic. Insecurity is getting worse every day. The government has wasted a fortune and national production is almost a fiction, to the point that nearly all goods we consume are almost all imported. After 15 years of alleged revolution the country depends on oil, but the national oil company PDVSA itself is dilapidated, converted into a large and small cash box of the government.

2. The wages, the benefits and in general, the savings of workers and social security funds dissolve as salt in water. The government uses the devaluation of our savings to fund its erratic economic policy and now intends to satisfy its voracious appetite with an adjustment plan that threatens to continue worsening the conditions of life and work of the Venezuelans.

3. The President has announced his intention to increase the price of gasoline. He calls for a "national debate" on the issue. As is their custom their chatter does not pass their own range of statements. It is intended that the workers and the people support such measures, as if the preceding ones have served for something. How many times there have been devaluations? What remains of the strong bolivar?

4. As United Trade Unions for Action we conclude that what is in crisis, is the economic model with its lack of investment and mono production. To pretend to increase the price of gasoline without an objective and serious discussion about the way the oil company PDVSA is managed and administrated, is like treating a terminal illness with an aspirin.

5. For workers the key is the design of an economic policy that is centered around the creation of stable jobs, well paid, with guaranteed labor rights (freedom of trade union, collective bargaining, strike) and an efficient social security system. We advocate a redefinition of the use of oil revenues in which workers participate. A portion of those funds should be devoted to guarantee the savings of workers and social protection.

6. Rising gasoline prices, as has been proposed, would only serve to fatten the treasury with bolivars and to continue wasting money.

7. We require a democratic and open debate about the whole package of measures, about oil and the oil company PDVSA. We will tour the country to convene meetings in the different regions of the country and on the workplaces –private and public sectors - to inform and discuss with the workers, to undertake actions in defense of their rights and interests.

Against the policy of hunger of the government, we want a change of course.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE DOWNFALL OF THE WCL 37 (trade action paper WCL Secretary General Willy Thys)

Hans Brüning (right), Secretary general CNV and treasurer of the WCL together with Nebeyu Shone, Coördinator CNV Aktie Kom Over and World Solidarity in Senegal, April 1998.

To make support more concrete to the WCL International Trade Federations, the Dutch trade union confederation CNV sent on October 16, 1998 a letter to WCL Secretary General Willy Thys with the offer to fund a full-time Executive Secretary for the WCL Secretariat: "In the recent past, some Dutch unions (CNV Trade Union Wood- and Building, CNV Industries) indicated its willingness to invest in a (part-time) staff for the WCL Trade Action Secretariat. This willingness is still ongoing. In informal contacts I have pointed out the possibility of combining this job with general policy and / or study tasks for the WCL. In this way a full-time position may arise. "The letter was signed by Hans Bruning, CNV secretary general and treasurer of the WCL. However, for unknown reasons the letter did not get any follow-up at the WCL Secretariat.

In stead, shortly thereafter (January 23, 1999) Willy Thys himself published a paper titled “The Trade Union Action of the WCL”. It was a complete surprise. Nobody at the WCL Secretariat had been consulted, nor the presidents of the International Trade federations. It is highly unlikely that Willy Thys had not consulted somebody. The question therefore is, who's voice was also heard in this paper? Was it the voice of ACV/CSC President Willy Peirens, also WCL President?

When the paper was published, all attention immediately went to one sentence in the first paragraph called “Findings”: " I would like to point out that the Belgian trade union Energy and Chemicals is considering to stop its international membership in 2000." This meant that another Belgium trade union would leave the WCL, in this case the World Federation of Industrial Workers (WFIW). This was rejected straight forward by all parties involved. As Executive Secretary of the WFIW for many years, having good relations with its president Leo Dusoleil and all other members of the Board, I never had heard such kind of rumors. Then, what was the goal of this remark? To put the International Trade Federations with mostly Belgium Presidents further under pressure?

Willy Peirens (left) and Willy Thys in Vancouver at the World Congress of the ITUC, June 2010. See also the blog of Luc  Cortebeeck, at that time President of ACV/CSC.

Another one of his "findings" was that “the German speaking organizations find insufficient trade action on European level”. I suppose that he meant the Austrian trade union members of the ITF's. After all, the trade unions of the German Christian Trade Union Confederation CGB were tolerated as members of the ITF's but not considered as serious trade unions. The Austrian trade unions indeed were not satisfied with the WCL support to the ITF's. According to the Austrian trade unions the WCL Secretariat should give more service to the International Trade Federations for the amount of membership fee payed to the WCL. As an Executive Secretary for International Trade Action, I had communicated this complaint to the WCL Secretary General, however without any result. On the contrary, Willy Thys wanted that the Austrian Christian Fraction ÖGB/FCG paid more membership fee directly to the WCL, and as a consequence less to the International Trade Federations. This was not accepted, nor by the ÖGB/FCG, nor by its trade unions.

Farewell Party of Leo Dusoleil receiving a gift.

As regards the Belgium Energy and Chemicals Trade Union there had been rivalry between its President Fons van Genechten and Doekle Terpstra, President of the CNV Industrial Trade Union, on who would become the new President of the WFIW. Leo Dusoleil left the Presidency of the WFIW at the World Board meeting in Vienna. (june 1998). During a meeting with Fons van Genechten, I told him that I preferred Doekle Terpstra as President of the WFIW because it would involve CNV more in the WCL than ever before, which I believed was very important for the future of the WCL. Until then only one of the 8 International Trade Federations - the WFCW with President Roel Rotshuizen - had a President coming from CNV.

The new WFIW Board with all participants of the World Board. Sitting in the middle the newly elected President Doekle Terpstra (Netherlands). 

Doekle Terpstra was elected as President of the WFIW at the same World Board meeting in Vienna. His presidency might open new perspectives for the WFIW and the WCL. Doekle Terpstra was a strong and charismatic leader with a broader vision on the WCL than a sound financial policy. However, to my disappointment his presidency did not get time to consolidate because after already one year he became President of the confederation CNV. He left therefore the Presidency of the CNV Industrial Trade Union and therefore also of the WFIW. However, Terpstra came back to the wCL as member of the Executive Board. Jaap Wienen, the treasurer of the CNV Industrial trade union, succeeded him at the WFIW. It was the first step of Jaap Wienen towards a career in the WCL and later the ITUC.

The negative tone of the paper could also have been caused by the internal divisions of the ACV/CSC leadership over its policy on the ITF's. Since my arrival at the WCL, there was an ongoing internal debate on the highest levels of CSC/ACV on the International Trade Federations. Sometimes during certain meetings, I got an impression of this debate. Leaders from trade unions affiliated to ICFTU oriented international trade federations gave unjustified critical comments on WCL members. The most heard one was that the WCL regional organizations, especially CLAT, blockaded international cooperation.

Also several times, the Director of the CSC/CNV International Department Jan Dereymaker proposed some kind of deal about the International Trade Federations, a kind of in between solution that would give more room to the ACV/CSC trade unions to join the ICFTU oriented ITF's. I do not remember the details but I did not want to discuss the proposal because I believed still in the survival of the WCL. However, in retrospect it would have been wiser to have started the debate, because once when the question of the merger came out to its full extend, it appeared to late for this kind of debate.