Labour at the World Social - Andreas Bieler
Source: Prof. Andreas Bieler (1)

World Social Forum 2007 - Nairobi

27 February 2007

Labour at the World Social Forum 2007 in Nairobi/Kenya

Labour was well presented at the World Social Forum in Nairobi. Many trade unions had sent representatives and a whole range of themes related to labour were discussed. The representatives and activities can roughly be sub-divided into two groups, established labour and its push of the Decent Work initiative and more radical trade unions and their efforts to establish, together with social movement activists, a Labour Network. [2]

On the one hand, there was the group of established trade unions around the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which had been formed in November 2006 as the result of a merger of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL). It used the World Social Forum to launch its Decent Work Campaign. The campaign is supported by an alliance consisting of the ITUC, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), as well as Social Alert International, the Global Progressive Forum and Solidar. The latter three are all NGOs with close links to established trade unions. Some were even set-up by unions themselves. The goal of this campaign is to achieve ‘decent work’ for all, consisting of ‘equal access to employment, living wages, social protection, freedom from exploitation and union rights’ (ITUC 2007a). This initiative is directed against the rationale of neo-liberal economics as practised by international organisations such as the IMF or WTO. In the words of Guy Ryder, General secretary of the ITUC, these organisations

actually believe that their policies will increase economic growth, enhance private business opportunities and so, by stimulating market mechanisms, promote employment. And they believe that while such employment might not be decent at its outset, it will more or less become so as time passes by …; [but] economic prosperity and social progress do not trickle down (Ryder 2007: 2).

In other words, this campaign believes that globalization has led to higher levels of economic growth, even social progress, but that the distribution of these benefits has to be re-organised so that everybody can participate. At the session on International Trade Unionism for Decent Work at the World Social Forum on 21 January 2007, Guy Ryder affirmed the view that globalization is still not functioning for working people. [3] This was endorsed by a representative of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), who deplored the fact that the general situation for workers is worsening as a result of globalization. ‘Decent work’ and its focus on employment,
workers’ rights, social protection and social dialogue with employers and state institutions plus international organizations is regarded as the way to achieve a ‘fairer form of globalisation’ (ITUC 2007b). ‘Decent work’, it is argued, must become a part of trade agreements and the agenda of international organizations (Solidar 2007). Decent work ‘needs to guide all policies in the economic and social sphere, from development and welfare guidelines to macroeconomic and monetary policies to the regulation of trade, investment and finance’ (Ryder 2007). As a seasoned observer of labour internationalism remarked upon this initiative, it represents ‘an attempt to recreate the welfare state at the global level’. [4] What had been achieved in the developed world in the first three decades after the Second World War is now supposed to be established world-wide. Unsurprisingly, the focus of this initiative is almost exclusively on the work place, while social problems in the wider society are not addressed.

It is, however, questionable whether this strategy can have any chance of success. First, at a fundamental level, capitalism has always been characterised by combined, but uneven development internationally. A global welfare state presupposes, however, a certain coherence of development. Second, and closely related to the first point, as a result of uneven development, the global working class is fragmented and some fractions of labour are currently benefiting, while other lose out. It is not clear how the demand for decent work can overcome problems of transnational solidarity resulting from global neo-liberal restructuring. Third, if the contents of the Decent Work initiative reaches back to the post-war decades, so does the way the strategy is organised. Contributions by the panel at the session on International Trade Unionism for decent work at the World Social Forum on 21 January 2007 are illustrative in this respect. [5] There was a clear sense of hierarchy. The session was opened with the words that the audience should listen closely to, and learn from, what the eminent and highly experienced trade union leaders had to say. Luis Dulci from Brazil, one of the speakers, was introduced as important due to his role of adviser to Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, President of Brazil. In short, there was an emphasis on leaders at the top and, unsurprisingly, one of the issues discussed was how to integrate young trade unionists into the ranks of trade union leaders. Another reference back to past strategies was the emphasis on workers as the only important agents for change. Only Guy Ryder remarked in passing that unions needed to speak to friends in civil society and reach out to friends in politics. Otherwise, the ILO representative, for example, emphasised that it was workers who should push for high quality jobs and pressurise companies into organizing production in a socially responsible way. In other words, globalisation should be organised socially by trade unions, which are able to draw on their experience of collective action for this purpose. Finally, the suggested strategy focused on strengthening tripartite relationships with employers and the state, to be achieved by strong, independent and democratic trade unions. Strong trade unions were to be formed through a new internationalism, which combines national and international trade unions with the former incorporating more the international strategy in their efforts vis-à-vis their own governments. After all, as Guy Ryder points out, ‘we must ensure that the battle for decent work at the global level is being won in the national arena’ (Ryder 2007: 2).

On the other hand there was a group of more radical trade unionists and social movement activists, who focused on establishing a ‘Labour Network on and in the World Social Forum process’ (Proposal for a Labour Network, quoted in Waterman 2007: 4). Here, it is argued that in order to respond to the vicious attack on labour by neo-liberal globalisation, new alliances of forces are necessary, including unions, social movements and intellectuals. At the session Assembly on ‘Labour and Globalisation’ on 24 January, a representative of the Italian CGIL-public sector union argued that while a common platform was not necessary, co-operation with social movements through the development of common aims and objectives had to be the way forward despite the differences between trade unions and social movements. [6] A speaker of the New Trade Union Initiative, India pointed out that the working class had much to learn from social movements. The divisions within society, for example along gender lines, had to be addressed more effectively and co-operation with movements, which address these issues of discrimination, was the way forward. Pat Horn from Streetnet International stressed that trade unions needed to be encouraged to change their internal structure in order to be more open to the informal sector.

The basis of this co-operation between unions and social movements is, first, a wider understanding of labour, taking also into account the sphere of reproductive work as well as the informal sector. Hence, the two main challenges, in the words of the Indian representative of the New Trade Union Initiative, are the struggle against informality and the struggles on issues such as access to housing and education. The goal has to be the fight-back against TNCs and neo-liberal restructuring, as a representative of the Norwegian Municipal Workers’ Union declared, but this struggle goes beyond demands for rights at the work place, as demanded by the Decent Work Alliance, into the areas of informal work, gender discrimination, etc. Second, co-operation between unions and social movements is based on an understanding of the new dynamic of globalisation, with exploitation being extended beyond the sphere of production into the realm of reproduction. It is this expansion of the agenda, which makes co-operation with social movements, operating in these areas beyond the workplace, possible. At the same time, and this was noted by the representative of the French Union syndicale Solidaire, more work is still necessary on alternatives to the current neo-liberal order. The network, thus, is in many respects only a starting-point. It is intended to provide the space for exchanging experiences and information in order to ‘find a new transnational capacity for action’ (Proposal for a Labour Network, quoted in Waterman 2007: 4). The contents of, and strategies for, transnational action still need to be developed. In contrast to the Decent Work initiative, so far no clear strategy of action against neo-liberal restructuring has been formulated at the transnational level.

In sum, there are two, in many respects contrary, strategies forward. One has a clear organisational base, but looks back at the strategies of the post-war decades, the other is still in the process of establishing transnational links, but has acknowledged the wider, new implications of neo-liberal globalisation and, as a result, the requirements of a new strategy in response. What are the implications of these two strategies for labour internationalism and resistance to neo-liberal restructuring? My argument is that while contradictory at first sight, they can be combined in a more unified way forward. First, while the Decent Work initiative, even if it was successful, would not challenge capitalism more fundamentally, there are potential short-term gains to be obtained through it. The alliance itself is comparatively powerful, considering that the ITUC represents 168199402 workers in 304 affiliated unions in 153 countries and territories (ITUC, 24/02/2007, pdf format). This cannot be overlooked when thinking about resistance to neo-liberal globalisation. Moreover, this initiative speaks to the concerns of workers around the world and provides the opportunity to garner support. If short-term gains are obtained in some industrial sectors in some parts of the world, then this offers the possibility to recruit new members and involve the rank-and-file more actively in struggles. Of course, this does require a change in union internal structures. Established labour movements need to overcome this focus on hierarchical leadership, as shown at the WSF in Nairobi (see above). Furthermore, while potentially significant in the short-term, the Decent Work initiative must not be the endpoint of the strategy. Only if it is regarded as a first step towards a more drastic challenge to neo-liberal restructuring, can it actually challenge global capitalism more directly.

And there are reasons for hope. As outlined above, established labour rejects the neo-liberal rationale, which currently drives globalisation. It is this rejection, which can provide a common basis for co-operation with the second group, consisting of radical trade unions and social movements. Again, established trade unions need to restructure themselves internally. Not only do they need to give a stronger voice to the rank-and-file, they also need to open themselves up to co-operation with other social movements. They need to accept that workers in formal, secure employment are not the only agents of resistance. The very fact that the Decent Work initiative was launched at the WSF indicates that established trade unions are at least in principal open to this form of co-operation. Provided they do this, however, a unified strategy with the second group may emerge over time. This would allow to broaden the social basis for resistance against neo-liberal globalisation and in favour of an economy, where production is no longer organised around private property and wage labour. Of course, it is this longer-term aspiration, which needs to be much more clearly defined by radical trade unions and social movements alike.

Are there signs that such a combined strategy of established labour and more radical trade unions and social movements around shared short- and long-term goals is feasible? New developments are just at the beginning. Nonetheless, the World Social Forum in Nairobi did give reason for some hope in this respect. It was the powerful German metalworkers’ union IG Metall, which had organised two workshops, one on Trade union responsibility in transnational corporations, 21 January 2007, another on Co-operation or confrontation? Trade unions and NGOs, 23 January 2007. [7] These workshops indicated clearly that even established trade unions such as the IG Metall have started to think beyond the national framework towards issues of transnational solidarity as well as reflect seriously about co-operating with social movements. These are first steps, but steps which may provide an indication of things to come.


- ITUC (2007a), Decent Work Campaign Launched in Nairobi; 13/02/2007.
- ITUC (2007b), Ryder, Guy (2007) Making the Transition: How to move decent work from aspiration to attainment; accessed 13/02/2007.
- Ryder, Guy (2007) Making the Transition: How to move decent work from aspiration to attainment; accessed 13/02/2007.
- Solidar (2007) Nairobi Update: Migration and development debated in the context of decent work; 13/02/2007
- Waterman, Peter (2007) Labour at the World Social Forum, Nairobi, January 20 – 25, 2007: Reviving and Reinventing the Labour Movement as a Sword of Justice; accessed 13/02/2007.

[1] Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham/UK. His research is predominantly focused on understanding the current struggle over the future economic-political model of the European Union (EU) and the possibilities to resist neo-liberal restructuring. He is author of Globalisation and Enlargement of the European Union (Routledge, 2000) as well as The Struggle for a Social Europe: Trade unions and EMU in times of global restructuring (Manchester University Press, 2006).
[2] For a similar division, see Waterman (2007). He distinguishes between the Decent Work and Emancipation of Labour tendencies.
[3] Participant observation by the author at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.
[4] Peter Waterman in a conversation with the author.
[5] Participant observation by the author at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.
[6] Participant observation by the author at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.
[7] Participant observation by the author at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007

Prof. Andreas Bieler
School of Politics and International Relations,
University of Nottingham,
UK-Nottingham NG7 2RD,

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