The quest for just jobs—jobs that include labor rights, appropriate compensation, social protections such as health care and pensions, and opportunities for economic mobility—is an important priority for many governments and labor movements around the world. But many challenges confront the right to organize and collectively bargain at a time when workers need these rights the most. The labor movement must do its share to successfully create just jobs worldwide, and a strong labor movement is critical to making this happen.
Can the movement deliver for the world’s workers? The international trade union movement is unrivalled in its mobilization ability. No other group can wield such political power by simply threatening to take collective action. Trade unions are the bulwark of some of the world’s strongest political parties and they’ve made a lasting imprint on the thinking of the entire political spectrum. They’ve spearheaded some of the major political and social changes in recent history. And labor has become more united politically at both the international and national levels over the past decades.
There is little doubt that the international trade union movement today is markedly different from the bureaucratic cold war machinery that many unions in developing countries are critical of. The International Trade Union Confederation, or ITUC, now has its first female secretary general and it has mobilized heavily to include a better representation of workers in the south. Moreover, the global trade union movement has made considerable progress achieving global framework agreements with multinational corporations and getting child labor and forced labor on the agenda for negotiations with both international institutions and corporations. At the same time, the trade union movement is losing members and faces marginalization in many countries.
Globalization is also challenging labor. New internationalized labor markets, economic problems in many countries, and most recently the financial crisis are all threatening to weaken labor’s position. A more open economy and the growing financial power of multinational companies are increasingly challenging the trade unionism that emerged in the framework of the nation state. Making matters worse, many governments are pursuing policies to undermine the labor movement.
All this helps explain the steady decline of trade union membership in many advanced economies and labor’s limited leverage at the international level. Building a stronger organization of labor at the international level means that labor must adapt its strategies, course, and ability to renew itself according to an altered global landscape.
For more on this topic please see: