Just Jobs Depend on a Strong Labor Movement

International Organizations Must Adapt to Changing Conditions

This column is part of the Just Jobs project at the Center for American Progress.

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.

One way the movement can adapt is to be more democratic and inclusive. Unions from developed countries largely dominate the international trade union movement and the ITUC in particular. These unionists hold more power in international trade union movements due to historical reasons, alliance building, and because they make larger financial contributions.

But the internationalization of capital, industry, and labor markets, coupled with a shift of the world’s economic points of gravity to emerging countries such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and other nations rich in natural resources and energy make it essential that global unions seek stronger input from nations in the south to revitalize the international labor movement. Unions from outside the traditional northern powers are increasingly critical of the status quo and they are currently mobilizing to gain greater clout in the ITUC and the Global Union Federations.

Developed country trade unions may view the granting of more power to the international labor movement—and particularly a movement with strong representation of developing country unions—as a loss of power. And it may appear that way in the short term. But in the long run, this would boost the legitimacy of the institutions’ international solidarity while also increasing the movement’s mobilizing edge and therefore collective strength in the face of government and employers.

The international trade union movement’s strength is first and foremost a product of its national power. Trade unions differ in their use of tools, means of protest, and choice of battleground. Several factors affect labor’s national strength but key among them are labor’s internal strength of organization, focus on and vigor in collective bargaining, and ability to combine political strategies and lobbying with a focus on collective bargaining.

The labor movements that have managed to build or protect their strength most over the past decades have often found their source of strength in such factors. Such factors may also provide building blocks for a stronger international trade union movement and one with more focus on mobilization and collective strength as a basis for campaigns. The movement’s ability to build alliances with other groups in civil society and successfully develop strategies to organize the informal sector will also become critical for its strength and legitimacy.

At the end of the day, however, trade unions will be judged by their ability to improve the wages and working conditions of their members. And the same criteria for success will also apply to the international trade union movement that must do its share to help deliver just jobs around the world.

Liv Torres has background from the Institute for Applied Social Science, or Fafo, and the political science department at the University of Oslo. She published a book on the international trade union movement in October 2010, Bak Fanene, which is currently being translated to English.

This column is part of the Just Jobs project at the Center for American Progress.