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Back to Front – Workers of the world


Remember the World Federation of Trade Unions? Established in 1945, it created a world trade union organisation to represent the working class of the world just as the United Nations was to represent the nations of the world following the defeat of fascism. It supported the anti-fascist forces in post- war Greece and Spain and was responsible for many countries withdrawing their ambassadors from Franco's Spain.

In 1949, at the height of the Cold War, the British TUC supported by the US labour federation, the CIO, walked out of the organisation – creating a split in the world trade union movement that has lasted to this day. The divisive issue was the US Marshall Plan. In the interests of unity the organisation did not put it to a vote; however, the splitters persisted.

The British and US trade union centres then set up the rival International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), as an anti-communist opponent of the WFTU, to promote Cold War politics by attacking the role of the trade unions in socialist countries. Within the British TUC and unions, there were bans on communists and 'fellow travellers' holding office, even in the trades councils. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ICFTU continues with such activities to this day.

It used every trick in the book to ensnare the South African unions into its web in the early 1990s, knowing that there were many communists in the COSATU leadership. It abused the ILO to try and punish Cuba's CTC union centre over so-called 'independent' unions in Cuba, and supported the Venezuelan CTV trade union centre whose leadership was actively involved in the attempted coup d'etat in that country. It has now merged with the World Confederation of Labour, an anti-communist trade union centre established by the Catholic Church and active in Latin America.

Meanwhile, the WFTU suffered severely following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had become too dependent on the Soviet trade unions and was stereotyped by the existence of Cold War blocs. Now, following the success of its 15th Congress held in Havana in December 2005, a reinvigorated WFTU has emerged. The congress, which saw representation from more than 250 trade unions from 71 countries, hammered out the 'Havana Consensus', defining its policy objectives and strategy.

There were union delegations from all over the world. Conspicuous by its absence was the British TUC – which said it could not attend as it was attending the Cosatu Congress in South Africa. Yet Cosatu had a high-profile delegation at the WFTU Congress.

The 25-point Havana Consensus described the urgent situation facing trade unions and the working class across the world, also the networks needed to strengthen unity. It reasserted the founding principles of the WFTU from 60 years ago: "We must confront the predatory logic of the capitalist and imperialist system, as it is an illusion to confine oneself to addressing only its excesses!"

Now may be a useful time to reflect on the history of our TUC after its break from the WFTU and compare where the two differing analyses of our world have led.