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Labour Last Updated: Feb 2, 2024 - 2:09:50 PM

The time is now to make the ITUC a truly democratic organisation
By Victor Baez, GLC 6/3/23
Mar 6, 2023 - 2:32:54 PM

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Since December last year, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has been going through the worst crisis in its history. Almost daily in the press we are reminded of the sequence of events that detonated this downward spiral: the fact that the recently elected ITUC general secretary, Luca Visentini, admitted having received thousands of euros in cash from a foundation supported by Qatari and Moroccan money. It is comical to read that the governments of those two countries donate funds to fight impunity and very hard to believe that someone believes that that was the real intention behind the donations.

The confederation was slow to respond but eventually decided to set up a special commission and an external auditing process that will look into these events and report back to its general council on 11 March. As I trust the independence and integrity of the commission, it is not appropriate to express any judgement until we know the precise findings of the investigation.

However, there is an important element missing from many opinions that I have heard and read in the past weeks. We tend to think of corruption solely as the act of a selfish individual – the proverbial bad apple – and forget about the conditions that allow it to thrive. This is often a combination of factors such as concentration of power in one person, weak processes of checks and balances, bendy rules, insufficient transparency and, more importantly, the lack of real democracy in decision making.

In 2018, in the aftermath of the ITUC congress in Copenhagen, many unionists insisted that I should become part of the elected leadership of the confederation as its deputy general secretary. The elections that year resulted in two opposing blocks of affiliates that threatened to tear the organisation apart. As I was on the losing side, the rationale was that my presence would mend some of those differences. After a strong initial reluctance I ended up accepting the proposal based on the promises of transparency and internal democracy in the hope of making my contribution to the labour movement.

Of course I had expected many challenges in taking up the role. But nothing had prepared me for what I had experienced in the subsequent three years: a top-down organisation that would make the Chinese politburo look like a self-sustained hippie commune. It was the textbook example of the parenting phrase ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Surely, democracy was being preached to the outside world but none of it was being tolerated within.

The constitution of the ITUC sets out its managing structure, with an elected leadership group, as well as the general council and the executive bureau for a continuous oversight – with a congress every four years as its supreme authority. At least that is the theory. The practice was that the general secretary from 2010 to 2022, Sharan Burrow, amassed a tremendous amount of power to herself.

Although we were a team of four leaders based in Brussels, the three deputy general secretaries had little or no say in the bulk of policy decisions and were assigned mostly admin tasks. One of them was relegated to oversee affiliation applications. Another one took care of human resources and some financial responsibilities. As for myself, my roles were narrowed down over the months and, in the end, were limited to relations with Latin American unions. In more than three years I counted no more than five formal meetings of the general secretary with the deputy general secretary. I was forced to put my opinions forward in the all-staff gatherings or in the management team meetings, where they were disregarded systematically.

Worse still, the general council was tricked into being a rubber stamp for the general secretary. Before its yearly meetings, a handful of staffers would prepare, under the close supervision of Burrow, a report where the actual decisions for each point of the agenda were already made, so council members were simply asked to ‘endorse’ it. The president chairing the meeting was asked to only read a script in front of him. This political theatre also worked for financial reporting to the executive bureau.

By side-lining the deputy leaders and the council, the General Secretary was given free rein to rule however she wanted. Sadly, the unrestricted power made her slowly drift towards the glamorous VIP meeting rooms of the super-rich. Perhaps seduced by the PR machine of the world’s elite and corporations, she accepted becoming the co-chair of the World Economic Forum several times and joined the board of the B-Team – a group founded by English tycoon, Richard Branson, seen by some environmentalists as mere business propaganda.

Burrow would argue that she was simply advocating for labour rights in places where our voices were not being heard. But the problem is that she was not rubbing shoulders with the powerful in her personal capacity, but representing the ITUC and its affiliates. Those unions certainly were never given the chance to debate whether it was a good idea to associate the movement with the Davos aristocracy. Additionally, there has never been any concrete result - let alone positive outcomes - from this strategy other than seriously damaging our reputation with our own rank and files members.

The most visible consequence of this absolute power insanity came back to haunt us all. It is of course Burrow’s decision to radically change her opinion over labour rights in Qatar. In less than four years, the ITUC general secretary shifted from considering the Gulf state a ‘country without a conscience’ to promote it as a place where ‘workers can achieve justice’. Burrow seems to forget that she denounced that migrant workers were coming back home in coffins only a few years back. Now she refutes her own allegations as a myth.

Once again, the affiliates of the ITUC were never given a chance to properly debate whether they believed that a dictatorship with no freedom of association could ever be considered a friend of labour. Instead, they had to accept that Burrow would negotiate on behalf of migrant workers with no right to organise themselves – inaugurating an international version of the Mexican protection contracts made by yellow unions without the consent of workers.

Just as with all experiences of autocracies, the legacy of this style of leadership is devastating. The movement is more divided than ever, its reputation is in tatters and its financial sustainability is at risk.

Burrows’ successor, who has been the candidate of her choice and got her strong support, has been suspended, leaving the confederation without a leader for many months. Tragically, she also pushed through the decision to sell the International Trade Union House in central Brussels before leaving, resulting in the main trade union body in the world becoming homeless.

During my time at ITUC I attempted to raise these concerns in every way I could but my pleas and complaints fell on deaf ears. I slowly perceived that I was being ostracised as retaliation for being too vocal. Eventually I realised that staying would mean complicity, so I resigned from my position. Nevertheless, I never gave up hope that the confederation would turn around. In the last discussion we had with Burrow, she accused me of trying to divide the ITUC because I did not support Visentini´s candidacy for general secretary. The rules forbid us to campaign for candidates.

I dedicated most of my life to the union movement and it deeply saddens me that an organisation that I help to build came to this low point. But I can see clearly now that an invaluable opportunity has opened up for our members to take back control of their own confederation and make it democratic. On 11 March, it is up to the general council to decide the future of the ITUC. And for the first time in more than a decade, this decision will not be made beforehand for them.

This is the last chance. Let’s not miss it. The world is divided again and the only way to keep one undivided labour movement is to concentrate on the rights of the workers of all over the world, with democracy, transparency and full participation of all of its members.    

Source:Ocnus.net 2023

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