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Statist unions wither away.

Statist Unions Wither Away

A ticklish problem confronts protocol experts in Moscow. From November 13 to November 20 the congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions convenes in the Soviet capital. Listed among its member confederations are unions from both Iraq and Kuwait. Will the Iraqie be allowed to represent the toiling masses of Kuwait? Or worse, will the Iraqi members seek W.F.T.U. support for a resolution condemning the United Nations for its brazen attempt to interfere in internal Iraqi affairs?

The W.F.T.U., launcned with fanfare in Paris in 1945 to unite the world's unions, is now in considerable disarray. Depicted in cold war terminology as a propaganda trumpet for Soviet policy and ideology, the W.F.T.U. has representatives from non-Communist countries in which unions are part of the state apparatus. Many Arab and African unions are members. Emirs and lifetime presidents may eschew Communism, but they welcome the Leninist principle of government-party control of the labor movement.

The November congress, convened to celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of the federation, will be said affair. The main unions in eastern Europe have quit. W.F.T.U. training schools for Third World Trade unionists in east Germany and Czechoslovakia have closed down. Its principal affiliate in the West, France's Confederation Generale du Travail, has sunk to barely 700,000 members out of a total work force of 26 million.

Perhaps the biggest crisis facing the W.F.T.U. is the future course of trade unionism in the Soviet Union and its current (but for how long?) republics. At its recent congress, the once monolithic, centralized All Union Central Council of Trade Unions (A.U.C.C.T.U.) re-formed itself as a confederatio, with its constituent industrial unions theoretically free to do as they please. A younger, pro-Gorbachev leadership is emerging in some unions, representing a shift in power from one faction of he nomenklatura to another.

It is not that rank-and-file Soviet workers have voted to become independent but that Gorbachev has ordered the unions to cut themselves loose from their democratic centralist moorings. In theory, the official Soviet labor movement represents 142 million workers, a sizable bloc that could be wielded against economic reform. Thousands of trade union officials, who have for decades been no more than political personnel managers in the factories, now have to work out their future and decide what alliances to make to guarantee their own standard of living.

The warm embrace of unemployment by "radical" Soviet economists as the preferred market mechanism to enforce productivity also strikes at the trade union base inside the Soviet Union. So if the Soviet trade unions were to move into the opposition camp and become defenders of workers' jobs and incomes, their differences with their Western counterparts would become less clear-cut. And if the A.U.C.C.T.U. disavows its subordination to the state, its alliance with W.F.T.U. affiliates from, say, Vietnam or Ethiopia becomes more and more odd.

Two further problems loom on the horizon for the Soviet labor confederation as it grapples with the future of the W.F.T.U. First, its own days may be numbered. More than 300 independent labor organizations have now been set up in the Soviet Union, the best known being the breakaway mineworkers' union. Second, the Chinese trade union confederation, which has not taken part in W.F.T.U. affairs since the Sino-Soviet split thirty years ago, is now talking about reactivating its membership. The Chinese authorities, horrified at the evidence of worker involvement in the pro-democracy movement, may seek to reassert the federation's profile as a state-oriented international labor body grouping unions in the South against the "imperialists" of the North.

In Moscow itself, Soviet trade Union officials tell visitors that, in any case, they are "fed up with paying for all the blacks--uncoded language for the Third World affiliates of the W.F.T.U. The Soviet trade unions and the old-style Eastern European unions still run by nomenklatura functionaries desperately want to link up with Western European labor organizations and will jettison any lingering notions of Communist solidarity with darker-skinned comrades in the process.

Forty years ago, many Western trade unions walked out of the W.F.T.U., claiming that it was being used to promote Soviet policies, especially against Marshall Plan aid, and to support Communist unionism that either sougth to replace colonial with Wommunist rule in the Third World or advocated statist instead of market economies in Western Europe and Japan. One might suppose that the Western trade unions would now be congtratulating themselves on having "won" their segment of the total war. But if the W.F.T.U. is in disarray, the international acvities of the Western unions face even greater challenges.

The march to capitalism in Eastern Europe is causing immense social dislocation. Mexican-style maquiladora economies are on the rise in Poland and Hungary. It is now harder for Poles to travel from free Poland to the West than it was in the days of totalitarian Communism, so scared are Western Europeans of allowing Poles, hungry for jobs and hard currency, across the Oder-Neisse line. After thirty-five years of training, the Austrian Army is finally seeing action--patrolling Austria's borders to keep out Romanians looking for work.

Matsushita now buses in poor workers from eastern Germany to work on an hourly basis assembling electronic products as its western German factories. Their wages are half those of western German workers.

In Linz, Austria, in September, at a conference of labor historians, Grant Adebikov of the Moscow Institute of Marxism-Leninism talked of the huge mistake made in the 1920s when Soviet trade unions were subordinated to central party and government congrol and lost all independence. "The tragedy after 1945 was that this Stalinist-Trotskyist form of trade unionism was imposed by the Red Army on the workers of Eastern Europe with the disastrous consequences we can now see," he added.

If you close your eyes, the arguments and language are not so different from those advanced by A.F.L. leaders Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown as they launched their crusade in the late 1940s against Communist unions and the W.F.T.U.

Now the reds have been routed. But will the victory turn to ashes as the decline of Communist unions leads not to the rise of free unions but to the spread of de-unionization or a growth in company-oriented and pliant unionism with no social vision beyond the wage packet? The East-West labor conflict is over, but conditions are not propitious for creating effective North-South international labor dialogue and solidarity. That is the new task for unions that are serious about their business. Celebrating the last rites of the W.F.T.U. in Moscow will only reveal the immensity of the challenges that lie ahead.

Denis MacShane works for the Geneva-based International Metalworkers Federation. His book International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War will be published by Oxford University Press in 1991.
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Title Annotation:World Federation of Trade Unions conference
Author:MacShane, Denis
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 26, 1990
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