THE WORLD FEDERATION OF TRADE UNIONS IN HISTORY
By Gustavo Espinoza M. (*)
Greetings dear comrades!
The author of the article that I attach is former General Secretary of the CGTP of Perú. He is a writer and journalist. I leave his intervention for your consideration.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Louis Saillant served as the first President of the WFTU from 1945 to 1968. He was succeeded by Pierre Gensous. The current General Secretary of the WFTU is George Mavrikos. Further information can be found here: http://www.wftucentral.org.
“From all this must emerge the living reality of proletarian internationalism, the profound community of interests of all the workers of the world and the concrete possibility of realizing international trade union unity between trade union organizations that at the national level can be very different“.
In the history of the peoples, the struggle of the workers has always played a leading role. The class confrontation, its dynamics, and its own strength, have always been the backdrop of human development. The experience of the struggle of the peoples against oppression and violence has left an indelible mark in all the confines of the planet.
The history of the World Federation of Trade Unions, its origin, and its struggles, is linked to this process of development in which the strength of millions of men and women in all countries, has spurred the wheel of history. Let’s see!
BACKGROUND AND ORIGIN OF THE WFTU
When the World Federation of Trade Unions was founded in Paris on October 3, 1945, the rhythmic sound of cannons and shrapnel that had tormented the world since the fateful September 1939 when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland and started the Second Great War had not yet been extinguished. However, the Brown Beast had already been shot down, and the people–actors of that epic–were jubilantly celebrating the victory of peace and solidarity in great avenues.
A few days before, on September 25, 2003, the World Trade Union Conference began its work in the capital of France, which was to give birth to the International Classical Central of Workers.
At the head of the popular struggles against Nazi-fascism, the working class had fought enormous battles practically all over Europe. United socialists, communists, radicals, and many workers from other political stores, or without them, had marked history with blood and fire. And they were preparing to build a new world, in peace and with justice.
It is common to point out – as experts do – that the defeat of fascism in 1945 was a historic victory for all the forces of democracy and progress, led by the Soviet Union. But, above all, it was a triumph of the proletariat of the time; of the International Working Class which, in all the confines of the planet, knew how to rise up in defense of the dignity and life of the peoples.
It is known that, after the world conflagration unleashed in the period, the system of capitalist domination was severely weakened. In addition to the material destruction of cities, the razing of agricultural lands converted into battlefields, and the economic problems derived from the war: the epoch-making process of decolonization was added. Millions of men and women in Asia, Africa and Latin America opened the way to their independence and created the basis for their further development. The role of the workers was also decisive in that battle.
The beginning of this process of decolonization generated a series of economic and social problems in the great European metropolises. The colonial powers fed on the products of the countries tied to their iron fist. The breaking of that chain of domination generated shortage, unemployment and then migrations that today take considerable dimensions. At the time, these phenomena were not perceived in their real dimension. They surfaced later, when the colonial world sought to make its way into a wider scenario by disputing even with the Metropolis products and markets.
Since its inception, the new union organization – the WFTU – differed substantially from the pre-existing labor organizations. Instead of promoting “class collaboration” encouraged the struggle to ensure the ability of workers, committed to building a socialist society, as was already happening at that time and since 1917 in the Soviet Union. In that spirit, the WFTU designed the figure of socialism in the future scenario of the peoples, and worked in accordance with that purpose.
As noted in the sixth volume of the History of the Workers’ Movement published by Editorial Progreso, in 1981, “The founding of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was a great victory for proletarian internationalism and a success for the supporters of unity in the international workers’ movement. The WFTU was founded on the initiative of the revolutionary current in the labor movement, at the First World Congress of Trade Unions convened in late September 1945 in Paris. In its work participated delegates from unions in 56 countries representing 67 million workers” (1)
However, it must be recognized that the WFTU did not emerge as Pallas Athena from the thundering, embellished and composed head of Jupiter. She herself was the product of a long approach, processed by the unions of workers in major European countries engaged in international struggle against fascism. The Soviet Trade Unions and the British TUC played a leading role in this task.
Rubén Íscaro, the prominent Argentine trade unionist, recalls that it was in 1941, when German bombs were raining down on old London, that the Congress of British Trade Unions met in Edinburgh to establish contact with the Central Council of Soviet Trade Unions “with a view to cooperation in the struggle against the war” (2). The links between the British Walter Citrine and the Russian Nikolai Shvernik constituted the beginning of an understanding that would be projected in time, and that would play a decisive role in that October of 1945.
That exchange, furthermore, marked the collapse of the old pre-war labor organization – the International Trade Union Federation of Amsterdam – whose leaders proved incapable of keeping up with the times and leading workers’ struggles against war and fascism.
The emergence of an Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee in 1942 affirmed the course taken in a context marked by the generalization of the war and the opening of the German military front against the USSR. Years later, in February 1945, the International Trade Union Conference met in London. This process, however, was affected by contradictions of various kinds but on whose basis were underlying ideological and political differences regarding the role and tasks of the working class.
THE NEW CORRELATION OF FORCES IN EUROPE
The international European scenario was already defined at that time. The defeat of fascism was only the prelude to a vigorous victory for the Soviet Union. The USSR not only defeated the Hitlerite hordes militarily; at the same time, it liberated a large part of Eastern Europe and even the central part of the old continent.
In several countries governments of progressive orientation emerged that later derived in true popular democracies. Those victories were affirmed in the heroic resistance deployed on their soil by the workers and peoples determined to defeat Hitler’s rule. In such struggles, the virtually clandestine trade unions and their political vanguards came to play a predominant role.
In Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania. Albania, Yugoslavia, and eastern Germany, it was possible to lay the foundations for the creation of a more just and humane social order, of a socialist kind. But this did not happen in the Scandinavian countries. Nor did it happen in the Netherlands or Belgium, and even less so in France and Italy. The most western part of Europe -Spain and Portugal- was still in the hands of fascist-style regimes that would be overthrown many years later.
In the heart of Europe, real Popular Fronts in France and Italy opened the way for anti-fascist coalition governments with the participation of different political forces in the highest spheres of power. Prestigious for their heroic struggle, the communist parties -with very strong working class roots- achieved a leading role that frightened the national bourgeoisies of both countries, which resorted to the support of the United States to protect the interests of big capital.
In this context, it was the recently liberated France and the Paris of the Commune of 1871 that welcomed the representatives of the immense pleiad of social fighters from all corners of the planet. There, the voice of Louis Saillant greeted the builders of the union unity of the workers of a world reborn from its ashes.
The founding Congress of the WFTU laid the foundations for the emergence of a powerful international trade union structure, but also defined guidelines and principles, and collected the contribution and experiences of workers who came from different scenarios of the social process.
In Paris, in fact, there were the delegates of the Soviet trade unions, many of them defenders of the Socialist Fatherland on the battlefields; but also representatives of the workers of European countries subjected for several decades to the Nazi opprobrium. This was the situation, above all, of the workers of Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and others, in which for many years extremely reactionary and repressive regimes reigned. In those countries, since the 1920s and 1930s, one could not speak of trade unionism, nor did independent trade union and class structures exist. The hard-working and heroic resistance obrera¸ was illegal and secret, and it cost many lives of each of those peoples.
Representing the emerging Latin American trade union movement, workers’ representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama met in the capital of France. Vicente Lombardo Toledano, an emblematic figure of the continental workers’ movement, was there to represent the CTAL, the Confederation of Latin American Workers, which had emerged shortly before from Mexico.
However, representatives of US unions that were led by old cliques addicted to the rule of the imperialist monopolies also arrived in the former Lutetia. They arrived in France above all to learn what was being born and to study how to confront the phenomenon, in order to weaken the international workers’ movement and sterilize their struggles.
THE CLASS AGGRESSION OF THE CAPITALISTS
The great capitalists and their political representatives could not be oblivious to these events that were opening up a new face to the world of the time. They began earlier, since the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) accused the British unions of “having made a pact with the Reds”; but they achieved a greater dynamic in the task of weakening the unitary effort of the workers, after the rise of Harry Truman to the government of the United States and the beginning of what would later be called “the cold war,” that is, the pretext for beginning an economic, political and social offensive against Soviet power and the unitary strength of the workers.
It was the Marshall Plan, the master tool used to undermine the class consciousness of European workers and open up a process of confrontation that would finally lead to the breakdown of trade union unity as early as 1949. At the time, the forces most closely linked to the US government and its operational mechanisms put forward the idea that the Marshall Plan was merely an aid to the European peoples affected by the war.
Although the nascent WSF chose not to condemn the Marshall Plan initially, leaving the unions in each country almost free to choose the most appropriate resolutions at their juncture, this decision was not enough. In 1947, and under the influence of Irving Brown – a well-known U.S. secret service agent – the formation of a new International Trade Union Center was promoted. For this purpose, the U.S. government had only $ 1,500,000 to split the CTAL and thus undermine the foundations of the WFTU (3)
Thus, in the scenario created in this way, in 1949 the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions – the ICFTU – was constituted, which came to be considered the trade union structure most closely linked to Big Capital.
The division, however, was not only a violent cut at the highest summit of trade union power. In each country, intense divisive work was observed, which destroyed the unity of the workers’ centers in various countries. Thus, in France, the CGT was torn apart. What also happened with the Italian Confederation of Labor – the CGIL – In Latin America, to break up the CTAL, the so-called Inter-American Regional Labor Organization – the ORIT – was created, which is a disastrous event in our continent.
THE HARD YEARS OF STRUGGLE OF THE WFTU
Practically from then on, the World Federation of Trade Unions was attacked from two sides. On the one hand, it was harassed by the capitalists through their instruments of action. On the other, it was besieged by the reformist sectors that, colluded with “yellow unionism” offered their forces for the benefit of their bosses, weakening the capacity of action of class-based unionism.
The World Federation of Trade Unions maintained its activity from its headquarters in Paris until 1953, when it was forced to change its headquarters. Between 1953 and 1956 it functioned in Vienna, the capital of Austria; but in 1956 it moved its attention to Prague, where it functioned for a long period, between 1956 and 2005. From 2006, the WFTU worked in Athens.
In all these years, the work of the WFTU was complex and full of challenges. The main battle, on the world stage, was the struggle for peace and against war; for unity, solidarity and brotherhood among peoples; for social justice and against the policy of sucking up the monopolies; for the strengthening of trade unions and respect for the achievements of workers and the preservation of their rights; for the elimination of capitalist exploitation, the end of monopolies, and recognition of the sovereignty of states; against colonialism and its expressions of domination over peoples and nations; and for the integration of native populations and respect for their cultures.
The battle against unemployment and unemployment, the fight for decent wages and decent and compatible working conditions, the defense of the rights of women and children, the defense of human rights and the preservation of public and trade union freedoms, against repression and torture, the confrontation and condemnation of the murderous regimes on various continents, and full solidarity with the workers, peasants and students where it is indispensable, were in a way the big issues that moved the WFTU in all these years.
Its leaders throughout this process were Louis Saillant, Pierre Gensous, Sándor Gaspar, Enrique Pastorino, Ibrahim Zakaria and Alexander Zharikov. They attended with responsible diligence the issues raised to the unions at the international level. They visited countries, participated in events, promoted actions, received delegations, were in trade union congresses, spoke openly about all the problems.
Those of us who had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the WFTU in this period in compliance with our union responsibilities, we remember especially the French Pierre Gensous, the Hungarian Sándor Gaspar, and the Sudanese Zakaria. With them we had the opportunity to share ideas between 1969 and the 80s. We were aware of their concerns, listened to their ideas, received their advice and opinions and always expressed to them frankly and directly our observations gathered from the struggle of the workers in our countries.
The union leaders of Latin America still have in their memory our meetings with the comrades who attended the region: the Spaniards Aparicio and Aliaga; the Chileans Juan Campos and Mario Navarro; they were attentive to our appreciations and requirements, and they guided with wisdom and criteria, the actions of our organizations.
The WFTU played a prominent role in Europe but projected its action in other scenarios of the planet. Its condemnation of General Suharto’s fascist coup, which overthrew President Sukarno and deployed a brutal offensive against the Indonesian people; the campaign of solidarity with the Vietnamese people in the years of war against US aggression; solidarity with Cuba, the permanent flag of the peoples; and the systematic denunciation of the war plans of the Empire, were always notable.
The Congresses of the WFTU were a real school for the trade union leaders of all countries. In Budapest (1969), Varna (1974) Prague (1978) Havana (1981) were an inexhaustible source of proposals and ideas that filled with messages to workers of all countries, guided the struggles, designed strategies and pointed out proposals to advance the broader plans.
In the Annual Conferences of the International Labor Organization, the WFTU was always present – Comrade D’Angeli guided the tasks, advised the positions, coordinated the actions with quality and commitment.
The fall of the USSR and the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe was a severe blow to the international trade union movement, and also to the WFTU. The biggest loss, of course, is the disappearance of the Central Council of Soviet Trade Unions, but also the weakening of vigorous trade union centers in France and Italy and the loss of class positions in the trade union structures of other countries.
In some cases, the confusion played a predominant role in the weakening of union structures in different countries. But in others, it was the work of the enemy that severely struck the proletarian consciousness.
THE WFTU IN LATIN AMERICA
Since the years of CTAL, the WFTU was in our continent. But it shone with its own light in the 60s and 70s, when the influence of the Cuban Revolution made flesh in the region.
Thanks to the influence of Cuba, the region stopped being a simple granary of the big American companies and became a real battlefield where the people developed many actions.
It was precisely solidarity with Cuba that was present in the continental concert. But it also opened the way to solidarity with the struggles of the Brazilian people. This allowed a Latin American Trade Union Congress to be held in Brazil in those years. There, in the task of accumulating forces to forge a Latin American Trade Union Central, a coordination and solidarity office was formed, which was called the Permanent Congress of Trade Union Unity of Latin American Workers – CPUSTAL – which functioned in Chile until 1973, with the support of Chilean comrades and the active participation of trade union leaders from Venezuela and Uruguay. Martin J. Ramírez, from Venezuela, and Roberto Prieto, from Uruguay, together with the Chilean Héctor Santibáñez, played a fundamental role in the task.
Due to the circumstances experienced in the continent, it was not easy to ensure membership in the WFTU of some trade union centers. The powerful Central Unica de Trabajadores de Chile – the CUT – failed to join the WFTU. Neither did the PIT-CNT in Uruguay. The COB in Bolivia maintained its neutrality in terms of international affiliation. Only the CTC of Cuba and the CGTP of Peru ensured its direct affiliation, which allowed us, from 1969 to have a seat on the General Council of the WFTU that was honorably covered by our comrade Isidoro Gamarra Ramirez, President of the Peruvian Trade Union Central at that time.
The CGTP of Peru, since its reconstitution in June 1968, was linked to the WFTU. CGTP joined WFTU and coordinated tasks and events of significant importance. Therefore, assessing the role of the WFTU, in the Theses of the IV National Congress of the CGTP, held in March 1976, it is stated that: “Today, the World Federation of Trade Unions is defined as an organization and of the masses, and therefore democratic. Its anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist character, makes it stand resolutely on the side of the workers and their desire for greater welfare, peace, freedom, democracy and national independence” (4)
However, in light of the example and message of the WFTU, it was possible to work hard to bring to workers the general content of the positions of the WFTU in the world plan.
The hard work of Lazaro Peña in Cuba, Cruz Villegas and Hemmy Croes in Venezuela, Pastor Perez and Roso Osorio in Colombia, Luis Figueroa in Chile, Simon Reyes in Bolivia, Luis Iguini in Uruguay and many other comrades in all countries of the region, affirmed this will.
The fight against fascism was of special importance in our continent. It allowed us to confront the Brazilian military dictatorship of Casthello Branco, which in 1964 broke the weak democracy in that country, overthrowing the government of Joao Goulart; and the coups of June 73 and September of the same year, in Uruguay and Chile, respectfully; as well as the rise of the cruel dictatorship of Videla in Argentina since 1976; they generated a dangerous scenario for the workers and peoples and forced the unions of the region to wage struggles in the most adverse conditions.
The struggle, however, has not been easy. With the crisis of socialism on the world stage, certain positions of a social democratic nature took hold that denied the flags of struggle of the WFTU. Under the argument of “renewal” and “modernization” of the unions, today there are those who, with the material and financial support of NGOs linked to USAID, Social Democracy or International Christian Democracy, preach theories contrary to class unionism and promote in various events a different direction to that encouraged by the WFTU. Obsessively seek to distance it from the trade union organizations in the region, and even disaffiliate from it
As part of that “message” they maintain that the class struggle no longer exists; that modern trade unionism is not of confrontation, but of agreement; that it is not the time for threats, but of dialogue; that it is not necessary to raise a trade unionism of protest, but of proposal.
The fact that at the international level has disappeared both the CIOLS and the World Confederation of Labour, of Social Christian orientation, and that both have united in a single international structure, should not be taken as a “step forward” in trade union coordination, but only as a way to always confront the class positions of the WFTU.
To all this, we must always face it.
BEFORE NEW TASKS
The new century found a new context in our continent. Practically from the beginning of the 21st century, the light has appeared, once again in our continent. In Venezuela, the Bolivarian emancipation process emerged, which today is outlined as the most important social process in South America. But in Brazil and Argentina, progressive forces have threatened the Imperial Power. In Nicaragua, since 2007 the Sandinista Front has retaken the government, which is building a new society. And today, hard struggles are unfolding in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Chile.
The tasks of the WFTU are set. The new union cadres have the duty to join forces, to unite broader sectors, to win for the cause of workers, the middle sectors of the population, to update the programs of struggle of workers, but keeping up the class flags that we inherited from the old generations.
Objectively, in most countries of the region, the union movement is intact and ready for battle.
(*) Gustavo Espinoza M. was General Secretary of the General Confederation of Workers of Peru (CGTP) (1969-1976)
1) The International Labor Movement. Volume 6. Editorial Progreso. Moscow 1987
2) Ruben Iscaro. History of the Union Movement. Volume 1. Editorial Sciences of the Man. Buenos Aires. Argentina. 1973
4) Thesis IV CGTP Congress. Ediciones CGTP, Lima. March 1976