At the annual meeting of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Brussels this week, we took a number of important decisions and had a number of heated debates. Probably the most significant was the at first glance bureaucratic decision to establish a new structure, an Arab sub-region. But it was in fact a deeply political decision.
Requested by the ITUC affiliates in the Arab countries, led by Tunisia’s Houcine Abbassi and Palestine’s Shaher Sae’d, the decision confirms an existing arrangement, but also requires participating unions to make a decisive break with the former International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU) which has for years been led by the official state trade unions of the dictatorships that ITUC affiliates have opposed.
Houcine, who recently brokered the transfer of power in Tunisia from the Islamist government to a technocratic/secular opposition, stressed that the move would help trade unions struggling to make something out of the now-tarnished Arab Spring. The new organisation puts democracy, workers’ rights and women’s rights at the heart of its principles. And as Australian trade union leader Dave Oliver pointed out, they haven’t exactly got a lot of time to put these issues front and centre.
The TUC and several other European trade union centres spoke out in favour of the new organisation, which we know needs our support against the forces of reaction in the region, whether religious or authoritarian. Trade unionists have taken leading roles in many of the struggles for freedom in the Middle East and North Africa but they have stressed the link between political and economic demands.
Workers in the region are facing increasing liberalisation and global competition, and it is the failure of the dictatorships to deliver security on these questions that have underpinned the democratic revolutions – and will undermine those revolutions too, if not addressed.
The heated debate at the ITUC General Council was not, of course, about whether to back the demands of Arab trade unionists on these issues, but on the impact on other structures in the ITUC (the new sub-region straddles ITUC Africa and ITUC Asia-Pacific.) But a majority backed the new structure, putting the politics ahead of the structural issues.