RadioLabour banner

The Global Labour Movement
A Short Overview

Working people and their unions are represented at the global level by many unionists working in a number of international labour organizations. Because the structure of the international labour movement is not taught in our schools or widely discussed in the mainstream media, it can be difficult to understand how it all works. We have prepared this short overview to help RadioLabour listeners have a better understanding of the international labour movement. We hope it encourages you to participate in the work of the movement - because you're needed.


Where it all begins

The centre of the labour movement is the workplace.

Everything the movement does stems from the problems workers face in their workplaces and how solutions for those problems are sought. Some problems are handled at the local level by shop stewards and local union executives, possibly with the aide of union staff. Others issues, such as inadequate minimum wages, are tackled by local union activists working with union staff and leaders to lobby legislators. Very often unionists will participate in political campaigns which will help workers and their families. And as the pace of globalization increases, many problems, such as the effects of trade agreements, are being addressed by union leaders at the international level. In the end though the test of the labour movement's efforts is the improvement of wages and working conditions of the members in the workplace - because that is what it was built to do.

The structure

The structural hierarchy of the labour movement has a number of levels. At the workplace employees may be part of a local union, branch or unit. These entities are most often part of national labour unions. The national labour unions can be affiliated to national confederations of unions which are grouping of unions such as the AFL-CIO in the United States, the Trades Union Congress in the UK, and RENGO in Japan. National unions may also be affiliated to international labour organizations focused on particular work sectors such as public services or transportation.

National confederations of unions such as the AFL-CIO or the Ghana Trades Union Congress may be members of the body which represents labour at the global level: the International Trade Union Confederation – the ITUC.


The ITUC represents some 180 million workers who are members of 325 national confederations in 161 countries and territories. Very few organizations – not Greenpeace, not Amnesty International, not the World Social Forum (as important as they are) – have the global reach and resources of the international labour movement.

As well as organizing global campaigns in support of workers the ITUC presents the case for workers rights to organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization and the G8 or G20 meetings.

The top governing body of the ITUC is its "Congress" which meets every four years. The third ITUC Congress will be held in Berlin, May 18 to 22, 2014.

(There are some other international labour confederations much smaller than the ITUC, such as the World Federation of Trade Unions [WFTU] which purport to represent unions at the world level. But except in a few very particular circumstances they are inconsequential.)

The global union federations

The international labour organizations which represent national unions in particular work sectors are the nine global union federations (often referred to with the inelegant acronym: GUFs). They are:

Working closely with the global union federations is the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) based in Paris. The OECD consists of mostly economically rich countries. TUAC acts as the economics unit of the labour movement. It helps the ITUC, the global union federations and national labour confederations prepare cases presented to international bodies such as the WTO. A particularly important part of TUAC's work is aimed at helping unions use the OECD's Guidelines for Multinational Entreprises. The Guidelines can be used with companies even if the issue being addressed is related to a country that does not adhere to the Guidelines.

TUAC, the ITUC and the global union federations are members of the Council of Global Unions which acts as a coordinating body to encourage cooperation and common projects amongst its member organizations.

Regional organizations

The ITUC and many of the global union federations have regional structures. For example the ITUC has four regional organizations: ITUC Africa, ITUC Asia-Pacific, the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) and ITUC PERC (the Pan European Regional Council). The ITUC also has a regional forum for unions working in 10 Arabic-speaking countries. There are other regional labour organizations that are not affiliated to the ITUC such as the Organization of Trade Union Unity (OATUU) based in Ghana and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Working internationally

The national confederations of unions are actively internationally in various ways. Most of them have international departments which liaise with organizations such as the ITUC or the global union federations. The economically richer of them may operate projects aimed at helping workers in developing countries. Many larger national unions also have international departments or staff people appointed to handle international responsibilities and projects.

Increasingly the labour movement is organizing international campaigns to support local struggles, especially against multinational corporations. The ITUC and the global union federations often run online support campaigns on their websites or use the services of LabourStart – the labour movement's news and campaigning service. RadioLabour supports these efforts in its daily newscasts and special audio reports.

New unions

Some labour organizations such as the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) are international only in the sense that they have local unions in both the United States and Canada. But a recent phenomena is the rise of unions that are trying to be truly global in scope and operations. For example Workers Uniting is a trans-Atlantic labour union created in 2008 by a merger of Unite the Union in the UK and the United Steelworkers Workers (USW) in North America. While Unite and the USW created and continue to support the new union they maintain their individual names, structures and leadership.

The International Labour Organization

The organizations which make up the international labour movement – national union confederations, the global union federations and the ITUC amongst others – work in partnership or as members of bodies outside the movement. The most important of these bodies for the labour movement is the International Labour Organization.

The ILO is the United Nations specialized agency concerned with matters of work in the world. Its primary task is to establish and supervise the application of international labour standards. These standards cover a wide range of issues, including hours of work, social security, occupational health and safety, forced labour, and child labour.

ILO "Conventions" are legal statements of rights which are proposed for adoption by the ILO to national governments. Once ratified by a national legislature the Convention becomes part of the country's legal structure. Some ILO conventions cover specific sectors and occupations. The most recent of these being the Convention on Domestic Workers (No. 189). “Enabling rights” conventions (rights that allow workers to protect other rights) are of particular importance to unions as they protect the rights to organise and bargain collectively (principally, Conventions No. 87 and No. 98). They benefit from a special complaint procedure overseen by the Committee on Freedom of Association. This is the Committee which, amongst other work, investigates accusations of anti-union activity in a country.

Nations are encouraged to adopt the Conventions, but do not have to. For example the United States has not adopted a number of important Conventions including Convention No 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize) which addresses the rights of workers to join unions. However all nations, by being members of the ILO, are expected to respect eight "core" conventions. They are

  • (87) Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (1948)
  • (98) Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (1949)
  • (29) Forced Labor (1930)
  • (105) Abolition of Forced Labor (1959)
  • (138) Minimum Age (1973)
  • (182) Worst Forms of Child Labor (1999)
  • (100) Equal Remuneration (1951)
  • (111) Discrimination (1958)

The ILO was created in 1919 as a “tripartite” organization meaning the three “social partners” - governments, employers and labour unions – govern the Organization. The International Labour Conference is the top governing body of the ILO. It meets annually, around June, in Geneva. Representatives from the ILO's 185 members states are chosen by the governments of the member states with each country eligible to send two government representatives, one representative of business and one representative from the labour movement. Between Conferences the Organization is guided by the Governing Body which is elected every three years and consists of representatives of all three social partners.

Labour is represented at the ILO by the Workers' Group which is the collection of labour representatives attending an ILO Conference.

The ILO Department which is responsible for helping build unions is the Workers' Activities Bureau. The Bureau operates under its French acronym ACTRAV.

Working with other organizations

The ILO is of course not the only UN organization the international labour movement works with. For example it sends delegates to sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women and organizes activities to recognize particular UN events such as the World Day of Social Justice. Of special significance is the UN's Human Rights Day which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes the right to form and join trade unions.

Other organizations the labour movement works with include many NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which both have staff members assigned to work with unions. Another NGO, the Clean Clothes Campaign, has become a strategic partner for the labour movement because it is dedicated to improving the wages and working conditions of garment workers world-wide. It is an alliance of labour unions and NGOs in 16 European countries. The labour movement also participates in the World Social Forum which is an annual meeting of civil society groups. And it sends representatives to the civil society days of conferences such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development.

Global solidarity

Even full-time union leaders and staff members, never mind local union activists and members, can be bewildered by all these acronyms and various organizations. What's more, they often have no idea what the international labour movement is doing because its activities are rarely reported in the media. But as economic and social globalization increases at an ever increasing rate decisions are being taken at the world level which concretely impact the wages and conditions of workers at the local level. RadioLabour is trying to help working people and union activists better understand how, and by whom, they are represented at the global level. Because, more than ever, we need global solidarity.

- MB

RadioLabour - the international labour movement's radio service - 2014