(Durban 03.04.2000 - Juhani Artto) ICFTU, the leading body of the international trade union movement, today began its 17th Congress in Durban, South Africa. There is no lack of issues of major importance to a global labour force of three billion people, almost one billion of whom are unemployed or underemployed.

It is a huge achievement for organised labour that ICFTU, with its 215 affiliated federations in 145 countries, currently represents 125 million employees, and that more federations are seeking membership of the ICFTU family. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, ICFTU has had no major challenger on the trade union scene.

Another brilliant achievement is that the wide variety of 1,200 delegates will be able to consider complex issues in a constructive, non-divisive way, even when many of the affiliated federations are often bitter rivals in their own countries.

In today's globalising economy and rapidly changing working life the trade union movement is not an attacking party but is rather the force that struggles for minimum standards in working life. Even this modest ambition is an uphill struggle as neoliberal policies - with their devastating impact on employment, social security and income distribution - have made progress in almost all countries of the world over the last two decades.

South Africa: Living proof of the benefits of a strong trade union movement

South Africa is an excellnet choice to host the Congress. South Africa's trade union activists and organisations, strongly supported by the international trade union movement, played a major role in the fight to bring down the brutal apartheid system and install a government reflecting the interests of the nation and of its working people much better than its predecessors.

Nowadays, however, not a single trade union movement victory has any guarantee of sustainability. In many countries, as in Finland and its western neighbours, employer organisations, trade unions and governments have a long tradition of settling most conflicts by negotiation. Recent strikes and strike threats in the transport, paper and some other industries remind us of the fact that sometimes it is the ability to show real muscle, and not only negotiating skills, which is urgently needed.

In South Africa, the strength of the trade union movement has led to a situation in many ways similar to that of the Nordic countries. Cosatu, the largest central trade union organisation, is an ally of the ANC, the leading political force in the country, and a tripartite negotiating system operates.

Despite this, both in South Africa and in the Nordic countries the power of international capital jeopardises even the smallest achievements. The international trade union movement - more and more closely allied with numerous international and local non-governmental organisations - represents the single most important counterweight to the anti-social behaviour of international capital.

This is the background against which the 1,200 ICFTU Congress delegates will formulate their common plans for making the world a more just place to live in.

The Congress will approve a whole range of short and more extensive documents. While there is a strong sense of continuing the policy lines of the 1990s, not everything will remain unchanged in Durban. Almost 40 per cent of ICFTU rank and file are women and one of the most interesting changes which will probably be approved by the plenary session is to guarantee women a stronger voice in future ICFTU Congresses. This will be achieved by changing the Congress delegation election rules.

Nevertheless in the Durban conference and in the organs to be elected in Durban, women are and will continue to be grossly under-represented. Women have far fewer seats as conference delegates (and on ICFTU governing bodies over the next four years) than their 39 per cent share of the ICFTU rank and file should warrant.

Trade unions world-wide have been slow to convert their statements of principle into a consistent practice with respect to female representation in union governing bodies. Riitta Partinen, the Equality Secretary of SAK, Finland's largest central trade union organisation, explains how this slowness is an unforgivable waste of human resources.

"Trade unions need women just as much as working women need trade unions. While unions continue to speak mainly in the language of male expertise and forms of union action are better suited to men than to women, it will be difficult for millions of women to identify trade unions as the right place to organise."

"Women provide huge potential to increase a far too low global organising rate. Many of the most rapidly growing sectors are dominated by female labour and women also represent the worst exploited and repressed section of the labour force."

"It is very important that not only female activists and leaders but also men in the movement play an active, innovative role in redesigning their organisations - from the top to the factory floor – so as to be more gender equal."

"The problems of employees in industries with a largely female workforce differ considerably from those in male-dominated sectors."

Women find new strength in themselves

Riitta Partinen emphasises that gender inequality within the unions does not originate from intentional behaviour by men or women, but more from tradition and lack of depth in understanding problems and the positive potential which women possess.

With respect to women trade union leaders, Partinen is proud to report that firm progress has been made in their self-assurance and in the use of their enormous expertise. As a member of the ICFTU Women's Committee since 1988, Partinen has been in a good position to make her own observations.

"Women are quick to find concrete solutions to the continuously changing problems of working life. By enlarging the role of women at all levels of the governing hierarchy, the trade union movement could make considerable progress."

Riitta Partinen refers to the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference as one of the important eye-opening events. Thousands of women trade union activists, NGO women and feminists found a common ground at this event in identifying problems and in finding solutions to them. "Women have been quicker than men in the trade unions to recognise the need for closer ties to the consumer movement and other non-governmental organisations", Partinen says.

Interviewed by Trade Union News from Finland, Canada's Nancy Riche, the ICFTU Women's Committee president, and Brazilian Nair Goulart, one of the most courageous and experienced Latin American trade union women, largely shared Riitta Partinen's views. The concrete situations in various countries and on different continents vary but the basic set-up is the same everywhere.

"New trade unionism"

By taking a more real interest in the cause of women, trade union men have nothing to lose and much to gain in the form of stronger unions.

Riitta Partinen is reluctant to say that it is simply "stupid" of men not to realise the potential of women and act accordingly.

Is it simply stupid? On numerous official and unofficial ICFTU platforms barely anybody tries to argue against the idea and need to increase the proportion of women in the governing bodies. If this tendency is finally expressed in concrete decisions this time, then the Durban Congress will long be remembered as the one that in real terms prepared the ground for "new trade unionism".

"New trade unionism" is one of the main slogans of the Congress.

Women in Finland have had the right to vote and stand for Parliament in general elections since the early 1900s. Women usually occupy 35-40 per cent of the seats in the country's Parliament. In the trade union structure, however, no sustainable solution to the role of women has yet been found. Roughly half of the two million organised workers are women but this is not satisfactorily reflected in the gender division of the governing bodies.

This is generally recognised as a weakness in the union movement, but much remains to be done. What happens in concrete terms will be decisive, not well-intentioned speeches and resolutions.

An interesting development occurred early this year. Tarja Halonen, a former trade union lawyer at SAK, was elected the first woman President of the Republic of Finland. During the campaign and after the election an outbreak of new enthusiasm for the cause of women was very obvious. Halonen won the largest share of the electorate against her male rival among young women. Her support was spread broadly across political demarcation lines.

However, it was of fundamental importance that Halonen was not primarily elected for being a woman. The main reason was her three decades of struggle for all kinds of human rights in Finland and internationally: for employee rights, for the rights of women, children and the elderly, for Chilean and other oppressed people's rights, for the rights of sexual minorities etc.

Trade unions have to be good at everything

All of these issues are also on the agenda of the week-long 17th ICFTU Congress, which opened today in Durban. The various sectors of the struggle form an entirety from which nothing can be removed without undermining the whole effort.

Without doubt, women's rights in working life and the role of women in the trade union leadership are among the major directions opening up new roads to new trade unionism, a stronger movement and a better world.