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WFTU leader George Mavrikos discusses international trade union history with U.S. union delegation in Athens

By staff |
December 4, 2015
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George Mavrikos, the General Secretary of the World Federation of Trade Unions (
George Mavrikos, the General Secretary of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). (Fight Back! News / Staff)

Athens, Greece - On Dec. 1 a delegation of trade unionists from the U.S. met for several hours with George Mavrikos, the General Secretary of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Mavrikos presented the principles of the WFTU and explained the history of the union movement internationally. Then he answered questions and exchanged views on a variety of topics.

The World Federation of Trade Unions is one of two existing international trade union federations, with member unions on all continents representing 92 million workers in 126 countries. Mavrikos said that the basic principles of WFTU are class struggle unionism, internationalism, a commitment to not restrict union struggles only to workplace issues but also to struggle around larger political questions, and a commitment to struggle for a society without exploitation. WFTU unions are open to all workers who want to build class struggle, regardless of whether they are a member of any political party and without regard to nationality, religion, race, gender or anything else.

History of the international union movement

Mavrikos explained the history of the WFTU and a broad overview of the international union movement. From the 1700s there were efforts to unite unions in different countries. In 1848, a breakthrough happened with the formation of the International Workingmen's Association (the ‘First International’) by Karl Marx and many others leaders of the working class movement from that time. The Russian socialist revolution in 1917 inspired workers around the world, and as a result, in 1919 the Red International of Trade Unions was formed in Moscow, while in Amsterdam the International Federation of Trade Unions was formed by unions from capitalist countries that refused to work with unions that were pro-socialist. From that time until the end of World War II in 1945, the international union movement was basically divided on that basis.

When World War II ended and fascism was defeated by broad unity among the Allies, there were high hopes that workers could also unite worldwide to make progress for workers’ rights and conditions. That spirit of unity led to the founding congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions in October 1945 in Paris, to unite all trade unions around the world into one federation. It was attended by union federations from 56 countries representing 67 million workers. One of the very few major unions that refused to participate was the largest U.S. union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). But the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) from the U.S. did participate, led by Sidney Hillman,

who was a founding vice-president of the WFTU. The AFL and CIO later merged in 1955.

At that WFTU founding congress the post-World War II spirit of unity started to fray quickly as the ‘Cold War’ was beginning. Many unions from capitalist countries in northern Europe refused to support the struggle against colonialism, while unions from colonized countries and the USSR thought it was necessary for the union movement to support the struggles of workers in colonized countries.

While there was struggle internally, from 1945 to 1949 the WFTU continued to be the only international union federation. Then in 1949 a struggle over whether to be for or against the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Marshall Plan split the WFTU. The unions from the United Kingdom, the U.S. and other major capitalist countries split to form the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) which still exists as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). From 1949 until 1990, the WFTU was the larger of the two federations. The ICFTU supported the policies of the capitalist governments.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European governments around 1990, the WFTU was weakened as most unions in the formerly socialist countries left to join the ICTU with the idea that they would try to change the ICTU from within to make it more progressive.

In 1994, at the 13th Congress of the WFTU, some suggested ending the WFTU but the majority of the unions including those from Greece, India, Cuba and South Africa disagreed and decided to continue the WFTU as a class struggle-oriented union federation firmly rooted in internationalism.

In 2006 the headquarters of the WFTU moved to Greece, where it continues to be today. The decision to continue the WFTU has borne fruit as the WFTU has grown and has strength on all continents.

WTFU today

Mavrikos said that today the WFTU is the only truly independent international union federation, since the ICTU receives support and funding from capitalist governments and international institutions while the WFTU does not. The WFTU takes positions against all imperialist wars and interventions, while the ICTU has supported imperialist wars and occupations in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

While pointing to the negative role that the national leaders of the U.S. unions played - in refusing to unite with unions from the rest of the world in the WFTU and in creating other divisions in the international union movement - Mavrikos was very clear in recognizing and supporting the historic and current struggles of the working class in the U.S. He noted that the workers’ movement in the entire world still celebrates May 1 as International Workers Day every year to honor the struggle of the working class in Chicago and the Haymarket martyrs who died fighting for the eight-hour work day.

Mavrikos told the U.S. delegation that the WFTU will hold its 17th Congress in 2016 in South Africa. The congress will be hosted by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the main union federation there which was a leading force in the struggle to overthrow apartheid in South Africa.

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