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The ILO elections are a test of international solidarity and trade union values

The International Labour Organization (ILO) stands as a beacon of hope for workers worldwide. As the ILO's Governing Body elections approach, workers' delegates from 187 member-states face a critical decision.

Screenshot of the speech from the FNPR website
Putin's participation in the 12th FNPR Congress \\ Screenshot of the speech from the FNPR website

The upcoming vote is not merely a choice between candidates, but a test of the international trade union movement's commitment to its core values of democracy, independence, and solidarity. In this pivotal moment, the workers' delegates must navigate the complexities of global politics while remaining true to the principles that have guided the trade union movement for generations.

In particular, workers' delegates will have to take a position on the candidacy of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), a state-controlled organisation which supports Russia's war against Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's regime at home.

ILO Governing Body members will be elected to serve for three years at the June International Labour Conference in Geneva. After an internal deliberation process, based on proposals from its regional organisations, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world's largest trade union body, has called on its affiliated national trade union centres to vote for 13 members (out of 14 available seats) and 18 deputy members (out of 19 available seats), identifying them by their names and including them on its lists distributed at the Conference ahead of the voting day. Each trade union delegate has 14 votes for the members and 19 votes for the deputy workers' members. There is no recommendation from the ITUC for whom its affiliated organisations should cast the 14th and the 19th votes respectively. However, it is expected that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) will nominate a candidate as a titular member and that the Russian FNPR will propose someone as a deputy member of the Governing Body.

Any candidate must gain at least 50% of the delegates' votes to be elected. The workers' delegates of the democratic trade unions will be faced with the choice of helping the FNPR over that threshold to obtain the necessary votes or denying their support to a trade union that is an integral part of Putin's Russia.

As a United Nations organisation, the ILO was founded with the purpose of establishing universal international labour standards for UN member states. Because its founders wanted to ensure that countries with large populations and/or great economic power take a permanent active role in the ILO, ten countries have a permanent seat on the ILO Governing Body's benches — Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The ILO constitution has no comparable provision for employers' and workers' organisations.

For the ILO to function effectively, workers' and employers' representatives must come from genuinely independent organisations. Trade unions' credibility as independent voices for workers, not the size of a country, is essential for authentic tripartism (collaboration of three parties: governments, employers, and workers) and a meaningful ILO. Therefore, the size of China or Russia is no sufficient reason to have them on the workers' benches of the Governing Body.

Of course, size also plays a role in the election of workers' representatives. The opinion of a trade union leader representing ten million members may carry more weight than that of someone representing a smaller trade union. However, this has always been of secondary importance for the Workers' Group, which reflects trade unions from different regions and countries of different sizes, and which has even had one chairperson come from a tiny Caribbean Island.2 Previously, the ITUC and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) have always lived up to their historical responsibility to ensure that members of the Workers' Group represent genuine independent trade unions. If state-controlled trade unions are allowed to play an important role at the ILO, tripartism becomes a farce.

During the Cold War, the ICFTU made a concession by leaving a seat vacant, allowing Soviet trade unions to gain a seat on the ILO Governing Body's workers' benches. In recent years, a similar approach has been taken with the Chinese ACFTU. The Russian war against Ukraine has created a new situation. The ITUC affiliation of the FNPR has been suspended because the FNPR fully supports the war against Ukraine. For this reason, the ITUC has — for the first time this century — decided not to include the FNPR in its list of supported candidates for the Governing Body. For obvious reasons, the ITUC does not recommend its affiliates to vote for a trade union whose membership is suspended.

Luc Triangle, the General Secretary of the ITUC, just returned from a visit from Ukraine expressing the full solidarity of the international trade union movement with the Ukrainian people defending themselves against the Russian aggression. This position is incompatible with voting at the ILO for a Russian trade union that fully endorses Putin's war. By leaving a seat open in its recommendation for the Governing Body elections, the ITUC has created a moment of truth. It exposes the FNPR and thus Putin's regime to a vote at the ILO. A vote that Putin should not win.

From a trade union perspective, it is difficult to see a reason to support a FNPR representative on the workers' benches of the ILO Governing Body. Not only has the FNPR decided to fully support President Putin and his war of aggression, but it also became an occupying force in its own right by setting up local FNPR organisations in the occupied territories and taking over the property of the Ukrainian trade unions.

The FNPR is also fully behind Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule in Russia itself. Its voice is not heard defending democratic and workers' rights in Russia. Rather the FNPR has become an integral part of the repressive Putin regime, as was made again clear at the FNPR's last congress, where Putin received standing ovations.

The ILO has no influence on any decisions in Russia today. It cannot be assumed that the influence of the ILO to defend workers' rights will increase in Russia if the FNPR is represented in the Governing body. The election of a FNPR representative to the ILO will not change anything for the better for Russian workers.

Some democratic trade unions have closer contacts with Russian trade unions through the BRICS Trade Union Forum and seem inclined to vote for a Russian representative. For quite different reasons, the BRICS countries and their trade unions sympathise with the idea of a multipolar world and hold critical views of the dominant global financial institutions and the hegemonic role of rich industrialised countries. But while countries from the Global South have ample reason to be critical of a globalisation shaped by Western dominance, such geopolitical considerations are not convincing reasons to vote for a puppet trade union of a regime that opposes everything the trade union movement stands for.

Trade union unity is important in a time of rising geopolitical tensions, but it needs to be based on common values and principles. With its unconditional backing of Putin's dictatorship, his vision of a Russian empire, and the war against Ukraine, the FNPR has made its choice. It has opted against the basic values of the international democratic trade union movement.

The trade unions in Ukraine are waging two fights, one for their country's freedom and one against the market liberalism of their government. They urgently need the ILO's support to change government policies that undermine workers' rights and labour protections in the name of economic reform. Ukrainian democracy is not perfect, and maintaining democracy in times of war is not easy. That is why Ukrainian trade unions are in urgent need of international solidarity.

It took the Ukrainian trade unions some time to propose a joint candidate for the ILO Governing Body, but in a last-minute decision, the ITUC managed to include them in the third list of substitute delegates. This decision, which will ensure their presence at the ILO, is important not only for the Ukrainian trade unions but also for the international democratic trade union movement and the ITUC's campaign for democracy.

The upcoming vote at the International Labour Conference is a call for each and every individual trade union to take a position based on its trade union values, its political vision and its moral compass. How workers' delegates will use their 19th vote will be a global signal. Let us hope that they will not fail to support the aspiration of the workers of the world to make strong, independent and democratic trade unions the voice of the workers at the ILO. The fewer votes the FNPR candidate gets the stronger the signal.

Frank Hoffer

Global Labour University

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