HR Policy Global

S02E10 - International Trade Unions: Who They Are and What They Do

S02E10 - International Trade Unions: Who They Are and What They Do

Wild Side Episode 10 explores international trade unions, their identity, and current priorities. Employee relations professionals often engage with them for expertise in European Works Councils or as targets of global corporate campaigns. These trade unions influence policy through the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UN systems, primarily via ITUC, ETUC, UniGlobal, and IndustriALL. Their focus includes International Framework Agreements and capacity building for the movement.

Key Takeaways:

  • What organisations make up the ILO, and what is their collective objective? [1:03]
  • The ITUC is the global coordinating body of National Trade Union Federations. [3:34]
  • The two most active and well-known Global Union Federations (GUFs) and their objectives. [5:02]
  • International Framework Agreements and the conventions they commit to. [9:13]
  • is an extensive network and resource of trade union information. [12:17]


I’m Alan Wild and welcome to the Wild side podcast series … managing international employee relations in modern times … 10 minutes at a time.  Today’s episode takes a look at international trade unions… … … who they are; the way they are organized; how they work; and what their priorities are.   It’s important to understand those international trade union organizations that work in international institutions like the ILO, the UN, the World Bank, the European Union, the OECD and similar bodies. Likewise, a completely different set of trade unions manage relationships with international companies, whether that is as a party to agreements, designing and running corporate campaigns and acting as experts in European works councils.

…. all of that in a moment ….   

As you know, I’m Senior Adviser on global employee relations for the HR Policy Association … the leading voice of CHRO’s today. 


I’ve said before that trade unions had been trying to go international for many years, even before they began to emerge as a voice at the beginning of the 20th century. The International Working Men’s Association was formed in 1864.  International trade unions took on a formal role with the establishment of the International Labor Organization since 1919. As you know, the ILO is a tripartite organization of employer’s organizations, trade unions and governments and sets   international labor standards with the objective of influencing national laws.  Whilst there have been many calls for “workers of the world to unite” along with the slogan “you have nothing to lose but your chains” over the years. In fact, the phrases were adapted from the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist Manifesto in 1848.  In fact, local interests trumped international solidarity pretty well every time … and organizing unions internationally in any meaningful way was both difficult and expensive.  The foundation of the ILO enabled the establishment of what is now the ITUC (the International Trade Union Federation) and the growth of globalization enabled what were largely unknown International Trade Secretariats to morph into today’s Global Unions Federations.


Today we’ll talk about the three trade union groupings and their members that are of most interest to companies … and to check out an important coordinating social network site for those who want to keep up to date on what is going on in unions around the world.  We’ll talk about the International Trade Union Confederation – the ITUC; the ten industry based Global Union Federations; the highly influential European trade union organizations and the powerful website … Labor Start … or to use its tag line “where trade unionists start their day on the net


As I said, and perhaps reflecting on the changing aspirations of the global trade unions, the ITUC and GUF titles came from the re-branding of the less snappily titled International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Trade Secretariats.


The ITUC is the coordinating body of national trade union federations around the world.  Its members are national level organizations like the DGB in Germany, the TUC in the UK, RENGO in Japan, COSATU in South Africa and the AFL-CIO in the United States.   The organization is currently led by the Belgian trade union leader Luc Triangle, who took over the role from Luca Visentini who left it in December 2022 under something of a cloud.  The ITUC focuses most of its work on intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Economic Forum and … most of all … at the ILO.  It does not, by and large, focus on the activities of international companies.   This is the property of the GUFs.


The currently stated pillars of work of the ITUC are peace, democracy and rights; regulation of economic power; global shifts – just transitions; and equality.  Current priority issues are;

  • Child labour and forced labour
  • Climate change
  • Building trade union cooperation and capability
  • Human and trade union rights
  • Migration
  • Women
  • Youth


Whilst the ITUC aggregates the voice of national trade unions as an essentially bottom-up organization, seventeen Global Union Federations plus TUAC, the trade union organization that deals with issues inside the OECD, are organized specifically to face off with international companies. They are organized on a top down basis with industry unions.  I can list all the GUFs, but six of them are the most active and best known in commercial companies.  These are IndustriALL, UNI Global, the IUF -  International Union of Foodworkers, the ITF - the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and BWI … Building and Wood Workers International.  Each of the Federations have comprehensive websites that are worth following periodically, and I’ll talk about the best way of following trade union news later.   Let me turn to two of the most active Global Federations.  


IndustriALL was founded in 2012, to bring together affiliates of three former global union federations: International Metalworkers' Federation (IMF), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) and International Textiles Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (ITGLWF). It claims to represent 50 million workers in 140 countries.  The stated objective of the organization is to challenge the power of multinational companies and negotiate with them on a global level. IndustriALL says it fights for another model of globalization and a new economic and social model that puts people first, based on democracy and social justice. The union’s objectives are to Build stronger unionsOrganize and increase union membershipFight for trade union rightsFight against precarious work (including contract and agency labour)Build union power to confront global capitalPromote industrial policy and sustainabilityPromote social justice and globalizationEnsure equal rights and women’s participationCreate safe workplaces; and Improve democracy and inclusiveness. IndustriALL is one of the two unions who play a significant role in the campaign for International Framework Agreements. 


I’ll talk briefly about IFAs after I’ve mentioned another GUF … UNI Global Union.  UNI Global claims to represents 20 million workers in 150 countries in the fast-growing services sector. UNI built a high profile under its prior charismatic leader, the late Phil Jennings who was replaced by ex-Teamster Christy Hoffman.   UNI is the voice of service workers across a range of businesses from hairdressing to technology and post workers to actors. UNI role Global describes its role as follows “In a world where influence and wealth are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, UNI Global Union builds union power to improve workers’ lives everywhere. As a global union federation with affiliates in 150 countries, we use our collective strength to expand collective bargaining, advance social and economic justice, hold corporations accountable and transform an unfair global economy.”  The union works under three pillars of activity: Business and Human Rights, Essential Workers, and the New World of Work.


Along with IndustriALL, UNI is responsible for the majority of international framework agreements with more than 50 to its name.   UNI and IndustriALL were also founders of the famous Bangladesh Accord established after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013.  


So … International Framework Agreements.


Global or International Framework Agreements are agreements signed between the international company management of a company and a global union federation. The agreements set up a regular dialogue between company senior management, the GUF and very often representatives of the company’s employees.  Some have complaints procedures.  


They typically commit the company to principles of the ILO core conventions … child labor, forced labor, equality and of course trade union rights to recognition and collective bargaining.  Sometimes they cover health and safety, working hours or pay, and some cover the company’s supply chain. Although the trade unions have “wish lists” for agreements, the most important issues are access to senior managers and the commitment to trade union recognition throughout their operations. The vast majority have been signed with European companies and typically take the existing relationship with the European Works Council to a global level. There are around 1,000 European Works Councils but just 112 IFAs according to the ILO.  66 of these are with German, French, Spanish and Swedish companies.


The websites of the Global Unions Federations and the ITUC publish the lists of companies with whom they have agreements, and often the agreements themselves.


It’s easy to see why companies are reluctant to open a global dialogue with trade unions, and particularly those companies that have non-union workforces in important parts of the world.  Companies that have signed IFAs typically have strong relationships with trade unions throughout the world and already engage in dialogue between senior executives and trade union leaders through the European Works Council.   They stress the importance of high-level relationships when problems occur at lower levels … and in particular where they have operations in countries where employee relations are immature and with a tendency to volatility.


I mentioned the role of Europe and the European Works Councils in the “how did it go global” episode. Each of the Global Union Federations has a European counterpart … and the European organizations are arguably more active with companies.  It is the European federations that supply experts to European Works Councils and provide the openings to senior company management on which global relationships are built.


Let’s go in a different direction to finish.  People always ask me how I got to know so much about the conduct of employee relations in the countries of the world.  Plainly the ability to work in many countries, the opportunity to travel and my time in the ILO fed what has been an enormous appetite to learn.   But if I am about to work in a country I whose recent history I don’t know well or want to check out what is happening in a particular company I go to Labourstart … “where the world’s trade unions start their day on the net”.   Its design is simple … it allows trade unionists around the world to post stories about what is going on in their country … and the network is unbelievably extensive.  The best thing about the site is the ease of getting information quickly … the search engine is great.  Go to the site, put your own company in there and see what comes out … if there are no hits you can probably be sure that things are quiet.


So, there we have an introduction to global trade union federations and their growth in significance in the modern era. If you want to learn more about what we do or participate in one of our formal programs you can get me on [email protected] or on Linked In.


I’m Alan Wild and you have been listening to “a walk on the wild side”.  See you again soon.