ITUC at a Crossroads as Sharan Burrow is Challenged

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Pakistani migrant workers build a skyscraper in Dubai. Credit: S. Irfan Ahmed/IPS

By Ivar Andersen and Erik Larsson
STOCKHOLM, Nov 28 2018 (IPS)

A fight for the position of Secretary-General divides the ITUC ahead of the World Congress in December. Where some see a choice between diplomacy and activism, others say it’s a question of internal democracy.

Two candidates are nominated for the position as ITUC’s Secretary-General.

The imcumbent, Australia’s Sharan Burrow, has a professional background as a teacher and has led the organisation for eight years.

Her challenger, Susanna Camusso, began her trade union career by organising Italian metal workers and subsequently took over as president of the conflict-prone Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL).

The Nordic unions say the choice will shape the way the ITUC operates in the future.

While Susanna Camusso is considered a more activism-focused alternative, Sharan Burrow is viewed as a stronger candidate when it comes to international diplomacy.

“We want a voice that represents the world’s workers at G20, climate summits and other major gatherings,” says Oscar Ernerot at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO).

Unions in several other influential nations also want Sharan Burrow to continue. She is backed up by confederations in, among others, the United States, Great Britain, Turkey, Kenya, Egypt, Congo and the Netherlands.

It’s not the first time Sharan Burrow has had to fight for her position.

During ITUC’ last World Congress, in Berlin in 2014, the African nation Benin suggested she be replaced by US candidate Jim Baker. However, securing 87 per cent of the vote, Burrow ended up showing that she had strong support.

ITUC

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) brings together 331 confederations from 163 countries and represents a total of 208 million workers.

ITUC speaks for the member organisations at international summits and associations such as the G20, the ILO and the World Bank.

The World Congress

ITUC’s fourth world congress takes place in Copenhagen from December 2–7, hosted by Danish trade union confederations LO and FTF.

According to the organisers, about 1,000 delegates are expected to descend on Bella Center just outside the capital.

In addition to electing the Secretary-General, the congress will also announce the “Worst Boss in the World” award.

Three working groups will also address the topics “future of work”, “organizing” and “wages and inequality”

In Copenhagen, the outcome is more uncertain.

Unions from several significant countries, including Germany, Belgium, Spain, Algeria, Israel, Japan and Brazil, support Susanna Camusso.

At the same time, the support for her is not as solid as it may seem.

For example, the powerful German confederation DGB supports Susanna Camusso, but behind the scenes, German trade union Verdi has campaigned for Sharan Burrow.

Sharan Burrow’s leadership style became a contested issue at the World Congress four years ago. Employees at ITUC’ Brussels headquarters spoke of a tough leadership style and being afraid to go to work.

“I know that some are upset, especially many men… I think I upset people because I make significant changes and do it quickly,” she responded to the criticism.

Leading into the upcoming World Congress, her leadership is questioned once again. One German union source says that the election has little to do with union strategy, and that it is rather a question about internal politics.

“There has been criticism that decisions made in international contexts, especially within the ILO, have not been democratically anchored”, the source says.

“Susanna stands for returning power to the various national confederations of the global movement. Sharan Burrow runs her own race.”

Anonymous sources also present other arguments.

Susanna Camusso is considered to have a weak command of the English language.

Several national confederations are concerned it may make it difficult to convey ITUC’ point of view during G20 meetings and other international gatherings. Camusso is rumoured to have begun an intensive course to improve her English and increase her eligibility.

The fact that she is as old as Burrow is also considered a disadvantage – both women have passed 60 years of age. Few believe that a candidate of that age can serve for longer than the upcoming term.

The fact that ITUC has failed to find a younger challenger is seen as a weakness. And Sharan Burrow is therefore considered a safer choice, as she already has an established contact with several world leaders.

The election of a new Secretary-General is a delicate matter. Several union representatives who Arbetet Global has contacted do not want to discuss their positions publicly. And the ITUC, which calls for greater transparency by large companies and governments, has closed ranks.

While the battle for the position of Secretary-General intensifies, there is also an awareness that cooperation will be required once the congress is over.

Aggressive rhetoric during the build-up to the election is likely to have consequences, regardless of who is chosen to lead ITUC for the next four years.

“It’s an unusual situation. Last time, we knew who would win before the Congress. But this election divides the movement and it’s possible the issue will not be resolved before the Copenhagen Congress,” says a source.

This story was originally published by Arbetet Global