Two weeks. Over 7,000 delegates. Nearly 200 countries. Hundreds of organizations from around the world.
The annual conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) is a very big stage, one where international labour standards are crafted and adopted. It’s a stage where diverse views are welcome and shared to reach a common understanding for bettering the lives of workers around the world.
The annual conference, held in Geneva, Switzerland, at both the UN Palais des Nations and the ILO head office, is the ILO’s marquee event. Every year, the ILO director general produces a report on current issues within work and labour that need attention, and the theme of the annual conference is based on this report. This year’s theme was building a future of decent work.
In June, I travelled to Geneva with my wife, Renee, and attended the conference for three days as president of the World Organization of Workers (WOW). CLAC is an affiliated member of WOW, an organization representing over 1.3 million workers. WOW shares our values, particularly regarding respect for union diversity and individual workers’ rights. It also believes, like us, that social dialogue and negotiation are the best means to resolve conflict between labour and management and achieve win-win outcomes.
Likewise, the ILO conference actively seeks the views of its many participants to improve workers’ lives around the world. It takes a very European approach of constructive dialogue between workers, employers, and governments in setting labour standards.
I say European because the way the ILO, WOW, and CLAC seek to come to common understanding and resolve conflict stands in such stark contrast to the way of the traditional North American labour movement.
In the US and Canada, confrontation and conflict in labour relations have been viewed as a given since the 1800s. This view so dominates that it is still accepted as the norm among the media, politicians, academics, employers, and even everyday workers. It’s why many workers would prefer not to belong to a union at all.
Which is unfortunate. Unions improve the lives of workers—not just those they represent but all workers—by setting standards for wages and working conditions and protecting workers from arbitrary treatment.
In a country built on diversity and respect for others, it’s a shame that our labour relations so often do not reflect our shared values as a nation. Changing that won’t happen overnight. CLAC has been engaged in this struggle since 1952. We’ve made progress, and being at the table at the ILO conference as president of WOW is one small part of that progress.
As with any conference, a great deal of the value in attending comes from the people you meet. Along with my fellow WOW board members, I met with officials from union federations in South America and China, research organizations in Europe, and ILO directors.
I was encouraged by the positive reception that WOW received at the ILO, despite its relatively small size compared to other organizations and countries. I believe it was important for CLAC and WOW to be there. The vacuum created by having no counteracting voice to the traditional labour model would have noticeable and negative effects in the long run.
If the experience in Geneva taught me anything it’s that we have much to learn from others, and that we are better for sitting down with them and listening and exchanging ideas.
As Renee and I boarded the plane to head home, I was left with one overriding thought about my experience. If an organization as broad, diverse, and global as the ILO can listen to and respect many thousands of viewpoints and ideas about how to build a future of decent work, why can’t we do so in Canada? This is something CLAC aims to change.