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International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)

Fighting for alternatives:
Cases of successful Trade Union resistance to the policies of the IMF and World Bank

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)

April 2006

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Executive Summary

There is a growing consensus within global civil society that, despite having improved processes for consulting civil society, the IMF and World Bank (also known as “international financial institutions, or “IFIs”) operate with little input from the public when it comes to major economic policy changes. In country after country, these institutions have imposed conditions on their lending that force indebted governments to propose programmes that are based not on domestic needs but on the IFIs’ allegiance to the ideology of free markets and privatization.

Over the past five years, labour unions and their civil society allies in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia have successfully organized to win important victories over the private interests that depend on IFI loans to set the conditions for corporate control over water, electric power and other basic services. This paper focuses on six such victories, starting with an analysis about how trade unions in Uruguay took the lead in organizing that country’s historic referendum on water. The other case studies focus on:

  • South Africa, where trade unions led the opposition to the privatization of the country’s largest freight rail line and negotiated with the government to keep the reorganized line in public hands.

  • Croatia, where five labour federations set aside their differences to rally opposition to an IMF-World Bank proposal for labour reform designed to make it easier for employers to fire workers.

  • Argentina, where the government, backed by its labour unions, cancelled the privatization of the postal service, which had been turned over to a private company at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF.

  • Indonesia, where the nation’s constitutional court ruled against the IMF-backed privatization of a major utility after labour unions and civil society groups filed a lawsuit contesting the government’s right to privatize the utility.

  • Tanzania, where the government cancelled a water privatization project, also demanded by the IMF and World Bank, with the strong support of the trade union at the water utility.
These and other cases discussed in this report illustrate how local unions and national trade union centres have waged successful campaigns in their own countries against the IFIs. The international trade union movement, too, has achieved important victories in pushing the IFIs to adopt policies that are more favourable to working people and the poor. The final two chapters of this report discuss these successes, examining how the global trade union movement brought the issue of core labour standards to the IFIs, as well as the labour movement’s role in the international campaign for debt relief.

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