Confronting the most difficult challenges facing the international labour movement

by - 15th May 2014, 17.00 BST

LabourStart conference BerlinIn the next couple of days, more than 1,500 trade union leaders from 161 countries will meet in Berlin for the Third World Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).  The ITUC unites national trade union centres, including Britain’s TUC, all over the world.

The ITUC event will be followed on Friday in the same city by a slightly smaller one: the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference. Almost 700 people, from 75 countries, have registered to attend.

To a casual observer, these sound like very similar events. And there’ll certainly be some overlap. For example, the leader of Australia’s trade unions, Dave Oliver, will open the LabourStart event, though he’s also attending the ITUC Congress.

The conference is a direct continuation of global trade union meetings that started 150 years ago in London, where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels led the foundation of the International Workingmen’s Association, known as the “First International”.

The LabourStart event, on the other hand, is something new, something that probably couldn’t have been imagined before there was an internet.

It’s a gathering of prominent trade union leaders, among them the head of Germany’s largest union, the 2.2 million member Ver.di, in whose headquarters the conference will take place.

But unlike the ITUC event, it’s an open conference, so any trade union member who wants to come, can come.

Unlike the ITUC, no resolutions will be debated or adopted, and there’ll be no election of officials.

What will happen, as has happened at previous – and much smaller – LabourStart conferences, is that the people who attend will exchange ideas, debate serious issues, and confront the most difficult challenges facing the international labour movement.

While an event like the ITUC Congress may strive to achieve consensus, and sometimes aim to avoid debate on some of the more difficult issues, those are precisely the ones which are likely to get the most attention at a LabourStart event.

LabourStart’s conference, which will run for three days, will feature three plenary sessions, and about 50 workshops on a very wide range of topics.  The overall theme is “Global Crisis – Global Solidarity”. At the end, participants who are also volunteer correspondents for LabourStart will have a session where they discuss their project.

When the first LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference was held in London in 2008 (at the TUC and at Amnesty International), the participants all fit comfortably into a single seminar room.  But the conferences grew increasingly popular over the years, and were held in Hamilton, Ontario; Washington DC; Istanbul; and Sydney.  The Berlin conference is on course to be the largest … by far.

While the largest number of registrants come from Germany, unsurprisingly, the second largest contingent with more than 60 people, are coming from the UK.

It’s not too late to learn more and register here. UnionNews editor Tim Lezard is running a workshop on trade unions and the media at the conference.

Eric Lee is the founder of Labourstart.