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Crisis and corruption in the global trade union movement

NICK WRIGHT examines the Qatargate scandal that has engulfed the EU bureaucracy and now the International Trade Union Confederation following the arrest and conditional release of its general secretary Luca Visentini

THE corruption crisis engulfing the European Union and the Socialist and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament has reached a new stage.

The common reference point for each of the interlocking scandals is Qatar and the attention that the football World Cup brought to that state’s notoriously exploitative and repressive labour system. 

Attention just recently centred on one Henrik Hololei, the Estonian boss of the European Commission’s transport operation, who is facing allegations concerning his extensive Qatar Airways business-class trips. 

Fortuitously the EU bureaucracy has rushed through measures that allow for the self-regulation of such perks.

The issue is not so much any individual’s behaviour but rather the general culture that exists in the commission bureaucracy.

Hololei took nine trips in all and is challenged over failures to record meetings with lobbyists from the Arab Air Carriers Organisation, Airbus and Bombardier.

The organisation representing Eurocrats working in the EU’s machinery, Renouveau & Democratie, is worried about the impact of scandals on the 2024 European elections: “We’re now in a very critical situation regarding our credibility,” said its president Cristiano Sebastiani. 

It is not only the endemic cosying up to lobbyists, or the entitlement culture that takes perks as a right, but even allegations of drug use that lie behind these anxieties.

The commission’s increasingly rocky relationship with Brussels institutions came to a head last month when European Council president Charles Michel went head to head with Brussels planning chief Pascal Smet, who alleged that Eurocrats routinely take drugs. 

This provoked Michel’s mouthpiece to ask “for respect for all the men and women in the service of the European Union, especially in these very challenging international times.”

Challenging times they are indeed as the Qatargate scandal continues to take its toll.

Today the Milan judicial authorities will determine whether to extradite Monica Bellini to Brussels. Bellini was the accountant with the so-called Equality Consultancy that worked for the former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who faces investigation as the figure allegedly behind the rete di influenza (network of influence) that channelled corrupt funds to European Union and international trade union figures.

Precisely what significance can be attached to the revelation that in 2018 Equality set up equality consultancy OÜ in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, remains unexplored.

The Belgian arrest warrant alleges Bellini “played an important role in the return of cash coming from Qatar creating … a firm which could give a legal appearance to the flow of cash.”

The reason the scandal is causing great anxiety among the European Parliament’s Socialist and Democrats grouping is because both Panzeri and his associate EU functionary Franceso Giorgi are “co-operating” with the Brussels prosecutors. 

Panzeri is still in jail and Giorgi is tagged while his partner at the centre of the scandal, Greek S&D MEP Eva Kaili, has been in prison since last December.

In a fit of performative gallantry, a score of MEPs from Italy’s Democratic Party have protested at the “blackmailing and punitive” methods used by the Belgian judiciary.

Meanwhile Panzeri is singing like the proverbial prison canary and reportedly told Belgian prosecutors that suspect funding found its way to finance the campaign to elect General Confederation of Italian Labour (CGIL) leader Susan Camusso to the 2018 presidency of the International Trade Union Confederation.

Panzeri is quoted as saying: “Previously, we had identified a figure of €600,000 … which was given to me by the Algerian in a purse and is a good part of the money found in my house. Then I learned that only €50,000 was enough. I therefore had €500,000 left which I kept.”

The ITUC

Last weekend the general council of the International Trade Union Confederation dumped its general secretary Luca Visentini, saying that, following the report of its special commission set up to investigate the allegations against him, he no longer had their confidence. 

The confederation then decided to hold an emergency world congress. 

Recollect that Visentini’s confession to receiving €50,000 from Fight Impunity, the NGO run by Panzeri, was that it was for his election campaign to become ITUC general secretary. 

Some of this money found its way through the ITUC machinery and the commission report says: “…we also found serious deficiencies in the decision by deputy general secretary (DGS) Owen Tudor to accept this cash contribution to the ITUC.”

The measures so far adopted, however, do not look like resolving ITUC’s deep crisis. Just last week — and anticipating the emergency meeting of the ITUC’s general council — a former leading official made sharp criticisms of the the organisation’s internal culture, accusing former general secretary Sharan Burrow of an “absolute power insanity” that “came back to haunt us all.”

Victor Baez is the former general secretary of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas from 2008 to 2018 and former deputy general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation from 2018 until last year when he resigned in protest.

He fingered Burrow as the force behind Visentini’s election as ITUC general secretary but, rather than putting the organisation’s difficulties down simply to corruption, he laid waste to the “concentration of power in one person, weak processes of checks and balances, bendy rules, insufficient transparency and, more importantly, the lack of real democracy in decision-making.”

He writes: “In 2018, in the aftermath of the ITUC congress in Copenhagen, many unionists insisted that I should become part of the elected leadership of the confederation as its deputy general secretary. 

“The elections that year resulted in two opposing blocks of affiliates that threatened to tear the organisation apart. As I was on the losing side, the rationale was that my presence would mend some of those differences. 

“After a strong initial reluctance I ended up accepting the proposal based on the promises of transparency and internal democracy in the hope of making my contribution to the labour movement.”

He goes on: “The constitution of the ITUC sets out its managing structure, with an elected leadership group, as well as the general council and the executive bureau for a continuous oversight — with a congress every four years as its supreme authority. At least that is the theory. The practice was that the general secretary from 2010 to 2022, Sharan Burrow, amassed a tremendous amount of power to herself.”

Baez levels serious objection to the ITUC’s flip-flop over labour conditions in Qatar, noting that the position changed in less than four years with Burrow shifting from considering the Gulf state a “country without a conscience” to promote it as a place where “workers can achieve justice.”

Baez says: “By sidelining the deputy leaders and the council, the general secretary was given free rein to rule however she wanted. Sadly, the unrestricted power made her slowly drift towards the glamorous VIP meeting rooms of the super-rich. 

“Perhaps seduced by the PR machine of the world’s elite and corporations, she accepted becoming the co-chair of the World Economic Forum several times and joined the board of the B-Team — a group founded by English tycoon, Richard Branson, seen by some environmentalists as mere business propaganda.”

These criticisms — coming from an ITUC insider — highlight the damage done to the ITUC’s reputation by corruption and the social partnership ideology which has historically had a strong grip on the organisation.

A participant at the ITUC council meeting last weekend told the Morning Star that this present crisis brings to a head long-standing political and organisational problems. 

Another said in some ways it is very good news and provides an opportunity to reform the organisation and reorientate its politics more to the left.

The actual balance of forces at the emergency meeting of the ITUC council was 57 to 12 for Visentini’s dismissal. The Latin American, African, Asian and Scandinavian unions in their majority endorsed the package of measures including the decision to sack Visentini with the east Europeans backing away from decisive action. Our TUC’s new general secretary Paul Nowak attended and supported the dismissal.

The ITUC is the successor to the cold war-era International Confederation of Free Trade Unions set up in 1949 after a US intelligence-funded schism — aided by our very own TUC — split the World Federation of Trade Unions founded in 1945 in London in a spirit of anti-fascist unity. 

In recent years the ICFTU merged with the Christian World Confederation of Labour to found ITUC.

Its rival, the original WFTU, held its latest congress in Rome. Nearly 500 delegates came from 96 countries, with many more participating online. 

The WFTU represents 110 million workers in 133 countries, many in the global South. And for the first time in half a century, there were participants from several US union organisations, as well as a leader of the newly formed Starbucks Workers Union. 

While British trade unions have a long tradition of international solidarity and on the key questions of global justice, neocolonialism, racism and imperialism can often be found on the right side of history, there has been — at the level of TUC-affiliated unions — an almost wilful blindness to the global politics of the international trade union movement and the way the international bodies to which it is affiliated have found a largely comfortable niche in partnership with employers. 

For a long time the TUC international department was regarded as an extension of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and this discreetly masked cold war arrangement has more recently fallen from favour.

It is clear, not least from the account given by Baez, that the ITUC is in deep crisis and that a resolution can only come about with a decisive shift in political orientation and a profound culture shift.

While there is a growing sense that British trade unionists should take a more active interest in the way in which both the international and European bodies operate, a wider political question is raised by the impact of the changes in the global configuration of forces. 

The discredited notions of social partnership cannot be the guide to a new global trade unionism.

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