A defence of the golden age gone by might feed one's nostalgia but it does not provide good ideas to move us out of the morass of the present

On May 28, a select group of delegates will enter a room in the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva to elect the body's next Director-General. Nine candidates are in line for the post. The ILO's byzantine process revolves around a tripartite structure, with the employers (the International Organisation of Employers), the workers (largely the International Trade Union Confederation, ITUC) and the governments sharing the task of selecting the next Director.

The governments hold 28 of the votes, and the workers and employers share 14 votes each. One of the candidates, the former leader of the ITUC and a long-time ILO insider, Guy Ryder, has been backed by the ITUC and is well-positioned to take control of the organisation. But with the world economy in crisis and the ILO unable to break out of a three-decade-long stasis, it is clear that Ryder's leadership is not what the ILO needs. Mired in ideological confusion and in institutional paralysis, the ILO requires a break from the past. Absent new thinking about the transformation of work and the decline of unionism, the ILO will continue down the path of irrelevance.

Born in 1919 out of a century of social democratic and Catholic working-class organisations, as well as out of fear of the Soviet revolution, the ILO promised to secure the place of workers in modern society. Rather than the class-conflict model of the Marxists, the ILO chose the route of employer-worker collaboration to set labour standards and to improve working conditions. For its first 50 years, the ILO forged about two hundred legally binding conventions to shape and regulate national markets. The modular worker was a man with a full-time union job. In 1969, at its zenith, the ILO won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Prize came just when two important processes began to undermine the ILO. First, the social process we know as “globalisation” broke the back of national markets and rendered extinct the full-time union job. Catastrophic declines in union membership across the Global North came at the same time as industrial production moved to the South, where union membership was not low to begin with. The new worker was no longer exclusively male, with women workers in “footloose factories” increasingly the face of today's labourer. Second, the Global North moved aggressively to defund any United Nations agency that challenged the ideology of neoliberalism, or privatisation of public enterprises and freeing up employers against workers. In the 1970s, the United States government withdrew from the ILO and suspended its annual contribution (the U.S. used to pay for a quarter of the ILO's budget).

A constrained ILO floundered. It was not able to come to terms with the stark changes in the world economy, and pressure from the U.S. pushed its secretariat to make concessions to neo-liberal policymaking. The ILO had to fund its programs from private foundations, whose own agendas now leaked into this inter-governmental body. As Guy Standing, a former senior ILO official, put it, “the effect was a weary focus on survival.”

Rather than go headlong into an investigation of the new kinds of work, the ILO has produced a set of bland concepts that do not address reality: “decent work” being the most shop-worn of the lot. One of the problems for the ILO that Guy Standing identified is that the governing body, which will chose the next leader, is constituted by yesterday's economy. “Unless its governance structure is made more representative of today's world of work and social policy,” Standing said, “the ILO will drift into its dotage.” Unfortunately the leading candidate for the ILO post was one of those who brought the current configuration of the governing body into the management structure of the ILO. This is precisely the kind of manoeuvre that is fated to prevent any real change in the ILO.

Some of the candidacies are farcical. Tarciscio Mora of the Colombian Confederation of Workers says that the candidacy of Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón is a scandal while “trade unionists are still being killed” in Colombia. Last year was the first time in two decades that the ILO did not blacklist Colombia (not long after Garzón's nomination, paramilitaries in Putamayo killed Oil Worker leader Mauricio Arrendondo and his wife Janeth Ordoñez Carlosama in front of their children). The French candidate Gilles de Robien is a nobleman from Brittany, a Count no less, which makes him, as one ILO insider put it, a credible member of the labor aristocracy! Sweden's Mona Sahlin comes to the election after leading the Social Democratic Party to its worst ever performance in the Swedish parliamentary elections of 2010.

Apart from Ryder, two other candidates are from inside the ILO, Benin's Charles Dan is the ILO's Regional Director for Africa and Senegal's Assane Diop is an Executive Director at the ILO's Social Protection Sector. Two other candidates are politicians who have worked intimately in the promotion of neoliberal ideas. The Netherlands' Ad Melkert, a former government official, was Executive Director at the World Bank (where, as ethics chief, he is rumoured to have given former Bank President Paul Wolfowitz a free pass with his scandal). Niger's Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, a former Prime Minister, was one of the architects of the New Partnership for Africa's Development and of the African Agenda. None of these men have a vision for the revitalisation of the ILO.

The only Asian candidate is Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who is currently the Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. While most of the other candidates seem poised to treat the ILO as a career post, and to allow it to slip into irrelevance, K.S. Jomo's track record at the U.N. promises an alternative path. When the financial crisis struck, K.S. Jomo joined the process in the U.N. to push its agencies to offer a “second opinion” on the appropriate policy responses to the crisis. At the heart of this was to rethink the neoliberal emphasis of most policy. If nothing else, it is likely that K.S. Jomo would bring this intellectual orientation to bear on the ILO's work.

A new ILO report points out that the world has lost some fifty million jobs as a result of the financial crisis. Austerity regimes in Europe cannot bring employment or lessen inequality. The election results from France and Greece reveal the desire among the people for an alternative path. The ILO is one inter-governmental agency that should be capable of producing the intellectual and policy leadership to tackle both unemployment and inequality.

The world needs new thinking. A defence of the golden age gone by might feed one's nostalgia but it does not provide good ideas to move us out of the morass of the present. Millions seek work and dignity. They do not want platitudes. They want answers.

(Vijay Prashad is the author, most recently, of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, forthcoming and of Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World).

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