Claiming 157 million members in 225 affiliated organisations in 148 countries and territories, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) came into being on December 7, 1949 following a split within the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).
Alleging Communist domination of the WFTU's central institutions, a large number of non-communist national trade union federations (including the U.S. AFL-CIO, the British TUC, the French CFDT, the Italian CISL and the Spanish UGT) seceded and created the rival ICFTU at a conference in London attended by representatives of nearly 48 million members in 53 countries.
From the 1950s the ICFTU actively recruited new members from the developing regions of first Asia and subsequently Africa. Following the collapse of Communist party government in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, the Federation's membership has risen steeply from 87 million in 1988 and 100 million in 1992.
The ICFTU has three regional organisations, APRO for Asia and the Pacific, AFRO for Africa, and ORIT for the Americas. The ICFTU also maintains close links with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) (which includes all ICFTU European affiliates) and Global Union Federations, which link together national unions from a particular trade or industry at international level, and which we will discuss in two weeks.
Central to the ICFTU's work has been the struggle to defend workers' rights. The ICFTU lobbies for the ratification of what it calls "core labour standards" -- the various conventions of the International Labour Organization.
The ICFTU has staff which are devoted entirely to the monitoring and defense of workers rights, and they issue -- almost on a daily basis -- alerts and calls to action. Every June, the ICFTU publishes its "Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights" which is essential reading for those who are concerned with these issues. The publication of that report is usually accompanied by extensive press coverage of the violations of trade union rights around the globe, often focussing on the numbers of people killed simply for being members of unions.
In its constitution, the organization pledged itself to "champion the cause of human freedom, promote equality of opportunity for all people, seek to eliminate everywhere in the world any form of discrimination or subjugation based on race, religion, sex or origin, oppose and combat totalitarianism and aggression in any form".
That constitution lists no fewer than seventeen aims of the organization and without wishing to sound cynical, it does appear that the ICFTU from its very beginning set itself goals which it would impossible to achieve -- particularly with a small staff and budget. For example, the organization's constitution requires it "to carry out a programme of trade union and workers’ education" or give "assistance to those suffering from the consequences of natural and industrial disasters".