Global Labour University and South-south Cooperation: Interview with Frank Hoffer

Press release | 27 April 2011

ACTRAV INFO: You are the coordinator for the Global Labour University (GLU)at ACTRAV-ILO. Can you brief us on this academic institution?

Frank Hoffer: The Global Labour University (GLU) is a unique international network of trade unions, universities and the ILO to respond to the challenges of globalization from a labour perspective. Globalisation has delivered too little for too many, or rather, too much for the very few. The promises of the mainstream that ‘the tide lifts all boats’ did not materialize and the global crisis has shown the dangerous dysfunctionality of a global economy driven by uncontrolled and irresponsible capital markets, precarious employment and a trade regime dominated by the global north. There is an urgent need for alternatives and new ideas. That is what we are supporting through the Global Labour University.

In order to do this, the GLU organizes an annual research conference, produces a series of books and working papers on global labour issues, provides a space for the creation of numerous international research teams, publishes a weekly Global Labour Column, and provides international qualification programmes for trade unionists.

ACTRAV INFO: What kind of qualification programmes does the GLU offer for trade unions and their members?

Frank Hoffer: The GLU offers tailor-made Master’s programmes and short-term postgraduate courses on labour and globalization for trade unionists at partner universities in Brazil, Germany, India, and South Africa. At each campus, trade unionists from many different countries study jointly, as we are deeply convinced that responses to globalization cannot be developed in a purely national context. The curricula have been developed in a series of joint international workshops of trade unions, the ILO and our academic partners, and addresses issues such as macroeconomics and wage policies, multinational companies and trade unions, international labour standards and global governance, trade union revitalization and organizing the informal sector.The academic qualification programmes are closely linked to internships with labour organizations at national and international level. This gives participants the opportunity to experience the work of trade unions in different countries and combine their research work with the real world’s needs, and campaigns of trade union organizations.

ACTRAV INFO: Who can apply for these courses?

Frank Hoffer: The programmes are open to trade unionists of any nationality who meet the formal requirements for a postgraduate university programme, and who have the support from their trade union. For us, we want to support trade unionists who are personally highly motivated and who will work as experts with trade union organizations when they go home. So far we have been quite successful, and the large majority of the students stayed in the labour movement after getting their degrees. Another important priority is the strong involvement of trade unions and academic institutions from the south. We have to overcome the traditional north-south knowledge transfer and build strong forms of south-south and triangular relationships. Many of the most powerful and innovative trade union initiatives of the last decades come from the south. Be it the crucial role of Brazilian trade unions in supporting the massive policy changes in Brazil under President Lula, the pivotal role of COSATU in overcoming the legacy of apartheid, or the pioneering role of SEWA in organizing women in the informal economy.

ACTRAV INFO: South-South and triangular cooperation seems to be very popular in the current development discourse. What does it mean in a trade union context?

Frank Hoffer: We started the GLU eight years ago for a simple reason. If two-thirds of the world’s workers are in the south, either their interests, knowledge and aspirations are fully reflected in the labour debates or the movement will not become truly global. South-south and triangular cooperation between trade unions is clearly much easier than between governments as there are more commonly shared values. Given the power of multinational companies and the permanent threat of lowering social standards in any country in the name of competitiveness, the need for mutual solidarity rather than development assistance becomes more apparent every day. It is this need for trade union solidarity across borders to respond to multinational companies, and the need for international social and labour standards to stop the race to the bottom that, in our view, makes south-south and triangular cooperation between trade unions ever more urgent.

ACTRAV INFO: Do you have some projects in the context of this South-South cooperation for workers?

Frank Hoffer: Let us mention two initiatives: One is the Global Labour Column which is organized by our GLU partners in South Africa. They invite people from around the globe to write short policy-orientated articles to share their analysis and experiences on alternative policies and trade union struggles. To our knowledge, it is one of the very few examples of a global forum that is based in Africa. This year’s Global Labour Column yearbook will be launched at the International Labour Conference in three languages. Its title “There is an alternative” expresses very clearly what we try to promote. Margaret Thatcher is associated with inventing ‘TINA’, or, “there is no alternative”, a message that the neoliberal mainstream has repeated for the last 30 years. Their mantra got us into the biggest crisis of a century. Clearly, we had better start looking for alternatives, and we believe that taking the knowledge, experiences, and voices of the south seriously is an indispensable precondition for this.

The other opportunity for south-south cooperation for workers within the GLU network is our international research teams. Over the years we have built teams of GLU Alumni who carry out comparative research on issues relevant to labour. As a result we published a series of working papers focussing on trade union strategies to influence national trade policies, on design and implementation of minimum wage policies, or on innovative approaches of trade unions to close the representational gap in micro and small enterprises.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, according to your opinion, what is the role of training in general and the GLU in particular in strengthening the trade union movement?

Frank Hoffer: The strength of trade unions depends firstly on their ability to mobilize and organize workers; secondly, the trust and integrity of their leaders; and thirdly, the competence of the organizations to influence the debate on social and economic policies within their societies. In our view, the ILO should focus our efforts on the latter. The ability of workers to organize themselves into trade unions and show strong and trustworthy leadership does not depend on the ILO. What we at the ILO can, and should do, is help trade unions to build up their competence and capacity for economic, legal and social policy expertise. The GLU wants to make full use of the knowledge capacity of the ILO as a whole and we hope that trade unions can fully benefit from this. However, we also want to facilitate a closer engagement of ILO officials with the trade unions globally, as we are convinced that many of our colleagues will find this rewarding, motivating and will realize that there are things to be learned beyond the boundaries of 4 route des Morillons.

For more information, contact:

Frank HOFFER
Specialiste in Workers’Activities
Tel: +41 22 799 89 37
Email: hoffer[at]ilo.org