It is difficult to date the first employees’ union, but in Europe the industrial revolution led to the creation of collective attempts to solve some of the problems created by these new worlds of work.
In Britain, trade unionism as such began in the 1850s and gained in strength in the late 19th century, expanding rapidly during the World War One.
But in the 1970s, some three decades of economic growth ended and the salaried world was faced with factory closures, sackings and unemployment. The unions took to the streets but were unable to defend their members’ rights.
The World Trade Organisation was created in 1995 with the aim of regulating international trade, replacing the post-World War Two treaties intended to facilitate free trade.
The unions initially approved, convinced that free trade would favour workers as well as economic growth.
But for many, the 1990s were marked by relocations, more job losses and disappointment for workers. The unions discovered that globalisation was certainly not to everyone’s benefit and lacked a social dimension.
The figures now speak for themselves.
Some 2.8 billion of the world’s six billion people live on less that two dollars a day.
The average wage in the 20 richest countries is 37 times greater than that in the 20 poorest countries.
The value of the 10 largest multinationals is more than the GDP of 150 of the countries in the UN.
And Africa spends double on serving its debt than on healthcare.
The inequalities are overwhelming and the anti-globlalisation movement argues that trade unions are not doing enough to improve the lot of the world’s poorest.
In 2001, Porto Alegro saw the first World Social Forum, purportedly an antidote to the perceived wrongs of globalisation. The WSF aims to fight poverty, disease and environmental damage and wants globalisation to be replaced by a fairer version of worldwide trade which allows poorer countries the chance to advance themselves.