1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

Trade Unions and NGOs: A Necessary Partnership for Social Development



What distinguishes trade unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from other actors in civil society (for example mainstream churches, religious sects, educational institutions, professional associations)? This paper argues they are different because they have specific agendas for the improvement of society.

Unions have always held that a consistent defence of their members’ interests over the long term requires them to work for people’s overall well-being. Their vision of society includes elements such as political, social and industrial democracy, civil and democratic rights for all, the elimination of poverty, equality and the rule of law. In this respect, they can legitimately claim to be serving the interests of society generally, as can NGOs acting on a desire to advance and improve the human condition. Consequently, co-operation between unions and NGOs is possible and necessary in a shared perspective of building a society in which the satisfaction of basic human needs is the overriding priority.

This paper examines the conditions that unions and NGOs must meet to strengthen their alliance. It reviews the historical background, the existing record, the difficulties and the potential for co-operation.
Unions re-emerged after the Second World War in a favourable political context worldwide, which helped conceal the crippling losses inflicted by several decades of repression by totalitarian states and by the war itself. NGOs had already been created by the mostly social-democratic labour movement before and after the First World War to address the special needs of its membership (in the areas of welfare, housing, health, education, culture) and to advance its political agenda. These were not merely service organizations; they represented an attempt to create an alternative society or counter-culture.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 2000
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD