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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 1: Trade Unions and NGOs: A Necessary Partnership for Social Development

29 Aug 2000

  • Author(s): Dan Gallin


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 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.

Since the 1970s, co-operation between unions and NGOs has developed over a wide range of issues. It has been most established and successful so far in the defence of human rights, including workers' rights. In the field of development and education, unions have been active largely through labour movement NGOs and academic institutions. More recently, co-operation has developed on environmental issues, particularly in agriculture, forestry, and chemical pollution in industry and mining.

Co-operation between unions and NGOs depends, in the first place, on shared objectives and, equally importantly, on the way the organizations involved operate (issues of legitimacy, transparency, accountability, management). Tensions between globalization—based on the neoliberal agenda (endorsed by most leading governments)—and the prospects for a just, egalitarian and democratic society (advocated by unions and most NGOs) have strengthened the case for co-operation.

Dan Gallin is the Chair of the Global Labour Institute, a foundation established in 1997 with its secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

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