The Global Labour University (GLU) trains union activists across four continents to respond to globalisation. Guntram Doelfs reports on the issues the GLU faces five years after it opened its doors.
GUNTRAM DOELFS is a Berlin-based journalist.
It's a mild Tuesday morning in April, and we're in seminar room 83 at the Berlin School of Economics and Law. With the blinds down, the 30 or so students sitting in a semi-circle have been focusing their attention on the slides projected on to the screen. The scene could be a seminar at any German university, but take a closer look and you'll see that these students come from all over the world: Brazil and Columbia, China, India and Zimbabwe, not forgetting Turkey and the US. And they are virtually all trade unionists.
At the front is Frank Hoffer, an ILO expert who's just been lecturing - in English - about the minimum wage and the global financial crisis. He invites questions, and Andrews Tagoe from Ghana is the first to put up his hand. He wants to know what the lecture offers in terms of practical suggestions for Africans from a developing country.
Hoffer takes the question in his stride. He has been responsible for this unique course for the past six years, and he and his academic colleagues constantly have to clarify misunderstandings about what the Global Labour University does. He meets Tagoe's eye and says candidly, "At the moment I don't know yet either". He explains that this seminar is about understanding complex economic topics at a global level. But Tagoe, who has been seconded by the Ghanaian agricultural workers' union, is expecting solutions to his problems - African problems. Hoffer, however, is focusing on the global context.
GLOBAL SOLUTIONS_ This mismatch of expectations has been a feature of the GLU since it was set up in 2004 - partly because the project, which is supported by the ILO, the German Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Hans Böckler Foundation, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, is breaking new ground. But it is doing so very successfully, despite have experienced some teething troubles. The initial driver for setting up the GLU was an awareness that trade unions are poorly equipped to engage in critical debate about globalisation. As Christoph Scherrer, a professor at Kassel University and one of the GLU tutors, argued in a recent essay: while managers have long since thought internationally and are globally networked, the responses of workers and their representatives to global challenges still tend to be shaped largely by national issues. What's more, the trade union perspective barely registers in traditional economic research, which is dominated by neoliberal positions.
This imbalance gave rise to the idea of an academic training programme for trade union activists from across the world. Universities and trade unions from the countries of the South were involved in developing the curriculum from the outset so that, as Hoffer puts it, "they could develop their own programmes". He adds that it was important that, from day one, this project involved global dialogue and not just a north-south knowledge transfer.
At the heart of the GLU's work are year-long Masters programmes run in various locations across four continents. The curriculum varies according to location, but there is an overarching concept and plenty of scope for exchanges and mobility. Germany has been running the "Labour Policies and Globalisation" programme, with its emphasis on macroeconomics and globalisation theory, at Kassel University and the Berlin School of Economics and Law since 2004. The partner universities, where Masters programmes began in 2007 or 2008, have different focuses. In Johannesburg, for example, the emphasis is on labour and development, while in São Paulo, students get to grips with the role of multinationals in globalisation and in Mumbai they study the role of informal employment in the global economy.
Five years on, some 120 young union activists from 45 countries have graduated with the GLU Masters. This ambitious project is gradually becoming established, a first alumni network is beginning to take shape, and some graduates have gone on to work in the international departments of their union or at the ILO. Most, however, stay in the trade union movement after finishing their studies, and an alumni survey carried out by the GLU's steering committee in 2009 showed that 80% said they would be staying in the labour movement.
HERCULEAN TASKS_ Quality is the key to the programme's success. The course leader in Berlin, Hansjoerg Herr, says that the "Labour Policies and Globalisation" programme could compete with any other German Masters and is accredited to the same quality standards as comparable courses at other German universities. Hoffer adds that students can also gain credits for study at any of the partner institutions. Yet despite these successes, GLU continues to face difficulties. The tutors grapple with huge organisational challenges, not just because the curriculum has to be agreed and co-ordinated across the different institutions but also because selecting and recruiting students is substantially more fraught than recruiting for more conventional postgraduate programmes. Herr stresses that while the GLU wants to attract union activists to the programme, they have to be academically qualified and show an aptitude for the subject area.
Another obstacle to recruitment is the difficulty of getting information out to trade unions, concluded a steering committee report in September 2009. And even where the information does reach them, there are barriers to applications: even in Germany, unions aren't always happy to release staff for a whole year. Then there is the problem of paid officials losing substantial amounts of income while they study. And some find it difficult to reintegrate into their job on their return home. GLU has put in place a new, three-month programme called Exchange to try to solve some of these problems: it wants to offer something to those who can only get a limited period of leave but who are keen to learn more about the globalised economy, says Frank Hoffer.
GLU also faces language problems, especially in Latin America: teaching takes place in English, but it's not always widely spoken, particularly in Brazil. And even if the language barrier can be overcome, there are often other misunderstandings. Andrews Tagoe is typical of students who arrive expecting solutions to concrete problems in their home countries and who have to attend special additional workshops to develop the skills to grapple with more general theoretical content.
Despite all these difficulties, the programme is a huge success and the students are happy with it. As Denis Oshima Roberto from Brazil puts it, "It's not just a chance to share experiences; we're also being taught how to bridge the gap between theory and practice". Indah Budiarti from Indonesia adds, "The programme's equipping us to have a greater impact on social debate around working conditions". And everyone nods when Zeynep Ekin Aklar from Turkey says they'll keep in touch with each other and build a network.
(Translated by Hugh Keith from magazine Mitbestimmung 6/2010/Photo: Rolf Schulten)