GENEVA — "Workers of the world, unite!" For more than a century, the slogan of Marx and Engels sought to rally laborers to the communist cause.
Yet a split between communist and capitalist worlds kept the global labor movement divided, with rival union groups in East and West.
Seven years after the Berlin Wall fell, labor still hasn't found a single voice. Holidays are one symbolic case in point: The United States and Canada will celebrate Labor Day on Monday as an end-of-summer rite, while many nations honor workers on May 1.
Divisions aside, organized labor faces a larger challenge: a sense of diminished importance.
"Young kids don't think, 'I want to be a labor leader when I grow up,' " says John Doohan, a spokesman for the International Labor Organization (ILO), a branch of the United Nations in Geneva.
"There has been an overall diminution of the role of trade unions worldwide," says Ulrich Flechsenhar, the ILO's deputy director of worker activities.
The flip side of communism's fall has been rising clout for capitalism. About 15 percent of the US workers belong to a union, down from roughly 25 percent in the 1970s.
Tale of two union groups
Against this backdrop of decline, two umbrella organizations are competing to lead workers into a brighter future.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Union (ICFTU), formed in 1949 as a noncommunist labor body, sees itself as a counterweight to the capitalist powers that be.
"In 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, trade unions recognized we were about to start a revolution," says Bill Jordan, general secretary of the ICFTU in Brussels. "Make no doubt, we know change will occur, and we don't want to stop it. But we must minimize damage done to the worker."
Meanwhile, the World Confederation of Trade Unions forges ahead as a legacy of East bloc communism. Founded in 1920, the WCTU condemns capitalism as an "exploiting economic system."
The raising of the Iron Curtain has not thawed the long-icy relationship between the two umbrella organizations. "It seems that the WCTU doesn't understand that the world has changed since the end of the cold war," says the ICFTU's Mr. Jordan.
The WCTU, once based in Prague and now in Brussels, saw most member unions exit, including those in Russia and much of East Europe. "We differ from the ICFTU by the fact that we are more oriented toward the third world," says WCTU spokesman Johann Verstraete. "We now stress the ethical and religious component of man. Man is much more than a material object."
Though their politics may differ, both organizations say they represent worker rights and help coordinate various national umbrella organizations. Both maintain working relationships with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
The WCTU says its member organizations represent 22 million workers in 61 countries, including Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Chile, Venezuela, and South Africa. The ICFTU boasts 144 affiliated organizations with 127 million members in 101 countries.
Opposition to communist labor unions goes back decades.
"There was a fear, whether justified or not, of a worldwide conspiracy centered in Moscow," says Ted St. Antoine, a law professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Trade unions there were viewed as an arm of the government. There was very substantial concern about domestic infiltration."
Worker rights: an unfinished battle
Even with the Soviet threat gone, the right to organize is still absent in countries such as Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. And trade unions are state-controlled conveyor belts of party policy in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Libya, Syria, Iraq, China, and North Korea.
"One thing we know," says the ICFTU's Jordan, "Is that trade unions underpin democracy. Consequently, we still oppose communist trade unions ... collaborating with governments."
Unions in some trade sectors in the former Soviet Union have developed ties with the ICFTU, but they are finding it difficult to remain independent. Presidential decrees have banned free trade unions in Belarus and in Uzbekistan. In Turkmenistan, the process of reform hasn't even started. "We'll probably need another 10 years before basic democratic values are firmly established" in these new countries, Professor St. Antoine says.
It's not just in former communist nations where labor fights for recognition. The ILO says that in Colombia, labor leaders are murdered by leftist guerrilla groups, drug traffickers, and authorities; in Algeria, union leaders and working women are killed by fundamentalist groups; in Swaziland, leaders are harassed.
Some problems are labor's own doing, especially in developed countries where union leadership has become complacent, says Guy Ryder, director of the ICFTU's Geneva office.
In the US, a narrow organizing base has contributed to a decline in union membership. Unions traditionally targeted working-class, white males, leaving many groups out, St. Antoine says.
Though the biggest challenge to labor in the years ahead seems to be in grass-roots organizing, the ICFTU sees a major issue to be fought at the international level: creating links between free-trade laws and basic labor rights.
The ICFTU has proposed that countries violating human rights be subjected to trade sanctions, and it has also called for a joint ILO-World Trade Organization body to monitor labor standards.