SOMETIMES important trends in the world go largely unnoticed. One of these is the victory of free trade unions over communist-led unions in the industrial nations. For decades after World War II, the two sides fought it out in Western Europe for the allegiance of the workers. The press wrote frequently about it. But not today. Though communist-led unions remain active in France and Italy, their power has been greatly diminished. They have lost the war, says Stephen K. Pursey, secretary of the economic and social committee of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
Indeed, he believes Moscow has recognized this fact. This will be symbolized, he says, when a delegation from the ICFTU executive board meets Friday with Soviet party chief Mikhail Gorbachev.
Presuming the appointment is not canceled, the meeting will be the first time the chairman of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union has met with key leaders of the free trade union movement.
Leaders of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the communist-led trade group based in Prague, have, of course, had access to Soviet party bosses.
The WFTU claims some 250 million members, far more than the ICFTU. But about 200 million of these are in the East bloc, where membership in a trade union is not exactly voluntary in most cases.
That leaves some 50 million in noncommunist countries. Mr. Pursey suspects that number is exaggerated. The communist-led Italian trade union confederation pulled out of the WFTU a decade or so ago. Membership in France's CGT has been stagnant or declining, while the noncommunist trade unions have enjoyed more prosperity. There are large left-led trade union groups in Spain and Portugal that are associated with the WFTU but are not full members.
The WFTU's biggest affiliate in a noncommunist country is in India, with several million members. The struggle for worker loyalty continues in the developing world, where capitalism is often less enlightened and poverty remains rampant.
Membership in the 145 affiliates from 99 countries in the ICFTU amounts to some 85 million. ICFTU secretary-general John Vanderveken will be accompanied to Moscow by the heads of free trade union federations in West Germany, Britain, Canada, Sweden, Japan, and India. Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, will not join the group. Pursey says he is busy preparing for his federation's annual convention.
The occasion for the meeting with Mr. Gorbachev is the ICFTU's wish to present a resolution on peace, security, and disarmament approved at the ICFTU congress last March. The delegation also expects to meet with President Reagan when a slot can be found in his calendar.
Mr. Vanderveken and his group will be championing ``freedom of association,'' including the right to organize free trade unions, and other human rights to the Soviet leader. The ICFTU still claims as an affiliate Solidarity, Poland's free trade union, though that union has been banned by the government.
Pursey suspects that the Soviets will eventually find it in their own interest to relax the party control over trade unions. Gorbachev is giving enterprise managers more independence for the sake of efficiency. Continued improvement in worker productivity, Pursey says, could require similar greater freedom for trade union members.