A major corruption scandal, involving the head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and members of the European Parliament, came to light at the end of 2022. All allegedly received bribes from the Qatari and Moroccan regimes, in exchange for cleaning up the country’s image in advance of the 2022 World Cup. An investigation by the Brussels daily Le Soir uncovered the scandal, leading to the arrest and later sacking of ITUC General Secretary Luca Visentini. He previously stepped aside in December, having spent only a few days in the role.
The ringleaders of this bribery scheme are Greek MEP Eva Kaili (PASOK), her partner, a parliamentary assistant and two other politicians: Belgian Socialist Party member Marc Tarabella, and former MEP/CGIL bureaucrat, Antonio Panzeri. Visentini, former secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), was also arrested and later released. He is suspected of receiving money from an illegally funded NGO to finance his campaign as leader of the main trade union confederation. He later admitted receiving the money from this NGO.
The World Cup in Qatar was a source of great controversy, not least because of the poor working conditions of the millions of migrant workers who built the facilities for the event. Seven years ago, when Qatar was announced as the 2022 host, most workers' organisations denounced both the corruption of FIFA and the conditions facing workers in Qatar. But only a few months before the tournament, suddenly the tone changed.
After a cosmetic reform of labour laws in Qatar, the top leadership of the ITUC started to portray Qatar as a model for improving working conditions, based on the promise of signing a couple of International Labour Organisation conventions, with no teeth. This was despite multiple reports on appalling working conditions on the ground showing little improvement.
Now, Belgian judges have linked Visentini to an effort to whitewash Qatar. He left the European unions a million euros in debt, and was allowed to become the leader of the global trade union confederation. In this capacity, he was invited to attend annual meetings in Davos, rubbing shoulders with the elite of the ruling classes around the world. Unfortunately for him, his career was quickly interrupted by the Qatar payments scandal.
He has denied any wrongdoing, but confesses to receiving €50,000 from an NGO called Fight Impunity (co-founded by Panzeri), which was allegedly used to fence bribes from the Qatari government. Having been released from custody in December 2022, he was removed from his position in March this year. Other leading union bureaucrats will no doubt be implicated, as this is not just an isolated case.
A rotten apple?
How could organisations, ostensibly committed to the defence of workers' rights, have such a character at their head? For a start, the ETUC and especially the ITUC are barely union bodies in the true sense, and their privileged leadership is bound to capitalist interests by a thousand threads. That being said, Visentini is not just one bad apple: the upper echelons of the trade union bureaucracy is a basket full of rotten apples! Corruption is rampant amongst these ladies and gentlemen.
Just to offer a few examples: Estonian trade unionist Lina Carr, who worked with Visentini at the ETUC, received more than €46,000 in allowances for 160 committee meetings held in Brussels between January 2015 and May 2019, even though she was based in the same city during this time! This was while she was already receiving a high salary as Confederal Secretary of the ETUC. So, she was getting money to attend meetings a few hundred metres from her office, while she was being paid thousands of euros a month to attend those same meetings!
Following these revelations, the ETUC applied a rule that no member “could receive fees from an external body”. Carr resigned as a member of the leading committee in May 2019, citing the pressure of working at the ETUC. No doubt related to the stress of being paid twice for the same meeting. Despite this scandal three years ago, Ms Carr was a candidate for the post of ETUC Deputy General Secretary at the next congress in Berlin. This was apparently not a problem in the eyes of the union tops.
This privileged clique spends their working days in meetings with EU bureaucrats, pocketing big salaries, holding back their rank-and-file members from real struggle, and making their organisations dependent on government subsidies. While ‘defending workers’ rights’, these characters continue to get paid by public institutions, demanding more ‘capacity building’, more ‘social dialogue’, and more ‘collective bargaining’, without any direct involvement by the ordinary workers who are really suffering from the cost-of-living crisis.
Visentini's previous union, Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL), has recently been rocked by the installation of an interim union leadership because of a corruption scandal in the federation of public sector workers. In recent decades, there is hardly a country that has not had a major scandal linked to the leadership of the major unions. In Spain, there was outrage over the role of unions in planned redundancies (ERE); in France, general secretaries were redoing their offices and adding wine cellars on expenses; the Automotive Workers Union in the US has seen most of its leaders jailed for embezzlement; even the famous Nordic unions have seen their presidents resign over misuse of funds. The list could go on, with scandals in Canadian, Mexican or Australian unions, to name but a few.
Why is this happening? The answer was given 82 years ago by Leon Trotsky, at the end of his life, when he wrote:
“There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organisations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.”
“Monopoly capitalism does not rest on competition and free private initiative but on centralised command. The capitalist cliques at the head of mighty trusts, syndicates, banking consortiums, etcetera, view economic life from the very same heights as does state power; and they require at every step the collaboration of the latter. In their turn the trade unions in the most important branches of industry find themselves deprived of the possibility of profiting by the competition between the different enterprises. They have to confront a centralised capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power. Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in ‘freeing’ the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism. The labour bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the ‘democratic’ state how reliable and indispensable they are in peace-time and especially in time of war.”
These words ring truer than ever with today's scandal. The union tops, who have been leaned on and rewarded for their service in defending the capitalist system, have become embroiled with the criminal dealings of the bourgeois state.
The pressure of the intensifying crisis of capitalism has resulted in struggles for control over the unions, as the rank-and-file undergo a certain rejuvenation, with radical, younger elements entering the fray. But the corrupt, ossified bureaucrats at the top use every dirty trick to hold on to their posts: partly to defend their wages and privileges, but also because genuine class fighters winning leading positions would expose their entire strategy of peaceful coexistence and corrupt collusion with bosses and politicians.
For example, recently, the right fought a ruthless war against the left-controlled NEC of the major British union, Unison, assisted by the weakness of the reformist left and its capitulation to identity politics, which was shamelessly exploited by their opponents.
A fighting and accountable working-class leadership!
Many honest trade unionists read in the press that a recently elected leader has been jailed for corruption. They might suspect a plot by the bosses to undermine the image of the unions, which often happens. Unfortunately, that is not what has happened in this case. This is not an attack on the trade union movement by one of its external enemies, but a case of an elected leader who has abused his position with the connivance of like-minded trade union bureaucrats.
Accepting money from Qatar (or from an NGO illegally funded by Qatar) is little different than accepting money from any multinational company with the promise not to strike, while being allowed to organise a union. It follows the same logic of the so-called ‘social partnership’. The same logic that leads these people to frequent five-star hotels in Davos and guzzle champagne with the bosses, on the backs of millions of workers paying their union dues.
The higher one ascends the union bureaucracy, the further removed one becomes from the class struggle and the pressure of the rank-and-file. In the case of the ITUC, the largest global trade union confederation, one could literally not be further away from the everyday struggles of the working class. Bureaucrats in Visentini’s position are indistinguishable from the bourgeoisie.
The working class does not need leeches who live off its efforts and struggle. It needs a determined leadership that is committed to fighting for its interests and wants to destroy the system that causes its ills! For that, it needs a new layer of radical leaders who want to fight their bosses and the system.
Today, the trade union movement is in ferment. The cost-of-living crisis, with inflation eating into workers’ wages, has served as a whip to drive the struggle forward on the industrial front. There have been serious strikes and mobilisations in one country after another: from Britain, to Canada, to the USA, to France, to Germany and beyond. Fresh new forces are joining the ranks of the unions, as the workers are being forced to rediscover their will to fight simply in order to defend their living conditions. There has been a modest but significant increase in union memberships in many countries, and a big uptick in industrial action.
Even backward and conservative trade union leaders are in some instances being forced by pressure from below to go further than they would like. Some are already being replaced by those who profess a greater willingness to fight. But in order for the mass organisations of the working class to be instruments of struggle that are equal to the class warfare on the agenda, they need to be revolutionised from top to bottom. The rotten old wood at the top needs to be jettisoned, and real class fighters put in their place.
The rank-and-file must wage a ruthless struggle against graft: demanding their leaders open up the union books to their members, while enforcing democratic accountability from below. The corrupt and treacherous elements currently in control must be thrown out so the labour movement can advance.