Brits lead the workers of the world

John Monks, who will next year become the first Englishman to run the European Trade Union Confederation, is not the only British union leader performing on the world stage. More than half the international labour institutions are currently run by Brits.

Guy Ryder, who began his career in the TUC's international department, and who is fluent in at least five languages, became general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in January. The confederation covers an estimated 124 million workers in 143 countries.

John Evans, who cut his teeth in the Congress House economics department, is general secretary of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's trade union advisory committee. His small office lobbies western governments and international bodies, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the IMF, against the excesses of US-style capitalism as well as opposing the more outlandish views of anti-growth protesters.

In Geneva, Lord (Bill) Brett, former leader of IPMS, the civil service union for mainly scientists and technicians, chairs the meetings of the International Labour Organisation, a position normally occupied by a worthy from a national government. Brett was formerly leader of the workers' group in the ILO.

Then there are the specific industrial sectors. Fred Higgs, a former full-time official with the Transport and General Workers' Union, is general secretary of ICEM, the international organisation that covers the chemical, energy and mining industries. Aidan White, once a militant in the National Union of Journalists, heads the International Federation of Journalists. Philip Jennings is general secretary of Union Network International, the 15.5 million-strong colossus, while Ron Oswald heads the IUF, which covers food, hotel, catering and agricultural workers. And in London you will find the offices of David Cockcroft, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, founded in 1896.

In the past, the British trade union movement often suffered, perhaps unfairly, from a reputation for being insular, parochial and uninterested in the plight of foreign workers. And British union members, as offshore Europeans, were often despised or ignored by their foreign counterparts for their incorrigible ignorance or lack of interest in the wider international scene.

There were notable exceptions. Ernest Bevin, as leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, always took a keen interest in the activities of the ILO in Geneva, while his colleague - the then TUC general secretary Walter Citrine - was an active president of the International Federation of Trade Unions between the two world wars. But Beatrice Webb's scathing description, in her diary, of a delegation of British union leaders cavorting in a Paris boulevard bistro just after the First World War was probably more emblematic of union Brits abroad. What limited interest they displayed tended to concentrate on the empire and the US.

Now the Brits have colonised the international labour movement. More than anything, it is a compliment to the universality of the English language and to the difficulty that the American labour movement has in being accepted internationally. But some credit is also due to the TUC, which trained many of these men when they were young university graduates.

The trade union Brits abroad do not form a club or formal network. But they could and should develop a common agenda of action, providing international labour with a higher profile in response to globalisation. The first, tentative signs of closer co-operation are emerging.

This is no late flowering of British neocolonialism. In their quiet and competent way as incorruptible and consensual administrators, Brits do bring a sense of calm and reason to the world of global governance, which is so often prone to emotionalism and rhetoric. John Monks promises to become an impeccable addition to an existing practice. "Workers of the world unite under the Brits" may not be a rallying cry for global labour that is often heard. But it does seem to have turned, unexpectedly, into a reality.

Robert Taylor is research associate at the Centre for Economic Performance, based at the London School of Economics, working on the Leverhulme-funded Future of the Unions project. He is also researching a biography of Ernest Bevin