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Transforming Transport for the Common Good

01 Jun 2023
Delegates at the Johannesburg conference

In March 2023, the ITF Road, Rail and Urban Transport Sections conferences took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. As the democratic forums for workers and unions in these sectors across the world, each conference committed itself to the following joint vision. As we return to our home countries, we must urgently renew our work to transform our sectors for the common good.

Transport workers know all too well the crises our societies face: inflation and the spiralling cost of living, attacks globally on the rights of trade unions to organise, climate change, racism, war and the ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But transport workers also know the solutions to these problems. Our only hope for the future is to recommit ourselves to building and strengthening a global movement that places the principles of solidarity and justice above the greed and division that have brought our world to the brink.

Our movement has shown time and time again that nothing is beyond our reach: no corporation and no oppressive regime is immune to the transformative power of the organized working class.

This declaration serves as a rallying cry for our movement: by taking inspiration from our movement’s history - not least the role that trade unions played in toppling Apartheid - we must prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead.


ITF Johannesburg Declaration: Transforming Road, Rail and Urban Transport for the Common Good

  1. Our world is in crisis, and we must unite to overcome it. The last ITF Congress in 2018 was held in the long shadow of the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2007-2009. In the years since, societies everywhere have been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led not only to a continuing health crisis but also increased wealth inequality in and between countries. In the post-pandemic phase, a failure of investment and production to meet renewed spending by households and businesses, exacerbated by supply chain blockages (the loss of workers in key sectors and the collapse of trade and transport connections) and the Russo-Ukrainian War (which has constrained energy and food supplies and enabled opportunistic financial speculation) is now causing stagnation. Meanwhile, climate change and biodiversity loss continue unabated, threatening the natural foundations on which all human life depends. The situation is especially acute in countries of the global south, where debt crises have severely constrained the capacity for public spending on social and environmental priorities. 
  2. The inland transport sectors – road, rail and urban transport – are critical to societies in every part of the globe. During the pandemic, deliveries of vital medical supplies and other staples, as well as the movement of key workers, would have been impossible without road, rail and public transport workers. Despite governments and employers hailing transport workers as heroes, many (particularly those in informal and precarious forms of employment) received limited or no protection for their health and livelihoods.
  3. Now, transport workers are being asked to shoulder the burdens of the pandemic and its aftermath, from rising fuel prices to cuts in public spending and services, to a deepening climate crisis. Rail, road and public transport workers are fighting back, and yet these collective actions have been met with increasingly aggressive assaults on fundamental labour rights by governments and employers. 
  4. As trade unions of road, rail and public transport workers, we have a global vision based on shared principles. Labour creates all value, and so the cornerstone of our sectors must be strong labour standards for all transport workers, regardless of employment status. We must all enjoy the fundamental rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, occupational safety and health (OSH) and collective action, the only means by which we can advance and protect our position and interests with respect to governments and employers.
  5. However, it is not enough for us to simply represent our own interests in sectors dominated by others. Governments and employers around the world have proven themselves incapable of building and maintaining transport systems that are compatible with human society and the natural environment. Business models which seek to maximise profit while ignoring external social and environmental costs are failing workers and society at large, and yet often persist under government protection. The results of these broken models are all around us: staggering inequality; violence, harassment and discrimination which disproportionately affects women, non-binary people and ethnic, racial and sexual minorities; the expansion of authoritarian and fascist politics; a burning planet; societies that can no longer protect and include older and disabled people and other marginalised groups; and vanishing prospects for young people and future generations. Just as we can no longer entrust the future of our world to those who have proven themselves unfit to wield power, we can no longer entrust our transport systems to those who operate them in an unjust, unsustainable, dangerous and destructive manner. 
  6. Unions at the three conferences have developed transformative policies and programmes to shift the balance of power in each sector. These are based on a common recognition that we must take responsibility for making our sectors socially and environmentally sustainable, and grounded in the following shared principles:
    1. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The value of transport must be assessed on its social and environmental benefits as well as its economic costs. Labour and human rights standards must be based on this assessment, in order to overcome dangerous and destructive competition among workers and between different transport modes. Our work must allow us to live with dignity: to benefit from social protection, with pay that allows us to house and feed ourselves, allowing time for a personal life and access to leisure and culture.
    2. Companies throughout supply and contracting chains, particularly those at the top, must take responsibility for guaranteeing compliance with labour, human rights, safety and environmental standards throughout these chains. Governments must enact legislation and regulation that support supply chain accountability and recognise unions’ roles in enforcing it.
    3. All workers must be guaranteed robust OSH protections, both physical and mental. Governments and employers must ensure safe and healthy working environments rather than shifting responsibility onto individuals. Safe and healthy workplaces are essential to ensuring safe roads, railways and public transport for passengers, customers and communities.
    4. Transport systems must be made sustainable for workers, communities and the planet. Governments and employers must work together with unions to achieve sustainable transport, based on a shift from higher- to lower-emission modes in parallel with the decarbonisation of energy and transport systems. This must be achieved through both technological and structural change, with the guarantee of a just transition for workers.
    5. Workers must have a meaningful role in the introduction of all new technologies. Technological innovation must contribute to overcoming existing inequalities and improve working and living conditions, rather than further stoke runaway profiteering and inequality.
    6. Assertive measures are required to end the systemic exclusion of women from decent work. Governments and employers, in consultation with women workers and unions, must take active steps to overcome the complex and interrelated barriers that prevent women from accessing, remaining and progressing in workplaces in our sectors and to achieve gender equality. Improving conditions for women workers leads to improvements for all workers, regardless of their gender.
    7. Our sectors must be places where young workers can thrive. The erosion of pay and working conditions – driven by many of the factors outlined above – particularly impacts younger generations, who will spend more of their working lives in these harsh circumstances, yet our sectors will struggle to adapt to a changing global economy without attracting the enthusiasm and expertise of a new generation of workers. The voices of young workers should be strengthened in all decisions about the future of their sectors to ensure intergenerational justice
  7. We understand that advancing and achieving our visions for our sectors will not be an easy task. To be successful we must have unity of purpose within and among our unions and within the ITF. We must also make a commitment to consolidate internal democracy, including by addressing barriers to equal participation for women workers, young workers and other marginalised groups. We must organise on a sectoral basis rather than at the level of individual employers, build workers’ power from below, and strengthen international solidarity.
  8. Therefore, the road, rail and urban transport conferences call on the ITF and its affiliates to commit time, capacity and resources in the next Congress period to: deepening a transformative vision for our sectors; building worker control, democratic participation and leadership in our unions; and developing strategies to shift the balance of power in our sectors and society. Building cooperation and unity between unions in road, rail and urban transport gives us the capacity and strength needed to lead these organisational, industrial and political changes. In addition, we stress that the sectoral visions and role for unions and the ITF contained in this declaration must centrally shape the 2024 Congress theme and outcomes.

There are particular moments in history that call on workers and their unions to articulate and fight for new visions for their sectors and wider society. The post-pandemic present, which is marked by multiple overlapping crises, is one such moment. Here in South Africa, the mass mobilisation and organisation of workers was critical to bringing down the apartheid system and establishing a non-racial democracy with one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. South African unions built strong alliances with mass-based organisations representing women, youth, students and local communities. They fought industrial and political struggles and challenged oppression and exploitation inside and outside their workplaces. They built worker internationalism and received solidarity and support from the global labour movement, including the ITF. As we set out our vision for the road, rail and urban transport sectors in every part of the world, we learn from past struggles and re-commit to fighting for industrial and political change.