The concern raised by some pundits that the scale of trade union involvement in this year’s European Social Forum represents a mainstream takeover will raise a wry smile from those who remember that it was only 20 years ago that Margaret Thatcher dubbed unions the "enemy within".

On the contrary, the strength of involvement in the social forum meeting this weekend in London is testimony to a new union willingness to build alliances with a range of social movements that share our values and our ambition to create a better world. The campaign to organise cleaners at Canary Wharf is one example. The cleaners — mainly women of African and South American origin — clean the desks and empty the bins of some of the richest bankers in the world for little more than ?5 an hour, minimum holidays and zero pensions.

The Transport and General Workers Union has teamed up with the East London Communities Organisation to help the cleaners organise and campaign for a living wage. One key demand is that employers greet the cleaners with a "hello" and a smile in the early morning. This may seem minimalist, but this demand for respect — to be treated as human beings and not just (at best) as human resources – is profound, and lies at the heart of the new alliance. And that alliance is rooted in the understanding that success will not be won by organising either in the workplace or in the community — it needs both.

The willingness to work beyond the workplace to improve people’s lives is in part a product of the new make-up of the union movement. For the first time in history, union membership among women and men has reached 50/50. Winning decent, affordable childcare provision in the community is as important to today’s typical trade unionist as better pay. As the union pioneers of the 19th century realised, improving the social wage — public housing, education, pensions and health — not only provides minimum protection but acts as a crucial vehicle for that core union aim of greater equality. And building alliances with those that share our aims, from community childcare campaigns to faith-based organisations, simply makes good sense. Advertiser links Need a Car Loan? Bad Credit Specialists

Growing globalisation has demonstrated ever more vividly that going it alone is not an option. While the union movement has always been international, it has not yet proved a match for rising multinational corporate power. Joint campaigns between students, workers and consumers such as "No Sweat, Fair Play" and "Labour Behind the Label" exposing exploitation and human rights abuses have put governments and corporations in the spotlight and labour standards on the agenda. Campaigns to curb the freedom of corporations to move operations, from call centres to car factories, around the world at whim necessarily depend on international solidarity to succeed.

Of course if unions are to help change the world, then we must also change ourselves. While manufacturing job losses have hit union numbers hard, there are new signs of growth among women workers in the private service sector, once seen as a no-go zone for unions. Increasingly, unions are recognising that reaching a new generation of workers — from young IT professionals to low-paid migrant workers — means trying out new ways to organise not just at work but in society too.

Of the 20,000 people gathering in London, jost of them will be young, many of them will be black, and a lot of them will have migrated here to look for work — the very people trade unions need to recruit and organise to win workplace justice. The scale of the event, and the groups it attracts, run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy that people (and especially the young) are uninterested in politics and that migrants just want to keep their heads down.

But if the European Social Forum is really going to break those "rules", it needs to be more than a talking shop. And if union involvement in the forum is to be more than tokenism, we need to treat it as more than a glorified recruitment fair. The overwhelming concerns of those at the ESF are ones to which trade unions ought to be responding — privatisation, discrimination and deregulation. The challenge for all of us is to get better at winning.

The ESF is an opportunity to talk about another Europe in another world. To reach that promised land, we will need another trade union movement. On Monday, when the ESF is over, unions will still be around, not just in London but in workplaces all over the world. The forum will pose the questions. Unions must become central to the answer.


* Frances O’Grady is the deputy general secretary of the British Trade Union Congress — TUC