From the 1930s through the 1980s, the United Steelworkers (USW) and its sister industrial union, the United Auto Workers, were the heart of organized labor in America. If the woman in the street or the legislator in D.C. had been asked to name the most powerful union in the country, the USW would have been at the top of the list. And deservedly so: With a membership topping 1 million, correspondingly vast coffers, immense political sway, and industry-wide bargaining power, it won the kinds of contracts and prominence that few other unions ever gained in America's notoriously conservative political economy.
Everyone knows what happened next. With great power comes great complacency, and by the 1980s the American steel industry no longer maintained its once commanding grip on the international steel market. Coupled with an increasingly piratical global corporate culture, the industry suddenly and violently collapsed, scattering steel production to cheaper labor markets abroad.
In the 25 years since, conventional wisdom has pronounced the death of organized labor a thousand times, and attention has shifted from the industrial unions to the giants of the service and public sector -- whose jobs cannot be so easily outsourced. But the USW isn't dead. With an official membership of 850,000 active unionists, down from a peak of 1.3 million in 1975, the USW is the largest industrial union in America. (Much of this growth was achieved by absorbing other declining industrial unions, including the paper, rubber, and forestry workers.)
Despite these figures, the United Steelworkers is fighting on an international battlefield which its corporate opponents have commanded with impunity since the 1970s. The USW's leadership tries to compensate for this crippling strategic disadvantage through a network of tactical partnerships on both the national and international scenes. Domestically, the union's Blue Green Alliance with American environmentalists rightfully gained widespread attention, but it is the USW's outreach to the international union movement that may point to a new path forward for labor in a worldwide economy.
The USW is developing a web of strategic alliances with sister unions on every inhabited continent in an attempt to ensure that the fruits of globalization are fairly distributed. Two of the union's efforts -- one in the global South, the other in the North -- provide a window into a struggle for transnational unionism that neither the media nor the political establishment seem to have noticed. Both efforts include strategic alliances that the union is trying to upgrade into transnational organizations, creating (at least theoretically) a force to match the transnational corporations.
"The USW has been so innovative in part because they were hit full force with globalization 30 years ago," says David Madland, director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund's American Worker Project. "[Now they are] seeking ways to partner and develop deeper relationships internationally to raise standards for workers both internationally and in the U.S. It certainly has real potential. Whether it actually works, it's certainly better than nothing."
South of the border, the USW has thrown its weight behind Los Mineros, the mining and metalworkers union in Mexico, providing critical support to that embattled union. Its ties to Los Mineros are particularly strong because of their shared border and, to an extent, overlapping labor markets (15 percent of the Mexican labor force works in the U.S.), which gives the USW powerful incentives to strengthen independent Mexican unions. Significant disparity between the two labor markets is to be expected, but the contrast is much starker today than it used to be.
A June Bureau of Labor Statistics report on international compensation costs shows a clear decline in the hourly compensation costs for Mexican manufacturing workers. In 1975 Mexican compensation costs stood at 23 percent of their American equivalent. By 2007, that number had dropped to 12 percent (up from the staggering low of 8 percent in 1995). Over the same period, American wages stagnated, meaning real Mexican wages are worth even less than they appear.
"As long as we have these developmental disparities within the NAFTA region, it's going to be very hard to stem the flow of capital south or the flow of people north," says Ben Davis, director of international affairs for the USW. "The only way you are going to do that is by raising wages and living standards in Mexico. And the only way to do that is effective freedom of association, giving people the ability to form unions that represent them democratically."
That's easier said than done. Historically, Mexico's unions have largely been state run, which means they weren't actually unions at all. Instead, "union" leaders supported the priorities of the ruling party, keeping wages and benefits low to encourage foreign investment. Los Mineros is a part of a new generation of independent unions bent on changing this dynamic. They organize, bargain, and strike in a way few other Mexican unions do, winning real wage and benefit increases for their members. They're the kind of partner the USW is looking for.
The partnership can be traced back to a 2005 USW strike against Grupo Mexico, a gargantuan mining company with operations in the United States and Mexico that had been organized by both unions. In 2005 the Mexican union gave the USW an unusually strong show of support, performing a one-day solidarity strike in support of the U.S. miners. One day may not sound like much, but it is exceedingly rare for workers of any nation to put down their tools in support of a union in another country. (Letters of support, solidarity delegations, and press releases are more common.) Impressed, the USW leadership quickly consolidated the relationship, signing a strategic-alliance agreement with Los Mineros on April 13, 2005.
"It is a relationship based on solidarity, which is a principle of any good union," Davis says. "But it is fundamentally based on a recognition that we cannot defend the jobs or improve the wages, working conditions, and opportunities of workers in the U.S. as long as next door, a population of over 43 million workers makes $5 a day and that doesn't change for 30 years."
In February 2006, 65 Mineros miners were killed in an explosion at another Grupo mine, where the company had ignored worker warnings of unsafe conditions for months prior to the tragedy. Mineros leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia condemned the company and lax governmental regulation. A few days later, the government launched a corruption investigation against Gomez and then announced his removal from the union's leadership, sparking a wave of wildcat strikes across the nation. The incident resulted in a death-threat campaign against Gomez, forcing him into exile. The Steelworkers facilitated his flight, giving him sanctuary in the U.S. and later in Canada (he now operates from an office in the USW's District 3 headquarters in British Columbia).
In July 2007, 1,300 Mineros members walked off the job to protest lax health and safety standards in Grupo's Cananea copper mines, the largest in Mexico. The strike continued through three years of furious legal battles, anti-union TV campaigns, criminal charges against union leaders (overturned), and assaults by armed federal police retained by the company as strikebreakers.
"The actions taken in collusion between Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government are an outrage," USW International President Leo Gerard said in the International Federation of Metalworkers' 2008 white paper. "If they can crush this very effective, independent union ... all independent unions in Mexico are at risk. And then other countries that are watching can say, 'Well if they can do it there, we can do it here too.' ... If we can't stand behind that as a global labour movement, we're in trouble."
Gerard backed up his words with a host of efforts. The USW filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor accusing the Mexican government of violating the North American Free Trade Agreement's labor provisions, raised over $150,000 in donations from local unions for the strikers, and sponsored numerous member delegations and observer teams to document the continuing repression. Throughout the continuing strike, Gomez remained at the head of Los Mineros, with the crucial logistical and technical support of the Steelworkers.
On June 20, 2010, Los Mineros and the USW denounced the latest (at the time) police attack on the strikers, and announced their intention to "take this alliance a step further [through a] possible global unification" project. Little has been heard of the merger proposal since, as concrete issues of police violence have overtaken such theoretical concerns. In Europe, though, the Steelworkers' conception of fusing national unions into a unified international force is several steps closer to enactment.
In 2007, media outlets from The New York Times to Mother Jones took note when the Steelworkers announced merger negotiations with the United Kingdom's largest union, Unite the Union. The details were vague, but the slightly hyperbolic term "super union" was thrown around, along with the fact that the combination would have members in the United States, Canada, Britain, Ireland, and the Caribbean.
The appeal of such an entity is immediately apparent. While capital has long maintained an internationalism more muscular than labor's largely rhetorical commitments, the 1980s marked the beginning of a new epoch of global production and finance, enabled by productive and technological advances. The new regime of multinational corporations, relatively free capital flow, and "flexible" labor markets resulted in a dramatic restructuring of the world economy, with most of the fruits going to business and the banks.
This new model led to the decline of prominent, domestically based national companies like the once dominant U.S. Steel, which the USW had struggled with throughout much of the 20th century. Through a complicated series of mergers and acquisitions, immense new companies like ArcelorMittal (the world's largest steelmaker), with industrial footholds in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America, have emerged triumphant in their stead. (Equivalent entities can be found in nearly every industry, from security and retail to every industrial manufacturing sector.) These new corporate behemoths, with headquarters in one country but operations dispersed across the planet, pose a tricky problem for unions, which are still largely nationally oriented. The Unite-USW "super union" was hailed as the first step toward responding to these developments.
"When I first heard about this trans-Atlantic merger, I was pretty skeptical because I've heard lots of this stuff before, and it just disappears," says Paul Garver, a retired staffer for the IUF (the federation of unions in the food and hospitality sector) and co-editor of the blog Talking Union, where he frequently writes on international issues. (Full disclosure: Talking Union periodically republishes my writing.) "But there is something happening. It isn't just an announcement that will disappear into the void. There is serious institutional commitment, and they are taking small, not spectacular, steps. The one thing I think that is really essential is to have enough staff dedicated to it."
By that standard, things are progressing nicely. In 2008, the unions officially announced the beginning of their merger into Workers Uniting. Unite assigned three staffers to the project, and the USW an equivalent number "involved in regular conversations." According to sources in both unions, communication is near constant. A joint congress is planned for next year to decide shared leadership, a formal constitution, and other structural factors. In the meantime, joint work is going forward on international campaigns in Bangladesh and Colombia and on bargaining within industries where the unions share employers. Half a dozen companies in the paper sector (Georgia-Pacific, for example) employ workers from both unions, and they have been busily coordinating bargaining strategies and sharing information. If one union gets useful intelligence -- on corporate tactics, financial details, and the like -- it can quickly share it with its counterpart. Other industries in which both unions are represented -- nuclear, forestry, oil, health care -- will soon be subject to the same kind of information sharing.
But couldn't all of the above be operated under the rubric of a strategic alliance, without all the effort and resources the unions will have to expend on a complex, transnational merger?
"It's all a matter of bonding," says Richard O'Brien, U.K. director of Workers Uniting. "A lot of solidarity is based on socializing, and the more contact there is, the easier that is."
"That may sound basic, but it's amazing how useful that can be -- linking our offices together so they are in daily contact," he continues. "Our other strategic alliances tend to be taken off the shelf and dusted down when there is a problem."
Both unions would ideally like to see Workers Uniting's continued expansion, perhaps building on the strategic-alliance network the USW has already established with unions in places like Brazil, South Africa, and Australia. No one, though, is envisioning a speedy transition to such ambitious growth.
"The initial outreach to the U.K. made a lot of sense because we have relatively similar industrial systems, legal systems -- common language also helps if you are trying to do something new," Davis says. "Frankly, it's going to be harder once we get to discussions with the Brazilians. But we are trying to create an alliance of unions with a commitment to taking aggressive positions toward multinational companies and using all the resources and weapons at our disposal to fight back."
Workers Uniting will be afforded more time to experiment and expand, because it exists in a very different environment than, say, the Mineros-USW effort. The Mexican context bears a resemblance to the 19th-century days of open class warfare in the Western nations, with the government and the companies working hand in glove to repress labor. In contrast, Western unions are likely to have at least some allies within their nation's political systems, and they are more likely to have amiable relations with some corporations. Among them would be ArcelorMittal, which operates with a global works council that recently pressured the company into pledging worldwide health and safety standards.
Common fears, however, increasingly beset Western unions. Across the Western world, union density is declining, even in the strongholds of Central and Northern Europe, while manufacturing jobs continue to hemorrhage from the American and British economies.
Whether a more globalized union movement can mitigate those concerns is open to question. "International solidarity work is very important, but we need to be honest about what we can achieve," writes Sam Gindin, former chief economist for the Canadian Auto Workers' union, in an e-mail message. "The main problem is that unions haven't even figured out how to defend their members, what new tactics and strategies are necessary. ... The new ties won't solve any major problem that steel faces: the fragmentation of U.S. labor, the inability to bring new workers into unions, the inability to influence the American state."
The USW is betting, however, that strengthening its presence abroad, pulling up allies in Mexico and Bangladesh, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with co-workers in Workers Uniting will translate into gains for American workers. It is obvious that domestic collective bargaining and traditional political organizing haven't been able to restore even a fraction of the Steelworkers' national strength. Cross-border bargaining with a common employer, particularly in relatively similar labor markets, such as those of Canada, the U.S., Britain, and Ireland, could potentially be game-changing. Only time will tell whether these first, halting attempts at global unionism will create an effective counterweight to global capitalism.