Can the Workers of the World Unite?

It was labor, not capital, that first aspired to eradicate national borders. But the international unity of labor, which Marx and Engels posited as a goal in 1848, was, for the subsequent 150 years, a matter of ideology only. Or, more precisely, of ideologies: The socialists had their international and their unions, the communists had their own, and during the Cold War, George Meany's AFL-CIO hammered together alliances of anti-communist unions. Unions pledged their solidarity and, at times, their material support to other unions in other lands with which they had an ideological kinship. But the day-to-day work they carried out -- organizing workers, bargaining contracts, lobbying legislatures -- took place entirely within their own borders.

The collapse of communism brought this era of labor internationalism to a shuddering halt. Within a few short years, a new form of labor internationalism began to take shape -- not primarily in response to the world's new ideological configuration but because the unions' day-to-day work had taken on a global dimension. It was not labor that initiated this change, of course. It was capital. The world's largest employers -- Wal-Mart, Ford, General Electric, Intel, Deutsche Telekom, Siemens, Toyota, Mitsubishi, ArcelorMittal, and a thousand others -- had gone global. Unions that had won bargaining and political power on the national level were confronted by employers not compelled to observe their nation's laws on wages, hours, and worker safety when they hired abroad -- weakening labor influence at home.

Over the past 15 years, unions -- first a few, then some, now many -- have come to understand that they are at a fundamental disadvantage as national organizations confronting global employers. That understanding is more widespread among U.S. unions than among their European counterparts, since union power and national social contracts are still far more robust in Western Europe than they are here. But as an increasing number of European governments move to raise the retirement age and slash social benefits, the idea of Europe as a worker's haven is crumbling as well.

Nationally -- and globally -- labor needs to push back. The question with which unions have been grappling, especially on the global level, is how. To date, unions have sought alliances with unions in other nations, formed councils of unions from around the world that have endeavored to bargain with their common employers, supported global sectoral federations that have reached agreements with some of the largest companies in respective sectors, and moved to create genuinely bi-national unions. None of these tactics have greatly tilted the playing field in labor's direction, but all of them are still relatively new and experimental and are constantly being fine-tuned. Many of these tactics have been promoted most assiduously by American unions, a number of which seem to have reached the sobering conclusion that if their struggles cannot be expanded beyond the radically anti-union framework of American law and business practice, they will surely die. "The U.S. is in the bottom five of the G-20 when it comes to workers' rights," says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). American unions, at least, are going global as a matter of existential necessity.


Labor's new globalism has no single point of origin, but surely one place it began was in Seattle in December 1999, at the demonstrations protesting the meeting of the World Trade Organization. On Dec. 6, the day that protesters brought the WTO's meeting to a halt, the AFL-CIO sponsored a rally of 20,000 unionists at a local stadium, featuring union activists from around the world. One speaker, Glen Mpufane of the South African mine workers, called for a global minimum wage. "What's good for Ford workers in Detroit," he said to cheers, "is good for Ford workers in Mexico and South Africa."

But institutions that could bargain collectively across borders were a long way off. Some U.S. unions, the United Steelworkers most prominently (see Jake Blumgart, "Bonds of Steel," page A13), had been enlisting the assistance of European unions to settle disputes with transnational employers as far back as the 1970s. But as corporations have increasingly become global, unions have begun to go beyond mutual aid programs to develop transnational organizing and bargaining campaigns.

"During the '90s," says Barbara Shailor, the longtime director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO, who has since become the special representative for international labor affairs at the State Department, the American labor movement "focused on the domestic implications of trade. But in the late '90s, we began to grapple with global employers, particularly SEIU [the Service Employees International Union], the Steelworkers, the CWA, and UNITE HERE. It was hard for most unions, however, to justify paying a full-time staffer to go after global employers. But [then-SEIU President] Andy Stern threw the kitchen sink at it. He devoted real money and scores of researchers to organize property services." (See David Moberg, "Translating Solidarity," page A10.)

As American unions began to develop their global strategies, a new arena for transnational labor action was also taking shape. But it wasn't global yet. It was European, for it was in Europe that transnational government and laws first arose -- laws that gave unions some transnational legitimacy, if not necessarily transnational power.

Beginning in Germany, well before the formation of the European Union, Western European companies (other than those headquartered in Britain) had works councils in which management met with elected representatives of their workers (frequently, though not always, their union leaders). After the formation of the EU, as European companies opened facilities in multiple nations, the idea of European works councils took hold. In 1994, the EU directed large companies with employees in more than one European nation to establish a European works council. Today, roughly 2,400 companies doing business in Europe meet the criteria -- have 1,000 or more employees, with at least 150 in two or more European nations -- to establish such councils. Just 800 of those companies have actually done so, says John Monks, the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. Older companies that came of age during the period of union power, Monks says, tend to have such councils; younger ones do not. Among U.S.-based companies operating in Europe, General Motors and Ford have such councils; Microsoft and Google don't.

The European works councils aren't particularly powerful, however. "Most are just getting-to-know-you opportunities for union representatives from different countries," Monks says. They "are not an effective means of upward harmonization of wages across borders. There's no bargaining on pay transnationally, even with a common currency [the euro]. We tried it within some councils in an area of the North Rhine [in Germany], the Netherlands, Northeast France, and Belgium, but it didn't work. The Belgians wanted to index wages to inflation; the Germans [who come from an exporting nation] tried to hold wages down. The borders blocked our capacity to reach a common position." Monks does note, however, that the councils were able to bargain successfully for non-wage-related benefits -- in particular, job-training entitlements and parental leave.

A small number of companies actually have global works councils, among them Volkswagen; SKF, a Swedish ball-bearing manufacturer; and more recently, ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel manufacturer. There is no legal obligation, or even encouragement, to establish such councils; in the case of Volkswagen, the company's long relationship with IG Metall, the German manufacturing union that is the world's most powerful union, was surely the leading factor in establishing the council. Like their European counterparts, the global works councils don't bargain over wages but do try to set other global standards for their companies. In 2007, ArcelorMittal management met with the company's global works council, made up of 150 workers' representatives from 26 nations, and agreed to establish a global health and safety committee. Working with the committee, it has set health and safety standards in Liberia and Kazakhstan, as well as a workers' monitors committee in Liberia for which the company pays. The United Steelworkers, which has contracts at such global employers as Bridgestone Tires, Alcoa, and International Paper, has been particularly active in establishing global works councils; ArcelorMittal's is one of four it's helped put in place.


A transnational works council is one of the two kinds of structures that the world's unions have built in an effort to gain leverage with global employers. The other is a global union federation (GUF) -- a sectoral organization that brings together unions in particular industries. In one sense, there's nothing new about GUFs: Some have been around for many decades. The International Metalworkers Federation was founded in 1893. What's relatively new is that in the past decade, a number of GUFs (there are 10) have won international framework agreements (IFAs) from some of the leading global corporations in their field. More than 50 such agreements are now in place, almost all with corporations based in continental Europe. Most of these agreements require the employer to pledge to honor the eight key worker-rights provisions of the International Labor Organization, among which is the right to organize unions.

Yet, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing the right to organize -- the key goal for all U.S.-based unions -- many framework agreements are no more than "hollow shells," in the words of one American unionist who works with unions across the world. The problem, says Ron Oswald, who heads the IUF (the federation of unions in the food and hospitality sector), is that "the IFAs are not enforceable. Most lack basic processes for conciliation, mediation, and arbitration, and the IUF, and the other GUFs, don't have the capacity or resources to make the agreements work."

That's something to which Debbie Anderson can attest. Anderson, who directs international affairs for UNITE HERE, which means she deals with global hotel chains and food -- service companies, notes that the framework agreement that the French-based Accor hotel company reached with the IUF has been difficult to enforce consistently. As a result, the Novotel and Sofitel hotels that Accor owns in North America are largely nonunion. With UNITE HERE endeavoring to unionize those hotels in Canada, the union is working through the IUF to get a better framework agreement -- one that genuinely guarantees the company will not interfere in workers' attempts to unionize. To that end, it is also working with a dozen unions from around the world -- all IUF affiliates -- that would like to unionize Accor hotels in their own countries.

Working through the IUF, UNITE HERE is also looking forward to negotiations on a global framework agreement with Sodexo, the France-based global food-service company. Earlier this year, when UNITE HERE and SEIU reached a settlement in their yearlong dispute over which union had the right to represent which groups of workers in the U.S., they failed to reach a settlement over the right to represent workers at the food-service companies they'd both been attempting to organize. The two unions have separate, rival campaigns to bring global pressure on Sodexo, with UNITE HERE, and the AFL-CIO to which it belongs, working through the IUF, while SEIU, as is often the case, charts its own course.

Global campaigns initiated by American unions can also be a helpful tool for workers in developing nations. The campaign that the global union federation UNI waged against the security conglomerate G4S not only led to an international framework agreement that enabled SEIU to organize security guards in the U.S. (see David Moberg, "Translating Solidarity," page A10) but also produced some very real victories for Asian and African unions, too. In Uganda, 5,000 security officers won union recognition when G4S signed a national collective-bargaining agreement with them. In Malawi, 10,000 workers also won recognition for their union, and an agreement that the company would pay them for overtime work. Previously, when workers exceeded the eight-hour day, the company's pay rate, rather than increasing, actually dropped.


Of course, American unions can bring pressure from allied unions to compel transnational employers to let them organize American workers even if they don't have a framework agreement or a compact reached by an employer with a works council: The success the Teamsters have had in organizing bus drivers working for a company headquartered in Britain (see Louis Uchitelle, "Globalization, Union-Style," page A6) makes that clear. Indeed, neither framework agreements nor works councils, nor alliances with other unions such as those the CWA and the Steelworkers have pursued, have guaranteed that global companies will accord American workers the right to join unions that their European counterparts take for granted. "Global campaigns aren't a magic bullet," says Penny Schantz, the AFL-CIO's international representative, stationed in Paris. But they remain a helpful tool for American unions, one that increasing numbers of unions are likely to use.

That means that alliances such as those the CWA has with ver.di, the union of German communications workers, and the United Steelworkers has with a host of unions, are all but certain to increase. That means the number of genuinely multinational unions like TU (uniting the German and American employees of T-Mobile) or the Steelworkers' proposed union with the British union UNITE is likely to grow. (In negotiating with T-Mobile, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom, says the CWA's Cohen, TU representatives from ver.di, rather than the CWA, will take the lead.) That means that more global works councils will be created, and efforts will continue to turn IFAs into binding accords that guarantee the right to organize.

"We've tried to go beyond agreements in which companies pledge to respect international labor norms to a specific, enforceable pledge to respect organizing rights," says Christy Hoffman, who has headed up SEIU's global organizing program. The IUF -- the global federation for food-worker unions -- has discussed how to convert IFAs into global union-recognition agreements -- card check, as it were, for a global company.

It also means that the two U.S. labor federations -- the AFL-CIO and Change to Win -- will continue their focus on the range of global campaigns. Right now, the AFL-CIO is working with UNITE HERE and through the IUF to build the support of European unions for a strong global agreement with Sodexo. For its part, Change to Win has an office in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, that is working with European unions to help develop their own organizing programs and help them target the vulnerabilities of the companies they seek to unionize. Much like American unions 50 years ago, European unions haven't felt the need to organize in recent decades, and in a number of European nations, where bargaining takes place nationally by sector, increasing union representation doesn't have a direct link to collective-bargaining clout. But, says David Chu, who heads Change to Win's European office, the spread of low-wage work in Western Europe and the rightward turn of many European governments have weakened Europe's social fabric and workers' power. "Some European unions," he says, have responded to these changes "by returning to a style of unionism that is more active and militant, and want to enhance their ability to campaign and rebuild their memberships." Like the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute, the Change to Win center trains organizers and strategists for the kind of arduous battles that American unions know only too well. Germany's IG Metall, the world's most powerful union, has established an organizing department that, with Change to Win's help, has targeted wind-turbine manufacturers and auto dealers.

Increasingly, unions realize that if they are to preserve, much less expand, the gains they've made over the past 60 years, they must unite across borders. That's not to say they can, and that's not to say they will, but at least they know they must.

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