How do we move global unionism from idea to reality? It’s not an easy task. There are major obstacles to building a global labor movement as we pointed out in a previous blog.
Cementing relationships, fostering solidarity, and developing the strategic knowledge for unions to provide mutual aid in the global arena must begin long before battles are joined. The haphazard international labor cooperation of the past must be buttressed by proactive horizontal linkages between unions and workers at all levels.
Here are four concrete steps unions can take to make international labor cooperation less haphazard and more proactive:
1. Create efficient communication channels at all levels
• Increase exponentially the amount of information flowing among workers and their organizations at all levels. This will require significant resources for everything from research to translation services. Regular information exchanges with unions in other countries can be facilitated by internet-based knowledge networks; a Global Labor Solidarity E-Newsletter presenting experiences and analyzing lessons of cooperative efforts; and periodic conferences. Communication-- swapping stories and reflecting on issues, strategy and tactics-- should involve local unions, staff at all levels, and the membership.
• Institute regular work-to-worker exchanges: Traditional labor connections are funneled through national and international federations. But to build support for the radical shift toward a global labor movement, workers need to be continually “rubbing shoulders” with workers from other countries who work in the same companies, industries, and occupations. Such exchanges will not only build trust and solidarity, but also position workers to assist and encourage their own unions to go global.
• Build trust overseas by offering concrete services to workers and unions in other countries: One way to overcome suspicions and cement relationships is to begin offering services to unions and their allies abroad. At a recent conference on outsourcing, for example, Indian unionists asked US unionists to provide on-demand information about US companies. Latin American labor networks have similarly requested regular updates on American trade policy and political developments. Initiating networking overseas by offering such services will begin opening doors and building the trust needed for on-going coordinated action.
2. Create global networks and alliances before the battles begin
• Start reaching out to potential allies. Unions need to connect with national and local unions to build relationships far in advance of asking workers in other countries to commit risky acts of solidarity. Such pre-battle networking should also include foreign civil society organizations and allied government officials.
• Develop “intelligence” about countries, unions, and industries around the globe to spot new trends and construct new strategies. As any global corporation knows, going global requires staying abreast of an increasingly complex set of variables, such as national labor laws, political developments, and economic conditions. Seeking regular “intelligence” about specific countries and global industries can ensure unions that they are not “flying blind” in the global arena.
• Utilize immigrant members. In the US, for instance, 15% of the workforce are immigrants. They are playing a critical role in the growth of unions in low wage service industries. They also form a vital resource for forming links to established and nascent labor movements around the world. Unions should provide resources to help them utilize their ties with their home countries to promote on-going international connections.
3. Connect the local and the global
• Build a global strategy at the local level. Today even local unions must confront global corporations either at the collective bargaining table or in organizing campaigns as multi-national corporations extend their reach in the economy. Unions should develop a set of practices and protocols at all levels to build global perspectives and global action into local campaigns. This should include creating task forces of workers specializing in bringing international pressure to bear in local campaigns through direct contact with unions and workers in other countries.
• Establish educational programs about globalization so that workers can participate in an informed way in building a global labor movement. Unions need to begin telling workers the facts demonstrating what they already know viscerally: globalization is affecting their lives and is here to stay. Such education is politically essential for dialogues about shifting resources into global networking and campaigns.
4. Take the offensive on global public policy issues
• Promote alternatives to neoliberal policies at local, state, and national levels. In the US, globalization has baffled both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. This is an opportunity for unions to take the lead in defining solutions to outsourcing, contingent work, privatization, and other public policy issues. By framing public debates, developing expertise, and proposing alternative solutions unions have an opportunity to be perceived as innovative and aggressive in solving workers’ problems.
• Utilize immigrant members to educate the public, media, and politicians. Immigrant workers are a rich source of knowledge and experience about the global economy. They can help labor spearhead a progressive global agenda on migration in the global economy; develop alternatives to destructive trade deals that harm workers in both the North and the South; and launch a new discussion about human, labor, and citizenship rights in the age of globalization.
Unions have tried, with varying success, to utilize international solidarity in particular struggles. Building a global labor movement next requires something further: proactive approaches designed to make international communication and cooperation part of the daily practice of the labor movement at local, national, and international levels.
In our next blog we will take a look at more detailed proposals to build capacity to deal with global issues at the regional, local union, and bargaining unit level.