The International Conference on Global Companies and Global Unions was held in New York from Thursday to Saturday of this week. It brought together 570 academics and union representatives from around the world to discuss the changing terrain unions face in the age of globalization and the ways that unions can work together to be more effective.
The conference included the presentations of case studies on 10 global companies ranging from Alcoa to Wal-Mart and strategy sessions on how unions can confront these corporations. The studies detailed the scope of the companies, their business models, and their business practices---information which is essential for unions if they are to develop global strategies. The cases also provided research models that can serve as a foundation for future strategic studies.
A full program of workshops dealt with critical issues facing the global labor movement.
Plenary sessions included speakers from North America, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. The general drift of the remarks at the plenary sessions was that labor had not done enough to build a global labor movement but that it was absolutely essential that it do so if the labor movement was to continue to be a relevant social force. As one speaker put it, the forces of capitalism are global, so it was essential that labor become global as well.
Labor unity was stressed throughout the conference. The main global union institutions are in the process of uniting into one big international organization after a century of division. And in the US, speakers from both the AFL-CIO and CtW stressed that they shared common global goals.
The confererence was first rate and a big success. We’ll report much more on the conference in future posts in the coming days.
Meanwhile, what does management think of the new emphasis on building a global labor movement? Two interesting items have appeared in the last week or so.
The first comes from a Conference Board of Canada report released last week and widely reported in the Canadian press. (The report itself can be purchased if you have a spare $850 Canadian.)
Here are some excerpts from a story in the Toronto Star :
Globalization has arrived at the collective bargaining table," said Christopher Hallamore, a senior research associate at the board and author of the report Industrial Relations Outlook 2006: Shifting Ground, Shifting Attitudes……
The 2006 study calls globalization a "two-edged sword" for management. It offers widespread opportunities to expand into new markets. But it also creates pressure to move production to less affluent new markets so the goods can be made at a much lower cost.
Management is coming to unions with a new (project) and saying, `We could send it to Mexico, we could send it to China, or we could do it here,'" said Hallamore. "`But if we do it here with your members, (these are the workers) you're competing against.'"
Management is demanding concessions and unions are resisting, he said. The board predicts average wage increases of 2.5 per cent for unionized employees in 2006, and doesn't see any major labour disruptions on the horizon. But the report says that a newly militant management is increasingly resorting to extremes like lockouts…..
But unions are fighting back.
... unions are trying to go global just like their multinational employers. Unions are reaching out to workers in developing countries, helping them organize to improve wages and working conditions. Hallamore [of the Conference Board] said there's a helpful impulse at work, but it's also a strategy to fight back. "If you raise wages in the Philippines (for example), maybe that makes a business case for sending work there from Canada a little less appealing to an employer."….
Masters [of Toronto University] says the website http://www.labourstart.org is another example of how labour movements are attempting to pull together around the world. "It provides a possibility of immediately sending a letter to management saying, `We're concerned with what's going on with your labour situation.'"
The unions can circulate thousands of protest letters aimed at management.
It's beginning to have a huge impact as individual companies see that there's a global arena out there that's aware of different protests."
Another very interesting—and quite good -- article appears in the journal Workforce Management It describes the increasing use of global strategies by unions and by global organizations like UNI. Here are a few excerpts, but the whole article is worth reading.
By creating international agreements with European multinationals, groups are gaining entry into American businesses that previously had fended off organizing efforts…..
American subsidiaries’ …..parent companies in Europe are signing off on union-organizing agreements that are binding here.
It’s a rude awakening for businesses that have for years been staving off union campaigns, often with the aid of highly paid attorneys and consultants….
The issue is that you can have a multinational company in Europe agreeing to these things and the executives at the U.S. subsidiary are planning their own labor strategies, unaware that those agreements are having a direct impact on them," says Gerald Hathaway, a partner in the New York law firm of Littler Mendelson.
And it’s not just parent companies that the unions are targeting in Europe, he says. In some cases they are targeting companies’ suppliers and customers there. Since the labor movement is much more a part of the social fabric in countries like Germany, where boards of companies are required to have union members, U.S. unions realize that they can accomplish more by beginning there than they can at home.
Unions are creating global agreements that affect all of a company’s subsidiaries," Hathaway says. "They are being very forward-thinking." …..
So far, seven companies have signed global agreements with the Union Network International: Carrefour, a Paris-based food retailer; Hennes & Mauritz of Sweden, which has its H&M stores in the U.S.; Denmark-based Falck; Internet Security Systems, based in Atlanta; Metro AG of Germany; Greek telecommunications company OTE; and Spanish telecom provider Telefonica.
Philip Jennings, general secretary of Union Network International, says that since the right to organize is in all of the agreements, the unions can address issues that come up even without formal neutrality agreements being in place.
Given the importance of these clauses in North America, however, UNI and other groups are focusing more on including them in their agreements, Jennings says. Fifty agreements have been signed, and another 50 are in the works, he notes….
The global unions are coordinating their efforts by focusing on specific multi¬national companies. Union Network International has a list of 100 multinational employers that they will focus on, Jennings says. "But that doesn’t mean if you are not a big name that you will not be targeted," he warns…..
Despite the conflict among the various unions in the United States, they all agree on the necessity of creating a global labor movement, members say. "In the U.S., unions are competing for members, but that’s not the case internationally," SEIU president Stern says. "Internationally we all have a common goal," he says.
How successful the unions’ international tactics are remains to be seen. Much of the work is still in its infancy, says Rosen, the Jackson Lewis attorney. "The next couple of years are absolutely critical to the labor movement, and I think they understand that," he says…..
He’s got that right!