The Conference on Global Unionism, co-sponsored by Cornell University and more than a half dozen other academic institutions, will be held in New York City Thursday through Saturday of this week. The conference will bring together 500 academics, activists, and trade unionists from the US and other countries to discuss “global companies, global unions, global research, and global campaigns.”
We will be in New York and will report on the highlights of the conference in posts in the coming weeks. It promises to be an informative and important event.
The broad participation by unions in the conference is another indication that the labor movement now recognizes how important it is to develop a global agenda and build a global labor movement. It’s a recognition that’s long overdue. While the world’s corporations and the world’s economy changed dramatically over the last 3 decades, the labor movement retained the strategies and structure that it established 60 years ago. Going global is essential, but it won't be easy.
Corporations around the world radically restructured in the space of two decades. They moved away from vertically and horizontally integrated structure in which they sought to perform every phase of the production process within the firm, and to offer every product and service within an industry, and toward a core ring structure. In the core ring structure firms seek to retain core functions within the firm but to contract out the rest to suppliers around the world.
Today, the big corporations that dominate the economy produce and sell their products around the world. As economist Bennett Harrison wrote, global restructuring is a dynamic process “….the creation by managers of boundary-spanning networks of firms, linking together big and small companies operating in different industries, regions, and even countries.” Big firms “create all manner of networks, alliances, short- and long term financial and technology deals—with one another, with governments at all levels, and with legions of generally (although not invariably) smaller firms who act as their suppliers and subcontractors.” The result, according to Harrison, is “an emerging paradigm of networked production” based on concentration of control combined with decentralization of production.
Service sector industries, at first slow to globalize, have become the fastest growing part of the US and the global economy. They too have been taken over by global giants that have imposed similar core/ring structures.
While corporations have pioneered this structure, ‘privatization’ of government services represents a parallel structure in the public sector. Today, many privatized public services are performed by global corporations.
This restructuring is accompanied by new core/ring staffing strategies that divide the workplace into a shrinking number of core workers and an expanding number of workers in contingent jobs—part-timers, temps, contract workers, day laborers, and the like. This shift to contingent work is a global phenomenon affecting labor markets in virtually every country.
The result is that products previously produced by workers employed by a single employer may now be produced by workers employed by many employers working under many kinds of employment relationships in many different countries.
Accompanying and supporting this restructuring is a set of global institutions and rules—the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and hundreds of trade agreements and side deals-- to support the expanding control of the world’s economy by big global corporations. A world-wide agenda in which corporations use these institutions and rules to undermine labor and employment standards and laws is underway in virtually every country.
Footloose corporations take every advantage of this new economic order by pitting workers and communities against each other to see who will work the cheapest, with the fewest environmental and other regulations, the lowest taxes, and offer the most subsidies. The result is downward spiral in wages and working conditions in many parts of the world. The world has become in John Sweeney’s phrase, “a global hiring hall”.
Workers everywhere are worried about globalization and job security. The acceleration of service sector and white collar outsourcing means that for the first time a majority of workers must deal with the effects of globalization on themselves, their families, and their communities.
US labor will find many potential allies as it goes global. It is tempting to think that the problems facing the US labor movement are entirely homegrown, but the evidence suggests otherwise: declining union membership and a loss in political power prompted by concerted corporate attacks on labor laws, a shift to new industries, increased global outsourcing and capital mobility, are trends in virtually every advanced industrial country. Indeed, these problems are present despite the great diversity of national union strategies and structures. A discussion similar to the one in the US is occurring in most countries.
But US Labor will also find a great deal of suspicion. Decades of support for US foreign and economic policy widely disliked in much of the world, even if largely a thing of the past, opened fault lines that still need to be bridged. US labor must show that it is serious about international solidarity and not simply embarking on a narrow and self-serving jobs protection agenda.
The rhetoric of global solidarity and global unionism comes easily, but concrete steps have been tentative at best. Actually practicing global solidarity and building global unionism will require tough work in labor’s trenches on an everyday basis. If the labor movement is to survive the age of globalization, it must roll up its sleeves and tackle that task.