Second of two parts. A version, with citiations, of this blog by GLS staffers Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith appears in New Labor Forum, Spring 2006: www.newlaborforum.org
While the obstacles to global labor cooperations must be taken seriously – but they are not insurmountable. In this blog we give a few examples of promising strategies for effective international union cooperation, and some suggestions for next steps..
Traditionally, unions have relied on Global Union Federations (GUFs – formerly called International Trade Secretariats) to link unions in broad industrial categories like transportation workers and service workers around the globe. While these organizations have often played an important role in promoting international labor cooperation, they have two problems. First, they are very small, severely understaffed organizations that are equipped to stimulate but hardly to conduct the vast work of international labor cooperation. Second, they are largely bound by rules of protocol that require communication between workers in different countries to pass from an affiliated national union or federation in one country through the international organization to the affiliated national union or federation in another country. This cumbersome procedure can impede as well as promote contact and cooperation among those who work for the same company or in the same industry or occupation in different countries.
More horizontal links are possible. In 2002, French union representatives on the board of France Telecom noticed that a declaration of insolvency for its recently-acquired German subsidiary MobilCom was on the agenda for the upcoming meeting. The union representatives interpreted this as part of a “rectification plan” to make employees pay for the huge debts incurred by the company’s global acquisition binge during the high-tech bubble. The French unionists immediately tried to contact German workers at MobilCom through UNI, but found that its German affiliate had no members at MobilCom. But some French union activists remembered meeting people from the German metalworkers union IG Metall at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. A few emails later they were directly in touch with some IG Metall members at MobilCom.
Soon German and French workers developed an aggressive plan to expose France Telecom’s plans. The energy of the French response helped activate the German workers, who had limited experience with unions. Rallies were held with both German and French workers participating. Pressure was put on the German government to help the German company, saving it from imminent closure. An agreement for more orderly cutbacks and a good severance plan were negotiated.
The MobilCom story indicates how horizontal channels of communication can make possible direct cooperation among workers in different countries. Alain Baron, a union representative for the French union SUD-PTT on the France Telecom Board, observes,
“The cross border unity established in the France Telecom group is indicative of a new social climate. The attacks of the multi-nationals on jobs, their ability to relocate, do not often meet with an adequate response from the unions. Enclosed in their local routine interests, bogged down in inter-apparatus negotiations, the traditional unions often find it hard to establish contacts which can mobilize employees in several countries against the same employer. The international structures of trade unions, when they exist, are in general too distant from the union activist on the ground.” He adds that new venues like the World Social Forum are important to establish worker to worker links. “The easiest way to cross the Rhine was through crossing the ocean.”
Often international labor cooperation is a matter of time-limited campaigns that leave little international linkage behind when they are victorious or abandoned. Unions also need to consider strategic alliances – commitments between unions with strong common interests to work together on common projects on an on-going basis.
The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) has been at the forefront of building bridges with their Mexican counterparts. In the early 1990s, faced with the passage of NAFTA, the UE entered into what it called a “Strategic Organizing Alliance” with the Mexican Frente del Trabajo (FAT). Together the two unions instituted regular worker-to-worker exchanges, published a monthly electronic periodical, built worker centers and joint organizing teams, and regularly informed their members about what they were doing and why it mattered to them.
The UE/FAT alliance worked to ensure that workers on both sides of the border benefited from coordinated activities. FAT members, for example, traveled to Milwaukee to provided support for the UE organizing campaign at a local foundry, where they allayed Mexican immigrant workers’ concerns that the UE might be similar to “company” unions they knew all too well in Mexico. On behalf of FAT members, the UE filed the first complaint under the Mexico-US labor rights “side agreement” that accompanied NAFTA – charging General Electric and Honeywell with labor rights violations. It has also built a tri-national alliance between unions in the US, Canada, and Mexico to enforce the organizing rights of Mexican workers at the Echlin auto parts company.
About two dozen global firms with more than two million workers have signed “framework agreements” that resemble the Quebecor agreement described earlier in this article. These agreements differ from corporate codes of conduct in that they are negotiated with unions and provide for some kind of union participation in implementation and monitoring. The “Declaration of Social Rights and Industrial Relations” signed by Volkswagen, the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) and European Works Council, for example, requires the company to provide its workers worldwide with the right to form unions, protection against discrimination, a safe working environment, and minimum wage standards consistent with local conditions. Volkswagen was pressured to accept the agreement by Western European workers who already have those rights; as Robert Steiert of the IMF puts it, the agreement is most important for “workers at plants to be built or taken over by Volkswagen, especially in lesser developed countries.”
Such agreements are no panacea. So far they cover only those workers directly employed by the companies, not the growing number of workers employed by suppliers contracted by the firms. In the VW agreement, the company pledges to “encourage” its suppliers to abide by the agreement, but it does not stop Volkswagen from contracting with labor rights violators. The auto unions see the need to tighten this language as an important next step. Indeed, if they do not find a way to extend decent wages and standards throughout the supplier chain, they will find that they represent fewer and fewer workers.
Framework agreements are made between big international bureaucracies on both sides of the labor-management divide. The communication that they foster is more likely to be among high union officials and top company officials than among workers, shop stewards, and local union leaders in different countries. This can limit both the effectiveness of the agreements and their capacity to build a movement. Implementation and monitoring of framework agreements can be difficult where no union exists in a workplace.
But, in part because of the limited staff and resources of the federations that sign them, some of the framework agreements have led to the development of global networks of participating unions to directly monitor them. These networks and the general flow of information which often results from these agreements help workers identify common interests, common problems, and discrepancies in company policies.
Some US trade unionists dismiss framework agreements because they usually have not lead to new members—the primary focus of US trade union strategy. In contrast, many trade union officials and activists we talked with in Europe who have experience with framework agreements see them as a first step in global union coordination at the firm or industry level.
Some next steps
Here are some concrete steps unions can take to make international labor cooperation less haphazard and more proactive:
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.
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. 15% of the US 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.
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. The Quebecor and FranceTelecom campaigns described above are examples of how global actions can help local campaigns.
• 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.
Take the offensive on global public policy issues
• Promote alternatives to neoliberal policies at local, state, and national levels. 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.