You are on page 1of 27

Can the Workers of the World Unite?

The state of unionism in the era of globalization
HAROLD MEYERSON | November 8, 2010

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 foodservice 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 collectivebargaining 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 eighthour 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.

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post. Click here to read more about him.

Globalization, Union-Style
The challenge is to raise U.S. workers' rights to the level that European workers enjoy -not to lower their rights to our level.
LOUIS UCHITELLE | November 8, 2010

Seated on a folding chair in a cramped union office in New York, Wilhelm Ado, a visiting German labor leader, explained through an interpreter that he had come to help American workers do what they can no longer do easily on their own -- organize themselves into effective unions. That means establishing unions with collective-bargaining rights and contracts that, once negotiated, are binding on managers. American law gives workers the right to choose to be represented by unions, but today that happens less and less as managers, ignoring the law, block the process. With employers firing or harassing employees who try to organize unions, only one in seven organizing drives eventually produces a contract. So the American labor movement has turned abroad for the organizing leverage it is losing at home. Wilhelm, a compact, 60-year-old, is a foot soldier in that campaign. In late July, he visited the United States to help the Communication Workers of America (CWA) organize workers at T-Mobile USA, whose U.S. wireless network is owned by Deutsche Telekom, the German communications giant. In this age of globalization, large foreign multinationals are acquiring subsidiaries in the United States. Going native, they are embracing anti-union tactics they avoid at home, where unions often have legal recognition, respect, and political influence. The CWA is trying to exploit this contradictory behavior by embarrassing Deutsche Telekom into being as tolerant of unions in the United States as it is in Germany, or at least staying neutral during CWA organizing drives. As part of this strategy, in 2008 the CWA reached out to ver.di, its German counterpart. Wilhelm led the fourth visit of ver.di officials to the United States in support of the CWA's organizing efforts. A former telephone installer, he rose to be a director of ver.di and, as such, holds a seat on Deutsche Telekom's board of supervisors. That puts him in regular contact with Rene Obermann, the company's chief executive. Indeed, ver.di officials occupy several of the board's seats, as provided by Germany's co-determination law. Beyond engaging Obermann, Wilhelm and his union colleagues lobby shareholders and convene press conferences, hoping that descriptions of a worker's lot at T-Mobile across the Atlantic will stir up public anger in Germany. In case that is not enough, ver.di, with 2.3 million members, can appeal for support to the German government, which owns 32 percent of Deutsche Telekom. "We want to take back to Germany the personal accounts of workers here when they try to organize," Wilhelm says. "We are meeting with call-center workers and technicians, and they will tell us about their own personal conditions, and I will go back to Germany, and the next time I see Obermann, I can tell him, 'This is what the workers told me personally.' Because the company always says the workers are happy in the United States."

The CWA has been trying for years to organize T-Mobile's 26,000 technicians and call-center employees. It even endorsed Deutsche Telekom's 2001 acquisition of the company, then known as VoiceStream, in the belief that Deutsche Telekom's acceptance of unions, required by German law and custom, would carry over to the United States and that the CWA's organizing drives could then proceed without interference from company managers. The organizing drives have proceeded, but unsuccessfully. Larry Myers, senior vice president in the company's human-resources department, says that T-Mobile "provides an employee-friendly workplace where our people enjoy excellent working conditions, competitive pay and benefits, and direct, open, and frequent communication with managers." The CWA, in sharp contrast, accuses T-Mobile of anti-union tactics. "It seems like they are not very open to the idea of neutrality, to put it mildly," says Hae-Lin Choi, a CWA official who speaks German, acts as an interpreter, and helps direct the T-Mobile campaign. Neutrality is clearly not in evidence at the T-Mobile call center in Springfield, Missouri, where 300 people, mostly women, earn $9 to $10 an hour for a 40-hour work week, with infrequent raises. When CWA organizers first distributed leaflets there two years ago, repeating the process for a day or two every month or so since then, the managers disputed the CWA's right to leaflet from the sidewalk near the one-story call-center building, claiming the sidewalk as company property. That dispute was settled in favor of the union, according to Judy Graves, a regional CWA organizer, but there was another, more daunting obstacle -- high turnover. The operators responded readily enough to union organizers. Many, Graves says, contacted the union through the telephone number or e-mail address printed on the leaflets or gave their phone number to those who approached them with leaflets. Discussions followed, offsite and during off-hours, and more than a few operators signed up for a representation election, Graves adds. But then many were gone, resigning voluntarily in most cases, often exhausted by the pace of having to handle one call after another, in several-minute bites. Indeed, turnover at many call centers across the country is more than 50 percent a year. "A union would stabilize turnover," says Graves, whose own spirits were lifted during a visit to Germany last May, where she met ver.di officials and handed out leaflets at the annual Deutsche Telekom shareholders meeting. "Turnover tends to decrease as people gain a voice on the job and just-cause grievance standards." *** As globalization spreads, allowing corporations to play off workers in different nations, it also promotes global unionism. In the process, a cross -- border labor movement is beginning to add muscle to American unions. The United Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union are all engaged in the novel tactic. SEIU is perhaps the most successful to date. Working in part through UNI Global Union, a relatively new Geneva-based federation of 900 unions in numerous countries, it is managing to organize thousands of American security guards whose employers were acquired by foreign multinationals. A prime target is the Pinkerton company, which, fittingly enough, began as a supplier of strikebreakers in the 19th century. Today, Pinkerton's owner is Securitas AB, a giant security company headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, a solidly pro-union nation. Securitas acquired Pinkerton in 1999, and in 2004, it signed an agreement with three unions -- SEIU, the Swedish Transport Workers Union, and UNI -- in which the company formally agreed not to interfere with SEIU's organizing efforts in the United States. Even with this commitment to neutrality, though, the going has been slow. Six years have passed, and Securitas employees in fewer than a dozen cities have been organized.

That is partly because the company's American managers have resisted, despite the formal agreement. "They push back, they argue that unionization will destroy profitability, they threaten to quit if SEIU signs up their employees, and that makes Swedish executives in Stockholm nervous," says Tom Woodruff, SEIU's executive vice president. "They don't want to have to send Swedes to run the American operation." That's one dynamic; there's another. "Many foreign multinational corporations cooperate with unions in their own countries but consider that they have a license in this country to prevent workers from unionizing," says Richard Bensinger, a former director of organizing for the AFL-CIO. They often argue that they are not in violation of American labor law, embodied in the National Labor Relations Act, and when they are found to be in violation, the penalties are mild compared with those in many other countries. "There is an arrogance in their attitude," Bensinger says. And an irony. Wal-Mart, staunchly anti-union in America, has reached collective-bargaining agreements in several Chinese cities, signing contracts with state-sanctioned unions. IBM, resistant at home, accepts labor norms abroad. "When IBM opened a plant in Sweden in the 1980s, it did not want to be union," says Richard Freeman, a Harvard University labor economist. "Swedish employers said, 'This is the way we do it in our country.'" *** The right to organize a union and bargain for a contract is enshrined in federal law, but the procedure is complicated. In most cases, a majority of the workers to be represented must sign cards requesting a representation election. The workers must then, by majority vote, authorize a union to represent them in bargaining a contract. The Obama administration has proposed simplifying this process but has not yet pressed reform in Congress. The procedure is still drawn out, giving managers time and opportunity to throw up obstacles: discharging employees who participate in organizing campaigns; harassing others by demoting them or reassigning them to overnight or early morning shifts; cutting benefits; keeping organizers away from plant sites; calling all workers at a particular site to a meeting at which unions are criticized just when union organizers are about to hold a meeting to convey the opposite message. Such actions rarely encounter public scorn, as they might in European and Asian countries where unions are woven into the social fabric. "There is a cultural acceptance of anti-union behavior in the United States," says Christy Hoffman, an SEIU official who recently joined the staff of UNI Global Union in Geneva. In sum, we are no longer the pro-union nation we were in the immediate post-World War II decades, when roughly 40 percent of the workforce was unionized and union contracts influenced wages and working conditions for millions of non-union workers as well. Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers leader, mounted his nationwide grape boycott in the late 1960s on the strength of public sympathy for organized labor. The deterioration in a single generation is considerable, particularly in the last decade. Only 12 percent of the nation's workers (and just 7 percent of private-sector workers) are represented by unions today, with a further decline likely as union organizing dries up. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reports a "precipitous drop" since the late 1990s in the chief means of union expansion: workplace elections to certify bargaining units. Only 1,304 elections took place last year, down 60 percent in little more than a decade, with only 44,000 workers gaining representation in the elections won by unions. That number, too, has declined precipitously. What stands out in this data is the role of the foreign company operating in America. One-third of the dwindling number of companies organized successfully in recent years were foreign-owned, according to a study by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor

Relations. One of her colleagues, Richard Hurd, estimates that one-half of all workers organized into bargaining units in the United States in recent years benefited from neutrality agreements. Most of them involved foreign companies with operations in the United States, but in some cases, an American company acquiesced to neutrality in exchange for a union's support in dealing with the federal government, or with state governments, on a regulatory matter or other issue important to the company's managers. "All this started in the 1990s, accelerated a decade ago, and has accounted for a majority of new bargaining units in the last five years," Hurd says. As a result, successful organizing today increasingly means that corporate managers have agreed in advance to remain neutral, often prodded by overseas owners and unions. "The law simply does not make it possible at the moment for workers to organize if management wants to resist," says Thomas A. Kochan, a management and labor expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and co-author of the study that found that only one in seven organizing campaigns produces a collective-bargaining agreement when management actively opposes the effort. Illustrating the point, Bob King, the new president of the United Auto Workers, points to foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S. The UAW has asked BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Honda, Nissan, and Hyundai, all of whose workers are organized abroad, to recognize unions at their American plants, or at least not resist organizing campaigns. So far, they have refused, King says, adding that the NLRB election process is "broken" and should be abandoned. "In the early days, workers did not rely on the law," he says. "They did sit-down strikes and direct action." He singled out Toyota in particular for criticism. "It has had plants here for 25 years," King says. "It is unionized in England, in Australia, almost everywhere else in the world, and here it isn't, because we as a society don't stand up for a worker's First Amendment rights: freedom of speech and association." *** If autoworkers and T-Mobile employees have not yet benefited from the new cross-border pressures, thousands of American school-bus drivers have. Rather than bus children themselves, 30 percent of the nation's school districts contract out this service to private operators, according to the Teamsters. Starting in 1999, a British multinational, FirstGroup PLC, headquartered in Aberdeen, began to acquire school-bus companies in this country, vaulting into first place in the industry in 2007 with the acquisition of a company called Laidlaw, then the largest private operator of yellow school buses. (The drivers are FirstGroup employees; the buses they drive are almost always school-district property, and while 70 percent of the school districts still employ their own drivers, the outsourcing of this task to lower-wage drivers is growing.) As FirstGroup expanded its American operations (it also owns Greyhound and Ryder Trucking), it came under pressure from unions in Britain and the United States, often coordinating their efforts, to cease interfering with attempts to organize FirstGroup's American workers. In 2007, First Group finally agreed, asserting in a letter to shareholders that its American employees, like those in Britain, "should be free to choose whether or not to be represented by a trade union through a secret ballot conducted by the National Labor Relations Board." To enforce this stated resolve, FirstGroup appointed a monitor, William B. Gould IV, a professor emeritus at Stanford University Law School and former chair of the NLRB during the Clinton administration. Under this new arrangement, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters expanded its representation of drivers employed by FirstGroup from 14,000 in 2007 to more than 25,000 less than two years later. Gould credits FirstGroup's chief executive, Sir Moir Lockhead, for the change of heart. "I was approached by Sir Moir, who felt that his reputation was being sullied unfairly, and also that of his company," Gould says. Sir Moir asked Gould to act as monitor and to investigate any complaint filed by either a union or an individual employee.

"I explained to him that [the] Taft-Hartley [Act] allows employers to aggressively campaign against unions," Gould says, "and he pledged not to do anything that would directly or indirectly disparage unions." Gould says that in his role as monitor, he has processed 130 complaints of unfair labor practices, nearly all of them charging that the company violated its self-imposed neutrality. For each complaint, he has sent an investigator to follow up and has filed a report. "I think a major factor in the adoption of this program -- indeed, the dominant factor -- is the commitment of Sir Moir Lockhead," Gould says. (Lockhead is scheduled to retire on March 31.) In the trenches, local Teamsters leaders are also upbeat, although perhaps not as upbeat as Gould. Teamsters Local 671, for example, represents more than 500 of the nearly 800 school-bus drivers in the Hartford area of central Connecticut. The final 150 drivers to join the Teamsters came in a spurt after FirstGroup dismantled its roadblocks and embraced neutrality in 2007, according to Tony Lepore, the local's business agent. With neutrality, the margins of victory have been greater in each representation election, Lepore says, and the contracts negotiated with FirstGroup have been more generous, with the union winning additional paid holidays, attendance and longevity bonuses, paid bereavement leave, and a top wage of $19.10 an hour for a 25- to 35hour week. "We might have eventually achieved the same results without neutrality," Lepore says, "but it would have taken us twice as long to do it." As if to document that point, the Teamsters are struggling to organize the school-bus drivers of another British company, the National Express Group PLC, which operates in the United States as Durham School Services and has an 11 percent share of the private market, second only to FirstGroup's 42 percent. Highly organized in Britain, National Express shuns unions here, although in a submission last year to the British Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights, the company said it "has adopted policies to ensure full compliance with labor laws throughout all of our operations, both in the United Kingdom and the United States and Canada." The Teamsters represent 4,000 of the Durham drivers and are seeking to organize many more. "We are in a pitched battle," says Iain Gold, director of the Teamsters' Strategic Research and Campaign Department. "We are trying to document their behavior. We are trying to engage their shareholders. We had folks at their annual meeting this summer letting British shareholders know how their company is operating in the United States." *** So it goes across the spectrum. ThyssenKrupp Steel, the German giant, is expanding a recently opened steel plant near Mobile, Alabama, and the United Steelworkers is seeking to organize not only the 700 existing workers but those to be added -- doing so not through confrontation but through an alliance with IG Metall, the German metalworkers union. The goal is to pressure ThyssenKrupp into a neutrality agreement. "In the cases where we try to organize without global solidarity, it is much more difficult," says Patrick Young, an official in the United Steelworkers' strategic campaign department. H&M, a big Swedish-based chain of clothing stores, is unionized at home and in other countries. The retailer, however, has resisted unionization in the United States, specifically the organizing efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), despite a neutrality agreement that H&M signed with UNI Global Union. The UFCW was a partner to that pact, and largely as a result, it has organized 1,200 H&M workers in New York City, according to Patrick J. O'Neill, the union's executive vice president and director of organizing. "We haven't achieved our final goal, but we have engaged the company on a number of levels," he says.

Foreign-owned banks in America are yet another target. So are food-store chains, manufacturers, and DHL Express, a German-owned package-delivery company. The list continues to grow as foreign multinationals establish or acquire American subsidiaries and the nation's unions respond, not through in-your-face organizing campaigns but through pressure to transfer to the United States a foreign owner's commitment to labor back home. Hae-Lin Choi, the CWA official, is guardedly hopeful that will happen in the case of T-Mobile USA. She notes that Deutsche Telekom is bringing in a new CEO for T-Mobile -- Philipp Humm, the first German to head the American subsidiary -- and that maybe he'll be more neutral. Perhaps the pressure from ver.di's members in Germany is beginning to have its effect. "It is unclear," she says. "Humm could go either way."

Louis Uchitelle writes on economics topics for The New York Timesand other publications. He is the author of The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences.

Translating Solidarity
As SEIU organizes on a global scale, it must adapt its approach to accommodate cultural differences.
DAVID MOBERG | November 8, 2010

After a decade working for food concessions operated by the French multinational Sodexo at Ohio State University sports arenas, 58-year-old Marcia Snell decided she and her fellow workers -- including more than a dozen of her extended family members -- needed a union. And she has done more to get a union than just join and sign up her co-workers. Up against a company that employs 380,000 workers in 80 countries, she went global, like her employer. She marched down High Street in Columbus last April with British and French union supporters, then got arrested for blocking the street. She traveled to France for the January shareholder meeting, where European unions publicly supported her cause. Sodexo, which says that it "has always recognized and respected trade union rights," is fighting Snell's attempt to organize a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Human Rights Watch concluded that the company's U.S. operations had frequently violated the same international labor standards it observes in Europe, and unions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic report Sodexo fired workers who protested violations of pay laws. Sodexo touts that it's "a great place to work." But on her part-time hours and low pay ($9 an hour or less until recently, after she began organizing and got a raise and a full work week), Snell had to raise her five children with the help of Medicaid, food stamps, and public assistance. When her Medicaid coverage ended, she could not afford Sodexo's insurance or her heart medicine and then needed bypass surgery. French Sodexo union leaders Jean-Michel Dupire and Gerard Bodard say that after visiting Columbus last spring, they were shocked by differences between the lives of Americans like Snell and French Sodexo workers -- and the difference between Sodexo's self-image and reality. In France, anyone can easily join a union, and everyone in the food services is under union contracts. Most French Sodexo workers earn the minimum wage (about $12 an hour), but they have comprehensive public health insurance, a much more generous public pension, full work weeks, and six weeks paid vacation. (Snell will get her first few vacation days next year.) "I think we'll help each other," Bodard says, "because we're working for a global company, and the only way for us to go is to build global power. In France, we've put pressure on Sodexo and given publicity [to U.S. conditions] so everyone in the sector knows about it." Reflecting the growing worry that multinational companies will bring U.S. labor standards to Europe, Bodard adds, "What I'm going for is equal treatment, but it's also important to bring everyone to the top, not the bottom."

"The French workers stood by us and want to help us get a union," Snell says. "They actually cried when we told them our stories. ... By workers from other states and countries going together, it shows we really want a union." Such tangible global solidarity will be key to developing global union power that can counterbalance the expanding influence of multinational corporations. SEIU Executive Vice President Tom Woodruff, director of Change to Win's Strategic Organizing Center, believes unions must unite across borders to organize, because union membership as a fraction of the workforce is declining nearly everywhere. "Only if unions build organizing across borders can workers get a fair share from their employers," he says. "More U.S. unions and unions in other countries are involved, but global campaigning is really an underdeveloped technology." With its own global campaign exposing Sodexo's human-rights failings, SEIU is trying not only to pressure the company to make it easier for workers in the United States to form a union but also to help develop that "technology" to organize Sodexo workers around the world. The union's comprehensive campaign combines short strikes, efforts to cancel or block new catering contracts that the company seeks (with school districts, the Marines, and the 2012 London Olympics), legal challenges, generating unfavorable publicity for Sodexo, and lobbying politicians, investors, and other influential figures to pressure Sodexo to sign a strong global framework agreement (GFA). SEIU wants a compact that will guarantee unions' unimpeded right to organize Sodexo workers more concretely than earlier agreements that just reiterated abstract rights. In 2004, SEIU signed agreements for plants in just the United States with Sodexo and the two other giant "multiservice" or food-service and facility -- management companies, Britain-based Compass Group and U.S.based Aramark. The agreements, which expired in 2009, helped organizing in some worksites but greatly restricted where and how fast the union could organize. Working through the International Union of Food Workers, a global union federation, SEIU sought a stronger, unrestricted GFA. It's often hard to win good global frameworks, and then it's hard to enforce them. SEIU expects Sodexo to deliver a global agreement by the end of the year, but negotiating details of processes to be used in the U.S. will be difficult. It may get more complex because UNITE HERE, recently in a bruising battle with SEIU, also has jurisdiction over the food-service industry in the U.S. and is waging its own drive to organize the big three. UNITE HERE wants assurances the new agreement treats all unions equally. Framework agreements have helped SEIU organize about 15,000 security guards and 20,000 multiservice workers, SEIU officials estimate, though UNITE HERE says the real total for multiservice workers is much lower. The Sodexo campaign stems from SEIU's decision at its 2004 convention to undertake serious global organizing. Much of its work in health care and other industries still focuses on domestic employers and regional markets. But building-service companies, which employ such workers as janitors and security guards, are increasingly global in their financing, ownership, clients, and workforce. SEIU's decision is one part of a change underway since the 1990s in labor's approach to global issues, which had been characterized by charitable solidarity support mixed into a Cold War strategy that complemented American foreign policy. Then communism and the Cold War collapsed, and many U.S. unions began recognizing the paramount threat of global corporations. In the late 1980s, the cross-border campaigns of some American unions -- such as the former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' recruitment of European help to battle the German chemical giant BASF at the company's

plants in the U.S. -- shook up the often staid world of union international diplomacy. In a new twist, U.S. unions were asking European unions for help. The Europeans usually complied but occasionally resented the combative style of some U.S. unions that endangered their carefully nurtured relations with employers. Although U.S. unions now act in a significantly more sophisticated fashion, initially union leaders in Europe saw some of the Americans (like SEIU representatives) as brash, culturally insensitive, and interested mainly in one-way relationships that helped the U.S. unions. At the same time, the Europeans often did not understand that, as International Union of Foodworkers General Secretary Ron Oswald says, "the United States probably has the most brutal labor-relations system in the industrial world." SEIU's engagement in global organizing grew out of its building-service organizing, especially the pivotal Justice for Janitors strike at Century City, during which police clubbed picketers of the key cleaning contractor, a Danish multinational. Although threats of retaliation by SEIU's big New York janitors' union helped bring about a settlement, Justice for Janitors architect Stephen Lerner also credits influence of a Danish trade union delegation. Increasingly, building-service organizers confronted the dominant private-security multinationals, Securitas (which is Swedish) and G4S (British). These multinationals had grown by consolidating local or national companies (Securitas had bought the Burns private-security company in the U.S.) but failed to instill the laborfriendly style of Swedish managers. As Justice for Janitors succeeded, organizers turned to the poorly paid, mainly nonunion commercial-building guards. Then in 2003, a Swedish Transport Workers Union delegation visited the United States. The delegates talked with Securitas workers and SEIU organizers and publicly reported back to Sweden about the labor-rights outrages they found. Swedish managers were so upset with the group's publicity that then-CEO of Securitas Thomas Berglund promptly flew to the United States and negotiated a framework to ease U.S. organizing with SEIU Vice President Tom Balanoff. The agreement granted SEIU recognition as bargaining agent if a majority of workers signed up, but it covered only 10 cities, and the union had to organize a majority of guards in each market before contract talks could begin (to prevent exposing unionized contractors to nonunion competition). In the meantime, UNI (another global federation of service workers) and the Swedish union negotiated a GFA with Securitas in 2006. It guarantees that organizers will have management's cooperation gaining access to the workers, that managers will respect workers' right to form a union, and that workers can gain recognition through the "minimum legal requirements" (typically majority card checks in the U.S.). In their regularly scheduled talks about implementing the agreement, Securitas CEO Alf Goeransson assured SEIU and UNI officials in September that the global agreement applies to the United States. But Securitas managers in the U.S. do not fully agree on which rules prevail, and as a result, those managers in many cases are reverting to their customary hostility. Securitas guard Ken Parkison, a 45-year-old Army veteran in Denver, discovered that the hard way. Last April, after meeting two SEIU organizers, he signed up six of the 11 guards at his workplace. "Then the company found out," he says. Shortly afterward, he was fired for using a computer that the company claimed he was not authorized to use. Angry at the company for breaking its own rules, he agreed to join a delegation of Swedish unionists in Cincinnati helping American co-workers present petitions for recognition of a union. The Swedes were also helping themselves. "There has to be solidarity between colleagues," says Susanne Bergman Israelsson -- a guard, shop steward, and union branch chair in Sweden. "If conditions get worse in one country, what's to say it won't undermine you?"

The Swedes were "appalled" at how Securitas treated Parkison -- -and them. As the American-Swedish delegation stood outside the Cincinnati office, the manager opened the door, and Bergman Israelsson -- also an employee representative on the corporation's board of directors -- stepped forward and identified herself. The manager "ignored me and slammed the door in my face," she says. "I'm used to talking with management at all levels with respect. I'm not angry. I feel sad. You don't treat people that way." The Swedish Transport Workers are committed to pressuring Securitas, and Balanoff, also president of UNI's property-services division, feels confident that Goeransson will enforce the GFA in the U.S. eventually. *** In October 2003, inspired by what then seemed its easy victory at Securitas, SEIU turned to pursuing an agreement with the Danish security company Group 4 Falck and its American arm, Wackenhut. Soon afterward, however, the company merged with the British firm Securicor. British managers took control of what became known as G4S, and SEIU faced a more formidable challenge. The company is the second-largest private employer in the world, with 600,000 employees in more than 100 countries. Its British management, despite its expressed commitment to labor rights and unions, seemed less willing to reach an agreement than the Swedish managers of Securitas. The harder fight with G4S taught SEIU organizers several important lessons. It also pushed them beyond a campaign to help organize at home toward more global organizing, both as an end in itself and as a means to winning rights for American workers. First, SEIU organizers found that talking about human rights worked better in Europe than in the United States, says Christy Hoffman, then SEIU's European leader on G4S and now UNI deputy secretary-general. In the United States, SEIU devoted more attention to criticizing Wackenhut's quality of performance, issuing reports on "how the Wackenhut Corporation is compromising America's nuclear security." But the European press, public, and investors were interested in violations of human rights and sometimes acted on them: One Norwegian pension fund divested its G4S holdings. SEIU's organizers were gradually learning more about cultural differences that make it unwise to uncritically transfer American strategies overseas. "SEIU had to learn that people are still embarrassed in Europe to be seen as anti-union," Hoffman says. "I think the degree of that embarrassment has declined. American culture gets a little stronger every year." SEIU also found that it could both strengthen its human-rights case and tip the balance of power toward unions by supporting organizing in as many countries as possible. Working with UNI, SEIU supported G4S workers organizing in countries such as South Africa, India, Uganda, Morocco, Nepal, Panama, Ghana, and Mozambique. In Malawi, 10,000 workers won both union recognition and a "wage theft" lawsuit against the company. Panamanian workers fired for speaking out won reinstatement or severance pay. A group of Polish emigres in Chicago went to Warsaw to help organize security guards, and the non-emigre Poles, who had just won their own organizing rights through the international campaign, traveled from Warsaw to London to help organize janitors there. "If you were fighting a contractor in one country, and it operated in 30, you're going after a small piece of the company," Lerner says, "but if you campaign in many countries, it totally changes the ground rules." Although global unions -- for which Lerner advocates -- will not be viable soon, the work of SEIU, the global union federations, and other unions shows that loosely coordinated global organizing can work under certain conditions. "United States unions campaigning for organizing rights can't go it alone for a long time," Hoffman

says. "It's important to build a global campaign and not just be about organizing rights in the U.S." By December 2008, the multidimensional G4S fight had led to both a U.S. agreement and a global Ethical Employment Partnership between G4S and UNI. The deal with SEIU identified four types of workplaces in nine cities that could be organized, guaranteed management would not interfere with organizing, and provided that a union would be recognized through the method workers chose in the designated workplaces. The global framework is more general but less restrictive. Today, however, SEIU leaders argue that their initial framework agreement, which seemed to them the best possible at the time, is no longer acceptable, since such an agreement does not enforce the rights of all of a company's employees to organize. SEIU's "global organizing partnerships" go beyond the original goal of helping American workers organize to encouraging and helping unions everywhere organize. Although it cooperates with the global union federations, SEIU independently works with unions that seem most committed to organizing. Woodruff convenes a "global alliance" of such unions. Both SEIU and Change to Win have staff in Europe and, at times, elsewhere who train other unionists in organizing strategy and tactics. SEIU also occasionally follows the lead of others. In a campaign that is global from the start, the Brazilian bank workers' union proposed that they (along with the Communications Workers of America) organize workers at U.S. offices of Sovereign Bank, now owned by Grupo Santander, the big Spanish-based multinational bank. In Mexico, as an outgrowth of its advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers, SEIU is working with unions and other local partners both to defend workers' rights and improve the quality of jobs in Mexico. "SEIU's campaigns don't yet constitute global unionism," says Lerner. "Through global agreements, however, episodic campaigning may move toward a much-needed, institutionalized power capable of challenging global capitalism systematically." In any case, it is an important step among many that unions are taking to build both their endangered domestic base and more meaningful global power.

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times.

Bonds of Steel
Can alliances with unions in Mexico and Europe return the United Steelworkers to its former strength at home?
JAKE BLUMGART | November 8, 2010

From the 1930s through the 1980s, the United Steelworkers (USW) and its sister industrial union, the United Auto Workers, were the heart of organized labor in America. If the woman in the street or the legislator in D.C. had been asked to name the most powerful union in the country, the USW would have been at the top of the list. And deservedly so: With a membership topping 1 million, correspondingly vast coffers, immense political sway, and industry-wide bargaining power, it won the kinds of contracts and prominence that few other unions ever gained in America's notoriously conservative political economy. Everyone knows what happened next. With great power comes great complacency, and by the 1980s the American steel industry no longer maintained its once commanding grip on the international steel market. Coupled with an increasingly piratical global corporate culture, the industry suddenly and violently collapsed, scattering steel production to cheaper labor markets abroad. In the 25 years since, conventional wisdom has pronounced the death of organized labor a thousand times, and attention has shifted from the industrial unions to the giants of the service and public sector -- whose jobs cannot be so easily outsourced. But the USW isn't dead. With an official membership of 850,000 active unionists, down from a peak of 1.3 million in 1975, the USW is the largest industrial union in America. (Much of this growth was achieved by absorbing other declining industrial unions, including the paper, rubber, and forestry workers.) Despite these figures, the United Steelworkers is fighting on an international battlefield which its corporate opponents have commanded with impunity since the 1970s. The USW's leadership tries to compensate for this crippling strategic disadvantage through a network of tactical partnerships on both the national and international scenes. Domestically, the union's Blue Green Alliance with American environmentalists rightfully gained widespread attention, but it is the USW's outreach to the international union movement that may point to a new path forward for labor in a worldwide economy. The USW is developing a web of strategic alliances with sister unions on every inhabited continent in an attempt to ensure that the fruits of globalization are fairly distributed. Two of the union's efforts -- one in the global South, the other in the North -- provide a window into a struggle for transnational unionism that neither the media nor the political establishment seem to have noticed. Both efforts include strategic alliances that the union is trying to upgrade into transnational organizations, creating (at least theoretically) a force to match the transnational corporations. "The USW has been so innovative in part because they were hit full force with globalization 30 years ago," says

David Madland, director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund's American Worker Project. "[Now they are] seeking ways to partner and develop deeper relationships internationally to raise standards for workers both internationally and in the U.S. It certainly has real potential. Whether it actually works, it's certainly better than nothing." *** South of the border, the USW has thrown its weight behind Los Mineros, the mining and metalworkers union in Mexico, providing critical support to that embattled union. Its ties to Los Mineros are particularly strong because of their shared border and, to an extent, overlapping labor markets (15 percent of the Mexican labor force works in the U.S.), which gives the USW powerful incentives to strengthen independent Mexican unions. Significant disparity between the two labor markets is to be expected, but the contrast is much starker today than it used to be. A June Bureau of Labor Statistics report on international compensation costs shows a clear decline in the hourly compensation costs for Mexican manufacturing workers. In 1975 Mexican compensation costs stood at 23 percent of their American equivalent. By 2007, that number had dropped to 12 percent (up from the staggering low of 8 percent in 1995). Over the same period, American wages stagnated, meaning real Mexican wages are worth even less than they appear. "As long as we have these developmental disparities within the NAFTA region, it's going to be very hard to stem the flow of capital south or the flow of people north," says Ben Davis, director of international affairs for the USW. "The only way you are going to do that is by raising wages and living standards in Mexico. And the only way to do that is effective freedom of association, giving people the ability to form unions that represent them democratically." That's easier said than done. Historically, Mexico's unions have largely been state run, which means they weren't actually unions at all. Instead, "union" leaders supported the priorities of the ruling party, keeping wages and benefits low to encourage foreign investment. Los Mineros is a part of a new generation of independent unions bent on changing this dynamic. They organize, bargain, and strike in a way few other Mexican unions do, winning real wage and benefit increases for their members. They're the kind of partner the USW is looking for. The partnership can be traced back to a 2005 USW strike against Grupo Mexico, a gargantuan mining company with operations in the United States and Mexico that had been organized by both unions. In 2005 the Mexican union gave the USW an unusually strong show of support, performing a one-day solidarity strike in support of the U.S. miners. One day may not sound like much, but it is exceedingly rare for workers of any nation to put down their tools in support of a union in another country. (Letters of support, solidarity delegations, and press releases are more common.) Impressed, the USW leadership quickly consolidated the relationship, signing a strategic-alliance agreement with Los Mineros on April 13, 2005. "It is a relationship based on solidarity, which is a principle of any good union," Davis says. "But it is fundamentally based on a recognition that we cannot defend the jobs or improve the wages, working conditions, and opportunities of workers in the U.S. as long as next door, a population of over 43 million workers makes $5 a day and that doesn't change for 30 years." In February 2006, 65 Mineros miners were killed in an explosion at another Grupo mine, where the company had ignored worker warnings of unsafe conditions for months prior to the tragedy. Mineros leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia condemned the company and lax governmental regulation. A few days later, the government launched a corruption investigation against Gomez and then announced his removal from the union's leadership,

sparking a wave of wildcat strikes across the nation. The incident resulted in a death-threat campaign against Gomez, forcing him into exile. The Steelworkers facilitated his flight, giving him sanctuary in the U.S. and later in Canada (he now operates from an office in the USW's District 3 headquarters in British Columbia). In July 2007, 1,300 Mineros members walked off the job to protest lax health and safety standards in Grupo's Cananea copper mines, the largest in Mexico. The strike continued through three years of furious legal battles, anti-union TV campaigns, criminal charges against union leaders (overturned), and assaults by armed federal police retained by the company as strikebreakers. "The actions taken in collusion between Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government are an outrage," USW International President Leo Gerard said in the International Federation of Metalworkers' 2008 white paper. "If they can crush this very effective, independent union ... all independent unions in Mexico are at risk. And then other countries that are watching can say, 'Well if they can do it there, we can do it here too.' ... If we can't stand behind that as a global labour movement, we're in trouble." Gerard backed up his words with a host of efforts. The USW filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor accusing the Mexican government of violating the North American Free Trade Agreement's labor provisions, raised over $150,000 in donations from local unions for the strikers, and sponsored numerous member delegations and observer teams to document the continuing repression. Throughout the continuing strike, Gomez remained at the head of Los Mineros, with the crucial logistical and technical support of the Steelworkers. On June 20, 2010, Los Mineros and the USW denounced the latest (at the time) police attack on the strikers, and announced their intention to "take this alliance a step further [through a] possible global unification" project. Little has been heard of the merger proposal since, as concrete issues of police violence have overtaken such theoretical concerns. In Europe, though, the Steelworkers' conception of fusing national unions into a unified international force is several steps closer to enactment. In 2007, media outlets from The New York Times to Mother Jones took note when the Steelworkers announced merger negotiations with the United Kingdom's largest union, Unite the Union. The details were vague, but the slightly hyperbolic term "super union" was thrown around, along with the fact that the combination would have members in the United States, Canada, Britain, Ireland, and the Caribbean. The appeal of such an entity is immediately apparent. While capital has long maintained an internationalism more muscular than labor's largely rhetorical commitments, the 1980s marked the beginning of a new epoch of global production and finance, enabled by productive and technological advances. The new regime of multinational corporations, relatively free capital flow, and "flexible" labor markets resulted in a dramatic restructuring of the world economy, with most of the fruits going to business and the banks. This new model led to the decline of prominent, domestically based national companies like the once dominant U.S. Steel, which the USW had struggled with throughout much of the 20th century. Through a complicated series of mergers and acquisitions, immense new companies like ArcelorMittal (the world's largest steelmaker), with industrial footholds in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America, have emerged triumphant in their stead. (Equivalent entities can be found in nearly every industry, from security and retail to every industrial manufacturing sector.) These new corporate behemoths, with headquarters in one country but operations dispersed across the planet, pose a tricky problem for unions, which are still largely nationally oriented. The Unite-USW "super union" was hailed as the first step toward responding to these developments. "When I first heard about this trans-Atlantic merger, I was pretty skeptical because I've heard lots of this stuff

before, and it just disappears," says Paul Garver, a retired staffer for the IUF (the federation of unions in the food and hospitality sector) and co-editor of the blog Talking Union, where he frequently writes on international issues. (Full disclosure: Talking Union periodically republishes my writing.) "But there is something happening. It isn't just an announcement that will disappear into the void. There is serious institutional commitment, and they are taking small, not spectacular, steps. The one thing I think that is really essential is to have enough staff dedicated to it." By that standard, things are progressing nicely. In 2008, the unions officially announced the beginning of their merger into Workers Uniting. Unite assigned three staffers to the project, and the USW an equivalent number "involved in regular conversations." According to sources in both unions, communication is near constant. A joint congress is planned for next year to decide shared leadership, a formal constitution, and other structural factors. In the meantime, joint work is going forward on international campaigns in Bangladesh and Colombia and on bargaining within industries where the unions share employers. Half a dozen companies in the paper sector (Georgia-Pacific, for example) employ workers from both unions, and they have been busily coordinating bargaining strategies and sharing information. If one union gets useful intelligence -- on corporate tactics, financial details, and the like -- it can quickly share it with its counterpart. Other industries in which both unions are represented -- nuclear, forestry, oil, health care -- will soon be subject to the same kind of information sharing. But couldn't all of the above be operated under the rubric of a strategic alliance, without all the effort and resources the unions will have to expend on a complex, transnational merger? "It's all a matter of bonding," says Richard O'Brien, U.K. director of Workers Uniting. "A lot of solidarity is based on socializing, and the more contact there is, the easier that is." "That may sound basic, but it's amazing how useful that can be -- linking our offices together so they are in daily contact," he continues. "Our other strategic alliances tend to be taken off the shelf and dusted down when there is a problem." Both unions would ideally like to see Workers Uniting's continued expansion, perhaps building on the strategicalliance network the USW has already established with unions in places like Brazil, South Africa, and Australia. No one, though, is envisioning a speedy transition to such ambitious growth. "The initial outreach to the U.K. made a lot of sense because we have relatively similar industrial systems, legal systems -- common language also helps if you are trying to do something new," Davis says. "Frankly, it's going to be harder once we get to discussions with the Brazilians. But we are trying to create an alliance of unions with a commitment to taking aggressive positions toward multinational companies and using all the resources and weapons at our disposal to fight back." *** Workers Uniting will be afforded more time to experiment and expand, because it exists in a very different environment than, say, the Mineros-USW effort. The Mexican context bears a resemblance to the 19th-century days of open class warfare in the Western nations, with the government and the companies working hand in glove to repress labor. In contrast, Western unions are likely to have at least some allies within their nation's political systems, and they are more likely to have amiable relations with some corporations. Among them would be ArcelorMittal, which operates with a global works council that recently pressured the company into pledging worldwide health and safety standards.

Common fears, however, increasingly beset Western unions. Across the Western world, union density is declining, even in the strongholds of Central and Northern Europe, while manufacturing jobs continue to hemorrhage from the American and British economies. Whether a more globalized union movement can mitigate those concerns is open to question. "International solidarity work is very important, but we need to be honest about what we can achieve," writes Sam Gindin, former chief economist for the Canadian Auto Workers' union, in an e-mail message. "The main problem is that unions haven't even figured out how to defend their members, what new tactics and strategies are necessary. ... The new ties won't solve any major problem that steel faces: the fragmentation of U.S. labor, the inability to bring new workers into unions, the inability to influence the American state." The USW is betting, however, that strengthening its presence abroad, pulling up allies in Mexico and Bangladesh, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with co-workers in Workers Uniting will translate into gains for American workers. It is obvious that domestic collective bargaining and traditional political organizing haven't been able to restore even a fraction of the Steelworkers' national strength. Cross-border bargaining with a common employer, particularly in relatively similar labor markets, such as those of Canada, the U.S., Britain, and Ireland, could potentially be game-changing. Only time will tell whether these first, halting attempts at global unionism will create an effective counterweight to global capitalism.

Jake Blumgart is a researcher and writer for the San Diego Center on Policy Initiatives' Cry Wolf Project.

Slumming in America
Human-rights arguments are effective tools for shaming European companies into good labor practices in the U.S.
LANCE COMPA | November 8, 2010

Get back to work, or we'll hire permanent replacements to take your jobs! That's what management at Robert Bosch, a German multinational firm with 270,000 employees worldwide, told union members who exercised their right to strike in December 2005. Bosch's message might come as a surprise to anyone who reads the company's website, which promises "respect and support" for international labor standards, especially International Labor Organization (ILO) norms on workers' freedom of association. Bosch's threat directly contravened an ILO standard that says threatening or using permanent replacements to break a strike violates workers' freedom of association. Bosch's threat also ran counter to labor practices at home in Germany and throughout Europe, where permanent replacements are prohibited or, in the case of Germany, simply unheard of. No employer -- including Robert Bosch -- has ever tried using them there. The 2005 strike wasn't taking place in Europe, however, but at Bosch's packaging equipment plant in New Richmond, Wisconsin, where the company was demanding wage cuts and higher health-insurance payments. Bosch acted legally under U.S. labor law, which uniquely allows employers to permanently replace workers who strike. Most other countries permit only temporary replacements. Some prohibit replacements altogether. Faced with permanent replacement, the Wisconsin workers returned quickly on management's terms. If Robert Bosch lived up to its commitment to ILO standards, it would not have exploited weak U.S. labor laws to play the permanent-replacement card. This difference between rhetoric and action is the heart of a new report by Human Rights Watch, which I authored, on violations of workers' freedom of association in the United States by European multinational firms. The report shows how European corporations claiming commitment to international labor standards have a blind spot when it comes to workers' rights in the United States. The HRW report is titled A Strange Case, an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It cites well-known European firms based in Germany, France, Britain, and elsewhere that publicly embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ILO declarations and conventions, guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and other international instruments enshrining workers' freedom of association as a basic human right, but that proceed to violate them in their U.S. operations. European firms adopt anti-union practices in the United States that they would never try at home, where most of their employees are represented by unions. The companies deal with unions forthrightly in a "social partnership" framework encouraged by European Union policies. Striker replacement is just one feature of U.S. labor law that runs counter to international standards on freedom

of association. Other features withhold protections for farmworkers, household domestic employees, "independent" contractors who are really dependent on one employer, and low-level "supervisors" who aren't really part of management at all. Worker protections are further undercut by the disparity in U.S. labor law requiring authorities to seek injunctions against union unfair labor practices but not against employer unfair labor practices. Non-interference in workers' organizing is the key international standard on freedom of association. The most common violations allowed under U.S. law are aggressive, one -- sided, fearmongering campaigns that employers launch when workers try to form unions. Managers can haul workers into captive -- audience meetings, forbidding any talk-back, to hear "predictions" of workplace closure if employees form a union, as long as the predictions are not threats. This prediction-versus-threat distinction pleases judges and lawyers but leaves workers baffled and scared. "WE WERE AFRAID TO EVEN LEARN ABOUT THE UNION." In 2000, then-United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan created the U.N. Global Compact as a membership forum on corporate social responsibility for global firms. Companies that join the Global Compact pledge to honor its 10 "principles" that start with workers' freedom of association. When the German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom signed on to the U.N. Global Compact in 2006, the firm proclaimed, "This commitment is based not only on the values of the Global Compact but on the internationally recognized conventions, guidelines and standards of the ILO and the OECD. Our Social Charter governs how we deal with issues such as human rights as well as cooperation with unions." Deutsche Telekom touts a "social partnership" with ver.di, the union representing 80,000 of its active German employees, even after a six-week strike in 2007. Under Germany's "co-determination" laws requiring employee representation on corporate boards, worker representatives from both white-collar and blue-collar unions hold half of the 20 seats on Deutsche Telekom's supervisory board. But top managers at the company's U.S. subsidiary, T-Mobile USA, warned frontline supervisors to report "newly developing social relationships," "employees engaging in group behavior," and "employees who talk a lot about rights" as danger signs of possible union activity. One day after supporters of Communications Workers of America at T-Mobile's call center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, handed out flyers to workers exiting the parking lot (standing on public property, as was their legal right), "the general manager called everybody into focus groups, about 15 or 20 people at a time," TMobile worker Tammy Todora told HRW. "He was putting the fear into everyone's head about the union, that the union would create problems." "People were too scared to ask questions," Angela Joseph, another T-Mobile employee, told HRW, "like he would think they were against him. We were afraid to even learn about the union." "THESE ARE NOT THE RIGHT PEOPLE FOR YOU." Tesco is a mammoth U.K.-based global food-marketing firm that claims to honor international labor standards and to deal forthrightly with unions at home and throughout the world. Most of Tesco's store-level employees in Britain are union -- represented. The company told Human Rights Watch that it has "positive relations with trade unions around the world." But bosses at Tesco's new subsidiary in the United States, called Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, jumped at the chance to apply U.S.-style union-busting at its new chain of food markets in the Southwest.

One of the company's first actions was to hire employee -- relations directors with "primary responsibility" for "maintaining non-union status and union avoidance activities," according to recruiting advertisements. Once in place, Tesco's human-resources management proceeded to hammer its anti-union message at new employees. Shastina Fuhrman was hired in November 2007 as an hourly paid "team lead" employee in Fresh & Easy locations in San Diego. "I was one of the original 100 Fresh & Easy hires," she told HRW. "I grand-opened two stores for them." "Two weeks before the first opening, I went to a big meeting in San Diego with all the big guys from management," she said. "I remember the top British manager saying, 'You are part of the company now, part of a Fresh & Easy family. There is no need to have a union here. Why would you want a union?' and things like that. Another British guy said, 'Unions just want to protect lazy workers.'" Fuhrman added, "It was constantly driven home to us in team lead meetings that we should tell employees they have no need for the union, that the company will take care of them so they don't need a union. When the union started passing out flyers outside our store, my manager told us, 'You don't want to be part of it. These are not the right people for you.'" LAWBREAKING, TOO European firms in the HRW report did not just "lawfully" violate international standards thanks to weak U.S. laws; they also ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. In August 2010, for example, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that DHL, which is owned by Germany's Deutsche Post, unlawfully threatened, spied on, and discriminated against workers trying to form a union at the company's Pennsylvania sorting center. Deutsche Post has a code of conduct "based on international agreements and guidelines, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the conventions of the International Labor Organization and the Global Compact of the United Nations." T-Mobile went too far when managers told employees to report on each other's union activity. In the wake of an investigation by the NLRB, T-Mobile posted a notice promising not to "promulgate, maintain, or enforce rules that ask or require you to report to us about your co-workers' support for, or activities on behalf of" the union. But a notice on bulletin boards cannot overcome the effects of management's driven-home message, reminiscent of the refrain in a song by The Police: "Every move you make ... every step you take, I'll be watching you." In June 2010, two NLRB judges ruled that Tesco at stores in California and Arizona interrogated employees about their union activity and issued an unlawful "gag rule" forbidding employees from sharing written materials or talking about the union at work. Tesco appealed the judges' orders to post a notice on store bulletin boards promising not to repeat this conduct -- the only remedy available under the National Labor Relations Act for such violations. The HRW report concluded with recommendations for stronger "due diligence" by European headquarters over American managers to ensure application of company commitments to international labor standards. It also called for a strengthened complaint mechanism under OECD guidelines and stronger oversight by government and European Union officials of European multinationals in their U.S. and other foreign operations. Finally, the report recommended reforms in U.S. labor law to come into compliance with international labor norms. TWO COMMUNITIES CONVERGE. Since its release in September, the HRW report has become a catalyst for transnational advocacy within both the

labor and human-rights communities. The Communications Workers, United Steelworkers, Service Employees, Food & Commercial Workers, and other American unions are using the report to build support among counterpart trade unions in Europe. HRW offices in London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels are introducing European human-rights groups to the realities of workers' rights violations in the United States. These are not just "pity poor us" campaigns, either. U.S.-style management interference is also making inroads in Europe. Just two weeks after the HRW report came out, a U.K. poultry-processing company named Cranberry Foods used an American anti-union consulting group to spoil workers' organizing in a plant near Manchester. Some U.S.-based anti-union consultants are setting up shop in Eastern European countries that recently joined the European Union. Alerted by the HRW report, trade unions and human-rights groups are developing strategies to turn back the U.S. union-busting model. Action on the HRW report reflects a new convergence of labor and human-rights advocates who long traveled parallel tracks without meeting. Trade unionists faced organizing and bargaining challenges. Human-rights groups had torture, genocide, and brutal dictatorships aplenty to occupy their attention. But given the pressures of globalization on workers' rights and human rights, both advocacy communities extended their boundaries in recent years to embrace each other's concerns. In 2009, Amnesty International and the Trades Union Congress, Britain's central labor federation, signed a formal agreement on joint campaigning for workers' rights around the world. Amnesty International USA created a Business and Human Rights division with extensive focus on workers' rights. Oxfam International broadened its development agenda to include labor rights and standards, and its Oxfam America group created a workers' rights program to take up these causes inside the United States. A Strange Case is just the latest in a decade-long series of HRW reports on workers' rights in the United States. Earlier reports addressed child labor in American agriculture, abuses against immigrant household domestic workers in wealthy U.S. households, conditions in the U.S. meatpacking industry, and labor-rights violations at Wal-Mart. Trade unions began taking up human-rights themes, too. The AFL-CIO launched a broad-based "Voice@Work" project characterized as a "campaign to help U.S. workers regain the basic human right to form unions to improve their lives." Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other unions produced human-rights reports on employers they confronted in organizing and bargaining campaigns. In 2004, the Teamsters issued an analysis of workers' rights violations by Maersk-Sealand, the Denmark-based international shipping company. The company was firing organizing leaders among U.S. truck drivers who carry cargo from docks to inland distribution centers. Classified as independent contractors, port truck drivers have no legal protection for organizing. The Teamsters distributed thousands of copies of its report to affiliates of the International Transport Federation, the global trade union for workers in the transport sector. Workers held protests and distributed copies of the report at the Danish embassy in Washington, D.C., and at consulates around the United States. In 2005 and 2006, Teamsters and Danish union allies distributed the report at Maersk's annual shareholders meeting in Copenhagen. They championed a shareholders' resolution, common at American companies' annual meetings but a novelty for Maersk, calling on the company to adopt international labor-rights standards as official company policy. Since then, Maersk has halted its union-busting practices in the U.S., emboldening labor, environmental, and community coalitions in Los Angeles to seek an employment model that will allow

port truck drivers to bargain collectively. American trade unionists are also scoring by turning to international human-rights instruments and mechanisms. In recent years, the ILO has found violations of workers' rights in cases involving immigrant workers, registered nurses, airport security screeners, North Carolina public employees, and university teaching assistants. BUILDING INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY Advocates understand that issuing human-rights reports and taking rights claims to the ILO or other international human-rights bodies do not yield enforceable results in the American labor-law system. Most international law is "soft law," where decisions are hortatory, not binding. But casting workers' rights as human rights builds a platform for labor internationalism. Human-rights arguments for workers resonate in much of the rest of the world, especially Europe. Trade union and civil-society organizations there are more familiar with ILO conventions and notions of international standards. They are comfortable with human-rights discourse and readier to respond to human-rights appeals. In developing countries, too, workers and their advocates have a finely honed sense of human rights and how rights are being abused by multinational corporations. Taking up human-rights themes makes it easier for U.S. unions to reach out, connect, and support workers' struggles around the world using human-rights language and arguments. In short, human-rights discourse and the new alliance of labor and human-rights advocates pry open space for framing workers' organizing and bargaining as a human-rights mission.

Lance Compa, a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, is the author of the Human Rights Watch report, A Strange Case.