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U.S. Labor Takes Its Case to European Bosses

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U.S. Labor Takes Its Case to European Bosses

Labor January 22, 2010, 4:02PM EST text size: T [1]T [2]

Business Week [3]

A growing number of labor unions are fighting for better work deals in the U.S. by confronting companies like Sodexo, T-Mobile, and Tesco on their home turf

By Carol Matlack [4]

The Service Employees International Union will picket the annual meeting of French food-service group Sodexo (SDXAY [5]) in Paris on Jan. 25 as U.S. unions take their organizing efforts abroad.

Sodexo, which employs 380,000 people worldwide including 110,000 in the U.S., is "engaging in behavior around the world that would not be acceptable in their home country," says Mitch Ackerman, an SEIU executive vice-president who heads the Washington-based union's property services division.

With more than 5 million Americans now employed by foreign-owned companies, U.S. labor unions are starting to export their grievances. In industries ranging from food service to telecommunications, foreign companies are coming under attack in their home countries from American unions, which are teaming up with local labor groups to criticize the companies' U.S. labor practices.

The SEIU alleges that Sodexo's U.S. subsidiary has used "harsh" though legal anti-union tactics, such as requiring employees to attend meetings where managers try to dissuade them from unionizing. The union also alleges that some Sodexo employees have been punished for taking sick days, and that the company's health-insurance plan is too expensive for many workers, who hold kitchen and cleaning jobs in schools, hospitals, military bases, and other facilities.

Sodexo denies those allegations. "Sodexo respects unequivocally the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, as they may so choose," the company says in a statement. "We will not discriminate against any employee for engaging in union organizing activities or otherwise

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supporting a union."

Hoping to outrage the French

Sodexo provides paid sick leave for full-time employees, who account for 75% of its U.S. workforce, the company says. It says 60% of full-time U.S. employees have enrolled in Sodexo's health insurance plan, under which two-thirds of premiums are paid by the company. In a 2008 survey conducted for Sodexo by employee-benefits consulting group Hewitt (HEW [6]), "86% of our American employees said our company compared favorably with our competitors," the company says.

According to Ackerman, SEIU is hoping its complaints will cause a stir in France, which offers universal public health insurance and guarantees the right to unionize and strike in its national constitution.

"We want to tell our story to shareholders and to a larger public audience," he says.

Besides protesting at Sodexo's annual meeting, SEIU representatives will hold a press conference with French union members and representatives of UNISON, a British labor union. The British union represents hospital workers who staged a two-day strike this month against Sodexo in North Devon that resulted in the company's agreeing to better pay and benefits.

SEIU is one of at least three U.S. unions targeting foreign employers. The Washington-based Communications Workers of America, which is trying to organize U.S. employees of cellular provider T-Mobile, formed a partnership last November with German union Ver.di to exert pressure on T-Mobile's German owner, Deutsche Telekom (DT [7]).

Ver.di, which represents about 70% of Deutsche Telekom's European workforce and has two seats on the company's supervisory board, has promised to press European management to negotiate with the CWA.

"leveraging relationships"

In Britain, retail chain Tesco (TSCDY [8]) has been targeted by the Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers, which is attempting to organize employees of Tesco-owned Fresh & Easy markets [9] in the Western U.S. The UFCW has teamed up with British unions at press conferences and Tesco shareholder meetings in Britain, where it has accused the company of engaging in anti-union tactics in the U.S. while cultivating a pro-labor image in Britain.

"We want to leverage the relationships" that British unions have, says Michael Bride, the UFCW's deputy organizing director for global strategies.

Greg Sage, Tesco's international communications director, says the UFCW's allegations of anti- union activity are "incorrect and unsubstantiated." Fresh & Easy's 3,000 employees are free to unionize, he says, but "they have shown little interest." Fresh & Easy's wages and benefits are "very competitive," Sage says, including health-care benefits that are available to all employees with the company paying 75% of the premiums. The UFCW's campaign in Britain, where it has teamed up with local unions at press conferences and at Tesco shareholder meetings, has had no impact on the

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company's policies, he says.

The unions have scored victories elsewhere. In 2008, the SEIU mounted a campaign against G4S (GFSZY [10]), a British security-services group, that led to the signing of an agreement allowing employees of its U.S. subsidiary, G4S Wackenhut, to choose the SEIU as their bargaining agent.

The UFCW, meanwhile, worked with labor-union representatives in Europe to secure an agreement with Swedish fast-fashion group Hennes & Mauritz (HNNMY [11]), making it easier for the U.S. union to organize the company's American employees. The UFCW in late 2008 negotiated its first contract with H&M, covering 1,200 of the retailer's employees in Manhattan.

Some 5.5 million Americans now work for U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, according to the Organization for International Investment, a Washington-based association of such subsidiaries.

When foreign companies set up shop in the U.S., Ackerman says, "We want to hold them accountable in their home countries."

Matlack [12] is BusinessWeek's Paris bureau chief.

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