How Nestle Learned Global Labor Solidarity Is Alive and Well

Eric Lee

To some, trade union inter­na­tion­al­ism may seem to be a very old-fash­ioned notion, even quaint. One might imag­ine that in some of world’s lead­ing cor­po­rate board­rooms the use of the word sol­i­dar­i­ty” might prompt a con­de­scend­ing smile.

But as the world’s largest food cor­po­ra­tion, Swiss-based Nestlé, has recent­ly dis­cov­ered, glob­al labor sol­i­dar­i­ty can be very real and very powerful.

Last Octo­ber, sev­er­al dozen union mem­bers work­ing at the Nescafé fac­to­ry in Pan­jang, Indone­sia, walked out on strike over a bar­gain­ing dead­lock. The strike end­ed and both sides reached an agree­ment to return to work. But when the work­ers came back to their shifts, they were met by riot police.

Nestlé man­agers began arbi­trar­i­ly sack­ing the work­ers. Not all the strik­ers were sacked, but all those who were sacked were union mem­bers who had
par­tic­i­pat­ed in the strike.

It was a clear mes­sage to oth­ers not to be trou­ble­mak­ers.” By send­ing this mes­sage, Nestlé was pick­ing a fight with unions around the world,
and mak­ing a seri­ous miscalculation.

Lead­ers of the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Food, Agri­cul­tur­al, Hotel, Restau­rant, Cater­ing, Tobac­co and Allied Work­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tions (IUF),
whose Gene­va head­quar­ters is a short train ride away from the Nestlé offices in Vevey, inter­vened in the dispute.

The IUF is a glob­al union fed­er­a­tion unit­ing near­ly 400 unions in 120 coun­tries. Found­ed in 1920, it is one of the most effec­tive cam­paign­ers in the inter­na­tion­al trade union move­ment. The IUF asked Nestlé to explain what it had done, and how this fit in with the company’s well-pub­li­cized eth­i­cal” image and its com­mit­ment to cor­po­rate social responsibility.”

After all, Nes­tle says on its web­site that For us, car­ing about the well­be­ing of oth­ers and the envi­ron­ment is inte­gral to our promise of improv­ing the qual­i­ty of life through good food and bev­er­ages every­where. Our com­mit­ment to great tast­ing and trust­ed prod­ucts has and always will be tied to our respect for the envi­ron­ment and the peo­ple we work with, includ­ing the farm­ers who sup­ply us, our employ­ees, our con­sumers and the com­mu­ni­ties where we operate.”

How does respect for … the peo­ple we work with, includ­ing … our employ­ees” fit in with the oper­a­tions of Nes­tle man­agers in Indonesia?

The IUF was giv­en four dif­fer­ent expla­na­tions of what had hap­pened. Nestlé has a dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion for this action,” say the IUF, depend­ing on who is ask­ing the ques­tion. No one is told the real rea­son: the work­ers are being pun­ished for attempt­ing to assert their rights in a coun­try where such efforts are not well received by com­pa­ny boss­es and HR man­agers unac­cus­tomed to chal­lenges to their supreme authority.”

As Nestlé was refus­ing to back down, the IUF decid­ed to launch a glob­al cam­paign called We are the 53” to build sup­port for the sacked union mem­bers in Indonesia.

At its recent world con­gress in Gene­va, IUF affil­i­ates stepped up to the plate to show their sup­port for their fel­low union mem­bers. They did this not by pass­ing res­o­lu­tions and send­ing protest emails —though that may well be part of a cam­paign. Instead they raised mon­ey, lots of mon­ey, to sus­tain the work­ers dur­ing what is turn­ing out to be a long and bit­ter dispute.

Through­out the con­gress, the chair­per­son would make peri­od­ic announce­ments as unions made pledges of thou­sands of dol­lars. At one point, the IUF’s Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary, Ron Oswald, announced that rank-and-file work­ers at a Nestlé fac­to­ry in the U.K. had raised £1,000 (about $1,550) for their broth­ers and sis­ters in Panjang.

If Nestlé thought they could get away with qui­et­ly intim­i­dat­ing union mem­bers in a far away cor­ner of the world, they were sore­ly mis­tak­en. Though inter­na­tion­al trade union sol­i­dar­i­ty may sound like a thing from the past, the IUF announced its cam­paign on the web, Face­book and Twitter.

After less than two weeks, the fol­low­ing appeared on the IUF website:

The IUF and Nestlé wel­come the set­tle­ment of the dis­pute at Pan­jang, Indone­sia, around the sta­tus of 53 employ­ees whose employ­ment was ter­mi­nat­ed on Octo­ber 5 and 6, 2011. Through­out the entire dis­pute dia­logue was main­tained and Nestlé Indone­sia has now offered the 53 for­mer work­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be re-employed under the same con­di­tions with no neg­a­tive con­se­quences to the work­ers con­cerned. This brings the labour dis­pute in Pan­jang, Indone­sia, to a con­clu­sion. The IUF-affil­i­at­ed SBNIP will sign the Col­lec­tive Bar­gain­ing Agree­ment with Nestlé Indone­sia, and both local par­ties have com­mit­ted to seek to resolve future chal­lenges in a respect­ful and con­struc­tive manner.”

Trade union inter­na­tion­al­ism, it seems, is alive and well.

Eric Lee is the found­ing edi­tor of Labour Start, the glob­al labor news site.
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