With John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing in the background, more than 1,000 leaders of service and technology unions from around the world gathered in Chicago in the fall of 2005. As delegates at the Union Network International (UNI) convention, they represented about 15 million workers in 140 countries. The challenge they faced was laid out in bold by the banner before them: “Global companies require global organizing, global unions.”
It’s an idea that’s as old as it is new. Back in 1848, Marx and Engels exhorted the workers of the world to unite, and in the late 19th century, during an earlier wave of globalization, confederations of unions in similar industries – like metalworking – began to form across borders. But in the United States and elsewhere, the idea remains new and alien to many labor leaders, even as those same international union groupings – now called Global Union Federations (GUFs) – confront a seemingly borderless economy dominated by transnational corporations.
Despite the long history of global federations, no real global union exists. “For a union to exist at any place and any time, there are many preconditions,” says Ron Oswald, general secretary of the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), one of the most imaginative global union federations. “First workers [must] know there’s a union, and employers [must] know there’s a union. I’m not sure any worker or employer knows there’s a global union. It’s a brand, not a reality. International companies are clearly a reality. International unions have yet to become so.”
There are signs that global unions may become more than mere brands. Alexandra Figus is one of the small indicators of progress. Twenty-seven years ago, Figus, 51, emigrated from Poland to Chicago, where she became a janitor and leader in her Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local. Last September, she flew to Warsaw to help organize security guards as part of a multinational security industry unionizing campaign.
“I was so inspired that so many people they want solidarity to take care of their problems,” Figus says. “They know a single worker cannot do nothing. They were very interested what was my experience. They listened to me. These are kids of those who created Solidarity. We told them what you can get if stick together.”
The long detour
Workers have been acting together across borders for a long time. The eight-hour day movement of the late 19th century was international, and the Haymarket incident in Chicago was commemorated as May Day, the international workers’ holiday. But two world wars, a global Depression and the Cold War disrupted globalization of both capital and the labor movement. Unions in richer countries often scored their political gains by creating national welfare states and using national governments to reinforce trade union power.
International solidarity was often a one-way affair, from rich countries to poorer ones, including expressions of solidarity to jailed unionists. U.S. unions often subordinated their work to their country’s anti-communist foreign policy. International labor elites focused on groups such as the 88-year old International Labor Organization (ILO) – a Geneva-based United Nations institution composed of government, business and labor representatives who establish rights and standards for workers globally, but can do little to enforce their directives.
The contemporary global economy presents labor with a double challenge in regards to global solidarity. On the one hand, corporations push workers into competition over who gets jobs and investment, especially in highly mobile manufacturing or digitized services. At the same time, unions, even in rich countries, realize that they can – and often must – work together to confront those corporations and to lift the standards of working conditions everywhere.
Last November, the 57-year old International Confederation of Free Trade Unions – the world’s largest organization of national union federations – merged with a smaller world federation of unions aligned with Christian Democratic political parties, as well as several independent federations, such as the communist-oriented GGT of France. Stan Gacek, AFL-CIO assistant director of international affairs, calls it a “major quantum leap, in terms of organization of the labor movement on a global basis.”
Guy Ryder, general secretary of the newly expanded federation, now called the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), says that the politics of the merger were as important as its size, roughly 168 million workers. “This would have been almost unimaginable even four years ago,” Ryder says. “Unions saw the Cold War as an element of division in the labor movement, even 15 years after the end of the Cold War.”
The merger also created a closer alliance between the ITUC and the GUFs. As a result, the GUFs will focus more on organizing and bargaining by industry and corporation, leaving broader political work to the ITUC.
“The key on global work is to figure out ways to do global grassroots action, not meetings,” says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America. “For a hundred years, too much has been about sending leaders to meet and dine together, which is great for building relationships, but we’re looking for global events, ways for people to act together.”
The revolutions in communications and transportation that enabled corporate globalization – such as cheaper airfares and the Internet – make it easier for workers around the world to connect. Korean workers can send videos of their participation at a Haymarket rally in Chicago over their cell phones back to a rally of co-workers in Korea. “We couldn’t even begin to think about doing the work we do without the Internet,” says Christy Hoffman, an SEIU official who serves as the European-based organizing director for UNI’s property services division.
Eric Lee, founder of the LabourStart Web site, which mobilizes labor supporters around global causes, says that the Internet greatly increases the speed and numbers of activists responding to a crisis – like a successful campaign to reverse the firing of an Irish union shop steward for wearing her union pin. It has also increased the involvement of grassroots activists. “International solidarity work has penetrated to the shop floor level,” he says, “and hundreds of times as many people are involved in global solidarity work.”
A cold splash of reality
Unions are seeking other ways to meet global capital on a more level playing field. In January, several unions – Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), two of Britain’s largest unions; IG Metall (the giant German metalworkers union); and the Steelworker and Machinist unions in the United States – announced plans for a new “super union.” The proposal is still just a “theoretical concept,” says Steelworkers’ International Affairs Director Gerald Fernandez, but other unions are also talking about forming joint cross-border unions. And the Farm Labor Organizing Committee already organizes in both Mexico and the United States to represent largely migrant workers in North Carolina and Ohio.
Yet a cold splash of reality is needed. Easier communication and the consolidating forces of global capital may help unite unions, but language, institutional structures, levels of economic development, national identity, strategic differences, and national labor laws and traditions all act as dividers. At a time when the former “international unions” covering neighboring countries like Canada and the United States continue to separate into national unions, creating global unions will not be easy. For the foreseeable future, the challenge will simply be to increase global cooperation and coordination.
Part of the problem is the weakness of what passes for global governance and labor law. Today, the most powerful global governance of the world economy comes from institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, which tilt against labor. Although it often appears that corporations write the rules of the new global economy, they still rely on governments to do their bidding. By using their economic and political power to change governments and laws, global unions can change those rules.
Labor unions around the world have agreed that international trade and economic agreements must include protection of labor rights. When no such protections exist, U.S. unions have increasingly used legal avenues to challenge corporations and both the U.S. and foreign governments. The AFL-CIO has taken cases to the ILO contesting the Bush administration’s National Labor Relations Board decisions that restrict the right to organize. And Mexican and U.S. unions have filed NAFTA complaints about U.S. violations of the rights of Washington apple pickers and North Carolina state employees. The AFL-CIO also has used trade law to challenge labor rights violations in China and Jordan, but new free trade agreements have removed the threat of suspending trade preferences for violations of worker rights. And some unions have employed a powerful but controversial legal tool, the Alien Tort Claims Act. Used mainly by the International Labor Rights Fund – successfully against Chevron’s slave labor practices in Burma – this law permits workers victimized overseas by U.S. corporations to sue in U.S. federal courts.
Though such cases often accomplish little, they build the case that labor rights are human rights, deserving of protection in future trade deals. “Using NAFTA labor or ILO complaints [or] raising our national labor law problems to an international dimension can be helpful if it’s part of a broader campaign strategy,” says Lance Compa, an international labor law expert at Cornell University.
One strategy for changing the political climate for labor involves negotiation of International Framework Agreements between Global Union Federations and transnational employers guaranteeing basic labor rights. The IUF bargained the first of these agreements in 1988 with Danone, the French food giant, and now various federations have negotiated more than 50 such agreements.
Many strategists saw them as at least improvements on the codes of conduct that transnationals adopted as public relations gambits to fend off criticism from unions and anti-sweatshop groups. At best, they might be first steps towards global collective bargaining. But the deals mainly ratified rights workers had in Europe and were unenforceable in the United States or the global South. “Now we’re talking about much tougher agreements,” Oswald says, that would guarantee unions access to workers and recognition by the most expeditious means possible.
Still, with few exceptions, global collective bargaining barely exists. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) campaigned for many years to force “flag of convenience” ships – which fly flags of countries like Panama to avoid regulation – to pay wages for cargo ship crews that the ITF defined as fair. Eventually a global industry group agreed to bargain directly with the ITF.
The most important global work in recent years has been cross-border campaigning in support of strikes or organizing drives at particular transnational corporations. Most are so-called “comprehensive campaigns” that find chinks in the corporate armor where unions and their allies, usually non-governmental organizations like churches or worker rights advocates, can apply pressure. Such global support has been critical in high-profile U.S. labor victories, like the Steelworkers’ battles with Ravenswood Aluminum and Bridgestone/Firestone, the 1997 Teamster strike against UPS and UNITE HERE’s campaign at the Brylane clothing warehouse (owned by a French multinational). Currently, the west coast longshoremen are working with Korean unions to help organize Blue Diamond almond workers in California, because Korea is a major market for the company, and the Mineworkers are jointly campaigning with Australian miners to organize Peabody Coal.
In most cases, U.S. unions ask their counterparts to pressure corporations with whom they have some clout. Western European union leaders, however, often do not understand how anti-union businesses are in the United States and are more accustomed to civil consultations with employers rather than confrontations. They have at times complained that the Americans wanted them to risk their close relationships with employers, without getting help in return from Americans.
“The criticism that Europeans and Brazilians have of Americans is, ‘You’re only into international solidarity when you’re about to go on strike or negotiate or there’s a plant closing. What about the rest of the time?’, ” says Ben Davis, Mexico representative of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which trains and supports unions in many countries.
But relationships are growing more balanced, and campaigns are becoming less reactions to crises and more a part of global strategies. “We’ve moved from global solidarity to global strategy,” says Ginny Coughlin, UNITE HERE’s global strategies director. “Instead of making lots of statements, we’re making mistakes, running into obstacles, which means we’re making progress. We’ve embarked for the first time in union history on a real cross-border organizing effort in hotels and hospitality.”
As UNITE HERE bargained last year with U.S. hotel chains, it also supported a new community-religious-labor organization, London Citizens, which is working with the almost entirely non-union London hotel workforce. Besides helping British workers unionize, UNITE HERE wants to stop U.S. hotel chains from embracing this new London operating model – outsourcing room-cleaning to immigrants minimally paid by the room, rather than offering them fixed wage.
SEIU has recently ramped up its global organizing dramatically. It is working with two GUFs (UNI and IUF) on organizing the transnational corporate leaders in four industries – security guards, school bus drivers, janitors, and (with UNITE HERE) “multi-service companies” that provide food, laundry and other services. Thanks to coordinated global union pressure, the three multiservice giants – Aramark, Compass and Sodexho – have quietly agreed to terms tht will make organizing their workers much easier.
“The huge consolidation [in global service corporations] has made it more possible to organize with fewer players,” says Stephen Lerner, SEIU’s property services director. If global labor can guarantee workers’ rights to organize at each of these companies, there’s an opportunity to organize quickly on a huge scale. Also, though the companies are global, the services they provide can’t be shifted to low-wage countries, as with industrial or digital service work. “They can’t move the buildings,” Lerner says. “workers [can] support each other because they’re not competing for the same jobs.” Ultimately he believes there should be true global unions that match the scope of global companies.
When SEIU encountered resistance from security firms owned by Swedish-based Securitas, they turned for help to the Swedish Transport Workers Union, which was able to mediate talks. “We put our relationship with the company on the line,” says Transport Workers International Secretary Lars Lindgren. “We had a good relationship with the company, but SEIU is a sister union, and that comes first.”
Securitas agreed to be neutral and recognize the union when a majority of workers in a city signed union cards, and SEIU agreed not to enforce a contract until most employers in the market were organized. Unions are now globally fighting a British-based giant, Group 4 Securicor], that rejects such a deal.
SEIU and the Teamsters, working with the British Transport and General Workers (T&G), had to use shareholder actions and other tactics relatively new for Europeans to win a neutrality pledge from First Group, a British bus company that become a leader in operating yellow school buses in the United States.
Graham Stevenson, T&G national transport organizing director, says that this alliance may help his union stop the company from importing American anti-union management practices. “The useful thing for us is that our members’ consciousness has risen a lot,” Stevenson says. “We’re awash in American capital, but we don’t want American labor relations.”
The development of these global campaigns creates complex webs. SEIU has at least 15 staff working overseas, mainly in Europe, training organizers and developing relationships with individual unions and the GUFs, which are all poorly financed and understaffed. SEIU also provided IUF with seed money for an organizing fund, which will be replenished by a share of dues from new organizing that the IUF assists.
The Steelworkers have begun developing “strategic alliances” with unions in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and other countries. The Mexican union helped the Steelworkers in bargaining with companies like Alcoa and Asarco, which is owned by Grupo Mexico. And the Steelworkers have staunchly defended the union’s leader, Napoleon Gomez, when the government removed him from his union office for leading a strike over mine safety.
“Mexico is one of our largest trading partners,” says the Steelworkers’ Fernandez. “If we can’t take care of labor rights in our hemisphere, how can we do it in other hemispheres? We have a philosophical basis for assisting them. That’s what unions are about. We also have self-interest. Strong unions in Mexico, Canada and the United States make it difficult for multinational corporations to exploit any of us.”
Global campaigns can take on a life of their own. When the small Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU) asked the AFL-CIO in 2001 to help develop an organizing plan, they decided to target Quebecor, a Canadian-based transnational printing giant. With UNI’s help, they formed a global conference of Quebecor unions and pursued an international framework agreement.
As the company resisted, unions around the world joined in shareholder actions, protests with religious leaders, in-plant petition drives, and global days of solidarity – even a sympathy strike. Governments and client corporations were pressured to threaten cutoffs of lucrative contracts. Organizers trained by Solidarity Center helped win victories in Peru, Chile and Brazil, as well as two elections in the United States. The Teamsters, which incorporated the American part of GCIU, hopes talks will now revive the stalled campaign.
Simply campaigning more, however, won’t be enough. Unions need to change both the global political climate and the rules of the global economy. In some parts of the world, particularly Latin America, unions recently have turned more to populist and socialist politics, says Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, who organized a landmark conference on global comprehensive campaigns.
The global labor movement needs agreement on its broad political agenda. As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka argues, workers everywhere are boxed in by policies that promote capital mobility, labor flexibility, price stability and privatization of government. When taken together, those policies, at a global and national level, undermine workers’ economic power and social welfare protections, make organizing more difficult and limit what unions can do even if they do organize or undertake global campaigns.
“Is the labor movement actually becoming more international, either with regard to employers in organizing and bargaining or in relation to governments in setting policy at both the national and international levels?” asks one high-level union official with extensive global experience. “That’s a tough call to say there’s been real progress.” Yet today more labor leaders and workers around the world at least recognize the need for global unionism, and are looking for ways to give the old idea of worldwide worker solidarity a viable form for a new era.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.