Global Labor Organizing in Theory and Practice

by Paul Garver
updated from Democratic Left Fall 2007

The need to organize workers on the global scale is now widely recognized among labor leaders and activists. But the actual practice lags behind. A successful BCTGM organizing drive at an Ohio yogurt plant demonstrates one way it can be done.

In May 1962 UAW President Walter Reuther announced a plan to organize autoworkers in 14 countries because the American automobile industry had begun sourcing parts from international suppliers.

In May 2007 representatives of auto unions from eight countries meeting at the UAW headquarters in Detroit agreed to form an ad hoc global auto sector organizing working group to share information on companies and union densities, develop strategic organizing targets and coordinate solidarity. UAW organizing director Terry Thurman expressed the UAW’s eagerness to “move beyond symbolic gestures of solidarity and develop joint strategies to combat the global assault on workers’ rights.”

That 45 years separate Reuther’s announcement and the Detroit meeting shows how difficult it is to implement a real practice of labor organizing across borders. It will likely take more years before the mutual commitments auto unions made in Detroit result in an actual organizing program for the global automobile industry that includes dedicated staff and resources.

Recent developments suggest that American unions are beginning to think more consistently about what an enormous and sophisticated task it will be to organize large numbers of new workers in the globalizing economy.

In April, the USW announced a tentative merger agreement with the British union Unite, itself a new merger of the Transport & General Workers Union and Amicus. The unions will set up a merger exploration committee to lay down a foundation for a legal merger. The new union would represent more than 3.4 million members in the U.S., Canada, the UK and Ireland.

Clearly, the political and organizational obstacles to such an international merger remain enormous, and it is not evident that even a successful merger will achieve the synergies needed to free up resources for large-scale organizing campaigns. But the ambitious vision shown by the leaders of the three unions is welcome, and the experiment worth trying.

The AFL-CIO hosted a “Global Organizing Summit” at the National Labor College on December 10 to 11, 2007, “to discuss global strategies to help workers join unions.” CWA President Larry Cohen, who chairs the AFL-CIO Organizing Committee, points out that the workers’ right to organize and bargain “is an issue everywhere, but a crisis here.”

The “Summit” was sponsored by the “Council of Global Unions,” which includes the International Trade Union Confederation (the recently unified global umbrella organization of national labor centers in 153 countries), the ten Global Union Federations (GUFs; formerly called International Trade Secretariats) and the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Unions throughout the world are worried about declining union membership in the USA, and also recognize the need to develop large-scale organizing programs in their own countries.

On the first day of the conference, the AFL-CIO was able to publicize a recent successful organizing drive by an American affiliate that made use of a transnational organizing strategy. The BCTGM won an election at a Dannon yogurt plant in Minster, Ohio, with some 400 workers, using an intensive campaign on the ground, while minimizing the customary anti-union resistance by local management. Mobilized by the IUF, which has a series of framework agreements on worker rights with the parent company Group Danone, unions representing thousands of Danone workers worldwide sent encouraging support letters to the Minster workers. The BCTGM credited the international effort with making a major contribution to its own intensive grassroots organizing strategy.

Neoliberal capitalist globalization has wreaked havoc on union membership in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, where, just as in the USA, collective bargaining was largely limited to the workplace level and right-wing political parties deliberately targeted unions for destruction. Even in Northern Europe where union density had increased up to the mid-1990s (because centralized bargaining structures and relatively strong social democratic political influence counteracted the negative impact of capitalist-dominated globalization), reductions in manufacturing employment began to cut the ranks of unionized workers within the last decade. Furthermore, the dynamic and militant union movements of Brazil, South Africa and South Korea are now encountering the same sophisticated management methods, such as outsourcing, technological change and employment of more temporary and casual workers, that are threatening unions throughout the world.

In this international context, innovative organizing tactics like those the American labor movement has been forced to learn have become more interesting to labor activists in other countries. Is it possible that the historic antagonisms within the international labor movement between socialists, communists and Christians, and between “bread-and-butter” and social movement unionists can be partially transcended, through common organizational priorities, to organize new union members and increase union density within global companies?

Some of the 10 GUFs are already experimenting with innovative organizing strategies that target global companies and industries in their respective sectors. Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU’s property services division, theorizes that organizers in other “world cities” can emulate the successes in organizing low-wage, low-status, racially diverse and often immigrant workers in Los Angeles or Houston through sophisticated union campaigns and coalition-building. Global security companies, food catering companies and cleaning contractors operate throughout the world, employing vulnerable workforces that are racially diverse and often made of recent immigrants. Since this sector, though internationalized, is not geographically mobile, it cannot escape by closing factories and moving elsewhere.

SEIU is committing staff and financial resources to international organizing in these sectors. The global property services industry falls within the jurisdiction of the Union Network International (UNI), through which SEIU has provided staff organizers and trainers to support union organizing drives in several countries. One effort that has achieved some success is the Transport & General Workers’ organizing drive at Canary Wharf in London. SEIU and UNITE-HERE have cooperated with the IUF to create a similar program for the global food catering sector, which has already succeeded in opening up parts of the global Sodexho company to union organizing efforts in the USA.

International organizing in the more mobile industrial sector presents additional obstacles, but these can be overcome by creative strategies. For instance, low-wage, super-exploited migrant workers increasingly staff food-manufacturing sectors such as meat and poultry processing. The UFCW organizing drive at the giant Smithfield pork-processing plant in North Carolina now integrates many aspects of a comprehensive campaign, including support for undocumented immigrants, civil rights and church mobilizing, and customer awareness efforts at supermarkets in cities as far away as Boston. The international component includes working through the IUF to mobilize support among unionized Smithfield workers in France and Poland.

I have also described in an article in Labor Studies Journal an ambitious effort by the IUF to organize units of global companies in the food and drinks manufacturing sector (notably Coca-Cola and Nestlé) in key emerging countries such as Russia and Pakistan. New union organizing in countries where transnationals are expanding their operations not only increases overall union density in these companies, but creates an incentive for central global management to deal with global union structures in a more honest fashion.

Organizing new members is a crucial, but not the exclusive, priority of the global labor movement. A parallel task is to help create a political coalition that has the capability of challenging the capitalist-dominated globalization process. Although the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has achieved a certain level of organizational unity and generally adheres to a broadly consensual socialdemocratic/ democratic-socialist set of political and organizational principles, it has not yet demonstrated the ability to coordinate joint labor actions other than policy statements and lobbying at international organizations.

It is unrealistic to expect that the ITUC and the GUFs, even cooperating as a “Council of Global Unions,” can compensate in the overall political sphere for the absence of a coherent democratic socialist movement at the global level and in most countries. Other prospective movement allies are not well articulated at the global level (although such organizations as Amnesty International, Greenpeace International and the Global Social Forums exist). Reversing the tide of capitalist- dominated globalization will first require building grassroots coalitions between unions and other progressive organizations at the local and national levels, and building from these to the global level. Building these grassroots coalitions is key not only to labor’s political revival, but to organizing workers in the world cities (cf. Labor in the New Urban Battlegrounds: Local Solidarity in a Global Economy, edited by Turner and Cornfield and published by Cornell University Press).

There are troubling indications that repressive states and employers are beginning to fear international labor organizing efforts and are moving to curtail key links. Fremantle Trust, a “not-for-profit” employer of home health care workers in London, is trying to suppress a support campaign for its workers by using the UK’s draconian libel laws to threaten LabourStart’s internet service provider. The Putin government has refused to renew the visas of American labor activists Elizabeth Vladeck and Irene Stevenson, who were helping Russian workers to organize unions. Socialists and other progressives throughout the world must always be quick to defend the basic human rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining at the international level as well as at the national.

Paul Garver recently retired as coordinator for transnational union activities in the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) food and drinks sector, based in Geneva. Before that he worked for the SEIU in Pittsburgh, where he was an active member of DSA and one of its predecessors, the New American Movement.

One Response

  1. Thanks for the update on the AFL-CIO conference. Globalized production, finance, and global markets, and global migration make international organizing a necessity.
    This will require decades of serious thinking to figure out.
    Duane Campbell

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