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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Workers of the World are Uniting

Unions are going global:

Unions for a Global Economy, by Harold Meyerson, Commentary, Washington Post: The business press has barely noticed and the usual champions of globalization have been mute, but an announcement last week in Ottawa signaled a radical new direction for the globalized economy. The United Steelworkers ... entered into merger negotiations with two of Britain's largest unions (which are merging with each other next month) to create not only the first transatlantic but the first genuinely multinational trade union. ...

All three unions are among their nations' largest; the combined membership, should the merger go through, will total roughly 3 million, making it the planet's largest union.

The story here, however, isn't the number of members but the adaptation of labor to the globalization of capital. The Ottawa declaration broke new ground, but the transnational coordination of unions has been building for more than a decade. The Communications Workers of America has been meeting with telecommunications unions in Europe and elsewhere for years to better deal with common employers. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has for the past two years been working with, and helping to fund, security guard and janitorial unions in other nations as ownership of the property service industry has been consolidated into an ever-smaller number of multinationals.

Last November, the SEIU organized 5,300 immigrant workers who clean the office buildings in downtown Houston -- a stunning achievement in the heart of the anti-union South. Stephen Lerner, chief strategist for the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, attributes the success partly to the same consolidation and globalization processes that have generally proved so debilitating to union power. ... The emerging global network of property-service unions staged demonstrations supporting the Houston janitors in Mexico, Moscow, London and Berlin.

The Steelworkers' network of strategic alliances with foreign unions dates to the early '90s. As the production of steel became a global enterprise, the union formed alliances with mining and manufacturing unions in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Mexico, Germany and Britain. In part, the alliances emerged because these unions shared common employers... The unions share research, discuss common bargaining strategies and support one another during strikes. But the purpose of the proposed merger is broader. ...

Whether or not the merger goes through, the Steelworkers and their British partners have already committed to fund human rights and union rights operations in Colombia (which perennially leads the world in murdered unionists) and parts of Africa. They plan to mount a global campaign to protect employees' retirement benefits, under assault in a growing number of countries from financiers who view workers' financial security as a dispensable commodity.

For years, globalization's champions have attacked unions generally and the Steelworkers in particular for what they claimed were the union's protectionist, parochial and generally retrograde stances. But the union, it turns out, is every bit as internationalist as they. And as unions begin their inevitable transformation into global entities, globalization's cheerleaders must define themselves more clearly. Do they back globalization because it has ... advantaged global investors over ... national unions and governments? Or do they believe that government and workers should go global, too, creating on an international scale the kind of mixed economy that governments and unions created in the decades after World War II -- the only economy in history to produce broadly shared prosperity? In other words, are they really for globalization, or just the return to the laissez-faire, enrich-the-rich world that existed before the New Deal? ...

    Posted by on Thursday, April 26, 2007 at 09:29 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)


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