Impact of ‘First Global Union’ Debated

By Pamela Babcock Jul 18, 2008
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When leaders from the U.S.-based United Steelworkers (USW) and Unite the Union, the largest labor organization in the United Kingdom and Ireland, inked a deal July 2, 2008, at the USW International Convention in Las Vegas, they touted it as the world’s “first global union”—to be known as Workers Uniting.

What effect the move will have on employers and workers in the United States and abroad remains to be seen. Some experts say global unions will continue to grow as companies become more global.

Others argue that this is more aptly an “alliance” and are skeptical the move will give unions more leverage in the near-term, especially since it would require coordinated activity in countries with very different union models and unique political institutions.

“In the short-term, we don’t see this as yielding any notable economic impact,” John Raudabaugh, a partner with Baker & McKenzie in Chicago and chair of the global firm’s U.S. labor and employee relations law practice, told SHRM Online. “So far, it seems to be more for political and media purposes.”

“At best this is a long-term play out,” added Raudabaugh, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel. “After integrating differing systems and practices, global unions will confront a Hobson’s choice in disputes with multinational corporations, namely: Which country’s employees will benefit and which will suffer from the economic rewards or costs?

“At the end of the day, you’re dealing with political institutions,” Raudabaugh remarked. “Which internal group controls the global union’s agenda and the funds to be spent on transnational issues will exact a toll. The impact of unions can be successful locally when focusing on a particular company, labor market and/or industry under a single nation-state legal system. Reaching across boundaries, beyond minimum standards, and effectively end-running nation-state legal frameworks invariably will engender reactions from multiple audiences.”

Jeff Wray, a labor expert and partner with Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston, agreed: “These might be famous last words, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we have true global unions.”

The USW and Unite the Union have been through repeated mergers—most recently in May 2008, when Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) merged to form Unite the Union. Wray says this so-called “global” union isn’t a true merger with one union structure but more of an alliance because each is preserving its leadership.

“I don’t think that we’re ever going to get to the point of having global collective bargaining agreements,” Wray said.

Union leaders say the combined global entity—known as Workers Uniting—will include more than 3 million active and retired workers from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland working in manufacturing, service, mining and transportation. Common employers include ArcelorMittal, Alcoa, Georgia Pacific, BP and Shell Oil.

“This union is crucial for challenging the growing power of global capital,” USW President Leo W. Gerard said in a statement. “Globalization has given financiers license to exploit workers in developing countries at the expense of our members in the developed world. Only global solidarity among workers can overcome this sort of global exploitation wherever it occurs.”

The two unions have discussed strategies for saving manufacturing capacity, joint collective bargaining in the paper, chemical and titanium industries and ways to protect rights and safety of trade unionists in Colombia and Mexico. Union officials say they’ve also discussed activist participation in each other’s education, rapid response, health and safety, civil rights and women’s’ conferences and exposure to each other’s political processes.

Gary Hubbard, public affairs director for the USW in Washington, D.C., maintained that the Workers Uniting will be much more than an alliance and “a real, true, worker-to-worker structure for mobilizing around collective bargaining and organizing.”

“Solidarity is more than just a song. It really is about creating strength around the ability to have workers uniting together around principles or issues that may be in conflict with the goals of capitalism, of Wall Street, or Bay Street or Fleet Street,” Hubbard said.

The USW and Unite the Union will retain their names and respective leadership, and the joint entity will be registered in all four countries. Presidents of each union will co-chair the global union, which will have an executive director to manage day-to-day functions, a small staff and “a small budget of a few million dollars eventually,” Hubbard said.

“The laws of all four countries are all quite different, but by this fall, the new global union will be a registered entity, and after that takes place, other functionalities can proceed,” Hubbard noted.

“It will evolve,” Hubbard continued. “There’s expectations of having a first global congress meeting within the next four years, but it could be sooner. And there’s interest in having other unions to join us as well.”

Growing Trend

Labor expert James Brudney, the Newton D. Baker/Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, said he sees global unionization as a growing trend and that the increase in international framework agreements, as well as recent global agreements negotiated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation in maritime shipping and the UNI Global Union in telecommunications, reflect this new direction.

“Companies and industries have become much more globalized; unions need to adjust their organizing and bargaining strategies accordingly” to respond to management practices like outsourcing certain operations or using temporary and casual workers to reduce wage levels and working conditions, Brudney said.

But will the move give workers more leverage over pay and other issues?

“It certainly can increase leverage for workers, although this will often require coordinated activity in several countries,” Brudney said. He added that one of the major issues for employers involves U.S. firms that are subsidiaries of European companies.

“These American firms may have fiercely resisted union organizing for many years, but they may still end up living under labor agreements signed by the parent company in Germany or Scandinavia—countries where the union movement is a more accepted aspect of corporate and managerial culture,” Brudney explained.

Domestic Impact

And how might global union trends influence and change domestic labor relations?

“One possible impact is simply the chance for U.S. organizers to participate in and observe first-hand organizing efforts in other countries,” Brudney said. “Organizing strategies and tactics develop in the shadow of a particular set of national laws, so they are not all transferable.”

But for American unions, Brudney said, “seeing how British trade union organizers make use of access to the workplace for individual and group meetings with employees, or how they sign up workers as members in prerecognition or nonelectoral settings, may prove valuable as discussion continues regarding labor law reform in this country.”

Paul Salvatore, co-chair of Proskauer Rose’s 150-attorney global Labor and Employment Law Department in New York, agreed that as companies continue to globalize, unions will increasingly globalize as well.

“The Service Employees International Union, UNITE HERE and other unions in the Change to Win coalition have been at this for some time,” Salvatore said. “While there haven’t been actual foreign mergers, they have formed alliances—more like mutual aid and protection pacts—with different unions in other countries.”

Union membership has been on the decline for more than three decades, and U.S. labor relations seem to be at a crossroads with the increasing reliance on card checks to organize and with the looming potential passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Salvatore predicted that if Sen. Barack Obama wins this fall’s presidential election and “unions get their adrenaline shot in the United States and start to gain back market share, this global union trend is one that could take off given the global nature of commerce.”

A number of concepts might affect the future of U.S. union-management relations, according to Salvatore, particularly the types of benefits that are built in by statute or collective bargaining in Western Europe, including governmental health insurance, pensions and paid leave.

“I think a closer working relationship and more knowledge of foreign union practices and terms and conditions may accelerate that trend,” Salvatore said.

But Wray said the global union’s claim that the move will give it increased strength against management doesn’t hold water.

“As a practical matter, if a company has a union on one side of the Atlantic and another on the other side of the Atlantic—whether they are the same union or not—if the employees want, they are free to put pressure on a company in England that is having a labor dispute in the United States,” he remarked.

He also has concerns about whether U.S. unions can work effectively with foreign-based ones, or whether management would even want to.

“In the final analysis, dues-paying, union-represented employees will want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ ” Raudabaugh said. “Whether hard-earned union dues monies will long be spent on flights for the union elite to Geneva, London and Beijing without meaningful economic results for workers in Peoria, Manchester and Chengdu remains to be seen.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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