Workers of the World Unite

Unions are going global, so your job doesn't have to.

| Thu Oct. 25, 2007 3:00 AM EDT
This magazine's namesake would not be pleased.

There's a crisis in the labor movement: In the past half century, union membership in the United States has dropped from 35 percent to 13 percent of the work force. As homegrown employers such as Alcoa and Firestone have morphed and prospered in the global economy, American workers have stood pat and lost their shorts. More than 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have been cut. Working in the fastest-growing industries—retail, health care, and other human services—tends to be a heartless affair: non-union, temporary, part-time, no health care, no vacation, no retirement. "It has taken unions a long time to realize they've been hallucinating," says Ruth Needleman, a professor of labor studies at Indiana University. "How do you bargain with someone who doesn't care about you?"

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In some ways, unions have contributed to workers' woes. Long before Ronald Reagan was in office, labor bosses practiced trickle-down economics. They focused on the salaries and benefits of members in a few core industries such as steel and autos, thinking that their gains would become the standard for other workers. "That's why we don't have national health care," says Needleman. "When other countries were instituting social welfare programs, our unions argued that if the government gave people these benefits, they wouldn't join unions. Today we're left with a tiny corps of organized workers, a perception that unions are selfish, and a huge mass of people without unions."

But a few progressive unions are working hard to beat capital at its own game. After all, if companies can go global, unions can too. This fall, the United Steelworkers held talks in Pittsburgh with the U.K.'s Unite to explore the idea of merging to create the mightiest (or at least the largest) union in the world. Together, the two unions represent 3.4 million active and retired workers. With worsening wages and conditions for workers all over the world, and one country being played off against another, "workers in this new century need a transatlantic union to tame the exploitation of global corporations," said Steelworkers president Leo Gerard in a press conference last April.

The Steelworkers represents 850,000 Canadians and Americans working in the paper, forestry products, steel, aluminum, tire and rubber, mining, glass, chemicals, and petroleum industries—which already makes it the largest industrial union in North America. Since Steelworkers leaders first started taking action on the threat of globalization about a decade ago, they have been coordinating efforts with unions in Germany, Australia, Brazil, and Mexico, as well as in the U.K. Whether the more formal Steelworkers-Unite merger goes ahead (they've given themselves until next spring to work out the details), the two unions have agreed to pool resources to help workers in developing countries, mentioning possible projects in Africa, Columbia, India, and China.

The goal is not to establish one big global bargaining table where wages and benefits are the same everywhere; the world is too complicated for that. Wages are the equivalent of $3.38 a day at the Bridgestone Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia, for instance, and $22.50 per hour plus benefits at the Bridgestone Firestone plant in Des Moines. Rather, the aim is to come up with basic rules that allow workers to make a fair wage and have safe working conditions locally. "Globalization allows multinational corporations to export jobs to the developing world, where oppression and a glut of workers keep wages to a minimum," Gerard says. "This not only destroys North American jobs, it undermines the security and sense of fair play that unions have historically offered here. If we don't raise the standard of living of workers in the developing world, they will be used as cannon fodder against us."

Other unions are co-opting globalism in their own ways. The Teamsters are yoking up with longshoremen in the United States and in Latin America to back each other on strikes and demonstrations. SEIU (Service Employees International Union) is harnessing the power of the janitors, bus drivers, and hotel and security workers who are employed by the same few transnational companies in major cities around the world. Last fall, for example, the SEIU organized 5,000 janitors in Houston. Simultaneous "Justice for Janitors" demonstrations were staged by union brothers and sisters in Mexico City, Moscow, London, and Berlin.

How much will all this fraternizing help unions rise to the challenges posed by multinational corporations? Some argue that globalizing unions is simply "a defensive move—a way of pooling the resources they have," says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California-Santa Barbara. "It's a good thing, but what the movement really needs is better labor laws, universal health care, and a shift to the left politically to make unions more central."

Still, Indiana University's Needleman, whom the Steelworkers hire to teach an annual weeklong leadership course, believes that a little global jujitsu could bring hope and understanding to the beleaguered movement. In fact she herself has hosted worker trips to Brazil. "The unions in other countries, particularly Latin America, are way ahead of us in terms of tying the labor movement to broader social goals," Needleman says. "But it's going to take time for American workers to realize that a Latin American worker is an ally, not an enemy."

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