Globalization the only option for North American unions: King
Key players in the labour movement are calling for new strategies against governments and global corporations. Bob King, however, thinks unions just need a bigger playing field.
In his recent farewell address, the retiring United Auto Workers (UAW) president called on the union to become a global player in order to compete with international corporations.
"The UAW cannot simply be a national union and fight global corporations," King told delegates at the union’s 36th Constitutional Convention on June 2. "Our global solidarity with unions around the world is critical to building power."
As a U.S.-based union, the UAW can only represent U.S. workers, but by aligning with unions around the world it can expand its reach, he said.
In February the union narrowly lost an election to represent more than 1,500 workers at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was with the help of the German union IG Metall that the UAW was able to persuade VW to remain neutral throughout the process.
Bill Murnighan, research director for Unifor, called the partnership a strong example of international co-operation.
"The global reach of some of the largest employers has expanded tremendously in the last several decades," Murnighan said. "Having those connections with trade unions around the world is really helpful."
But along with the benefits of a global playing field come serious complications.
Different languages, cultures and union structures can combine to create complex logistical obstacles. But these obstacles are not by any means insurmountable, Murnighan said.
North American unions looking to become global players are facing the same barriers the labour movement overcame historically to create unions. Unions — like the UAW — had to overcome competition to create common conditions and make sure this factory down the road wasn’t being pitted against that factory up the street, Murnighan said.
"It’s the same dynamic, it’s just on a much larger scale."
And while that large scale can seem intimidating, Murnighan feels strongly that the widespread globalization of unions is not the earth-shattering shift some may fear.
"I don’t foresee a single organization that is going to be the union for workers in five different countries at once," he said. "What I see are strong-rooted unions in your country having much stronger international connections and capacity to work together. There’s not a tension between having strong national unions and strong global unions."
And the faster unions make the move to this bigger playing field, the better their chances are in the end game.
"Globalization is not going away," Murnighan said. "It is only deepening and widening and as such trade unions need to do the same."
John Peters — an assistant professor at Laurentian University who has written extensively about unions and globalization — agrees that union solidarity is necessary for progress. And while the sharing of information has been the extent of most union cooperation, Peters believes further integration between labour groups around the world is necessary for substantive growth.
Standardized collective agreements co-ordinating everything from wages to work hours would improve the lives of workers around the world. What stands in the way of this co-operative collective bargaining on a global level is the animosity and mistrust fostered by competition, Peters said.
"There are long, historical reasons why unions have not been co-operative," he said.
Many underrepresented workers around the world fear organizing efforts will ultimately cost them their jobs, fostering a mistrust of unions. At the same time, agreements made in underrepresented areas are becoming the benchmarks companies take back to unions in the U.S. and Canada. This increases conflict between the parties and further lowers the chances of those underrepresented areas becoming unionized.
"People think it’s a cultural thing," Peters said of the obstacles facing global unions. "It’s not just a culture thing; it’s a bargaining thing and it’s a real political thing. But you have to get past the animosity, you have to get past the mistrust and you have to sit down in good faith and set out long-term goals. Those are the big hurdles."
According to Peters, one of the best examples of this level of co-operation is IndustriALL Global Union.
Founded in 2012, IndustriALL was formed by affiliates of the former global union federations the International Metalworkers’ Federation, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions and the International Textiles Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation.
With a head office located in Geneva, Switzerland, the global union reportedly represents 50 million workers in 140 countries.
"Help your colleagues around the world and get help from them. That’s the very basic notion," said Jyrki Raina, IndustriALL’s general secretary. "In a borderless, globalized world, organized labour has to work globally and together more than ever. If companies have global strategies then trade unions have to have global strategies as well; if unions want to make an impact they have to operate all over the world."
Raina admits differences in language, culture and union structures seriously complicate efforts to co-operate. What unites unions all over the world, however, are the basic needs of workers.
"The basic issues are the same; the right to join a union, living wages, working hours, safety and health."
Raina likens the situation to a giant, global family.
"A family is never without its problems, but there’s no other alternative than to continue together," he said. "And for the new generation it’s easier to understand because they see what the world is today. They are not looking back; they are looking to the future."
And when unions around the world join together with the strength of a global family, Raina said, they will finally be competing with companies on an even playing field.