If corporations can go global, why can’t unions? That’s a question American labor officials are asking with increasing frequency. And at least one union has taken the step of merging with another union across the Atlantic. On Sunday, May 25, the United Steelworkers of America and Britain’s largest union, UNITE (not to be confused with the American textile and garment workers organization bearing the same acronym), announced they had agreed to join forces. The agreement, still in the initial stages of development, would be the first of its kind. UNITE represents more than two million British workers in the transportation, energy and public sectors, and itself is the creation of a recent merger between two unions, Amicus and the Transport & General Workers Union. Coupled with the Pittsburgh-based Steelworkers’ roughly 850,000 active members, the result would be a mega-union of some three million members. Whether this would result in a more efficient, or honest, union is a separate issue.
There is nothing new about our country’s labor organizations reaching across national boundaries in search of members. For decades, unions of all sizes in this country, including the Teamsters, the Longshoremen and the Laborers, have billed themselves as “international,” typically meaning they have members in Canada. A transatlantic union, however, would be a first, though not without its logic. Because labor is more mobile than ever, union officials argue, their organizations have a pressing need to engage in cross-national organizing and bargaining. What’s more, the decline in the percentage of the work force belonging to unions is a worldwide trend. According to a recent 24-nation study by Jelle Visser of the Institute for Advanced Labor Studies (Netherlands), unionized workers as a share of the total labor force during 1970-2003 fell by 9.5 percent in Germany, 13.4 percent in France, 15.5 percent in the United Kingdom, 27.3 percent in Australia, and 33.1 percent in New Zealand. Even where unions grew, as in Belgium, Finland, and Sweden, most, if not all, of the growth occurred during 1970-80.
Alarmed at such data, the AFL-CIO last December hosted a two-day global summit meeting, the first ever of its kind. More than 200 union officials from over 60 countries assembled at the labor federation’s National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. to lay the groundwork for a new order. At the convocation, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney exhorted:
President Bush and his cronies have done all they can to destroy workers’ rights around the world. The truth is until we are able to restore basic workers’ rights in the United States, the worldwide decline will not stop. But rather than wring our hands in desperation or wash our hands of responsibility, we need to build strategies for global action. We have to create global strategies not just to bargain with individual employers, but to restore the right to organize for workers all over the world.
Guest speakers amplified this theme. “As never before, we must link global action with local action,” said Fred Van Leeuwen, chairman of an organization formed late in 2006, the Council of Global Unions.
The merger of the United Steelworkers of America and UNITE should be seen as a logical outgrowth of this new solidarity. The leaders of the two unions perceive, rightly or wrongly, that by remaining separate, they would lose further control over employer and government decision-making. “We’re dealing with global companies that can move capital and employment around the world, at will in many cases,” said UNITE spokesman Andrew Murray. “While big business is global, and labor is national, we’re going to be at a disadvantage.” Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, a native of Canada, makes the same point. “One of our tasks as trade unions is to defend working people and to advance workers’ conditions, but that’s increasingly difficult within the confines of national boundaries,” he remarked back in April 2007 when the two unions first announced plans to conduct merger talks. “It seems we’re no longer capable of fully confronting and negotiating with these global companies unless we ourselves are organized globally.” One hopes the union can confront internal corruption with the same zeal. Given the scandals plaguing Gerard’s union in recent years, he’ll have plenty of work ahead. (New York Times, 4/19/08; Townhall.com, 1/5/08; CBS News, 5/25/08; Daily Telegraph, 5/26/08; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/28/08).