[Our world order, globalized from above, cries out for a
globalized response from below, a new international fit for the
purpose of system transformation in the twenty-first century]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE (AT LAST)  
[https://portside.org/2019-08-22/workers-world-unite-last] 

 

 Ronaldo Munck 
 August 18, 2019
Working-Class Perspectives
[https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2019/08/18/workers-of-the-world-unite-at-last/]


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 _ Our world order, globalized from above, cries out for a globalized
response from below, a new international fit for the purpose of system
transformation in the twenty-first century _ 

 , 

 

Neoliberal globalization presents many challenges to labor organizing.
Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase in
relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations
can threaten to close plants when workers request better wages, and
executives can even pit their own workers against each other, going
back and forth between plants to get local managers and workers to
underbid each other in a race to the bottom. Labor, too, has become
more mobile. Increased migration can bring new workers into a settled
labor force, sometimes cutting wages and changing working conditions.
Corporations can then stoke divisions across racial, ethnic, and
linguistic lines to undermine the solidarity necessary to organize.

Labor faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing,
interconnected world. But globalization may have opened as many doors
as it has closed. At the most basic level, online communication
provides tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to
organize a transnational strike a century ago. And digital media
allows workers to see and hear each other, sharing stories that can
foster global solidarity. That will become even easier over time, as
translation software improves. Globalized capitalism may have created
the basis for a new global working class, not only in material
conditions but also in consciousness.  Unions have used globalization
to their benefit by organizing transnational labor actions, forming
new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant
workers at home.

When corporations expand their operations across national border,
unions may gain new leverage points for organizing. The workers of
Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. Since 1984 when the
company was founded, CEO Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent
of union organizing, but workers didn’t listen. In mid-2018, they
went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the
continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labor
agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management had tried
to use its transnational status to play workers against each other,
but instead it was confronted by a united cross-national organized
labor force.

Labor has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different
points along the globally dispersed production chain. Garment workers
in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to
hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike. But such corporations
are vulnerable to boycotts, as demonstrated in a successful campaign
[https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/business/global/27nike.html] by
US college students against sweatshops in the apparel industry,
focused on worker organizing in Honduras. Transnational union
resources focused on a particular industry or country have
considerable power to deny market share and bolster demands at the
point of production.

Globalization has also given rise to new organizing structures, as
unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer suffice.
Already in the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today
known as Global Union Federations) had begun to respond to the
expansion of multinational corporations by forming World Company
Councils. First established by the United Auto Workers and the
International Metalworkers’ Foundation, World Company Councils
coordinated the activities of the various national trade unions across
a multinational corporation’s operations. However, they proved
unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the
transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.

By the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from
promoting voluntary “codes of conduct” with multinational
corporations and adding “social clauses” (including labor rights)
to trade agreements to the more ambitious and comprehensive Global
Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of transnational labor
solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the labor
standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains
won where labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015,
156 GFAs had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core
workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.

Labor always need to develop new strategies, tactics, and
organizational modalities. With “business as usual” organizing
modes seen as no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began
calling for global solidarity around the turn of century. They called
into question labor’s “special status” alongside the state and
employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor
Organization. If capital now organized itself predominantly as a
transnational player, so, too, would the trade unions need to “go
global.”

A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global
unions. In 2008, the United Steelworkers in the US merged
[https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/us/03union.html] with Unite the
Union, the largest labor organization in Britain and Ireland. The new
union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its
founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation
industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are
both transnational. Now, their workers are transnational too, refusing
to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who
have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps. In 2006,
in response to the globalization of the shipping industry, the
National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers in
the UK developed a formal partnership
[https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/nautilus-podcast-sheds-light-on-union-organising-beyond-borders/] with
the Dutch maritime workers’ union _Federatie van Werknemers in de
Zeevaart_, renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL
respectively. Two years later, workers took the partnership a step
further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus
International. In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG
Metall in Germany joined forces to create the Transatlantic Labor
Institute
[https://www.autonews.com/article/20151118/OEM01/151119812/uaw-german-auto-worker-union-to-announce-joint-efforts] focusing
on auto worker representation issues at the US plants of German auto
manufacturers. In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the
trade union mainstream as leaders embrace the possibilities opened up
by globalization.

Further, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a
threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant
workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role, integrating
migrant workers into unions and combatting divisive and racist
political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions
have recruited migrant workers to mutual benefit. In Malaysia,
Building and Woodworkers International recruits temporary migrant
workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through
such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the
divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

Despite such bright spots, transnational labor organizing still faces
many contradictions and pitfalls. The mismatch between the unlimited
scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources
available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new
layers of workers, including an informal and precarious global labor
force, makes it harder to mobilize for action. These problems are not
insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they
must be addressed head-on.

In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively
with the broader political issues of the day, such as the call for
universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot
again move to the center of labor’s agenda. Indeed, a host of
economic, social, and environmental reasons make clear that broader
concerns should form its backbone. The tradition of labor organizing
known variously as community unionism, “deep organizing,” or
“social movement unionism” has been making a comeback. Making that
tradition transnational could open a new chapter in labor’s ongoing
struggle against capitalism.

_Ronaldo Munck, Dublin City University, is the author of Rethinking
Global Labour: After Neoliberalism (Stanford UP 2019). He is a
professor of political sociology and an active trade unionist. A
longer version of this article was published on the Great Transition
Initiative website. [https://greattransition.org/]_

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